Memories of Moorcock
MIKE CAREY ON MICHAEL MOORCOCK
In the 1970s, the decade in which I first attempted to grow up, books were expensive commodities. There was a thing back then called the Net Book Agreement, which forbade bookshops from offering any books at discounted rates or from attempting to secure discounts from publishers. The NBA was a Victorian invention, mostly benign in its effects in that it protected book publishers from the full frenzy of the marketplace (Amazon, I’m looking at you). But it did mean that books, for the teenaged me, were far from being pocket money commodities. I mostly relied on the public libraries of Walton, Liverpool, to keep my reading habit supplied.
At the bottom end of the market, though, there were a number of paperback imprints that were relatively affordable even by my standards. Pan. New English Library. Paladin. And Mayflower, who published Michael Moorcock.
I must have been about fifteen when I discovered Moorcock. The three books in the Swords trilogy were my gateway drug. For most readers it was Elric, but for me it was Corum Jhaelen Irsei, the Prince in the Scarlet Robe – an innocent turned by tragic circumstances into an avenger. It’s not that original a narrative framework, when you look at it. Lots of heroes before and since have turned to the sword after losing their families to brutal marauders. But the furniture here was mesmerising. Maimed by his enemies, Corum has his lost eye and hand replaced with the corresponding body parts belonging to gods who are dead (or at least missing in action). The hand of Kwll and the eye of Rhynn give him enormous powers but they don’t behave. They mostly get him into as much trouble as they get him out of, and then when their original owners turn up Corum is inducted into the eternal war between Law and Chaos.
So was I. And I was hooked. Oh jumping Jesus, was I hooked. I graduated from Corum to Hawkmoon, then Elric, then Erekose. I mainlined the Eternal Champion, in all his guises. Which is a fairly unremarkable story for British readers of my generation. What was maybe odd, though, by modern standards, is that bookshops didn’t figure in this narrative in any shape or form. I bought my books from newsagents.
In those days, situated in the quiet interim between the invention of the steam engine and the invention of the internet, newsagents had spinner racks. A spinner rack, if you’ve never seen one, is a free-standing wire frame with four (sometimes three or six, but usually four) sets of pockets into which items of a certain size and shape could be slotted and displayed vertically. The rack rotated on a central column, so you could look at one array then rotate to the next and so on. Sometimes you got into unseemly battles with people who were trying to rotate the rack the other way. The damn things should have had a back-lock on them, like turnstiles.
So the spinner racks were my hunting grounds. No two newsagents had the same stock. They had whatever random sampling of books had been dropped off by the delivery van that month. It was mostly genre fictions – crime, war stories, sci-fi and fantasy, romance (way too much romance) and every so often a western or a spy story. Some of them stayed in the racks long enough to bleach in the sunlight coming in through the shop window. And this being Liverpool in the 70s, with only nine cloudless days a year, you can imagine how long that took.
I loved those books, and I still love them. I also loved the thrill and the challenge of acquiring them. On Saturday mornings I’d walk down County Road for mile after mile, stopping at every newsagent’s to see if anything new had come in. And when I got to Aintree or Fazakerley I’d hop a bus back home, already stuck into one of my latest acquisitions. There are worse ways to build up a library.
Mike Moorcock is one of the strata of my childhood. That was why I welcomed the new Gollancz editions when they were first announced and why I’ve acquired each one as it was released (no spinner racks, some begging from Gollancz editors). Some stories, like some champions, never truly die.