Around the time of the London mayoral election, that stupendous non-event in the calendar of civic discourse, posters appeared out of nowhere with the head of a man who wasn’t quite Frank Dobson. There was nothing peevish or pop-eyed about this citizen. The shirt was open-necked. The tilted look was watchful, eyes narrowed against bright light: a non-combatant shocked to find himself exposed on the hustings. No Londoner, according to the spin-doctors, is ever going to vote for a beard. The candidate, a Father Christmas in civvies, knows that better than anyone, knows he’s on a loser, but it hasn’t dowsed his fire. Actually, this fly-pitched outlaw, spotted on the side of a telephone junction box outside Toynbee Hall, on Commercial Street in Whitechapel, had been got up to look like a charity case, or a Wanted poster. Dead or alive. ‘Vote Michael Moorcock’, it said. ‘King of the City’.
King of the City, a hefty London novel, character-packed, busy with competing narratives (confessing, denouncing, celebrating, plea-bargaining for its own sanity), was being punted by its publicists as ‘the long-awaited sequel to a Whitbread Prize shortlisted book Mother London’. Clearly, it is nothing of the sort. Prequel, coda, kissing cousin? Arguably. Mother London required no sequel. It could have used some of the fortuitous timing that allows a book to mop up well-deserved honours and achieve a word-of-mouth readership that keeps it running for years. Unfortunately, Mother London was swamped by the extra-literary controversies surrounding The Satanic Verses. One strand in Salman Rushdie’s novel, necessarily under-discussed, was Brick Lane-based, a Bollywood dérive through the territory where I came across Moorcock’s King of the City poster. Both authors have moved on. Rushdie, seduced by the high-definition celebrity culture of New York, new smells, brighter lights, has denounced his old midden for its failure to fire his imagination, but Moorcock, in whatever exile he finds himself, returns obsessively to his dream-source, the city of his birth. Mother London, a book whose reputation continued to grow as it became harder to find, as paperbacks disappeared and hardbacks drifted into charity shops, has now been reissued. Its status as one of the novels by which a substantial portion of London memory can be recovered is assured. The book is a great, humane document, written at a time when the old liberties were under threat and therefore more alive than ever. Mother London pivoted on the Blitz, on psychic damage, small urban miracles worked by human affection, a woman walking out of the fire with a newborn baby in her arms. The novel’s trajectory of hurt runs from Thatcher’s denial of the concept of society, the unappeased demons of the free market, to the communality of war and the shaky utopianism of Old Labour’s green lungs, swimming-pools and bright new housing projects.
King of the City is a very different beast. ‘Believe me, pards,’ it opens, ‘we’re living in an age of myths and miracles.’ (Moorcock, a wily veteran, knows perfectly well, after all those years of TV evangelists and Teflon politicos, how to manage the spin that sends a sentence into reverse, like a backward-travelling bullet. ‘Believe me’ means: ‘Here we go again. I’m fibbing about fibbing.’) Many of the miracles and most of the myths have long since been exploited by Michael Moorcock in fables of sword and sorcery, the reality-collages of the Jerry Cornelius saga, the dark shadows of the Pyatt quartet. But the salutation at the start of this new epic is unexpected: ‘pard’. Moorcock, in high Victorian conceit, likes to get the story rolling by speaking directly, as writer and performer, to his audience. His 12-part serial for DC Comics, Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse, irises-in on the author’s head, floating over the walls of a pink city. ‘I’m Michael Moorcock. People ask where I get my ideas. Some I find here in Marrakesh.’ Next seen on a camel, the narrator aligns himself with storytellers who play ‘the mythical game of time’. An Occidental Haroun, he wears a broad-brimmed Indiana Jones hat. He’s a role player, a trans-dimensional tourist. Hence the language. ‘Pard’, according to Jonathon Green’s Dictionary of Slang, has no existence outside the fictionalised Wild West. Moorcock is like one of those local library researchers from the bosky suburbs, from Norbury or Bexley Heath, churning out tumbleweed romances. Except that his stetson is genuine, off-highway dude store, and his Tales from the Texas Woods (1997) were published in Austin and composed in Bastrop, in a Greek Revival mansion that once belonged to Joseph Sayers, a former Governor of Texas.
