The Guardian has a long essay on my early science-fiction reading and the work of Michael Moorcock. Here's the full transcript of our baggy, voluminous, digressive conversation.
Bastrop, TX 15th May 2010
HK: So why are you in Texas?
MM: It was the myth of Texas that attracted me. We’d lived in England for 15 years, and Linda was sick of it. She used to get shit all the time just for being American.
HK: English people’s prejudice against Americans is so - blithe. A lot of the time they don’t even understand they’re being parochial.
MM: Absolutely. A lot of the time, people come back and say oh people were so nice to them, I think, well, they’re putting on the face the tourist wants to see. In Marrakech they’d tell you all this ridiculous stuff about harems. We were at the young Vic and this woman in front of us dropped her ticket. Linda picked it up and said ‘I think you’ll need this’ and the woman said ‘what’s an American bottom doing sitting on one of our British seats’. It was sort of meant as a joke, but it wasn’t. She used to get this sort of thing all the time. A very outgoing woman was beginning to shrink. I’d taken her from the sunshine…. We wanted to go back to Los Angeles, but I didn’t want all my books disappearing in an earthquake. A stupid paranoia. They could go in a tornado here. And I had other reasons for not wanting to go back to LA. I was very snobbish about San Francisco. I thought of it as very chi-chi, and very self-congratulatory – that’s a side of San Francisco, and unfortunately now I wouldn’t mind living there at all - so we came here. I didn’t want to live somewhere that was an enclave of the British abroad. I thought – where am I going to get the most experience and hear what people really think. I like Texas a lot – I’m not putting Texas down – there’s a lot I don’t like – the government for example. I’d also been in LA. I wrote letters to Ballard (published as Letters from Hollywood). It’s got lovely illustrations from Mike Foreman … So I’d done myths and legends of California, as it were, so it was time for myths and legends of Texas. It’s got a lot of myths and legends. And it’s got a landscape that goes from English Cotswolds – admittedly with about 16 deadly snakes in it – but there are these Constable scenes all over the place – cows grazing near ponds – and the desert, and all the rest of it. When we first got here (to Bastrop) it actually had cowboys who would ride their horses down main street, tether their horses outside the saloon, which in those days was called the Gin-u-Wine Oyster bar – which actually identifies it as an old place, because it hasn’t got a western sounding name. That’s one thing I noticed in the Rockies – all the really old places were called the Pennsylvania grill and the new places would be called the Bucking Bronco and so on. I was attracted by the mythology, as was Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry. There are substantial writers who are attracted to that. It’s almost as if you’re at the end of the middle ages and they’re remaking the past.
HK McCarthy seems to have rediscovered a whole tone which had got lost under a post-war movie version. He’s excavated something that’s - I don’t know – one part King James Bible, one part thunderstorm.
MM I think it’s because he’s scary. The landscapes he’s talking about don’t give that feel to me, but I think he finds – well, we all find what we want to find. Stupid. That was very stupid.
HK I’ve read about how young you were when you started the magazine work. How did you come to be offered an editorship at 15?
MM: It’s the world of fanzines. That’s the clue I think. I’d started doing fanzines from the age of nine. I’d been doing as many copies as you can get carbon paper into an upright typewrite and it got fainter and fainter as it went through – and I’d try to sell them at school, ended up giving most of them away – then I started doing a book collecting fanzine. I had this weird background, in that I was reading boys magazines from the twenties and thirties, and I was getting them from dealers. I got into it through PG Wodehouse, ran out of Wodehouse, a friend’s father said these old volumes of The Captain, which was an old boys magazine have Wodehouse in them. And they did, they had his early school stories. It had never occurred to me to read them before. I grew up in South London, in Norbury. I heard someone on the radio say where I’d come from, and it sounded like the worst place in the world, so I felt sorry I’d come from there. It’s funny, because Kingsley Amis, who wasn’t someone I liked, once said he was the only famous person ever to come from Norbury. The place was thick with writers. Virtually every door. It was a dormitory suburb of London.
HK: The school stories interest me. That tone of derring-do. That’s an ingredient that’s come up again and again in your work. That would have been slightly removed from your own school experience.
