FOR A NEW AGE:
‘THE WHISPERING SWARM’
Book Review of:
‘THE WHISPERING SWARM’
by MICHAEL MOORCOCK
(Gollancz 2015, Orion paperback 2016)
cover art by Patrick Knowles – 480pp – £9.99p
RETURN TO A LONDON
YOU HAVE NEVER SEEN BEFORE…
There’s a magically hidden London street called Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter mythos, which the tyro wizard visits by passing through ‘The Leaky Cauldron’ inn. There’s also a concealed quantum Trap Street in ‘Dr Who’, an alien refuge where the lovely Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) is temporarily killed. Moorcock’s Alsacia resembles neither. But, as Brian Aldiss perceptively observes, ‘when one is hard up for secret worlds, one can find them under the Earth, in a puddle, in an atom, up in the attic, down in the cellar, or in the left eyball: and all of these vantage points have been explored by hard-pressed fantasists’ (in ‘Billion Year Spree’, 1973).
This book is probably as close to the fractured Michael Moorcock autobiography as the avid reader is ever likely to get. It’s all here in dense lucid detail. His insider insights into the austerity post-war Welfare State years. A description of Fleet Street at its full power brought alive in taste and smell, so tactile it’s real. He brings the inside out. Those with a fleeting familiarity with Moorcock’s life-story will recognise references to his teenage fanzine ‘Burroughsiana’, graduating to him becoming Fleet Street’s youngest editor of Westworld’s ‘Tarzan Adventures’ comic.
But things get decidedly odder. After the young Moorcock is visited by Sam, a smart-ass wisecracking raven, he checks the carpet for bird-shit. And there’s the oaken gates to Alcasia itself, encountered when he ‘turned the corner into Whitefriars Street off Greystoke Place into Carmelite Inn Chambers’. Check your London A-Z. As this is a Michael Moorcock novel the automatic assumption must be that this fabulous harbour, where ‘time and space were truly skewed’, accesses another plane of the multiverse, and that Moorcock is writing himself into his own mythology as a further aspect of the Eternal Champion. ‘Kafka, indeed.’ He becomes Master Maur’s Cocke, in a place where ‘time goes backwards and forward’. He’s initially sceptical. Has he surreptitiously been dosed with LSD by the White Friar in Ludgate Hill’s ‘ABC Tearooms’? Or is the spliff he’s been toking responsible – or is it just a ‘psychotic episode’? Aldiss paternally advises him to lay off the wacky backy.
It all conspires. The Sanctuary lies within a maze of streets between Fleet Street and the Thames. The realm of Carmelite monks with pre-Christian roots and not only a pantheistic but pan-dimensional bent. He first encounters Friar Isidore while proofing ‘Tarzan Adventures’ pages at the typesetters. From there he’s drawn into a parallel reality where the comic-strips he’s been scripting come alive. An elision of real historical, and fictional. Dick Turpin, The Three Musketeers, Kit Carson.
More central is Meg/ Moll Midnight, both a Robin Hood highwaywoman with a social conscience – ‘holding up brass-and-steel electric double-decker trams’ who becomes his lover, and the subject of his profitable run of ‘historical’ text-tales for ‘Tiger’ and fiction-strips in ‘Lion’, as well as a ‘Thriller Picture Library’ edition titled ‘The Haunted Blade’. Was there ever such a theme character? I read ‘Lion’ at the time. I don’t recall her being there. Check out Moorcock’s own retinue of scripted characters in his other oblique foray into autobiography – ‘The War Amongst The Angels’ (1988, Orion 1996), and she’s not there either.
As ‘New Worlds’ begins its iconoclastic New Wave phase, fighting the censorial instincts of WH Smith, he’s also married, living in the burgeoning counter-culture milieu of what he’s elsewhere termed ‘Mother London’. As if his shared life with Molly in Alsacia is a metaphoric elaboration of extramarital complications. A coded infidelity. The separate-worlds confabulation that illicit lovers self-lie in mitigation and guilty justification. The narrative smoothly elides both of these parallel lives, Moorcock the hack-writer up-gearing into novels, married to Helena with two growing daughters, Sally and Kitty. And Moorcock standing sword-in-hand to defend the Alsacia from Roundhead incursions, shoulder-to-shoulder with Prince Rupert of the Rhine and his loyal dog Boye. In a London that time forget where the monks have a quantum Cosmolabe, and a Fish Chalice that might or might not be the Holy Grail. And his awareness of the irony of being a writer of fantasy, caught up in a fantasy only a no.15 Routemaster bus-ride away from Ladbroke Grove.
There’s a long detailed attempt launched by Prince Rupert to rescue King Charles I from the beheading block, which metamorphoses into spiriting the Yoda-like ancient Chief Rabbi Elias over the frozen Thames to safety in Amsterdam. Moorcock, it seems, has a ‘second sight’ talent for ‘stepping over dimensions where the Black Aether ran like a deadly tide.’ He utilises silver roads to a conjunction of worlds, nested one-inside-the-other, where he plays Tarot and agonises over the religious conundrums set up by the Alsacia’s impossibility. There’s a considerable amount of dubious pantheistic spirituality and rumination about the being or non-being of a supreme god. ‘Part of me was a sceptic – even a cynic, but part of me was also romantic and gullible.’ Who knew?
‘The Whispering Swarm’ of the title is a kind of tinnitus that attacks him whenever he attempts to leave Alsacia. While the novel, although a defining departure, remains very much part of the Moorcock continuum. Much of it would be incomprehensible to a browsing reader without at least a prior awareness of its protagonist’s real-life epic journeys. Yet its teasing conundrums bedazzle and intrigue those who already consider themselves devotees.