Such are the cultural jump-cuts of a career begun as a teenager when Moorcock hacked out Tarzan Adventures, Sexton Blake thrillers and camp-fire yarns of the purple sage. ‘At the age of 17, sitting in a dark little room in South London in the late 1950s,’ he wrote in the introduction to Tales from the Texas Woods, ‘I earned a wonderful living writing about an Arizona I’d never visited, about the Apache and the Comanche, about the torments of the Texas weather. I retailed bits of prairie lore to boys who had as much direct experience of Western life as I had.’ This same smooth-cheeked Kane of the Surrey hills makes a fleeting guest appearance in King of the City. The hero, Denny Dover, a paparazzo (and proud of it) visiting a Holborn publisher, bumps into a ‘fat little office boy who wanted me to think he was the editor’. That’s Moorcock in the days when he was dragged along to BNP-type meetings by his editor, W. Howard Baker, ‘just for the beer’; and before he chucked his typewriter out of the office window and resigned, bunking off to a life of three-day novellas, quick money and lightning debts.
Dissolve and fast-forward: now it’s an age of smooth men, of judgments based on appearance. Commentators are quick to read the signs, the measured droop of Lord Bragg’s handkerchief, the precise organisation of Tony Blair’s latest consensus hair policy, Lord Archer’s ironic, pre-penitentiary crop, the way Andrew Motion carries off his loden coat as he swirls between taxi and station platform. Julian Barnes’s novels are depilated at source, fat-free. Frisking them for a Moorcockian digression, a set of cellulite-heavy parentheses, would be like checking a tub of margarine for a stray pubic hair. Smoothness, the absence of bumps and flaws and evidence of facial baroque, is everything. Dobbo was doomed as a contender by his cheek-fuzz, the grimy shadow-scurf of committee rooms and late night arguments that left crumbs in the grizzled thatch. Ken Livingstone razor-swiped his upper lip and found a loose-fitting beige suit to announce visually (for those who know that public language no longer registers) his readiness to appease, to become a mayor substitute, the political equivalent of decaf. Michael Moorcock resolutely defies makeover, in depth of chin duvet or in density of luxuriant, hirsute prose. The rings, the scarfs, the tattoos: they don’t come off. The portraits of the author in successive novels defiantly parade his period recidivism: grey-flecked beard, shades and Lawrence of Arabia head-towel for the Saudi arms’ dealer look, sun-bleached chest-curls for the stroller in Mediterranean gardens; Wild Bunch outrider, Slim Pickens or Chill Wills with badlands barbering. Moorcock has more hats than Winston Churchill. He distrusts expensive eau de Cologne newcomers with their anorexic novellas: no gravitas, no gravy. He despises the nouvelle cuisine portions served up on mid-culture chat shows. Down there, through the blistering Texas summers in the Bastrop bunker, he needs Radio 4 to keep him sane, to keep him in touch with the metropolitan discourse he walked away from. He can’t abide the smoothies, the slenderness of their emotions, the tricksy little paragraphs; the lack of liver and lights, refried potatoes, heart-attack breakfasts served up in a cellar beneath Smithfield market. Moorcock’s distemper remains, despite the viral assaults of life in a genetically-modified George W. Bush fiefdom (fevers, sweats, steroid-regimens), genially satiric rather than venomous and bile-secreting; he targets the virtual reality spooks of Lit-Lite. The fawn jackets. The suit-bags. The shaved sentences.