MM: Oh, totally. I was expelled from a Rudolf Steiner school. I was the only person ever expelled until quite recently. There was one other person. He got in touch with me because of that. It wasn’t exactly an expulsion, but it was ‘don’t come back next term’, which was the nearest they could get to an expulsion. I don’t think Michael’s fitting in very well. And it was true. I kept running away. Looking back it was pure separation anxiety. My father had buggered off at a very early age. Took me years to work out why I had these feelings. It was a good school. I really approve of the system. You learn algebra there when you’re seven. Just the right time to learn algebra. I’m not saying I’m a maths genius as a result, but I did learn symbolic logic. They teach you that from seven onwards. You learn languages. Good system. You don’t get any crap, any mystical sort of stuff. It’s in the background, but it’s not in the curriculum. That probably did a lot of good for me in terms of widening my horizons. But I had this funny family. At one end they were breeding dogs in South East London – for greyhound racing, and at the other they were living in Downing street. And I would actually go to Downing Street, which didn’t strike me as funny. I’d get on the 15 bus.
HK Are there still private residences in Downing Street?
MM: No. He lived at 10 Downing Street. He wasn’t anything particularly – originally he was Winston Churchill’s secretary. He wasn’t a private secretary. He was there with whoever did the job.
HK: So in class terms you had tendrils into high and low but were not really beholden to any position.
MM; that’s right. It was sort of nice.
HK: So you were making these fanzines, and presumably it got a bit further than school distribution.
MM: Very soon afterwards. I started sending them out by mail. I’d advertise the fanzine in Exchange and Mart. That was the only place I knew to put them. I didn’t have any notion there might be other places – well, there weren’t really. If you were interested in popular fiction, the only place where it was discussed at all was in fanzines. It gradually put you in touch with other people. It was like a very slow working internet.
HK: You were in a subculture immediately, and you were in this collector and fan world, which is very peer-to-peer. There weren’t figures of authority telling you from on high what was good and what wasn’t.
MM: Sort of. But I detected authoritarianism in the various clubs that existed that I joined and then had problems with. There were old guys who’d been running these clubs forever. And I was young. I was fifteen, sixteen. I was lippy, I suppose. I had the same problems at school. I didn’t think of myself as a rebel. But I didn’t think of the teachers as being anything more or less than the same as me. I really did have a very egalitarian upbringing. Maybe it’s to do with the way my family was. My grandmother was an incredible fierce egalitarian. She just hated prejudice. Where she got it from I don’t know – except that she was Jewish. My family disguised its Jewish ancestry. There are still members of my family who’ll say I’m not telling the truth.
HK When did they come over? Presumably it wasn’t a second world war thing
MM: And it wasn’t even the big migration of the nineteen-hundreds. It’s the sort of Sephardic element, the southern European element. You’re always told that’s the better element.
MM: That’s right. In fact Disraeli was my legendary ancestor. We’ll never know whether that’s true or not because officially Disraeli never had any children
HK: A symbolic ancestor
MM: My uncle would actually take me – there used to be a big portrait of Disraeli on the stairs at Downing street. And he’d take me and stand me in front of it and say ‘one day you could be’ - which was good. It does give you a focus. It helps you see – I think all these ancestral things, whether you make them up or not, I don’t think it matters whether you make them up – it gives you a line in which to see yourself. I’m trying to work that out at the moment – well, not at the moment, I’m trying to finish a doctor who novel at the moment – about how important ancestry is and whether your family has the myth or it’s telling the truth or whatever.
HK: It’s one of the sublime aspects of heroic fantasy is ancientness - and origins, and origins lost in the mists of time. That kind of infinite regress was always very exciting to me when I first encountered that kind of fiction. I could pull together some kind of slightly spurious suburban-boy mixed-race need for a myth of origin – I don’t know if that’s really significant
MM: I think it is because a lot of people I know, almost all of my friends come from some sort of alienated position. I’m not dramatizing it. A lot of my readers do. It’s astonishing. They did a survey years ago, of science fiction readers - a fanzine survey – and they found an astonishing number of them came from broken homes. Also a very high percentage of them were Jewish, as the American science fiction writers tended to be.
HK: Let’s talk about Ballard, and the change in his reputation
MM: It’s a pretty strange thing. To see a friend turn into – somebody pretty different to the image the world’s got. … [ switch recorder off to talk privately]
MM: I’ve just been talking to David Pringle, who’s Ballard’s bibliographer… An old interview’s just surfaced between Kathy Acker and Iain Sinclair. This is before he had really started to read Ballard very much, so he didn’t like him much, and this is all coming out in this interview
HK: and now he’s a big champion of Ballard
MM: Partly because he started reading what I would call the right stuff – Atrocity Exhibition, Crash, High Rise and so on. And I think after that he went off
HK He started writing the same book. I feel like his reputation now rests on that period from the mid-sixties to the late seventies, and the two volumes of inverted-commas autobiography.
MM: Empire of the Sun. I was always hoping he’d write that book. It’s an oddly honest book. It leaves his sister out of it.
