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King of the City - Michael Moorcock
Member Name: Jumbo Scotch Egg
King of the City - Michael Moorcock
Date: 13/05/01, updated on 13/05/01 (81 review reads)
Advantages: A thoroughly fantastic piece of writing
Disadvantages: Tempo sags from time to time - a minor complaint though
King of the City marks the culmination of Michael Moorcock’s long and varied career, the book he was born to write. He is best known as a highly successful sci-fi writer, with a career stretching back 35 years. He also developed a reputation as counter-culture figure during the 60s, dabbling in whatever suited him, with spells with bands such as Blue Oyster Cult and Hawkwind with whom he apparently acquired a platinum disc. Undefined demons required him to cut his ties and move a very long way from his old haunts, and he now lives in somewhat mysterious exile in Bastrop, Texas. He also suffers from what debilitating but unspecified ill-health.
His first venture into London writing was Mother London which, since its late 80s publication, has built up a large word-of-mouth following and was finally reprinted in 2000. King of the City is described by its publisher as a sequel, but this is hardly the case. Both books have London as the central character, but their styles
couldn’t be more contrasting. Mother London was a quietly powerful novel about the experiences of four characters during the Blitz and the 40 years that followed. It was characterised by stories of minor miracles and human achievement in a changing city. King of the City, apart from using completely different characters, is driven by a strong narrator with a very distinctive voice. It is an extremely dense book packed full of events, character sketches, caricature, and a blend of fact and fiction. It also visits diverse locations from the Western Sahara to the Caymans via a desolate Sussex seaside town. However, London remains at the centre.
Den Dover grows up in Brookgate, a mythical inner London neighbourhood, very close to his clever, beautiful half-sister Rose. They despise their cousin, John Begg, who is a fraud even at this early stage. However, he becomes the ageing Lord Barbican’s heir, and transforms himself into John Barbican Begg, the richest and most powerful man on the planet and enemy of all that Dover holds dear. This is extent of the basic plot, but within this framework there are any number of storylines and episodes: Rose’s rise to power and her falling out with Dover; Dover’s marriages to (I think) five women; his time as a successful post-punk guitarist; his war reporting; the story of Rose’s sick daughter; Dover’s strange relationship with Barbican Begg; his self-impose exile to deepest Sussex; the Deep Fix reunion concert on Tower Bridge; and so on.
Moorcock’s use of language is superb. The structure of the book is at times unwieldy, and he does not always succeed in keeping up the tempo. However, he uses short staccato sentences to great effect. One particular passage, describing the political history of Rwanda, is a masterpiece of conciseness. He provide more information in the space of 100 words than is found in most full-length features. He also creates a highly dis
tinctive voice in Dover, using a combination of real and appropriated slang (that "pards" in the first sentence). The opening sentences of his chapters are great: "Speedballing was always my weakness." "Sex with twins is probably the most astonishing kind I’ve ever had". Dover is cocky and assured, and he can talk the back leg off a donkey. He also understands the power of language: "Nothing is as important as talk. It’s our city’s lifeblood". This is the one thing that cannot be appropriated by outsiders, that can never be pinned down as it is in a constant state of flux.
Moorcock’s greatest achievement in King of the City is his portrait of the city and its people. When I started to read it I was surprised to find that his London is a partly imagined place. Brookgate, the tiny area the heart of events, is entirely fictional. It seemed to me that this rather missed the point of writing about London. However he pulls it off brilliantly, combining reality with fiction, semi-fiction, composites and places that are so convincing that they really should exist. Brookgate itself is sometimes to be found just off High Holborn near Leather Lane, sometimes on the Docklands Light Railway and once apparently south of the river. In fact, he uses it as an archetype which represents a spirit of place, elements of which can be found in almost any part of the city. The book is full of great set pieces in a greasy spoon on "Snatcher’s Island" near Drury Lane; in a long vanished London department store; at a bare-knuckle fight in a cockney pub off the Old Kent Road; in Les Hivers, a canalside area of Paris; in Sporting Club Square in West Kensington; and notably in a windmill on Tufnell Hill, a symbol of the last stand against redevelopment. Here, Dover’s friend Tubby throws bizarre parties at which he revived the local tradition "burning the Jack", a huge wicker fi
gure. During scenes such as these Moorcock has great fun with the cast list. One of Tubby’s parties is attended by a combination of fictional characters, merciless parodies such as Felix Martin (Martin Amis) and Jillian Burnes (a transsexual Julian Barnes), and spurious real life characters such as Iris Murdoch, Simon Russell Beale and Andrea Dworkin. I particularly enjoyed the bit part played by Lemmy from Motorhead.
The main theme of King of the City is political. Barbican Begg is a monstrous Thatcherite media baron/asset stripper/developer character. Moorcock looks on aghast as London, having survived spiritually unchanged for centuries, is pulled apart during the 80s in a capitalist frenzy. Barbican Begg justifies himself with his monetarist economic logic, and he knows that anything and anyone can be bought. So, Brookgate is pulled down and replaced with faux-heritage developments, too badly built to last. The city exists only as parcels of real estate, prime development land measured in units of profit and loss. In the same short timespan that London survived the Blitz, London is pulled apart and destroyed. Dover, despite his belief in himself as hard-bitten and streetwise, is in the end too much of an idealist for this climate. He fails to stop Barbican Begg because he cannot understand that everyone, without exception, has their price. Moorcock is bitter about the blatant profiteering encouraged by Thatcher and her aversion to "society", and we begin to understand what might have driven him into exile. Although he eventually provides a happy ending, in real life Moorcock shows no signs of returning from Texas.
In short, this book is very good indeed. A novel with plenty to say by someone who knows how to say it. Burn the Booker shortlist, and buy this instead - you won’t be disappointed!