I have been a fan of Alan Wall’s since I came across his first novel Bless The Thief in a South Coast Oxfam shop in 1998 and read it pretty much on the spot. I then read his second novel The Lightning Cage when I received a copy from a friend and tried to review it for a well known weekly who bizarrely told me the book didn’t exist. After that I acquired but almost immediately lost his collection of short stories Richard Dadd in Bedlam (which I’ve since read and thoroughly recommend) and read his The School of Night as soon as I got the chance. I missed his second novel Silent Conversations and have still to read it. His verse narrative Jacob (1993) was published by a small press who also published his novella Curved Light (1994) and two volumes of verse, Chronicle (1995) and Lenses (1997). I have also yet to read Curved Light, Jacob or Chronicle, though I find Lenses a substantial collection, very much to my taste. Not having had much chance to return to London in recent years I have failed to browse an extensive stock of modern fiction published in England, so my reading has been patchy, dependent more on what people recommend or publishers send. I have not read all his poetry or his essays, which have appeared in various literary journals. Happily Andy Hedgecock, the critic and writer on cultural matters, was so struck by Wall’s latest novel China that he sent it to me on disc. I then reread the book in proof and concluded that Wall was no longer a promising novelist. He had definitely arrived! China is a mature work, one of the best and most assured novels I have read in recent years and for me marks a return to a higher value than I’d become used to in what’s usually called ‘mainstream’ fiction. His fascination for the visionary aspects of the world is intense but he shares something in common with the writers I most admire from the immediate post-war period, including Iris Murdoch and Angus Wilson, as well as Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor, Henry Green and the best of Aldous Huxley, all of whom I regard as rather more important than Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, whom I also enjoy. I ought also to include my friends Iain Sinclair and J.G. Ballard in that list. Wall’s prose has become steadily more assured and his accuracy of touch and observation astonishing. Like Wilson a relatively late starter as a novelist, he has a breadth of range which marks him from most of his contemporaries, a fascination with what you might call visionary scientific themes, with perceptions of sanity and a post-modern sophistication regarding the nature of contemporary capitalist society. If his technique seemed a little limited in his earlier novels (echoing something of Ackroyd’s literary mysteries or Nye’s novels which move back and forth between one period of time and another) he has now broadened that method admirably and in China has given us a formidable social novel which has all the virtues of a modern novel while confronting important post-modern issues. His characters are drawn from life, as are his backgrounds. They are emblematic without ever being caricatures and remain recognisable with no danger of becoming stereotypical. It’s rare for me to want to interview a writer and apart from a political interview with Andrea Dworkin I haven’t done so in print, as far as I recall, since the early 1980s when I was asked to interview Angus Wilson for the Radio Times on the advent of his The Old Men at the Zoo serialised on BBC TV. In that case I was, as it turned out, talking to an old friend close to the end of his career, in Alan Wall’s case I am interviewing a new friend, whom I have never met face to face, at a relatively early point in his career, though, after five novels, a volume of short stories and two volumes of poems, not to mention a novella, essays and reviews in such periodicals as The London Magazine and The Spectator, it hardly seems fair to describe him in those terms. It would probably be fairer to say that I am interviewing him at a point where he is just beginning to be recognised by a wider public for the extraordinarily talented writer he is. China has received excellent reviews in most of the prominent English national journals and was highly praised by, among others, M. John Harrison in The Guardian and by Andrew Hedgecock who also interviewed him in The Third Alternative in May 2003.
“Richard Dadd in Bedlam,” republished here, is a relatively slight story by Wall, but one which seemed a good introduction to his work. I began my conversation by asking him about his new novel, White Ivory, currently in progress.
Alan Wall: White Ivory is dynastic. I suppose China was too, but in a skeletal manner. Here I’m intrigued by the inheritance of empire, and the white ivory of Africa seemed a suitably dangerous and ambiguous emblem of it. There’s a curiosity about ivory products which, if you did believe in the decline of the west, might give more ammunition for your convictions: the things we make grow ever more trivial as the clock ticks off the hours. The more of them we can make with the aid of machines, and the greater the profit accruing to such mass production, the less worth keeping is the result of our labours.
Look at the Romanesque ivories in the V and A. They really are astonishingly beautiful. Reliquaries, gospel covers, crucifixes, portraits of the saints: every item is pitched at a level of spiritual intensity, and fashioned by a craft that is only possible through spiritual intensity, which we now find remarkable, though to some extent it must then have been routine, in the way that an icon painter’s work is routine; in the way that daily meditation for a Buddhist monk is routine. Interesting how banal we have made the word routine. Routine merely implies the necessity of repetition. To be always craving the new is to be condemned to triviality. You can’t learn anything, in the arts or out of them, without routine.