English fiction (the creative reading list), as he satirises it in King of the City, acquires an energy that it would not otherwise espouse. Here is the unreconstructed ‘engine of comedy’, Rex Martin (‘the famous farting novelist’) and his diminutive son, Felix. Here is ‘Jillian Burnes’, a transsexual romancer. But these knockabout cartoons are absorbed into a chiaroscuro of the forgotten, denizens of the deep recalled and re-remembered. The faces of the moment occupy less space than the invisibles, colleagues of the author, the ungrateful dead who won’t leave him alone. ‘Send for the resurrection men,’ says Denny Dover. ‘My nobody friends are dying by the day.’ There is, within the volatile structure of King of the City, a festering tyranny of nostalgia, too many bleak afternoons spent in Kensal Green crematorium. ‘Nothing,’ the narrator announces, ‘is more important than talk.’ Reading Moorcock’s novel is like eavesdropping on a remorseless, unforgiving monologue, an extraordinary séance, a memory stunt summoning all the ghosts of his long career, his busy life. The writer Jack Trevor Story is presented as a moral touchstone, the exemplar of a better period – jazz, film-scripts, novels sold three times over under different titles; the third wife, the fifth bankruptcy. These sidebars have sidebars, addenda foliate in Mandelbrotian chaos; the narrative folds back on itself, excusing and exploiting well-worn anecdotes. Moorcock sketches his version of the late Derek Raymond (a.k.a. Robin Cook) as a Soho revenant: ‘Cookie was still alive in those days . . . and telling your stories back to you faster than you could recount them.’ Much of King of the City is like that, using the ‘twist’ to reconstitute chat rehearsed by Moorcock in the oxygen debt of endless interviews, interrogations at Fantasy conventions, comfortable reminiscences over the teacups. The story that Mai Zetterling told of her encounter with Peter Sellers and Kingsley Amis, at the time of the filming of Only Two Can Play, moves easily enough from life to fiction. ‘Want to see my Aertexes?’ asks the disgraceful Rex Martin, the Amis offprint. What happens is that world fits within world like a series of Russian dolls, the living and the dead, the improbable and the impossible, doubles, doppelgängers, fetches, fabulous parasites who improve on their mundane originals. Moorcock calls the system his ‘multiverse’:
a near-infinite nest of universes, each only marginally different from the next and only widely different when separated by millions of variants, where time is not linear but a field in which all these universes rest, creating the appearance of linearity within their own small sphere; where sometimes groups of universes exist in full knowledge and in full intercourse with the others, where ‘rogue’ universes can take sideways orbits, crashing through the dimensions and creating all kinds of disruptions in the delicate fabric of multiversal space-time.
It reads tougher than it plays. The hook and the base narrative of King of the City are pretty straight: the story is being told in a lilac-tinted present, somewhere in the aftermath of the death of ‘the People’s Princess’. Denny Dover (patriotic surname, English chalk running through it like lettering in Brighton rock), ex-musician, ex-name photographer, current burnout, lucks onto a great scoop: a supposedly dead Murdoch substitute being pleasured by a lively Duchess of York clone. Nobody wants to know. Canary Wharf yawns in his face. It’s the end of the road for Denny, seaside exile in West Sussex. Time spools backwards into a newsreel of childhood: ‘Grey pebbles. Grey gulls. Grey skies. Grey roofs. Grey seas. The most deeply unfashionable resort in Europe with a higher rainfall than Seattle.’ The clapped out DHSS hotel filled with Balkan immigrants (think Hastings, think Margate), the ‘barmy’ old mum in the caravan, the assumed identity, the numb expectation of the only award the bureaucrats can offer for a lifetime’s service: the Jack Trevor Story Memorial Prize (i.e. bankruptcy papers and an invitation to present yourself at a strip-lit office with a view of King’s Cross Station). ‘It’s not a backwater. It’s more of a septic tank.’ The necrophile damp of the South Coast, in the lull between low pressure weather fronts, doubles for the enervating heat of the accident into which Moorcock has inserted himself: Bastrop, Texas. A good place not to go out from. A self-curated mausoleum of memories: photographs, toys, magazines, William Morris wallpaper, Arts and Crafts furniture; a library of Victorian and Edwardian fiction, Stevenson, Meredith, Wells, Conrad, W. Pett Ridge. Moorcock, with his sacred cats in a basket, brings up a map of London on his screen, shifting and rearranging co-ordinates until the city conforms to his reading of it. No longer able to potter out into Notting Hill to check on some detail, he is in the position that Robin Cook found himself in when, working in a vineyard in the South of France, he decided to reinvent himself as ‘Derek Raymond’. Raymond’s late London novels are pure wish fulfilment, breeze-block Piranesi: nightscapes salvaged from interrogation tapes, confessions to unremembered crimes, a dispersed set. The weather is borrowed from Edgar Wallace’s quota quickies and the dialogue from Edgar Lustgarten’s forensic reconstructions. A posthumous dream with a cast of greasy-tie filth and poetry-quoting psychopaths; autopsy flashbacks. Moorcock’s memory scheme is more complex: bondings and rivalries, lovers and locations, have to be transported into an enriched present tense. There is a fearful momentum, snappy verbless sentences. Cast lists from afternoon television are interspersed with yarns and potted biographies, shards of ruin: get it all down or it will vanish for ever. And you, the author, along with it. ‘There are certain areas of London that I suspect retain their integrity and beauty only by becoming invisible.’
