Another Sunny Day in Texas: John Kenny talks to Michael Moorcock
Originally appeared in Albedo One #23 (2001)
Michael Moorcock needs little introduction. Perhaps best known as a fantasy writer and creator of the anti-hero Elric, Moorcock has worn nearly as many hats as the Eternal Champion himself. As editor (and writer), he turned traditional British SF magazine New Worlds into the cutting edge of science fiction in the 1960s. Many labelled it as the flagship of a ‘movement’ called the New Wave. There can be no doubt that, movement or no movement, the efforts of Moorcock and others featured in the pages of New Worlds, such as Ballard, Aldiss, Spinrad and Harrison (M. John), contributed in no small measure to a maturing of speculative fiction.
His development of the concept of the Multiverse, the most effective exploration of which is probably the Jerry Cornelius (1968-77) books, has resulted in a vast array of novels and short stories, ranging from The History of the Runestaff (1967-69) series and The Dancers at the End of Time (1972-76) novels to The Nomad of Time (1971-81) trilogy and the more recent Second Ether (1995-96) series.
Moorcock is also the author of more literary novels, such as Gloriana; or, the Unfulfill’d Queen (1978), The Brothel in Rosenstrasse (1982), Mother London (1988), King of the City (2000) and the Between the Wars (1981-2001/2) sequence of novels. He has written for, and toured with, rock band Hawkwind, has acted in the Chris Petit / Iain Sinclair directed film Asylum and been an active supporter of many causes ranging from feminist to anti-racist issues. Multifaceted and multitalented, Moorcock continues to surprise, challenge and entertain.
John Kenny: Laurence Olivier‘s approach to films was to take on commercial roles in order to make it financially possible for him to do more challenging work. It’s been well documented (as well as being obvious to anyone familiar with your work) that you’ve adopted a similar approach to writing. An Elric novel (or two) makes it possible to devote time to more serious/experimental endeavours.
Michael Moorcock: I know what you mean about Laurence Olivier. I recently said I sometimes feel more like a film director – that the story and subject matter will vary a fair bit but the approach will remain consistent. I feel that I apply the same standards to an Elric book as I do to a social novel. They demand different ways of working but, as you say, Elric supports more idiosyncratic books. But the fantasies are also a way of exploring the same themes in, perhaps, a more symbolic way. That’s also why the themes tend to echo one another. I’m distinguishing less and less, however, between a genre book and a non-genre book.
JK: Do you encounter much resistance from publishers to the idea of blurring the genre/non-genre ‘boundaries’? It seems that somewhere between the turn of the century (the one before last, that is) and the First World War, there was a marked turnaround in attitude among publishers and the literati to all forms of fantastic literature. In the 19th Century and prior, there were no distinctions or labels. Is it a natural ‘progression’ of the market?
MM: Good question but false premise. Snobbery is a very powerful force in society. It keeps the middle classes from knowing what they would prefer not to know. Fantasy, as such, has always been considered as less serious than, say, social subjects. W.S. Gilbert‘s reviews were horrendous. They were always saying that the posher Sullivan shouldn’t waste his time on fairy plays and topsy turvydom (see Mike Leigh‘s great Topsy Turvy – this was a commonly used phrase). The stage provided much of this kind of entertainment (at its best, say, in The Tempest) – Harlequinades had dominated the English stage from the 1720s and the English theatre was considered a shambles of nothing but sensation plays, fantasy plays and so forth, until it was saved by the likes of Pinero bringing ‘problem’ plays to the stage, partly under the influence of the continent (for that matter G&S were considered an English version of Offenbach, say). Ibsen and Shaw changed that forever, as indeed Shaw sort of changed the musical forever!
There were plenty of distinctions or labels in the 19th century and some of them were a lot harsher. Jerome K. Jerome, who wrote his share of fantasy, was considered to be an upstart, an exponent of the cynical ‘new humour’ – but he was frequently referred to as ‘Arry K. ‘Arry – this was class snobbery because he had been of poor (but smart) parents in Walsall, near Birmingham.
The numbers of authors subjected to this (including H.G. Wells) was largely because of the work a previous generation (including Besant) had done to establish adult education schools. It was here that ‘English’ was first taught as a subject since ‘Classics’ was what your toff absorbed – assumption being he’d already read well at home, whereas you had to teach the working classes.
