There are too many Michael Moorcocks. I don't mean the books - although there are a bewildering number of those, there could never be too many for his admirers. There are at least 70 novels, and the revisions, retitling and recycling of stories habitual among pulp genre writers of the 1960s and 70s make him a bibliographer's nightmare.
However, Moorcock isn't just a pulp science fiction writer or even, as he's often described, "the most influential living fantasy author". He has also been lauded for his literary fiction - Mother London was nominated for the Whitbread prize.
Characters, themes and settings from his histories, fantasies and appropriations from other writers find their way from different novels or series, and he is credited with popularising the notion of the "multiverse". If the speculations of particle physicists about infinite, parallel universes (gleefully seized on as a device in his fiction) have any foundation, Moorcock will be a familiar figure in a lot of them.
In The Whispering Swarm, Moorcock's refusal to be confined by literary genre or the mundane and quotidian becomes positively brazen. For the first few dozen pages, the book appears to be a straightforward memoir of "a pretty typical Londoner of my generation". Young Michael Moorcock grows up during the war and the years immediately after in a working class family of "settled Roma" who work "at the lower end of the entertainment industry" and live in Brookgate. By 15, he has left school and is scratching a living as a hack writer (and extraordinarily young magazine editor) in and around the alleys off Fleet St, then still home to thousands of small publications, typesetters and printers.
Then he stumbles upon a mysterious friar who leads him through the fog to Alsacia, a small district among the Inns of Court, which he at first takes for a film set before he comes to realise it is separated by time from the rest of the city. The narrative then becomes an account (mostly corresponding with Moorcock's own life) of his developing writing career, occasional work as a musician, girlfriends, excursions into drugs, science fiction fandom and eventually marriage and children.
Some of the people mentioned in this stream of the book, such as Mervyn Peake, John Brunner and C.S. Lewis, appear under their own names. Others are very thinly disguised: Jim Ballard becomes Jack Allard and the erratic American writer Tom Disch (whose unexpected transformation into a gay biker queen offers some good material) appears as Rex Fisch.
In Alsacia, where the Civil War is still being fought, the characters are drawn from history (Prince Rupert of the Rhine) or rather, from various works of popular fiction: The Three Musketeers and figures from the Wild West show up. "I wouldn't have been very surprised if Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Who dropped in for a beer," Moorcock comments at one point.
However, his main draw to the Sanctuary, as the inhabitants call it, is a glamorous lady highwaywoman, Moll Midnight, both his ideal woman and an inspiration for his pulp novels (turned out in three-day bursts). Later, as his marriage comes under strain, Moorcock is tormented by the whispering swarm that provides the book's title, a sort of tinnitus that disappears only in Alsacia.
This odd and bold approach to merging auto-biography and fantasy may not appeal to everyone, not even (perhaps especially not even) Moorcock fans. I think it comes off because so much of a writer's life is conducted in his own head and in books - his own and other people's.
The whispering swarm is the constant internal murmuring made by books demanding to be written, while Moorcock reminds us that his experience of growing up in the 1950s and Swinging 60s - in a London where ordinary people lived in Ladbroke Grove or on the edge of the City - is now as completely vanished, and almost as distant as the ostlers, taverns and intrigues of Cromwell's time. Both can be found only in the mind and recorded only on the page. And because we can have no faith in either reality or time, fiction is its only medium.
The Whispering Swarm
by Michael Moorcock
- Canvas, Telegraph