Fantasist Michael Moorcock On London

Fantasy is huge business these days thanks to the international success of HBO’s Game of Thrones (the series attracted more viewers than any other show on that channel last year), as well as The Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit films, which since 2001, have grossed billions at the worldwide cinema box office. But fantasy wouldn’t have become such a huge attraction with cinema and television audiences without its authors. 

Fantasy legend Michael Moorcock, who celebrated his 75th birthday in 2014, has been involved in publishing since he was only 17 years old, when he took over editing the Tarzan Adventures magazine. As a teenager, he became friendly with acclaimed author and illustrator Mervyn Peake, and during the 1960s, he was editor of the influential New Worlds science-fiction magazine. He was also part of the Ladbroke Grove scene in west London, which spawned rock band Hawkwind. In 2010, he even wrote a Doctor Who novel, The Coming of The Terraphiles. At the age of 75, Moorcock shows no sign of his ardour abating: this January sees the publication of The Whispering Swarm, book one of the Sanctuary of the White Friars, a new trilogy.

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As a writer who has garnered a reputation for mixing genres (literary fiction with fantasy, for example), the Whispering Swarm is no exception, as he informed me when we spoke recently:

“It’s a strange book, part autobiography, part historical novel, and part fantasy.  Much is set in Alsatia, which used to exist behind Fleet Street, and in my book, it is still there. The Abbey is also still there and, strangely, it seems to be hiding a group of Jews. I didn’t need to do much research since I know the area around Fleet Street and Hatton Garden well. I set part of it in ‘Brookgate’, an area near Clerkenwell I’ve created for other stories, and which featured in my London novel King of The City. Emotionally,” Moorcock admitted, “it was very hard to write since I was facing some of my own ghosts, wondering about some of my own actions.”

Moorcock splits his time between Paris and Texas, but he was born and lived much of his life in London. The Whispering Swarm was an opportunity to explore the city of his birth once again, and, he was keen to emphasise, to use the fantasy setting for a very deliberate purpose:

“I wanted to write another London book and this time make it a fantasy.  All my previous London novels have been absurdist (as in Jerry Cornelius) or naturalistic, and I wanted to see if it was possible to mix realism and fantasy to look at certain moral issues, especially around how we use fantasy to avoid responsibility.”

Moorcock has created alternative versions of the city of his birth before, and here he returns to some of these places. “Many of the fictional locations were created before I left London. Brookgate, Sporting Club Square, and some of the other places appeared in earlier short fiction published in London Bone,” he said.

Despite the fact that Moorcock hasn’t lived in London since the 1990s, the city still casts a huge shadow over him, offering inspiration that nowhere else does. “Cities like London or Paris,” he revealed, “have rich histories, and therefore, combined with existing multicultural populations, make for inexhaustible narratives. All my books contain layers of narrative, but London has always supplied the most for me.

Moorcock is Jewish. Even though he doesn’t practice, and even though he doesn’t follow any specific religion, his Jewishness does still influence and inform his work. “Of course it [being Jewish] plays a part, just as almost everything I write touches in some way on the Holocaust, and the Pyat sequence [Moorcock’s series of four novels] tries to answer the question ‘How could it happen?’ That book ends in the Princelet Street Synagogue. I don’t subscribe to any single religion, but I wouldn’t say I wasn’t religious.”

In fact, the author gives religion in general a great deal of thought, and it is something that continues to run through his thought processes as a writer.

“I worry about the way it is again being used to justify the most appalling horrors. We are all to blame. Somehow we must come together to solve this terrible state of affairs.  The Law must be above Religion (or at least beside it), and we need to consider common laws needed to cope with specific modern problems. I respect the many genuinely religious people I have encountered, but I loathe people who use their religion to justify brutal, uncivilised behaviour. They defile those they pretend to honour.”

Although Moorcock has a career that stretches back seven decades, he continues to push himself as a creative entity. “It’s still easy for me to write a straight fantasy story, but it becomes harder because I deliberately make it harder for myself—taking literary risks and so on. I have always tried to raise the bar for myself with every new phase. This is my autobiographical phase. I did a long story called ‘Stories’ in Neil Gaiman’s anthology [of the same name] Stories, which was very autobiographical.”

Speaking of The Whispering Swarm, Moorcock notes that he has already planned the rest of the trilogy, which will continue to cross genres and tap into the subjects that fascinate him. “Although there are no technical fireworks (as in the Second Ether trilogy), I would say there are strong elements of both, yes. The second book The Woods of Arcady will be largely fantasy, though it continues to question the impulse to read and write such fiction. I’ve been doing that, of course, since the ‘Michael Kane’ sword and planet stories set out to question the lure of invented worlds.”

It also seems that he has no intention of taking it easy, that writing and creating is too much a part of his make-up. “It’s what I do. Writers, composers, playwrights don’t retire. Partly because they are driven to practise their skills, partly because the Inland Revenue won’t let them retire.”

Perhaps, with the increased popularity of fantasy, at last Moorcock may receive the wide-spread attention he so richly deserves.

The Whispering Swarm by Michael Moorcock is published by Tor Books.

Further Information:

Many of Moorcock’s fantasy creations operate in a single interconnected place known as the Multiverse.

Albino prince of fictional place Melnibone, in a constant battle with the forces of order and chaos, with a sword called Stormbringer that steals the souls of his enemies. Moorcock has returned to telling tales of Elric on and off in his career, and the character has also appeared in a number of comic series over the years.
Books: Stormbringer, Elric of Melnibone, The Making of a Sorceror (graphic novel)

Anti-hero who lives on an alternate version of Earth is captured by that world’s empire Granbretan, then sent to the Kamarg in an alternate version of France.
Book: The History of the Runestaff

Pyat, his unreliable Russian narrator, is a Jewish bohemian living in revolutionary Russia, who features in four of his novels.
Books: Byzantium Endures, The Laughter of Carthage, Jerusalem Commands,The Vengeance of Rome.

Jerry Cornelius
Psychedelic secret agent with many stories set in Notting Hill
Books: The Final Programme, The Lives and Times of Jerry Cornelius, Mother London

Joel Meadows is a journalist, photographer and editor whose work has been published in places like The Times, Time Magazine and Variety. He is also editor-in-chief of TRIPWIRE magazine.

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