The two great heroes of this movement were for me Walter Raleigh (no, different one) and Quiller-Couch (Q – himself no mean fantast when he felt like it). They began by teaching in the free schools and eventually both founded the first English schools at Oxford and Cambridge respectively. They were great catholic gents – saw the value in all kinds of fiction and laid it out for us. Their dusty books of criticism can be found in most second hand shops – blow off the dust and read, read, read – these were working writers who knew their stuff inside out and could not have brought snobbery with them (though they experienced it) because of the kind of people they were.
It took F.R. Leavis to finish all that off, politicise English lit – he followed Q – and turn it into the hard gemlike moral instrument he wanted it to be. This helped establish writers who were part of a ‘serious’ tradition and those who were not. The rest you can work out for yourself.
I hate labels and have fought against them. I hate snobbery and racism and imperialism and have fought against them. I stay in my position (that is I don’t take the shilling of full respectability) because I am, like one or two writers, in a unique place to build bridges and act as a bridge and broaden the perception of what and what isn’t worth taking seriously.
The market has always dominated fiction. If you want to see how bad things were in the 19th century get a book on Mudie’s Library and Bentley’s publishing company and see how the market was carved up successfully – and incidentally brought the hardback book to the Anglophone world (they hardly existed outside of it because of our library system demanding sturdier bindings). In other words, it’s never that simple and it’s always worth checking out your dichotomy before going for it! Good point, but sadly, as is often the case, history has worse conditions than what we experience today. It’s frustrating to be the victim of snobbery. Snobbery works much as racism and classism work. It excludes. It doesn’t have to consider the excluded.
King of the City goes on about this somewhat. We know what that thinking can result in and I’m currently completing my Holocaust series, which deals with that kind of thinking. Irish people have had it in double doses in the past as have Australians – with the blossoming of that great archetype Dame Edna being the epitome of it – and we could all do with a world in which people made up their own minds about something. There was a great sketch on the radio from an Irish team of comedians – in which an English guy looking for work in Ireland is given the kind of aggressive, contemptuous treatment many Irish people used to have to put up with at immigration in England.
There’s always a sense of rightness about the boot finally going on the other foot… Fantasy, however, will never be regarded as serious by the literal-minded. What you can’t seem to add to the general genetic mix is a larger dose of imagination! I go in and out of fashion with publishers but generally not much with the public (well, it would be weird if everyone liked me, but you know what I mean) and I, like Brian Aldiss or J.G. Ballard, prefer to keep my position because it helps in general and it would be accepting their snobbery to deny one’s (today) enviable roots. Classes go in and out of fashion like writers. So sometimes, under Thatcher say, I’m more marginalised than at others. I don’t have to be marginalised at all and probably wouldn’t be if I was prepared to dump my loyalties.
JK: It’s interesting what you say about the Irish being on the receiving end of racism. But what we’re seeing in Ireland now is some serious racism towards the refugees arriving in our country. When you consider the vast number of Irish people, working or otherwise, legally or otherwise, in the UK, US and elsewhere, the intolerance is unbearable. I think it has something to do with one underdog feeling threatened by another.
MM: The victims of racism are often the first to perpetrate racism. This is a fact of life. I wrote a piece in The Spectator a few months back on Andrea Dworkin‘s book about Israel. She’s wrestling with the problem of being a Zionist and watching Israel behave badly towards Palestinians and Palestinian women in particular. I pointed out that most of the names on the lists of soldiers involved in the massacres of Indian women and children were Irish. You could, of course, add to that list the lists of British atrocities committed mostly by Irish recruits. This could lead you to say that Ireland had, like Nepal and Scotland, provided imperial nations with mercenaries for years, though I’m sure that’s not a very fashionable way of looking at it! I learned early on, when door to door canvassing for the Labour Party in the days when it was still the Labour Party. Old Jewish ladies, just out of the Holocaust, as it were, would tell me that they’d vote for Labour because Labour would get rid of the blacks.