HK: I spoke to him just before he died and he said exactly how he’d edited out certain facts to get to this ‘truth’, of a boy who was running round the camp, completely unmoored from family.
MM: But it was otherwise very truthful and that was true of his actual autobiography also. But what’s left in is less self-serving than actually I’d expected. I’d told him this – pretty much everything I’m saying I told him to his face. We were estranged for some time because of his treatment of women – it’s as simple as that – I did get sick of it – and when I finally said something, this being Jimmy, he withdrew completely - bingo, I wasn’t there anymore.
HK: That’s how he did it, was it?
MM: I also knew, having been an editor, that you have to wait these things out and sooner or later people come back.
HK: You two shared so much. It would have been ridiculous
MM: Our friendship meant something to us. It was very weird – it shouldn’t have done, because he did do some things – I’m sorry, I don’t mean to keep coming back to this , but it’s partly because it all got dredged up by Pringle over this Kathy Acker thing and I’ve been thinking about it. I’ve had to forgive him quite a lot, bad stuff, pretty bad stuff.
HK: Sounds like a lot of scotch went down in his life at a certain point
MM: Absolutely, almost every one of these things had to do with a lot of scotch. He did come out of it. He eventually emerged on the other side. I have to say that most of his best writing was done during this particular period, when he was incredibly miserable.
HK: There’s something so bleak about that work. I always assumed it was about his wife dying so suddenly. The meaninglessness of existence seemed to be –
HK: And he wasn’t the sort of man for whom God could have acted as a straightforward filler
MM: No. He basically shut down. He was able to do that, I suppose. A lot of people can. He shut down Mary’s death pretty quickly. There was less and less said, less discussed as time went on. Probably a matter of eighteen months before discussion of Mary, reference to Mary was off limits, which was a shame because both Hilary, my first wife, and I, were very fond of Mary. We wanted to tell the girls - they knew nothing about their mother at all. Again, I’m sorry. I don’t mean to go on like this.
HK: It was a coping mechanism.
MM: Everyone was very sympathetic. That’s basically why he got away with a lot, and perhaps reasonably so. It’s never happened to me. Nothing like that has ever happened to me – anyway.
HK: Since it’s come up, that connection to him, I’m very interested in talking about that Notting Hill world of the sixties, and I’ve had various glimpses of it from talking to various people. He was, oddly enough, slightly unforthcoming. He painted a picture of himself as – well, I was always in Shepperton and I would occasionally go to these funny parties where people would smoke pot and then I would go back home.
MM: That was sort of true. He’d dip in.
HK: It seemed like you, just judging by your photos of the time, were much more in it
MM: I was. I tend to do that. I tend to immerse myself totally in a way that Jimmy couldn’t.
MM: Background, the whole thing. He just couldn’t do it. It was very funny. I know his girls talk about going there and Hawkwind was there, but the gulf between Hawkwind and Jimmy was enormous.
HK: I want to try to join the dots between the various players in that scene
MM: (gestures) well here’s Jimmy there, here’s Nick Turner here. And Nick’s saying yeah man I really like your stuff, and Jimmy not entirely comfortable for it. And rolling up a joint and offering it to Jimmy as a matter of common decency, and Jimmy saying [does harrumphing voice] oh no I’m a whisky man myself. I got Jimmy some acid one time. He insisted. He kept saying get me some acid. I was his kind of running boy really for experience
HK: His interface
MM: I got him a sugar cube and I said to him, don’t take it now, because he was as drunk as a skunk when I gave it to him. Wait. And of course, being Jimmy, he took it immediately. Appalling, psychotic – snakes all over the bed. Everything bad about Shanghai on top of everything bad about everything else. He didn’t describe this. His girlfriend at the time told me about it. She was basically saying for God’s sake don’t give him any more. And I didn’t. There wasn’t any point. It was a waste. And for a while, being who he was, he generalized rather about acid - ‘bad stuff, that’ and he gave it a narrative. All of those science fiction writers, Brian Aldiss - who accused me of taking him into a den of thieves one time – he said to me, you know a lot of rock’n’roll people -can you find someone who’d like to work with me in doing these songs I need for a book. I said sure, and took him to see friends of mine. Of course they were all sitting about rolling joints and listening to ridiculous stuff that made them giggle, but very friendly again – and knowing who he was, very polite – but this was definite tribal stuff.
