COS­MIC DANCER

As one of the true greats of SF lit­er­a­ture turns 75, Jonathan Wright talks to Michael Moor­cock about worlds old and new…

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Michael moorcock - For more on Michael Moor­cock, visit www. mul­ti­verse. org.

Hal­lu­ci­na­tions, at least when not in­duced by drugs, are usu­ally taken to be fright­en­ing sym­bols of a trou­bled mind or body. But what hap­pens if, in­stead of be­ing scared, you ac­cept hal­lu­ci­na­tions as part of how you see the world. Might this not be the san­est re­sponse? If any­one should know, it’s nov­el­ist Michael Moor­cock.

“From a very early age I would see vi­sions all the time, I still do,” he says as if this is the most nat­u­ral thing in the world to be chat­ting about 20 min­utes or so into an in­ter­view when a jour­nal­ist comes vis­it­ing at his Paris apart­ment. “Noth­ing to do with drugs or any­thing else. In the ’ 60s, I was re­garded as be­ing the great drug writer, every­body was con­vinced I was do­ing acid to write the books, which I wasn’t – not to write the books. What drugs I was do­ing I would do as a leisure ac­tiv­ity, not in or­der to work.”

He’s talk­ing about a child­hood when he would see “what peo­ple would prob­a­bly call ghosts, but which I knew was my own imag­i­na­tion im­pos­ing it­self on the light”. Th­ese vi­sions took the form of me­dieval char­ac­ters, Re­nais­sance char­ac­ters, even “a com­plete Je­sus with a bleed­ing heart” at one point. “When I was out walk­ing in York­shire, I saw choirs of an­gels and whole Blakeian vi­sions,” he says. “The dif­fer­ence be­tween me and Blake, apart from tal­ent, is that Blake be­lieved what he was see­ing was some kind of in­spired vi­sion, whereas I knew this was com­ing from within me some­where.”

If this sug­gests Michael John Moor­cock, who turns 75 this month, has an un­usual worldview, this shouldn’t per­haps be too sur­pris­ing. We are, after all, talk­ing about a man whose work as a nov­el­ist and also an ed­i­tor, es­pe­cially through his time at the helm of New Worlds, the house mag­a­zine of the 1960s SF New Wave, has helped to de­fine how we see the mod­ern world in all its ter­ri­ble, ragged, con­tra­dic­tory glory.

To achieve this, he had to learn to chan­nel his imag­i­na­tion. “I can’t have it all com­ing through at the same time or I’d be crazy,” he says. “I think my mother, who was fairly nuts, a very nice woman, a very loving woman, but she was barmy as a fruit­cake, she had quite a lot of that in her, but with­out the vo­cab­u­lary to con­trol it and ex­plain it – she was just scared of stuff that hap­pened to her.”

She was also, he says, “psy­chic” in other ways. She was able, for in­stance, to choose win­ners on the horses, yet didn’t like shar­ing

her in­sights be­cause it might bring bad luck. “It meant oddly enough I grew up very scep­ti­cal of any­thing mys­ti­cal or any kind of re­li­gious im­agery and stuff like that,” says Moor­cock. “I have very lit­tle in the way of mys­ti­cal be­liefs or any­thing like that, I never did have ei­ther.”

What he did have from an early age was an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of pulp fic­tion. Hav­ing started out do­ing fanzines, Moor­cock be­came ed­i­tor of Tarzan Ad­ven­tures aged just 17. And for­get Wil­liam Blake, it was The Sex­ton Blake Li­brary that gave Moor­cock his sec­ond pro gig. Th­ese early ex­pe­ri­ences taught him to work fast and, es­pe­cially through his comics work, taught him story struc­ture too. “On Sex­ton

Blake, we were very con­temp­tu­ous of poorly con­structed things like James Bond,” he says. “We would never al­low a deus ex machina of any kind, it just wasn’t al­lowed in our fic­tion.”

By the 1960s, still in his early 20s, Moor­cock was writ­ing longer fic­tion. Fa­mously, he would dash off fan­tasy nov­els in just three days, in part be­cause it was all the time he could spare if he was to make the same day rate as he did from writ­ing comics. Nev­er­the­less, even if the money wasn’t as good, it was a con­scious decision to make a change. Too many comics writ­ers, Moor­cock saw, be­came “em­bit­tered” by the work. Also, he adds, it’s easy to “get ex­hausted” writ­ing comics. By con­trast, with nov­els, “You get feed­back, it works for you.”

This feed­back, you’d guess, re­mains im­por­tant to Moor­cock. He’s af­fa­ble,

“i would see vi­sions all the time”

charm­ing, if mad­den­ingly dif­fi­cult to pin down on things like spe­cific times and places to meet up. He’s dap­per and has an ac­tor’s abil­ity to com­mand at­ten­tion, yet never comes across as af­fected. If a Bal­lar­dian world is aus­tere, alien­at­ing, lonely, a Moor­cock­ian world is about con­nec­tions, a place of chance en­coun­ters and con­ver­sa­tion. This in it­self prob­a­bly made him ideal for New Worlds, a ti­tle he took over in 1964, de­spite his in many re­spects not hav­ing any real in­ter­est in SF. Rather, what Moor­cock saw was an op­por­tu­nity “to use sci­ence fic­tion” to do some­thing new, “to bor­row tropes from sci­ence fic­tion that were use­ful in writ­ing a kind of fic­tion – if you like a lit­er­ary fic­tion, but it was a popular lit­er­ary fic­tion”.