And, of course, racism is endemic to much North African and Middle Eastern culture, with the Jews only being top targets. I remember my Mississippi wife, culturally convinced that she was the seat of all racist evil, sitting in astonishment as she watched a Moroccan cabaret which consisted almost entirely of racial jokes directed at a wide variety of targets. It didn’t help the situation that most other Europeans in the audience were German. These were evidently unreconstructed Germans.
I’ve had friends who have felt hounded out of Ireland for a variety of reasons and, of course, the Irish are experiencing all the irritations of a wealthy country – poorer people seeing a possible future there! My argument about Hitler’s Willing Executioners was that there was nothing especially endemic to the German people – that every society has about 25% more or less altruistic people, who think in terms of the common good, 25% greedy bastards totally out for themselves and 50% of people who will float between these positions, depending on the most persuasive arguments and their self-interest at the time.
Recently, I haven’t seen the republican struggle in Northern Ireland as anything much more than gangs fighting over the territory they staked out when they had some sort of political cause. I always saw Paisley as the instigator of all the recent troubles. We were on the verge of political settlement before he raved in. Now, as often happens with revolutionary parties in power, for instance, the gangs are merely interested in defending the power they’ve gained. In this case it appears to be mostly local territory and disputes over who controls it. It’s always seemed a great shame that politics should resolve into violence in modern Ireland, whereas the Irish are masters of populist democracy – the Labour party and the Democratic party are full of very effective populist politicians of Irish origin!
And it used to be well known you might as not try to run for anything in North London unless you had the approval of a certain Irish family and a certain Irish matron. The intolerance is unbearable, I agree, when it is spoken as it were in your name. I was involved in working for a Race Relations Act in Britain not because it would change minds, but because it would state what the best of the country thought of racism – it set the tone, if you like. That 50% is who you’re always trying to persuade. I used to sing Fenian songs in a pub near Charring Cross in the 50s – it was all romantic Ireland, really, and it wasn’t dead and gone as far as they were concerned!
Living in Notting Hill, which is a district almost entirely made up of immigrants – Irish originally and then West Indian (now, of course, NuLabor politicians – finally the scum made it to the Hill), I’ve seen how one wave of immigrants can be the worst persecutors of another. But you have to see how the best behave and emulate them, rather than spend your life wishing the worst would be better. My experience is that selfish people just can’t help themselves… And neither should they be allowed to. Anyway, it’s certainly not a problem specific to Ireland, though it does seem harder that the victims of ‘No Irish Need Apply’ are effectively putting up invisible signs that say ‘No Bosnians Need Apply’. Maybe these are the new ‘tinkers’ that everyone used to victimise…?
JK: You’ve been a gallant supporter of feminist issues in the past. The prevalence of ‘Ladish’ magazines a la Loaded, Front, etc., point to a step backwards in the fight for a truly egalitarian society. Is there any hope?
MM: I am a feminist the same way I would have been an anti-racist. I can’t tolerate that kind of injustice, that kind of humiliation. I can’t stand the idea of men hurting women. That’s the bottom line. Being a political person, I then translate my gut feelings into the most effective political policy I can come up with. I join as few movements as possible, since I am by nature a Kropotkinist and a situationalist and I prefer to keep my strategy free of the simplicities which group politics sometimes reduces to, but it also means I can lend my strength to any particular side that seems to be doing what I hope it will do.
Political organisations, from the Church down, don’t like privateers much. I disapprove of charity, for instance, over sustained government help, but it will not stop me supporting Womankind International because the work it does seems to be empowering and effective. To make that work consistent, it would be better run by an agency with a regular income. But this isn’t always true – i.e. the situation changes.
My argument has always been that context defines issues. That, fundamentally, is what common law is about – or rather what its arguments are often about – and its why common law reflects common sense whereas constitutional law often merely reflects the pleasures of lawyers. I’m perfectly happy to give up my pound, dollar or crown and take the euro, but I’m more wary of notional law. I like my laws to be organic and coming out of experience and the public will (even if the public memory is a bit short).