HK: I’m imagining this coterie of science fiction chaps, tie-wearing, quite straight guys – interfacing with the louche, crushed velvet world of the music scene …
MM: At that time, I was the only one - and then the people who worked on New Worlds started coming in …
HK: New Worlds changed a lot, didn’t it
MM: They shared the lifestyle. When I first met Tom Disch, he got stuck in Spain because he got hepatitis from taking too much bad acid and so on, so all of the people on New Worlds, all the really good writers apart from Jimmy and Brian had basically had the same cultural experience as I did.
HK: People talk about the transition from outer space to inner space, and it seems it was that set of concerns – psychology, repression, authoritarianism …
MM: Most of the writers – a fair number of the writers I was dealing with, hadn’t written science fiction before, and they weren’t really writing SF then. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have gone anywhere in the regular magazines, so there were poets saying yeah, I’ll send you some poetry – I think they recognized some kind of interface.
HK: Who else was around in your world. I was just rereading Cure for Cancer and I notice you’ve got a Paolozzi reference. I know he was friends with Jim Ballard
MM: That’s the funny thing. I’ve been asked this by two lots of academics doing studies on Jimmy – how did Ballard introduce you to Paolozzi – I introduced Jimmy to Paolozzi . Jimmy never went anywhere! I had to basically pull them back to Shepperton. We just made Paolozzi our aeronautics advisor, because he did a lot of aerospace stuff
HK: In his art? He wasn’t a pilot or anything was he?
MM: Oh no. He was a funny guy. A nice – no he wasn’t a nice guy. He started off a nice guy but he ended up a total bore. Both Jimmy and I had stories of hiding behind things waiting for Paolozzi to go by. You could hear his voice a million miles away and he was always pontificating about something. A friend of mine, Mike Dempsey, he’s dead now, we said, when we see Eduardo next time, we’ll both have entirely separate conversations, and talk about those to him, see if he actually talks about any of those subjects back to us. Not once. We were just rolling on the floor. He was basically a rather serious person.
HK: Were there any other artists in the mix?
MM: There was an artist who didn’t like us, who was Richard Hamilton, the other main pop artist of the period. He thought we were turning science fiction into something namby-pamby and losing its roots. He wanted explosions and spaceships and robots, which I liked too, in a sense I was coming as much from his point of view as I was from Paolozzi’s. I wasn’t rejecting the pulps. I loved the pulps. They were the thing that I got all of my stuff from. The other stuff – frankly Ursula LeGuin, though a nice person left me completely cold. All the writers who were literary in their ambitions didn’t particularly interest me.
HK: Though you’re credited as the person who made it all literary.
MM: Yes, but I made it literary by giving them all their heads, by stopping them becoming science fiction or fantasy writers. What happened in the thirties was a bunch of writers, Robert Bloch, who did Psycho, Fritz Leiber, Henry Kuttner and one or two others, who were all writing these essentially absurdist stories. They had no rationale. They were essentially absurdist. I’ve seen one or two of them and they’re not bad at all. But there was nowhere they could place them, let alone sell them.
HK: Because people just wanted genre?
MM: Yes, but not just that. The whole mood was against what they were doing.
HK: Social realism?
MM: Particularly in America. They gradually found that if they rationalized this stuff and put in a bit of ‘on mars’ and ‘the rocket’ or whatever, they could sell it to Weird Tales, so that was what they started doing. What I wanted was to get them before they started on the rockets. Or, if they were going to introduce them, to make sure it was because they wanted them for their own purposes, not for genre reasons. There was obviously a whole literary thing going on. It’s very hard to talk about this because there are two narratives, one in which I improved science fiction and got the New Wave going and the other in which I rejected Science Fiction and starting writing these stories which no one could understand, which you get a lot from the old science fiction fans. Not so much now, but certainly then. I destroyed the form and so on. What we were doing was both. We wanted the stuff to be what we thought we’d be reading when we bought that copy of Astounding but it wasn’t. The life that ought to have been in there was excised and all that was left was the rationales, which was the last thing we were interested in. Jimmy, from the point of view of Surrealism, which was his great love, and mine, more from the point of absurdism which was mine
HK: Gogol’s there in your work
MM: That too, but I really love the Russians. Also Peake. I identified Peake as essentially an absurdist writer rather than a fantasy writer. There’s no supernatural element t at all. It doesn’t fucking matter what you call him, except in tribal terms. I’m still – I was really upset because a guy put Mother London into the best 50 books of Science Fiction and I don’t like that because it was never intended to be Science Fiction and if you read it as SF you miss some of the reality of it.
