by Bryan “zepp” Jamieson
Michael Moorcock’s latest collection of essays, London Peculiar and Other Non-Fiction is a mixed bag. It’s divided into sections: London, Other Places, Absent Friends, Music, Politics, and Reviews and Introductions. “London Peculiar” presumably refers to the toxic black miasmas of sulfur dioxide that famously enveloped London from the time of Shakespear until the 1960s, the infamous soft-coal “fogs.”
As someone who, like Moorcock, was raised in London, I read his accounts of the city with a fair bit of interest. His was the more dramatic childhood since I came along about fifteen years later and missed that whole “insane-Germans-lobbing-high-explosives-at-my-head” thing.
The most strident Londoner will probably find little of interest in grumbles from 1980 about how zoning panels are permitting gentrification to ruin some of the more interesting parts of the city. For all that, I had a huge laugh at Moorcock noting that surprisingly little of post-war London was preserved on film, and what there was existed in “Carry On” movies, and usually blocked by Sid James’ head. I’ve found myself watching those old flicks and sharing the same complaint. “Hattie! Move over! You’re blocking Islington! You’re blocking ALL of Islington!” Yes, I scream at long-dead comedians in fifty year old black and white movies. I need help.
“Other Places” is mostly about Texas, where Moorcock resides, and is singularly lacking in the expected fish-out-of-water element. Moorcock likes his new neighbors, and seems tickled that he’s better known to them as an amateur musician than as a writer. His stance on politics, less surprisingly, is puzzled astonishment at the American flat-earth right.
“Absent Friends” is a discussion of people who are dead, usually people Moorcock liked and respected. Andrea Dworkin, JG Ballard, Phil Ochs and Thomas Disch get loving attention, as they should. Moorcock has a deep respect for voices which are unique and fearless, and for originality of thought. This stance informs the entire volume from this point onward.
The most striking thing about this volume is the level of erudition. It isn’t enough to say that Moorcock read thousands of books; he ABSORBED them. He sounds like he did a stint in Disch’s “Camp Concentration” and survived. He had little use for work he considered facile or derivative—he dismisses Heinlein, and by extension much of American “golden age” science fiction—with the single word “mechaporn.” Moorcock loves the Titus Groan series, found Lord of the Rings a bit of a slog, and has no use for the Harry Potter books. That’s a good nutshell encapsulation of his view on literature.
There’s a sense in the essays themselves of looking back, rather than forward. He’s likely to write about HG Wells and Conan Doyle, but little or nothing about present-day writers such as Gaiman, the Foglios, or Stephenson. About the only active writer he deems worthy of more than cursory mention is Alan Moore.
Not many people will read every article in the book. But everyone who reads it will find jewels along the way, and come away with the realization that the things Moorcock treasures in his surroundings, his friends, and his fellow artists are among the very best that life has to offer.