Of the fel­low trav­ellers in this ad­ven­ture – among them Brian Ald­iss, M John Har­ri­son and the pop artist ( later Sir) Ed­uardo Paolozzi – Moor­cock says it was JG Bal­lard who was his most im­por­tant co­hort. “We were the two who drove that whole agenda,” he says. “Other peo­ple weren’t so in­ter­ested but they had to go along if they wanted to be in New Worlds.”

As this agenda gave us Moor­cock’s hip­ster se­cret agent Jerry Cor­nelius and many of the sto­ries in Bal­lard’s Atroc­ity Ex­hi­bi­tion as it reengi­neered lit­er­ary SF, the im­por­tance of New Worlds can hardly be over­stated. The mag­a­zine fed off the counter- cul­ture too, so that Moor­cock’s Lad­broke Grove flat be­came a cen­tre to meet and talk – “rock‘ n’roll peo­ple, painters and writ­ers, it was nor­mal”.

But such scenes never last. By the 1970s, change was in the air. “I felt any bat­tles we’d fought around New Worlds had been won or lost and were over,” Moor­cock says. “There wasn’t any point in fight­ing those bat­tles any­more. I felt we’d achieved what we were go­ing to achieve and the mag­a­zine was no longer needed.” Moor­cock and Bal­lard, “a sort of Lenin and Trot­sky of the revo­lu­tion”, had “be­gun to di­verge”. Change was ev­i­dent in London too as Lad­broke Grove gen­tri­fied, rep­re­sented by a new lawyer neigh­bour form­ing a com­mit­tee to over­see the com­mu­nal gar­den in the square where Moor­cock lived.

“That’s when I started shoot­ing at his din­ner par­ties,” he says with some sat­is­fac­tion, “which no­body ever knew [ Mike’s wife Linda, la­con­i­cally: “They’ll know now…”] be­cause I was able to bounce the shots off their enam­elled stove and bounce it into their din­ing room when they were hav­ing din­ner

par­ties. They al­ways thought the shots were com­ing from some­where else and they’d start run­ning out into the gar­den to look for th­ese peo­ple do­ing all this stuff. ‘ Michael, have you seen any­thing, somebody is shoot­ing at us!’ ‘ Oh no, squire, I haven’t seen them.’”

A London Moor­cock loved was pass­ing into mem­ory, although not be­fore he had writ­ten a paean to the cap­i­tal and per­haps his own mother too, the Whit­bread- nom­i­nated Mother

London ( 1988), an ex­tra­or­di­nary, de­lib­er­ately frag­mented book which fol­lows the lives of three out­pa­tients at a men­tal hos­pi­tal from the Blitz to the era of high Thatcherism.

“They’ve killed the cen­tre by do­ing ex­actly what Thatcher said things had to do,” says Moor­cock. “Places had to earn their own keep, which means all the se­crets of London, all of the lit­tle places where I used to go for quiet­ness, where I used to go to think about the past or what­ever, they’ve be­come con­sumerised.”

Partly as a re­sult, and partly be­cause Linda was too of­ten at the re­ceiv­ing end of an­tiAmer­i­can com­ments – “She’d got a lot of crap from snotty- nosed Lon­don­ers. If I hadn’t been with her when this hap­pened I’d have thought she was a rav­ing para­noid” – Moor­cock now di­vides his time be­tween Paris and the USA.

“I wanted to move to Texas so I could live some­where there was no Bri­tish en­clave, so I would have to live by what­ever rules there are,” he says, “so that I would un­der­stand Amer­i­can thought bet­ter be­cause we are con­stantly baf­fled by Americans for not be­ing Euro­peans. We won­der, ‘ They’ve got all this, they do all that, why aren’t they so­cial­ists?’” One an­swer, he says, is be­cause “con­sti­tu­tion­ally they’re an­ar­chists, and cer­tainly many Tex­ans are an­ar­chists, they be­lieve in to­tal free­dom of the in­di­vid­ual”.

Nev­er­the­less, with the Tea Party on the rise, he’s ready to re­turn to Europe full- time. He should be feted as a re­turn­ing hero, but that over­looks the way he’s still re­garded in some quarters. For all that his lit­er­ary fic­tion has grap­pled with such big themes as, in the Pyat nov­els, the Holo­caust, the fact that he also writes epic fan­tasy con­fuses peo­ple, he says.

“It frus­trates them, they know there’s all this trash out there,” says Moor­cock. “They say, ‘ Why does he do it?’ They very rarely say it to my face, but you know that’s what they’re think­ing and of­ten writ­ing. It ir­ri­tates peo­ple. They think, ‘ If he’s ca­pa­ble of do­ing Mother London or the Pyat books, then why doesn’t he keep go­ing?’”

Well, why do you do it then, Mike? “I do it be­cause I can and I want to,” he replies with­out hes­i­ta­tion. “I like writ­ing fan­tasy – sci­ence fan­tasy re­ally is the best term for it, and I re­ally get a kick out of do­ing it.”

Michael Moor­cock en­joys the au­tumn sun­shine, Novem­ber 2014.

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