HK: I wanted to have an urban v. rural conversation with you. You brought up Jim Ballard and Iain Sinclair and this is constellation of people into which you seem to fit very well, along with Leiber’s Lankhmar
MM: And China too. China Mieville
HK: Yes, he’s very much part of that. The city as a layered place, and as a morally-ambiguous place, where you can celebrate the connections, the unlooked-for find, the light above the door that you go through and find the opium den by the docks – to rehash your issue with the ruralists, you’re famously anti Tolkien and Lewis – what’s your beef with that kind of writing?
MM: It would be the same beef if I was talking about Warwick Deeping or RL Sherriff
HK: The pastoral?
MM: Well, also the first world war veterans. Because it identifies the sentimentality, once you put it together with how they were getting through the trench war. It helps you imagine - all the decency things, that whole ‘no British boy would do that sort of thing’ – it was also the tone of the BBC when I was growing up, much more than it is now. And I hated it. I finally heard them admit on a programme I heard on Radio 4 a few years ago that they were telling children stories to send them to sleep as good little children, and I suspected they were doing that
HK: So it’s political conservatism and a form of social control
MM: And also sentimentalized – the British character sentimentalized, the rather wistful bravery of the first war poets
HK: so that’s not what you were getting out of the school stories, and enjoying in the Sexton Blakes – the chap, the figure of the British chap
MM: When it goes into that area it loses me. These were the Greyfriars stories, Billy Bunter, who went on into book form
HK: And Bunter’s a much more subversive and disruptive figure
MM: That’s right. Him. There’s another guy called Vernon-Smith, the Bounder of the Remove, and he was the bad guy – all the series, the Magnets that I was buying, were mostly running bad guy, the outcaste, the boy who comes to school and is the cockney boy who then proves himself to be as good as any chap in England
HK: The outsider is interesting, the person who’s subversive to the order of the school. Like the figures in Dandy and Beano
MM: I didn’t actually like Dandy and Beano. I didn’t like comics as a kid which is kind of weird, because I’ve written an awful lot of them. I got a job at Fleetway when I was eighteen or nineteen and I was writing all those little – they were called Thriller Picture Library, Robin Hood, Kit Carson
HK: that was where they were publishing the war ones
MM: The Battle of Britain
HK: Hande hoch, die Englischer pigdog!
MM: Exactly. And I actually had a confrontation with Fleetway, who then decided I was a communist, because I wouldn’t write this kind of anti German shit
HK: They were kind of ugly. By the time I was reading them – I was buying old comics as a small boy in the late seventies, so they were sixties, early seventies comics, and they’d become really violent, nationalist, the worst kind of stuff
MM: Yes. Yes. I did agree to write the odd world war one flying story. Dogfight Dixon RFC, knight of the skies sort of stuff, that was alright. The German captain can go down saluting the brave airman. You don’t have to call people squareheads. Because I simply refused, would not work on any of them, they decided I was a communist, a proper communist, and the funny thing was that the boss of my department, Glenn Matthews, who was certainly around until relatively recently, was convinced – which gives you an insight into how people were thinking in those days – that the red army was going to come marching up Fleet Street any minute and there would I be in the Tom whatisname rimless glasses
HK: there with your Makarov and your greatcoat
MM: And because of that he didn’t fire me
HK: So he was hedging his bets in case of a full scale communist takeover
MM: He was a Napoleon fan. A classic Napoleon fan, everything bar putting his hand inside his jacket. Which I’m sure he did secretly at home.
HK: To relax.
MM: I couldn’t take his authority. So my time at Fleetway was constantly dealing with these kind of tensions. My boss was a raging fascist, a member of Moseley’s fascists, but you couldn’t help liking him. It was one of those things. I was a member of the West London antifascist youth committee in the fifties and there was a Jewish guy who used to go round beating up fascists. Monty something. [Monty Goldman?] We infiltrated Colin Jordan’s British National Party. We’d go along and have tea with Mrs. Leese [Arnold Leese’s widow, at 74 Princedale St Holland Park]. You can find Leese’s work on the internet. It’ll turn your stomach. He’s the one who called Moseley a ‘kosher fascist’. Too far to the left! And so we’d go and have Mrs. Leese, because he was dead by then. She was this little white-haired old lady, get the tea cups out, how many sugars dear. It was a bit like the Man Who Was Thursday. There were three of us who’d go and have tea and we were all infiltrators. Not one of us was an actual follower. She’d pour out the tea and say ‘you know the Jews did so and so’. My old boss at Fleetway actually went barmy. He published all his reprints of the Billy Bunter stories, those big ones that come in quarto size. That’s how he wound up making his living. One day he wasn’t letting me come into his office, but he kept sending down to the art department for supplies. Another 15 bottles of red ink - we on the other side of the door, not one of us of his disposition, but we did like him, in some ways he was a rather comic figure, there was something charming about him, in the way there often is with people like that – anyway, I finally got into his office by sneaking through his secretary’s door before he could hide his stuff. He was in the process of hiding it but he couldn’t get it into his desk, this big map. I said ‘what’s that Bill?’ and he said ‘oh all right sport, I suppose I can tell you, but don’t tell anyone else’ - they all had these huge conspiracy theories – ‘it’s the redistribution of races. We’re going to put all the Arabs over here. We’re going to put all the black people here.’ The Arabs got the Sahara. The British got all of Africa. He was the editor of Sexton Blake. I did one Sexton Blake which was, as it were, came from the left wing, it was about Castro’s Cuba, but with a different name, and a different dictator’s name. Not only did he not pay me the full price for it, because he said it wasn’t quite up to scratch, which was a common trick, but then he did rewrite it by changing all the left wing stuff to right wing stuff. So it came out as an anti-Castro story.