So the primary storyline of King of the City, the Candide-like fable of good-hearted Denny Dover, ‘goozer’ and loser, swerves away as the teller of the tale, the pretend author, is elbowed aside by the exiled Moorcock – who has to whisper in his ear, correct him, put flesh on spindly, fictional bones. The case being made is not a fashionable one: paparazzo as democratic hero, champion of the mob. ‘You can’t invade their privacy,’ he says. ‘They’ve sold their privacy.’ Denny talks too much (and too well) for a photographer, he’s altogether too articulate. But then he’s also a guitarist, colleague of Bob Calvert, connection of Hawkwind, essential element in The Deep Fix: he’s done things that Moorcock has done and he’s picked up some of the chat. We track Denny, son of the last Londoner hanged for murder, from his base in mythical Brookgate (part of the Huguenot leases), through a bombsite childhood reminiscent of Charles Crichton’s 1947 film, Hue and Cry (a Moorcock favourite), through his love for his cousin Rosie and his spiky relationship with John Barbican Begg, developer and despoiler, global media tycoon. Revelations, betrayals, shifts of fortune, seductions, conspiracies, keep the fingers flicking over the pages. Dead on cue, after some cunningly weighted rhetorical passage, a jibe at ‘Pretty Blair, the rich man’s Cromwell’, the narrator will let rip with a great urban set-piece, like something out of Arthur Morrison, Jack London or George Gissing: a bare-knuckle boxing contest (‘happy unhealthy faces glowing with meaty grease, panatella smoke’), breakfast in a Formica-table caff, a phantasmagoric binge in a Tufnell Hill windmill – which becomes an encore for the disappeared. ‘You met everyone at Tubby’s parties, even the recently deceased.’ The party is a requiem, an expansion of Moorcock’s Bastrop workspace. You can see the walls rolling back as old comrades creep out of the shadows. ‘The big round living-room was festooned with cats. They lounged on every surface, across consoles and keyboards.’ Time sags like the elasticated waistband on a pair of ancient Y"-“fronts. Arms are linked with Jack Trevor Story and Angela Carter; weird genealogies are disclosed. ‘Angus Wilson, the novelist, who bore a striking resemblance to Margaret Rutherford, the actress who originally played Miss Marple’, is present. Also namechecked are Patricia Hodge, Simon Russell Beale, Giles Gordon (once Moorcock’s literary agent), Andrea Dworkin and Iris Murdoch, who ‘sat smiling into the middle-distance while Felix Martin explained the H-bomb to her’. What Moorcock is doing, under the permission of a work of fiction, is contriving a comprehensive encyclopedia of lost lives, uncelebrated loci, trashed cultural memory. Every casual aside accesses a John Aubrey character sketch or a history of Lilliput magazine. You don’t just get the word on Tommy Steele and Charlie Watts, you get Pavli and Martin Stone, once of Mighty Baby and the Savoy Brown Blues Band. ‘Martin Stone hadn’t been to bed for three years. His black beret was twitching on his scalp.’ Behind Kingsley Amis and ‘ice-cream suited’ J.G. Ballard are Alan Brien, Maeve Peake, Dave Britton and legions of the erased and discontinued: Notting Hill colons, grafters, bullshitters, pharmaceutical casualties and Fleet Street drain-rats. Moorcock grants us more than any novelist is required to deliver: hence the unease of several reviewers. At times the polemic surge drowns the hesitant voices of the invented characters; they have to withdraw from the action, regroup, study their documentary models. In Mother London, the author vanished into the text: the dictation, the seizure of the imagination, was absolute. There was a sense of inevitability as the past was mythologised, made new. King of the City is much more troubled. There is wild humour, tremendous events are staged, confessions broached, public clowns ridiculed, but you can hear the racing clockwork of a damaged heart. The crow’s beak tapping on glass. Moorcock, in his Texas bunker, wants to bring what’s on his desk – the cardboard city, the postcards of trams, the blown-up portions of the London map, the snapshots of a younger, beardless self – to life; he is compelled to tell it all, to remember everything. When he makes one of his brief returns to England, he is treated like a privileged ghost, a convalescent. Younger writers, attached to a sentimental notion of the heroic age of pulp, rumours of mass-market readership, have elected Moorcock as their King of the May (like Allen Ginsberg in dark ages Prague). A Prince of Thieves. It’s a courtesy title: see Moorcock, in the publicity shot for the collection britpulp!, on his throne under the railway arches, a scarfed and hatted Fagin surrounded by smooth-cheeked, bare-headed acolytes – Tony White, Stewart Home, Steve Aylett, Steve Beard, China Miéville. What you are getting is a frame from Moorcock’s comic strip, The Metatemporal Detective, showing a traditional ‘hell’s kitchen’ where ‘Old Man Smith’, the piratical ruler of the underworld, lounges on a raised chair to receive his tributes. Only in the labyrinth of fiction is Moorcock recognised as king of the city.
‘The air has an amniotic taste.’ Memory is most powerfully provoked by smell and taste. Food, more than the drink, drugs and music which act as temporal markers in the centrifugal plot, anchors narrative to place. Without those vein-clogging breakfasts, Denny Dover was lost – and his creator with him. ‘They were willing me into non-existence,’ he acknowledged. The older we get, the less powerful our bite, the more our reveries shift from sexual anticipation to remembered blow-outs, over-spilling plates, vinegar-brown sauces. Food and weather define the true Brookgate man, the ability to survive them, to nurture a specially adapted bio-system on draughts of bad air. ‘Damp weather’s food and drink to a Londoner like me,’ Denny announces. ‘Grey weather’s our natural habitat.’ In the depth of a lightless winter, a suicide’s Christmas, cut off lovers and friends, ‘speedballing to the Queen’s Speech’, Moorcock’s paparazzo recovers his humanity by drifting down to his favourite caff, Ray’s, a time-warp oasis in Snatcher’s Island, off Drury Lane. A bolthole discoverable only by strict adherence to the Arthur Machen rules of psychogeographic meandering.
Ray’s was a gourmet greasy spoon. He had at least a dozen distinctive kinds of grease, every one of them delicious. And the All-Day Full English had most of them on it – perfect free-range fried eggs, crisp fried bread, best back bacon, tomatoes straight off the vine, fresh portobello mushrooms, Savoy black pudding sent specially from Manchester, tasty baked beans, Fourmantel’s Carlisle pork bangers, Trevithick’s Cornish butter. If you can think of it, Ray had it. These days he’d be in every restaurant guide in the world, but that was before a mania for populism blew the whistle on our secrets. The only people who went to Ray’s were people you didn’t mind rubbing shoulders with.
