by Paul Durica
Recommended: Michael Moorcock is a difficult fellow to pigeonhole. He’s won practically every award given to writers in the genres of fantasy and science fiction (or speculative fiction, if you prefer), including the Nebula and Bram Stoker Award. As the editor of New Worlds, he helped shape the course of science fiction writing in the mid-twentieth century. Then there’s his career as a musician and as a historian of London. Recently, he wrote a “Doctor Who” novel. Who else could claim friendships with figures as divergent as Woody Guthrie, William S. Burroughs, Arthur C. Clarke and Alan Moore? Who else would begin life in the East End of London during the Blitz, and end up spending his golden years in the hill country outside Austin, Texas?
“London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction” does a good job of showcasing the artist’s far-ranging tastes and farther-afield experiences. Readers are given a mix of autobiographical essays, eulogies for departed friends, diary entries, cultural critiques, book introductions and reviews—lots and lots of reviews. If there’s a drawback to the collection, it’s the reliance upon introductions and reviews to plump up the volume. Putting Moorcock’s astute critical observations aside, one is left wondering how useful and interesting is a review for a book one hasn’t read? It’s to Moorcock’s credit that after reading his reviews one is tempted to pick up the book under critique, whether it’s Tony White’s “Foxy-T” (2003), Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” (2007)—Moorcock places Chabon in the “top rank of living American writers”—or the novels of Jack Trevor Story (best remembered by Americans for having written “The Trouble With Harry,” upon which Hitchcock based his film). Moorcock clearly loves books and is amazingly eclectic in his tastes and egalitarian in his attitude toward literary genres. And he also loves people: the essays collected within the section “Absent Friends,” about Story, Clarke, JG Ballard, Andrea Dworkin and Angela Carter among others, are genuinely moving without being sentimental.
I particularly enjoyed the pieces in the section “Other Places.” Moorcock wrote a series of “diary entries” for the Spectator and the Financial Times from the early 2000s into the present, and they offer an outsider’s view of life in the United States, particularly Texas, during the Bush years. Moorcock isn’t de Tocqueville but nonetheless manages to make observations that, while kind in spirit, still remind Americans of how far we’ve fallen from the ideals of a common good and shared responsibilities. Writing about the tendency to turn one’s past to profit, Moorcock observes, “Every small town in the US nowadays has to have some ‘historic’ monument to attract tourist money, in order to support the kind of civic infrastructure people used to take pride in paying for.” Moorcock doesn’t tell us what became of this “pride,” but he doesn’t need to. After all, he’s living in Rick Perry’s Texas.
Moorcock’s critiques are often like the one above. He never bellows or rages; he simply points out sad realities of the contemporary moment and reminds readers of the alternatives offered by careful reflection upon the past or speculation about the future. He also sustains an outsider’s faith in the potential of the United States and for Americans to put some good into the world. His wife is from Mississippi, and they chose to settle in Texas in part because of Moorcock’s lifelong love of American music. My favorite essay in the collection is his tribute to the songwriter Phil Ochs. Ochs’ music helped Moorcock keep the faith back in the 1960s and sustains his generosity in the present. “Despite the conservatism of its rhetoric,” Moorcock writes, “the American public is at heart tolerant and wants a just society. That public finds a voice in the musicians and performers from folk to rap who provide real evidence to the international community that maybe one day America really will walk the democratic walk as well as talk the democratic talk. It is the voice I heard as a kid when we were worried that US belligerence would get us into World War Three, when John Wayne was fighting communism and black people were denied the vote. It is the voice of the best America can be. It can’t be silenced. It is the voice of Phil Ochs.” At a moment when so many of us have lost faith in our country and our ourselves, it’s nice to have a science fiction writer from the UK remind us that a better world is still possible and ours to make.