Michael Moorcock’s ‘autobiography’

Book review: The Whispering Swarm — his first major work for ten years

8 August 2015

9:00 AM

8 August 2015

9:00 AM

The Whispering Storm Michael Moorcock

Gollancz, pp.480, £25, ISBN: 9781473213326

Michael Moorcock has put his name to more books, pamphlets and fanzines than, probably, even Michael Moorcock can count, but nothing ‘major’ over the past ten years. He’s now 75. But not, as this eruption witnesses, extinct. A cult has formed around him — Moorcockians who can discourse knowledgeably on the second aether and the ‘weirdness’ of Elric of Melniboné.

Inexhaustibly inventive, Moorcock proudly calls himself a ‘bad writer with big ideas’. He is interested in ‘New Worlds’ (the name of the science fiction journal he edited which injected 1960s postmodernism into the genre, banishing little green men and spaceships); ‘Other Worlds’ (e.g. his Pyat Quartet, which inhabits a comically alternative universe in Ukraine); and, as here, London ‘Underworlds’.

For Moorcock, London is a city of ‘psychic space’. There’s a lot of psychic spatiality in The Whispering Swarm. Holding it together is an anchoring strand of memoir. The hero-narrator is Michael Moorcock, but born in a different year with different parentage. Call him ‘Michael Moorcock’. The narrative follows, roughly, the outline of the author’s known life. ‘Moorcock’ is a Londoner, an early school leaver, and smart as paint. A lover of low-lit, he edits a Tarzanfanzine before drifting into SF proper. Soon he’s running the genre.

He hangs out with the likes of J.G. Ballard (here ‘Allard’ — interested in no fiction ‘but his own’) and other SF luminaries. ‘Michael’s’ chronicle covers the first 30 years of his life. The Whispering Swarm is part one of a trilogy, devotees will be delighted to learn.

As regards oeuvre, this novel is a follow-on from Mother London (1988). That novel fantasised a London under London (laced with buried rivers, defunct tube lines, sewers) as

home of a troglodytic race that had gone underground at the time of the Great Fire, whose ranks had been added to periodically by thieves, vagabonds and escaped prisoners, receiving many fresh recruits during the Blitz when so many sought the safety of the tubes.

Whenever his ears ring with tinnitus (this is the whispering swarm) ‘Michael’ is free to enter another kind of underworld, ‘Alsacia’. Think wardrobes into Narnia, Yellow Brick Roads to Oz, Brigadoon, Bill and Ted’s telephone kiosk.

Historically Alsacia is the area around Fleet Street:

Once it was home to a Carmelite (‘White Friars’) monastery and The Swan with Two Necks — a rogues’ den (demolished around 1860).

The monastery’s religious mysteries long predate Christianity. It houses the sacred Holy Grail and a ‘Cosmolabe’ which explains the recently hypothesised entities dark matter and dark energy. Be baffled no more, you physicists, Michael Moorcock has the answer. No equations required.

Alsacia is historical and figures centrally in Walter Scott’s ponderous The Fortunes of Nigel. But in The Whispering Swarm Moorcock is closer to Jasper Fforde time-game territory than the Wizard of the North. There is an hilarious episode in which ‘Michael’, alongside the highwaywoman Moll Midnight, holds up (‘your money or your life’) a double-decker electric tram on Blackheath. They give their ill-gotten gains to the Transport and General Workers’ Union.

There’s a foiled attempt to rescue Charles I from the scaffold. ‘Michael’ is very much a cavalier. At the centre of the novel is what looks like a painful confession of marital infidelity. ‘Michael’ has a long affair with Moll before she transfers her favours to Prince Rupert of the Rhine. ‘Michael’ meanwhile, in the ‘real world’, is the loving husband of ‘Helena’, whom we can take to be a version of Michael’s first wife, Hilary Bailey. She does not approve of Moll.

The last third of the novel, chronicling the Cromwellian destruction of the monastery and the monks’ rescue of the Holy Grail, drags somewhat. Well, to be honest, more than somewhat. But, after his long absence, welcome back ‘Michael’/Michael.

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Show comments
  • Chris Morriss

    Possibly interesting, though I fear MM hasn’t really written anything good since ‘Gloriana’.

    • Richard Eldritch

      You can’t buy his books from a book shop due I believe to historical tax issues. It can’t help sales here much, I was a big fan but I’ve no idea what he’s written over the last twenty years or if it’s any good.

      • Arkwright99

        Time was when a high street bookshop’s fantasy section was ruled by Moorcock and Tolkien; nowadays it’s stuffed with Tolkien, Pratchett and George RR Martin, etc. Why Moorcock should be persona non grata with your average Waterstones bookstacker is less to do with “historical tax reasons” (HMRC apparent tried (and failed) to nab his copyrights in the ’90s, forcing Moorcock to go on the lam to Texas) than that his slim, lean, fever-dream novels are out of kilter with modern fantasy fans desire for great ponderous multi-volume doorstoppers with acres of world-building and turgid real politicking characters.

  • drholland

    Moorcock NEVER said he was a bad writer with big ideas. He said he, would RATHER be a bad writer with big ideas than a good writer with small ideas, Mother London, the Pyat books and the Blood trilogy are superbly written. Witness rave reviews, Whittbread prize, Guardian Fiction Prize and many others since Gloriana.