Into the Media Web: Selected Short Non-fiction, 1956-2006 by Michael Moorcock
Two mighty books have been giving me great delight of late. One is A History of the World in 100 Objects, and the other is Into the Media Web by Michael Moorcock. One might have thought that both of them would suffer from being miscellanies, but if anything the opposite is true. Neil MacGregor’s assembly of disparate objects from different times and places is held together by his passionate and informed prose, which explores the history and provenance of each item under his scrutiny. Moorcock’s big book is an astounding compilation, displaying a panorama of sympathy and engagement over a lifetime’s reading and writing.
The monument valley which is Moorcock’s mighty imagination here provides us with the background reading to his career. Many of these encounters are not merely intellectual engagements, but personal ones too. In a poignant account of the life and times of Jack Trevor Story we learn that on the Christmas night which became the hinge of that troubled writer’s existence, he had been spending the evening with Moorcock before setting off home with his girlfriend. The forces of law and order banged him up, unjustly, and effectively drained him of hope for many years to come. In his account of Philip K. Dick we learn how Moorcock intervened to try to help that author make more money, though it came to nothing. He then looked on at a slight distance as Dick became famously loopy. Moorcock does not merely befriend Mervyn Peake’s highly distinctive imagination; he befriends the Peake family too. He writes of Iain Sinclair, a writer he admires, who is also a personal friend. And so it goes on. This isn’t name-dropping, because Moorcock is as big a name as any of the ones he mentions.
At the centre of the book is an account of the writer’s years as editor of New Worlds. This extraordinary publication has no equivalent in our world today. Moorcock was its presiding spirit for several years in the 1960s. I still marvel at the issues he produced. There was an intellectual ambition at work here, with no boundaries acknowledged. Some of the best SF fiction was published alongside highly demanding essays on politics, science, sociology. Many of Moorcock’s editorials are published here, and they still make exhilarating reading. Then, as now, Moorcock set his face against a besetting English sin: a snobbish parochial weariness, an ironic superiority to the frightful oiks who have started filling up the streets. You can almost hear, behind the languorous flutter of the pages, Sir Whatsits sniggering to Lady Doo-Dah. It still goes on, and it’s usually the same flummery in different clothes. Moorcock not only would not go to the party: he threw the literary equivalent of explosive devices into the Hampstead living rooms.
London is always a vortex of obsession and fascination for him, and he constantly returns to it, both in knowledgeable critiques of London writers and London writing, and in his own vivid memories and descriptions. London is here both carnival and museum, and it is significant how often Moorcock has written about the city even when he has been living far away. Like Joyce and Dublin, he is always there, even when he isn’t.
Despite covering many decades and a vast range of topics, the pieces here do not seem to have dated at all, with perhaps one exception. A review of the British jazz scene from 1958 puts in a strong word for the Avon Cities Jazz Band and the Clyde Valley Stompers. Ah yes, where are the snows of yesteryear?
There are many moving passages about writers who have been important to Moorcock, including his great friend Andrea Dworkin. One of the most striking things about this prodigiously gifted and productive writer, who has been making a living from his writing since the age of sixteen, is the unexpectedness of some of his liaisons and alliances. Like New Worlds under his editorship, he seems to exist to demolish boundaries.
There are simply too many topics here to list, but as the essays and reviews coast effortlessly from Aldous Huxley to Ballard, William Burroughs to Humphrey Bogart, H. G. Wells to Raymond Chandler, I had the constant sensation of being accompanied through the metropolis of modern culture by the most engaging companion I could hope to meet. I can only think of one criticism of this book: it displays an imaginative generosity which at times seems preternatural. If only the condition were contagious...