Flights from the Asylum

John Sutherland

  • Mother London by Michael Moorcock
    Secker, 496 pp, £9.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 436 28461 8
  • The Comforts of Madness by Paul Sayer
    Constable, 128 pp, £9.95, July 1988, ISBN 0 09 468480 4
  • Sweet Desserts by Lucy Ellmann
    Virago, 154 pp, £10.95, August 1988, ISBN 0 86068 847 X
  • Happiness by Theodore Zeldin
    Collins Harvill, 320 pp, £11.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 00 271302 0

Michael Moorcock’s novel honours the loonies of London. It seems there are more of them every year, especially since – by one of the more perverse acts of enlightenment – the asylums were emptied in the Seventies. One sees the London mad everywhere in the streets and parks: ranters, mutterers, arm-wavers. The quieter cases are charitably allowed into the public bars of seedy pubs; I once saw one huddled over his light ale with an antique mahogany-cased ECT apparatus perched beside him. It was, presumably, some kind of survivor’s trophy. Only tourists are frightened by these urban mad; respectable citizens good-naturedly ignore them as being of no more account than pigeons and as inscrutable as gang graffiti. In New York and Los Angeles (where they parody the consumer-mad host society by heaping their possessions in supermarket trollies), they are called the ‘homeless’. There is, as far as I know, no generic English name. Moorcock calls them ‘ordinary Londoners’.

Mother London begins in a psychiatric outpatient unit of the NHS. Three of the Bedlamites (all bona-fide graduates of the Bethlehem Hospital) have a relationship extending beyond their weekly group therapy. The youngest of the trio, David Mummery, was born in 1939 – an ominous year for London. He is a writer, obsessed with ‘the London under London’. In 1964, he began researching the city’s ‘lost’ tube lines and stations whose maps exist only in Masonic libraries. Mummery has since discovered evidence of a whole lace-work of tunnels beneath the London streets: the ‘home of a troglodytic race that had gone underground at the time of the Great Fire, whose ranks had been added to periodically by thieves, vagabonds and escaped prisoners, receiving many fresh recruits during the Blitz when so many of us sought the safety of the tubes’. This race, if you believe it, is accompanied by a free-ranging colony of pigs, which have bred in the Fleet ever since the 17th century when the river was first roofed. For David, London’s mythic archaeology is ‘only describable in terms of music or abstract physics: nothing else makes sense of relationships between roads, rails, waterways, subways, sewers, tunnels, bridges, viaducts, aqueducts, cables, between every possible kind of intersection.’

Mummery is, of course, mad as a hatter, clinically paranoid. For his undeluded physicians, his delusions originate in childhood trauma: specifically in March 1945, when his home in Streatham suffered an indirect hit from a V2. A generation older than Mummery, Mary Gasalee is also a casualty, but of the earlier Blitz. In 1940, her house suffered a direct hit which wiped out her husband and all domestic evidence of her married existence. She emerged new-born from the flames with a baby in her arms only to go into a 15-year-long catatonic sleep. (The baby meanwhile grows up fostered, and becomes a best-selling Mills and Boon romantic novelist.) Finally awoken in 1955, but without memory, Mary discovers herself a ‘sensitive’ able to tune in (but not very accurately) to the seething thoughts and quiet desperations of the London crowds around her: a walking radio-receiver among eight million random transmitters.

Josef Kiss (occasionally referred to in the text as ‘Josef K’ lest we miss the allusion) is a former Music Hall performer, a mind-reader whose powers fade out at London’s perimeter. He lives in four different lodgings at the four corners of the city and dulls his clairvoyance with copious beer and talk. But the roar on the other side of the city’s silence is always rumbling away in his head. Like Mary and David, Josef is alive to the Londons beyond or beneath London. All three, we understand, are products of ‘urban evolution’, as adapted to their environment as the Brazilian native of the rain forest. Only the mad, that is, are ecologically adapted for life in London.

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