By Andrew Harrison
Michael Moorcock revolutionised science fiction with symbolism, sex and psychoactive drugs. Now, at 75, he has invented another genre.
You can’t go home again. The last time Michael Moorcock visited Notting Hill – once the countercultural cradle of his dimension-spanning science fantasies and home to the author, his young family and one of his best-loved creations, the polymorphous secret agent and flâneur Jerry Cornelius – he “pitched an absolute fit”, according to his Texan wife, Linda. The old, febrile Notting Hill of squats and squalor had long given way to iceberg houses, billionaires’ basements and the well-tended tedium of extreme wealth. The last straw came when Moorcock witnessed a woman getting out of her four-by-four wearing jodhpurs. “He was raving about this,” Linda recalls with amusement.
“The place made me feel ill,” Moorcock admits wearily. The writer and psychogeographer Iain Sinclair, a friend of his, had brought Moorcock back in order to film reminiscences of his old stomping ground. “But it had become unbelievably horrible on every level,” he says. “I mean, Notting Hill had been a place of horror and violence in the 1960s and 1970s. My mother daren’t visit us. Next door was always knife fights and the police. But it was cheap and that’s what you need as a writer with a young family. Now look at it. It’s people in jodhpurs.”
This is an apocalypse that even Moorcock never expected. A money bomb went off and took away all the ordinary people.
The Moorcocks now divide their time between Paris and Austin, Texas. We meet in their apartment in the multicultural warren of the tenth arrondissement, a cosy, first-floor place with shelves crammed with Moorcock ephemera: the pulp paperbacks that first lured him into writing fiction, a promo photo from the 1973 adaptation of his novel The Final Programme – the only Moorcock book committed to film so far – and a tiny model of a vintage London tram. Before travelling to Paris, I’d asked if there was anything that Moorcock misses from home that I could smuggle in for him. It transpires that the French capital is well stocked with tea bags and Branston pickle. You have not lived until you have presented one of your literary heroes with the contraband he truly desires: four luxury pork pies.
Now 75 years old and with at least as many books under his belt (they have been amended, anthologised and generally re-rubbed so often that they are uncountable), Moorcock is possibly fantasy’s most influential author, an equal and opposite force to J R R Tolkien, whose work Moorcock disdains as twee and conservative. A working-class Londoner, Moorcock rose through the lurid pulp fiction industry of the 1950s – he became the editor of Tarzan Adventures at the age of 17 – to champion a vastly different form of science fiction in the mid-1960s when he edited the magazine New Worlds.
The work he published by J G Ballard, Brian Aldiss, William Burroughs and others replaced science fiction’s hackneyed zap guns and space battles with the experimental techniques of literary fiction and the psychonautical values of the counterculture. “The science-fiction people thought we were trying to destroy science fiction,” he recalls. In reality, they were making it fit for purpose in a future that would be determined not by space travel but by mass communication, advertising, political demagoguery and modified consciousness.