HK: Were you still involved with political stuff during the sixties and seventies?
MM: Yeah. By that time – I’d been interested in anarchism as a kid, but I’d got a bit bored of the anarchists because they were all about five hundred years old and still fighting the Spanish civil war in the Malatesta club in Red Lion square. You’d go along to a couple of them – looking back, they had a lot of interesting stuff to say, but it wasn’t very immediate. I obviously wanted something a bit more – something to – oh anyway.
HK: There was a big anarchist and Situationist thing in Notting Hill. I’ve written about King Mob, the Wise brothers. Since you were running around in the underground there, were you in contact with – not just them, but any of the various groups?
MM: Oh yeah. The White Panthers, who were – I’ve nothing against the white panthers, but it was funny to see the Black Panthers turn into the White Panthers [Mick Farren founded UK branch of John Sinclair’s White Panther Party]. They slavishly followed – they didn’t really have the style of the Black Panthers - they couldn’t be photographed in cool shades with good guns. They had water pistols. So they didn’t quite make it. I was sort of involved. To some extent, I was more conservative in some ways than quite a lot of the other people. I was probably two or three years older than other people. It made a difference. Maybe it wasn’t that. I wanted to see my energy used practically. Realistically too. There’s no point sitting around discussing, saying ‘oh the fucking state’ and all that, you’ve actually got to find ways of confronting it. You need a dialectic. All that stuff. I was attracted to Kropotkinist anarchism, because it was pacifist, which to a degree I was. I’m not a pacifist in that – I’m very confrontational in a lot of ways. I stop short of killing the person, though around here sometimes you wouldn’t mind it. The odd shot. To some extent it was a bit silly. Mick Farren and I weren’t immediately friends, though we’re very good friends now. I was very impressed by Mick when he was defending IT (International Times) in a trial, where he actually – for once – was somebody who took over their own defense and genuinely made it work. He was very smart. I watched him being better than the lawyers. There were two trials running at the same time. One was the second Oz arrests, which were the people who’d been arrested outside the Oz trial. Friends of mine were arrested. I wasn’t. I did realize – that was why I was lucky – in that everybody was as tall as I was or taller. The cops just homed in on whoever was tall. So I was involved in this post Oz trial, trying to get some justice together. There were photographs taken, and charges made. And the photographs showed that the police charges were - it did teach me a lesson. It was like a TV episode. I’m calling Captain Snaps who’d taken the pictures, trying to get hold of Captain Snaps who’s stoned out of his brain somewhere, probably Amsterdam, so I can take these pictures to court to say they couldn’t have done this because as you see here – all last minute stuff, stop the trial, I came into court with the pictures. The magistrates looked at them and said ‘oh well, photographs can prove anything, doesn’t mean a thing’. And after all that – doink! - there it was. The lawyer proved that one of my friends couldn’t have hit a cop because of where he was standing, he destroyed all the evidence, didn’t make an ounce of difference. Rosie Boycott was there. She started telling the magistrate what the cops had said to her and how they’d been feeling her up, which was very common, and the magistrate told her off for using such language, and saying things which her mother and father would have been ashamed of. It’s when you learned that there wasn’t much point in trying to do things.
HK: Jerry Cornelius is such a Carnaby Street dandy, such an elitist figure, a super hippy, driving around in his fancy cars with his designer clothes
MM: But he does turn out to be a little working class lad in a Notting Hill basement. I actually hadn’t meant him to be like that – that’s to say I hadn’t meant him to become an icon of cool. I had to start changing him increasingly to bring him down into the real world. I hadn’t meant him to be quite that cool. I’d meant him to be slightly more ridiculous.