Ladism is a reaction to feminism. It reminds me of a lot of blushing boys at a country-dance, all working up the bottle to ask someone for the next one. It’s irritating and silly and, with luck, almost over. A whole crop of exploitative literature came out in the wake of the phase. I must admit that the incorporation of aggressive masculinity into the language of business and consequently advertising and consequently the culture in general isn’t very cheering. But at least it’s a tone you can catch immediately and avoid. It’s not even subtle when coming from The Spectator or, indeed, the front benches of parliament. And think what it’s done for women. Confirms any disgust they might already have been feeling! This could help keep the population down, you know. I mean, if you were a woman, would you want Nick Hornby for your second half? To me, advertising one’s ladishness is a bit like advertising the fact you have severe acne and probably have a bit of a problem that could be solved with a course of Viagra.
Usually when the uniforms of masculinity are strongly in evidence (Nazis, for instance) there’s a lot of worried boys about. Which, of course, usually means something gets destroyed. With a bit of luck, it’s not a person. There’s always hope. As I’ve said before, I went through WW2. I got some of the worst that Hitler could throw at us, but I saw people at their finest all the time. The threat of death is also a great leveller. How that altruism and courage is harnessed without repression or political chicanery is probably the question all of us ask and a goal at least some of us have. We have an economic system which thrives on false dichotomies. This doesn’t help us improve the social sphere.
JK: Having been born in the early ’60s, I find it hard to imagine the awful reality of the Axis threat. To me, the ’60s were completely divorced from that earlier time (of course, I know this was, and is, not at all true). I read somewhere the notion that the present can be considered as occupying a timespan of fifty years before and after the present moment. This makes a kind of emotional sense to me, and would seem to be a primal element in much of your work.
MM: I argued around 1970 that a generation lasted about 150 years and I think I suggested in The Condition of Muzak that if we cut that generation out, we could begin again fresh. I reckon you have fifty years behind you – inherited culture from parents, background and so on – fifty years of your own experience – and fifty years in which you pass much of this combination on.
As a result I deliberately decided not to investigate anything before 1870, which is why, for instance, Pyat dies in the 1970s and Breakfast in the Ruins spans the time period it does. I don’t remember any actual sense of German invasion being imminent or even a sense that I was in immediate danger. It’s because I was a kid. The adults were keeping all that stuff to themselves. It was exciting. You did get a sense of being valued, and that’s because if you came home, that was good enough!
The 1960s was a successful attempt at doing what the Festival of Britain hadn’t quite done. It made us think of ourselves in terms of a better future. There were lots of reasons for believing it possible. The economic and social bedrock of the post-war Labour Government, for instance.
The Labour Government of the forties and fifties had set the tone for the whole thing. It’s extraordinary how public language has changed along with public perceptions of what money means.
JK: Like the DNA encoding in all dogs since time began, that was waiting for the car to be invented so they could stick their heads out the window and flap in the wind, your work seems to have been waiting for the invention of the Internet.
MM: I am very conscious that I am part of the generation which conceived and created the Internet! It’s as if we all work in the same direction by some strange instinct. The idea has to come before the actuality and happily Jerry Cornelius has been involved with the idea since 1965, when computers were still filling tall buildings. It’s certainly a way of smart people getting together fast. It’s also a way of very thick people getting together fast, of course. But it is infinitely complex and infinitely surprising. The multiverse, in fact! My god, it must be a model of human society!
There is lots of good stuff on the net. There are lots of good movies being made. There are many wonderful books being written. But as Sturgeon pointed out in his famous Law: 99% of everything is crap. I think we’re getting a lot more good, mature movies than we’ve had in years, for instance. On their various levels I’ve loved ‘Hollywood’ pictures like American Beauty, Magnolia, Dogma and a bunch of others. I quite like the little English pictures which do so well over here but are really TV subjects (Mrs Brown, The Full Monty and so on) and which Americans always laugh at in the wrong places (they think the accents are funny in themselves – or that a piece of unconscious cultural business is an actual part of the plot…).
The discoveries of recent years from DNA onwards have been a joy to me – as if the world keeps inventing what I need! Mandelbrot was a god-send – helped me shape so much more of what was slightly incoherent in my head. Nothing like a good bit of math you can apply to the subtleties of art.
JK: I like to think that the perceived divide between science and art is closing once more. Again, I’m probably generalising here, but with the increase in knowledge of all sorts over the past 300 years or so has come an increase in specialisation. Inevitable, I suppose, but there seem to be fewer people in modern times willing or able to take a broader view of things (I refer you to a very interesting book I read years ago by anthropologist Marvin Harris called Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches: The Riddles of Culture which, broadly speaking, if you’ll excuse the pun, expounds the idea that, increasingly, we’re too close to the trees to see the forest when looking for explanations for seemingly inexplicable phenomena).
