Mother London (by Mr Michael Moorcock) is, quite indisputably, a London novel. The narrative flits across time from the Blitz to the late 1980s in no particular order, and flits across the city in similar disarray.
Did that make sense? I’ll be honest, I’m pretty tired and I’m out tomorrow evening so I’m typing this entry before I’ve really had a chance to think about it. Booze required.
Ah. Yes, so, Mother London is a non-linear tale focusing on three Londoners. There’s the introverted writer, David Mummery. The long-comatose Mary Gasalee. The larger-than-life Josef Kiss. The three of them meet in a mental hospital, as it would appear that all three have the ability to hear the voices of the people of London through the ages.
However, this is not simply a love letter to the city – Moorcock uses the shifting time frame as a means to attack the political decisions that have affected London through the twentieth century. We see the Sixties counterculture in conflict with authority, Fifties immigration, Eighties Thatcherism. We visit Downing Street through successive regime changes. We see suburbs rise and fall. The picture one gets, as articulated by Kiss, is of a city poorly served by its nominal leaders, and in decline. Yet at the same time, the essential humanity of the main and supporting characters gives one hope for, perhaps, a brighter future.
The eccentric Josef Kiss was undoubtedly my favourite character. There’s something about that huge former-actor-turned-psychogeographer-and-writer that really struck a chord with me. Alan Moore even gives him a cameo in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier. Kiss, though quite mad, represents a kind of freedom that becomes increasingly unfashionable as the narrative comes closer to the present. He celebrates life and the city. He’s presented in stark contrast to his sister, a Thatcherite politician and conformist, the villain of the piece.
It’s slightly difficult to classify this book. I’ve seen it classed as “science fiction” and “fantasy,” but I’m not sure that you’d call it either. “Magic realism,” a term I loathe for its sheer snobbery (it saves Literary Authors from the shame of having written a fantasy book and critics the shame of praising one) probably comes closest to the mark.
There are few more evocative pictures of London in fiction. Moorcock’s city is simultaneously both fantastical and realistic, nostalgic and unsentimental, mundane and exciting. It’s a plea for help for a city in danger of being lost, but at the same time an assertion that we can take it and rise once more.
The other book I’d like to recommend to you good folks is a more conventional narrative, Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square. This is the blackest of black comedies, subtitled A Tale of Darkest Earl’s Court. The protagonist is George Harvey Bone, a somewhat hopeless but basically good-hearted fellow who is desperately in love with Netta Longford. Netta doesn’t return his affections – indeed, she displays open hostility on a number of occasions, but at the same time is happy to play on George’s emotions when she finds herself short of cash. And then, one day, something goes “Click!” in his head, and he realises he’s going to kill Netta.
George is a self-destructive individual, perfectly able to see Netta for the selfish and spiteful creature she is and yet unable to resist when she calls. He’s depressive, psychotic, heavy-drinking and unambitious – his dream, ultimately, is to move to Maidenhead and start a new life. Yet at the same time, one never quite loses sympathy for him. One never feels that he deserves his grim existence, his position on the edge of Netta’s social circle. Indeed, towards the end of the book he’s even afforded a glimpse of how life could be if he only pulled himself out of his rut. He’s a nice man, but a poor fool.
The (back then) dingy suburbs of West London are integral to the story. This is a London of smoky bars and tiny rooms in ramshackle boarding houses, a vision of the city in the late 1930s with, as we are reminded every so often, the inevitable threat of war looming over all. This is not the positive city of Moorcock, but a gloomy noir metropolis that cares no more for the sufferings of one man than one man would for an accidentally squashed fly. Hangover Square is a title that suits the setting – anyone who’s tried to navigate the city in the grip of a particularly oppressive hangover will know what I mean.
Long neglected, this is a classic of twentieth century literature that is once again starting to get the recognition it merits. An affecting novel – you’ll laugh and you’ll cry both at the same time. Then maybe you’ll get a drink in sympathy.
Click! Must… kill… actress…