HK: Is that why he ends up as a gibbering wreck for a whole book
MM: I had to! I had to deconstruct the whole thing as I wrote it. Bob Calvert, the other Hawkwind front man would turn up dressed as Jerry, saying ‘what do you think?’
HK: There are so many sets of inverted commas around everything that his cool does come off as absurd, it’s so incredibly over the top that it doesn’t seem like in any straightforward way you’re supposed to be in awe of him. In its own way it’s like a pop critique of the stuff it’s representing. All those brands, the lists - of fighter jets, weaponry, whatever – it’s full of lists
MM: It is. Each thing in that – I almost never write anything - I’m lying now, but I’m going to continue with the lie – that doesn’t have a narrative running with it – in Mother London every chapter heading is also a narrative, or refers to a narrative. If a pub’s called the Princess Diana it’s supposed to be there – everything’s been carefully selected.
HK: There’s a New Worlds anecdote about you getting into trouble for running a Norman Spinrad story. What’s that about? [Bug Jack Barron, which provoked a question in parliament about the Arts Council’s funding of New Worlds http://www.theedge.abelgratis.co.uk/bugjackbarron.htm] The story sounds unobjectionable.
MM: It was. We’d been having trouble with Smiths for a while [WH Smith, bookseller, newsagent] They were a little uneasy about the magazine. I suppose we’d been using the language of the street, the language of the day, bringing contemporary language into the magazine, and Norman was perfect for that. He had a very good ear for American slang of the period, particularly media slang, he’d worked in the media. And so he starts writing this thing about how media’s used to send us all to war and all the rest of it. I think that Smiths had probably been working up a bit of a sweat about it before it happened, but there was another story in the same issue, a serial by Lang Jones [Langdon Jones ] called The Great Cloth or something like that [actually The Eye of the Lens], which had Christ on the cross, in a church, having a conversation with the protagonist - just in passing – I don’t know if you did but I came from a culture where religion was considered rather old fashioned – you kind of thought it was something you didn’t need to think about. In my day, I think I hardly knew a person who was religious. If they were they kept very quiet about it, and you respected it, you didn’t attack them for it, and they didn’t’ go after you either. But for some reason they found this bit of Jesus stuff in there, and the Bug Jack Barron stuff which had ‘heavy language’. In a sense it was the new Chandler. Hammett in particular, Chandler and several other writers of the period, were using the speech of LA and San Francisco, and that’s what attracts you to them, I think. You always have a bit of trouble when you start doing that, reporting what’s actually being said. They took against that. They banned us from distribution, which they’d already done to Time Out, International Times. They wanted to get rid of us. I had this ridiculous conversation in WH Smiths office with this bloke whose name was Baron. He had a big stack of porn, and I said to him we’re a literary magazine. We’re writing about this sort of thing, fundamentally we’re attacking this sort of thing, but you’re happy to sell Zeta, I think it was called, and he said well that sells a hundred thousand copies – pinpointed it immediately – too much money involved. So we had a fight on our hands. The good thing was the press was on our side because in those days there wasn’t anybody in newspapers who didn’t hate Smiths because they’d made it impossible to run stories on occasion. So we were told to modify by Smiths. It happened several times. Bob Guccione offered to buy us out, just as bad as anybody else as far as I was concerned. I had this weird conversation with Guccione - he didn’t know what New Worlds was. He saw it was banned all over the world - South Africa and so on –
HK: Had you published Behold the Man at this point
MM: Yes, but they hadn’t seen that. It was in the small format. They were happy with that – they never opened it. The big magazine, with photographs and shout lines and the rest of it was more noticeable. That’s when the trouble started. There was a lot wrong at the time and we were talking about it, which is what fiction should be doing, and there was a question in the house of commons about it because we got this arts council grant, which I hadn’t asked for - then there was debate because the Tories were always after the arts council – I didn’t really want it, because I’d got a lot invested in it being a commercial magazine, earning its own keep
HK: That’s what you’d come out of.
MM: I’d come out of huge circulations at Fleetway. But we were about 45,000 at one point, which I thought was pretty good since it had been about five or six thousand when I took it over.
HK: Something more like Ambit. Were you in Ambit?
MM; I was in Ambit, writing for Jimmy. I had nothing against Ambit.
HK: But it was a different writing culture from the one you’d come up in?
MM: it was like the mums and dads getting really enthusiastic about what their kids are into. I used to have this a lot. Let’s say I’m at East Anglia, doing something there. Here’s Malcolm Bradbury, that whole bunch who are mostly all dead now, you start feeling like a barbarian that they want to get the news from. It’s like you’re vital, you’re a vital outsider
HK: The noble savage
MM; I should be playing the banjo. ‘Gosh, how do you do that?’