MM: Here’s a strong reason why the ruling classes don’t like science. Art is a lot easier to offer an opinion on than science. Although snobbery exists in lots of parts of the scientific community, it isn’t quite as easy to make a career based entirely on bullshit. While bullshit careers are open to people, they will take them. By and large, these are the easy privileged jobs which the younger sons of monarchs go in for…
The snobbery also works to continue the myth that an interest in science is somehow boring and antisocial. The realities are, in my experience, that there are plenty of highly literate scientists and artists with a good working knowledge of science, but the culture makes the division and the elite elements enshrine it. There is a similar attitude towards sport amongst the upper middle classes (unless the sport is appropriate to their notions of class). Football can be embraced in conversation now to display a notion of authenticity but you wouldn’t want your son to be a professional footballer…
Most people have never taken the broad view. If they had, we wouldn’t be in the shit we’re in today. People go to war over anxieties about being able to pay the rent or get enough vegetables. As Jack Trevor Story put it – life is like a huge overstuffed easy chair that runs on four tiny castors… One small push and it’s zooming into the next room…
We don’t need to create dichotomies to discuss our problems or our sense that things can be improved. Too many arguments run ‘Once the world was golden and now it is like lead…’ You can pick any elements out of the whole to prove any viewpoint. You can prove that Ireland was once part of the Martian highlands populated by the last of the old Martian race, the fairy people…&c &c.
I used to do jobs for what they these days call supermarket newspapers. Not only can you prove anything, you can get someone to agree to anything. Never short of witnesses, on Tit-Bits, for flying saucer sightings, alien meetings and so forth. One of the bottom lines for modern society is – demographics. There are a lot more of us. That’s more audience for certain things. Longer runs for successful theatrical presentations. Larger audience for ‘marginal’ work. As a result we become more fragmented and require a particular kind of mind – a way of looking at the world – to keep some sense of the whole.
I like to think that’s one of the problems I’m looking at in things like the Jerry Cornelius stories. We need a holistic view of society, as it were, but it has to be a view which accepts complexity and rapid change. We need to know how to survive in a media maelstrom for a start. We can do it, because we’re bloody clever, but it might be a bit painful. Meanwhile there’s always the big hammer in the sky which can come down at any unexpected moment and finish us all off. That’s why I have my characters who live in the conscious multiverse as mostly chancers and gamblers.
The lives of famous dictators, for instance, are often more easily understood when you see them as successful gamblers, rather than as cunning Machiavellis. There are a lot of causes to a lot of effects, but not necessarily always obvious.
JK: From reading Locus and other magazines, I’ve gained a number of insights into how publishing works (publishers buying shelf space, filling it with Stephen King and first novels, how difficult it is to get a second novel published, etc.) and I sometimes despair of anything good getting through the net. But I’ve always felt that if you have a strong enough vision of what you want to say, and enough determination and talent (not everyone has all three), that good will out.
MM: Good will always out. It just doesn’t always get paid. It’s always worth remembering that Blake sold something like four copies of everything he did in his lifetime! Some writers have small audiences but considerable longevity. I think we should reward them somehow – i.e. support them somehow – and the best way of doing this is to finance the kind of magazines who will publish them.
I’m not a great believer in government grants for the arts, but there’s no doubt at all that without Arts Council subsidies, the British theatre would be a far poorer thing and we would have a lot less to be proud of in our theatres and their talent. How you support such artists is a matter of debate.
I think it makes better dynamics to support the publishers and theatres. But there is no doubt the public will not support certain artists on the strength of their work alone. However, the market place is not necessarily a sink of vice and it should be remembered how Sylvia Beach promoted Joyce. Ulysses was never a slow seller. Patronage of some kind is necessary for some very good writers who don’t otherwise have much of an income. Peacock might have been able to indulge himself, but I would imagine writers like Rhys Hughes and Jeff VanderMeer are writing the only way they know how and producing some very nice stuff as a result. They will never have large audiences because the majority of people aren’t that curious about things. They are more interested in remaining incurious, in fact, than they are in learning anything fresh. This isn’t cynicism. It’s observed truth amongst my own relations!