Ray’s steamy caff provokes a lascivious taxonomy of Bunter comforts, a memory sluice. The great and the good are approvingly ticked off as they stagger into Moorcock’s survival module, the ark he is preparing for burial as a millennial tribute: Ronnie Scott, Humphrey Lyttelton, Johnny Dankworth, the actor Freddie Earlle. ‘Jack Trevor Story introduced me to Billy Strayhorn.’ Names recalled are virtues recovered. For long stretches, King of the City becomes a back number of Spotlight, a vagrant’s overcoat stitched from yellowed copies of the Radio Times. ‘I value the approval of the forgotten dead over the respect of the living.’ Denny Dover and his cousin Rosie, one of the near-incestuous bondings that have always been a part of Moorcock’s novels, link souls over a plate of ‘Sharpes Alley bloodworms and taters’. In Moorcock’s mythical city, there are only initiates and outsiders, bloodworm-fanciers and bloodless vegans. ‘To get their flavour, the worms had to be made from fresh pig’s blood, which meant the pig was being hung and bled somewhere nearby, completely at odds with every city law since the beginning of the world.’
Licking the fatty residue from its beard, King of the City is nostalgic about nostalgia, angry about the mindless greed of developers and bingeing asset-strippers, heritage pirates; the dead rhetoric in the mouths of politicians (‘Tony Blurr and his Sultans of Spin’). Moorcock champions names who are no longer there, authors he can’t rescue from the swamp of oblivion. They’re not in the book, in Margaret Drabble’s latest edition of the Oxford Companion to English Literature: no Gerald Kersh, Kyril Bonfiglioli, M. John Harrison, James Sallis, Keith Roberts, Derek Raymond, Harlan Ellison. No Jack Trevor Story. Moorcock is there. He’s included, quite generously summarised, and not just as a ‘science-fiction writer of the 1960s’. But how strange it must feel, to be allowed into the club, while most of your colleagues and former collaborators, the characters around whom so much of your work has been constructed, lead an extra-curricular existence, banished from the official canon. No wonder Moorcock, one of the few novelists with a platinum disc (from his days with Hawkwind), is so uncomfortable in an age of air guitarists: the Blair/ Clinton wild boys of the bathroom mirror. Mime masters. Party saxophonists. Purveyors of the rock and roll wannabe novel, the novel written by the rock star’s best chum.
So who is the King of the City? The ambiguities of that title haunt the novel. Denny Dover is no Christopher Walken skull-cruncher, steaming his way through an Abel Ferrara revenger’s tale. The global magnate, John Barbican Begg, jumps off Tower Bridge (a faked suicide) during the millennial come-back gig at the book’s climax. And Moorcock, despite obvious challenges to other pretenders to the title (the literary equivalent to his bare-knuckle prizefights), is too sane to want that hollow honour. He’s had his skirmishes, his turf wars with the Amis franchise. (He shadowed Kingsley for much of his career, born in the same manor, knowing so well what had to be left behind. He’d be shocked, I think, if he read Martin Amis’s memoir, Experience, to find the old devil catching his second wind with a campari and soda, Moorcock’s own non-drink drink. Moorcock’s fictional characters brace themselves with a pint of Ackroyd’s mild.) But, once again, the timing of publication has been awkward, setting King of the City (a secret history made of minute particulars, submerged elegies) alongside Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography. Ackroyd’s vigorous bestseller ends with the defeat of chaos, with protest and riot tamed. Moorcock is an unreconstructed populist, his sympathies always with the rioters at the prison gates: ‘My old, sweet, darling mob. My good old London mob.’ As his invented (or reinvented) revenants and anonymous extras vanish from Tower Bridge, a crush of real literary masks, PR folk, media flotsam, Dome apologists brush past them, waving their invitation cards for the launch of Ackroyd’s heritage blockbuster. If they turn to gaze down at the black waters of the Thames, they won’t find the drowning Begg. King of the City is a book they haven’t read, not yet. There weren’t any wine-sipping parties for Moorcock’s London novel and the exiled author couldn’t make it for the tour. The budget went on posters. And now the bailiffs and the fiscal bounty-hunters are on his case. ‘Finances were so bad that cash machines would set off their own alarms if I so much as glanced at them. I needed somewhere to hide for a while.’ Sometimes, when fly-pitchers rip off a pad of back numbers on Commercial Street, a bit of Moorcock’s eye, or a clump of hair, bursts through the latest one-shot wonder’s marble cheek. The message is still out there: ‘Vote.’ Or, better still, read, find out just what you’ve been missing.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.