My Old, Sweet, Darling Mob

Iain Sinclair

  • King of the City by Michael Moorcock
    Scribner, 421 pp, £9.99, May 2000, ISBN 0 684 86140 2
  • Mother London by Michael Moorcock
    Scribner, 496 pp, £6.99, May 2000, ISBN 0 684 86141 0

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.

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