You can’t teach curiosity. And that curiosity will lead a reader into areas which are strange and possibly dark, not because they are attracted to darkness, but because they are interested in seeing what their lantern reveals.
Most people, in other words, are more than incurious – they actively do not want to know a lot of things. Haven’t you noticed how many people seem to have an automatic chip in them which switches off any news as soon as it comes on. The Royle Family are intellectuals compared with some of the people I know! Some of them a lot richer than the Royles. Philistinism isn’t the privilege of one class. Good taste can be specific and individual. Bad taste is universal. We have stores in our major cities, these days, all over the world, which prove this all the time.
JK: I think part of the root cause of this incuriousness lies in the fact that as children we all believe we are the centre of the universe. Now, children are naturally curious, but somehow that aspect of many people becomes atrophied over time. However, many people (and I’m trying not to be elitist, condescending, etc., here) still believe they are the centre of the universe. This means that the best people can do when faced with bad news is sympathise, not empathise.
MM: I can’t agree that children are naturally curious. After learning basic skills, like any healthy young animal, they lose interest, by and large. When I was nine, I had about two friends who went along with my imagination but didn’t really understand it and by and large my contemporaries were interested in acne-cures and pin-up magazines. Before that they were interested in whatever anyone else was interested in but which, by and large, I was not.
I think there are people whose curiosity and imagination actually threatens to isolate them. Nobody’s fault, but it happens. I’m very sociable and never felt isolated, but I know that most other kids were only too grateful for suggestions on Blue Peter, say, about what to do with an old toilet roll and a cornflake packet.
My job might be to be the community’s imagination. It might be a dodgy job, sometimes. Like being a bard at certain periods of Irish history… Not always rewarded in quite the way you hoped.
The more you present a victim of some disaster as ‘like us’ the more you are likely to get help for them. The closer to their own experience, the more easily people can sympathise. Anti-Nazis, for instance, rarely used the word ‘Jew’ in their anti-Hitler attacks. They used a phrase which was usually something like ‘artists, doctors, intellectuals, lawyers, thinkers…’ This was a euphemism for ‘Jew’ but it was specifically designed to counter any anti-Jewish responses in the community. Everyone knew what it meant, but the power of the euphemism there actually helped in the humanising of victims whom their persecutors had specifically and intentionally dehumanised.
My very best friend of childhood (and still my friend) had read about three books in his life and admired my imagination as much as I admired his ability to use his hands to create a reality, whether it be a building, a boat or a set of shelves. These days he’s in information technology. To put it simply, I wouldn’t have an audience without his skills.
Getting all those different kinds of people into some sort of harmony (good enough for rock and roll) seems to me to be a job worth doing, rather than trying to change the people to fit the dance, as it were. I think you’re right and most people are moved by a mixture of sympathy and sentiment, but a large enough number are moved by altruism and outrage and those, I suppose, are thoroughly empathetic. And I suppose they are the audience I hope to address. You can’t easily change minds, I think. But you can reinforce and confirm the judgement of those you think to be the best.
JK: How do you see your/the role of writer/storyteller in today’s society (yes, I know it’s corny, but still valid)?
MM: I have pretty much always been an existentialist. I am here, therefore I’m here. Since I’m here, I might as well make the best of it. And try to help others, who are in the same spot, make the best of it. King of the City sums up a fair amount of this philosophy. So I see my own role as a storyteller as someone who helps examine the legends we tell ourselves to comfort ourselves and the myths which are the stories we live by. Those myths are the clue to pretty much everything else and that, in particular, is still a large area for exploration. So I see the role of the modern writer being exactly the same as it has always been – reflecting and reflective. I think Sinclair got that bit best in his London Review of Books piece (still on the Guardian Unlimited site, I think – should be somewhere in that area) where he took my appearance in the Multiverse comic as linking myself to a line of storytellers back to Sheherazade.
I believe I follow an honourable trade offering my services to my contemporaries and hoping that some of what I observe about the present will be useful to people in the future.
For more information on Michael Moorcock’s work, click here.