HK: I’ve got a pet theory - no idea if it felt like that at the time – Elric turns up, when sixty, sixty-one – [TK] and by about ten years later you’ve got people in the cultural scene, looking and acting like him - these decadent junkie rock gods – there’s a certain part of the pose of the glamorous English rock star that seems to have been prefigured by Elric. Of course he has ancestors, Maldoror and all the French decadent stuff you must have used. Did you have any sense that people were inhabiting a role you’d opened up.
MM: I don’t want to claim too much, but it happened a lot. I have a story about that – I’m in the Mountain grill, where everyone used to meet to get on the buses – the hippy greasy spoon, whatever, just up in Portobello road just before the bridge, somebody told me it’s called something like Bins and Burgers now – I can’t go back to Portobello now without it turning my stomach - anyway, I’m sitting there and this bloke’s trying to sell me some dope, his name was Geronimo – and then he says, you’ve heard about the tunnel under Ladbroke Grove. He starts to elaborate, says it’s under the Poor Clares nunnery. You can go into that and come out in an entirely different world. I said to him, Geronimo I think I wrote that. He said, oh, did you? There was no difference for him. And that really happened a lot. I was the musicians’ favorite. I had a lot of people from the music world – I’d be thinking wow I’m about to meet so and so and they’d be like oh wow I love your Elric stuff.
HK: Seems like you were nicely published at that point. The paperbacks from that period look great, they look hip. It’s obvious that the culture this writing was coming out of was the same as the music and art
MM: Jimmy got it too, but Jimmy was totally tone deaf, and couldn’t tell one band from another. Me and Jimmy went to see Borges, we met him twice. Both times it was the same experience, deeply disappointing. All he wanted to talk about was ‘ah yes, Robert Louis Stevenson, tremendous writer, George Keith Chesterton, fantastic writer’ and you’re thinking no! no! it’s you! You’re better!
HK: A question about productivity. You’ve said famously that you could write 15k words a day, three days and a Hawkmoon novel was the result. A fifteen thousand word writing day, how’s that organized. Is that pre-planned?
MM: It’s all planned. I’ve been in bed for three days, during which I’ve had time to sketch out and think out the story. Then I spring out of bed and I’ve got a straight nine to five or nine to six or seven regime, which frequently included taking the kids to school, then sitting down and just going through, hour break for lunch, then carrying on. The thing that the computer’s done is ruin it for people like me, all the old hacks, they went by the page – if you got four pages that was a thousand words, but you learnt to leave a space – you started the chapter half way down the page, ended it half way up the page, you learnt those tricks. There was a whole system. Also formula. You have to have a formula that’s absolutely strong enough to hold anything. That’s where people like me are very fortunate. I have a kind of innate sense of structure, which also makes me a good mimic.
HK: Like the Dr Who novel you’re working on?
MM: Well, that’s giving me trouble. It’s due June fifteenth. But it’s their own fault. They didn’t pay me anything until about April. I can’t work without a contract.
HK: Ann old habit?
MM: It is. I did it. I’m not sure I could do it now. I did it with every literary novel I wrote. There are certain basic constructions which I know how to do. I know what needs to go into that construct to make a good, fast-moving story.
HK: In a way, the Eternal Champion, all the refractions suggest that there is one universal structuring principle behind all these things – rather than there being a big philosophical conceit, was this more of a practical thing.
MM: Absolutely. And you’re talking about the writer. When you write that fast the book really does start to write you, you get high on the book. It’s partly lack of sleep, it’s partly the sugar, in my case, I only had strong black coffee because it kept me going, a lot of the problems I’ve got now are to do with that. I thought it was the cocaine, but the doctor insisted it wasn’t. I thought the cocaine would be much more romantic but he said no, the sugar – fatty. My theory is, I understand how people like Mozart worked, how they could work, how enfants terribles can do this stuff, because something in you just tells you how to do it, it’s like knowing math, it’s very close to mathematics. When I wrote a computer game a few years ago, it was in some ways the easiest job I’d ever had as a job for hire, because it’s all structure, and the guys know it has to be. If you’re talking to a Hollywood person it’s all over the place, and it falls apart on day two, they never know what they’re doing and you keep saying you’ll have to change this if you do this and they say oh don’t worry about it, but computer game people are just perfect because they know the purpose of every element.
HK: You’re kind of a narrative savant
MM: I thought everybody could do it. It turned out not everybody could do it. Can you?