A humane document

Mother London was something of a surprise to me, inasmuch as it’s something I needed to read, something that should have been more or less top of my reading list, but which I simply happened to read by chance. Firstly it was chance that I happened to spot it in my friend Dave’s bookshop, and bought it, without knowing anything about it, on the basis that I intend to read everything Michael Moorcock has written. And secondly, it was chance that it happened to be on top of a pile of books near my bed when I emerged from a recent period of depression during which I had more or less stopped reading and writing for several months. So I grabbed it and set to, and for two reasons it turned out to be exactly what I needed to read at that moment.

The first reason is Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, which I read a while ago and have been thinking deeply about ever since. I am not deeply immersed in the psychogeographic tradition in which that work waters its roots, although I have read some relevant authors, such as W.G. Sebald; had I been an aficionado of that literary practice I would probably have encountered Mother London long ago. However, Moorcock’s 1988 work shares more than a literary methodology with Moore’s: it became apparent on reading it that it is Jerusalem’s creative parent.

The second reason is that I have been considering applying for a PhD programme in creative writing at Anglia Ruskin, which has a strong pedigree in science-fiction and fantasy studies.  Although this might sound like a dream for anyone aspiring to write and publish fiction, I had trouble squaring the requirements of such a course with the strong sense of vocation (or should that be pathology?) that I feel with regard to the sprawling secondary-world ‘intellectual property’ I have been busy developing over the past decade. When I have made my creative focus the construction of a secondary world, what single piece of writing could I submit as a thesis that would persuade my markers to assess my world rather than the individual piece of fiction I presented them with?

Clearly some kind of guide-book crossed my mind, but something resembling a role-playing game sourcebook, for all that I love reading such documents, struck me as a pedestrian and tedious approach.  A collection of meta-literary documents, written as though produced by inhabitants of my world, might be a more interesting idea, but how could I tie such a collection together? And more to the point, how could I sell it to a potential supervisor?

As I read Mother London, which articulates a sense of place as the emergent property of the lives and cognitive processes of its inhabitants (rather than the other way round), and which produces a compelling fictional environment through a series of chronologically scattered vignettes rather than a linear narrative, it occurred to me that it could serve both as a template for, and as the ultimate test of my own work. A  work of fiction that elucidates the psychogeography of an imagined secondary world could be both the ideal form for my PhD project, and the harshest possible light under which to examine the quality of my world-building.

Mother London does precisely this, casting an unflattering deconstructive glare on popular or mainstream constructions of the city, recasting it to show how central the kinds of marginal people on which it focusses are to its inner life. The dérive of its characters’ movement through London and through the book acts as a challenge to the coercive power that defines the city in public discourse, and which imposes its unwanted patronage on those least able to resist it — the same form of power that casually erases the hard-won indigeneity of places such as Chavez Ravine in Los Angeles, the Gorbals in Glasgow, the East End in post-war London, or Moorcock’s own, lovingly imagined, Bank Cottage.

Moorcock, through a collection of characters which struck me at first as entertainingly idiosyncratic, and which by the end of the book felt emblematic of the irreducible value and particularity of human lives, revalues that marginal indigeneity. The protagonists of Mother London live, in various ordinary ways, outside of mainstream expectations, lodged in the cracks that punctuate modernity’s hard surface. The three central characters meet as patients in a mental hospital, and although mental illness is clearly deployed as a symbol of marginality, Moorcock takes the trouble to write their cognitive disorder sympathetically and convincingly. They are also telepathic, their thoughts continually invaded by the inner voices of those around them, a state alleviated only by their psychiatric medication — and which affords Moorcock the opportunity to give the city its own inchoate, Babelic voice.

The lives of Moorcock’s cast do not unfold in a linear narrative. It is possible to construct something resembling a plot from a detailed reading of the book, but it is a facet of Moorcock’s revaluation of ordinary lives that there is nothing extraordinary about the sequence of events through which his characters move. Other than the miracles and telepathy of course, but again, what could be more ordinary? Instead we zig-zag back and forth through the years, gradually revealing their lives in the round, like a coin scraping away at a scratchcard. There is a great deal that could be said about this approach to chronology, but one of Moorcock’s characters, David Mummery, gives a concise statement towards the end of the book.

‘I believe Time to be like a faceted jewel with an infinity of planes and layers impossible either to map or to contain; this image is my own antidote for Death.’

This short sentence could be taken to be a template for Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, much of whose more than a thousand pages are devoted to exploring the implications of just that idea. This is far from the only parallel between the two books, with Moore’s later work seeming (in retrospect) like a version of Mother London inflated with colour and fancy until it splits at the seams and erases the boundaries customarily assigned to its literary form (boundaries which Moorcock, for all his subversive and experimental techniques, largely respects). Both books do important work, mythologising that which hegemonic culture has largely trained us to regard as prosaic, and to discount. In Mother London the simple, contrary choices of drab, unlovely individuals become poetic gestures, freighted with an almost unbearable weight of significance. It is a beautiful, extraordinary book, and as a Guardian reviewer called it in 1988, a ‘humane document’.

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