Even the ivories made for pure leisure and enjoyment, like the Lewis chessmen, are beautiful.
Move on six or seven hundred years and check what’s on the ivory counters: billiard balls, shaving brushes, some expensive women’s combs. Elaborate bindings for expensive notebooks to be filled with expensive trivialities in exquisite copperplate script. Can’t help but make you ponder for a while on the gifts of time.
And so this family inheritance, the source of the family wealth, such as it is, runs through the book, makes people look back on so many dead elephants, so many hours of labour, so many black, sweating faces so many thousands of miles away. The relatively worthless products of mass-produced Fenshawe Ivory were used to buy some beautiful early ivories, in that classic pattern of using the wealth of industry to finance the arts. We buy the past, not noticing its indictment of the present. There’s surely a parallel here with any achievement in the arts: you can buy it with your life, but you can’t rent it by the day.
A late scion of this family, William, is now a philosophy lecturer. I suppose I couldn’t help but think of that extraordinary essay by Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, where he more or less says that when we can’t make history any more, we philosophize about it instead. When the intensity of action burns out, we’re left with the intensity of thought to fill the vacuum.
There’s a shadow behind this book of course: Heart of Darkness. I’m bringing the theme of that book back home to the place the original book starts out from. England. Finance. Control. Wealth and guilt, two themes that obsess me.
Michael Moorcock: I must say I can’t wait. In fact I’m almost inclined to shout ‘Stop wasting your time on this conversation and get back there!’ There aren’t many authors, these days, whose books I ‘eagerly await’ but I must say I’m coming to look forward to yours with more and more eagerness. Let’s talk a bit about your background. You graduated with an MA in English from Oxford. You’ve taught and lectured. You’ve published quite a lot of non-fiction, most of which looks interesting to a reader of modern visionary fiction, but you seem to have come to long fiction fairly late. Any particular reason for this?
Alan Wall: Actually I graduated BA in English from Oxford, then seven years later they automatically gave me my MA in the Oxford manner. This procedure is based on the assumption that if you have a sufficiently respectable first degree from Oxbridge, it’s worth an MA from anywhere else. There’s an intriguing set of assumptions there, but I’d better not get into those now, or we’ll never get out of here alive.
I always wanted to write, but I honestly didn’t feel I had anything to write about. I needed to go off and do some odd, unexpected and downright disreputable things before I reckoned I had a large enough vocabulary of experiences to get myself started. In the meantime I’d been studying how other people arranged words on a page, and I sometimes wrote about some of the people whose arrangements I most admired. The one thing I was determined not to do was to write a novel about an English teacher writing a novel about an English teacher writing a novel… Actually for most of the last quarter-century I’ve been out of academia, even though I’ve recently crept back in, and am finding my return very rewarding.
So I wrote some criticism, some poetry and some songs. Songs are something we both have in common and I feel more and more that they play a crucial part in modern life. I was trying to get at this in China. The only things we most of us learn, in the way people once learnt prayers or passages from scripture, in the way an icon painter learns the liturgy of his trade, are songs. And it’s only by learning something in that way that it becomes engraved inside us, written into our spirits. This makes it enormously important, I believe, important and potent. So much of what we ‘learn’ we learn nothing from — there’s no meaningful trace. It’s water through a drain. But the music stays inside us. Few people could recite a poem these days, but most could sing you a song. Sadly, it might be atrocious, one of those new-fangled efforts written on machines to be performed on machines. The humans involved are merely a pollutant and a form of promotional gimmick.
So I wrote songs, as my preparation for the life that lay ahead. And as you know, I’m still waiting for the first cheque to come through the letterbox.
James MacMillan has spoken recently in The Guardian about a new musical illiteracy — no, this is going to take us too far in another direction. Though it’s a subject that greatly intrigues me.
Let me just say that I believe the old blues songs or the great songs of Dylan are spiritual achievements, and I suppose they might well be the spiritual achievements many of us end up living by. You’ll remember the last verse of that great old song “Moonshiner”:
Give me food when I’m hungry
And a drink when I’m dry
A dollar if I’m hard up
And religion when I die.
Well, we can leave religion till we die, but not spirituality. Without that we try to talk to saints and find ourselves surrounded instead by the atoms of billiard balls, the ersatz art of the shaving brush. Was that worth an elephant’s death?
Michael Moorcock: Maybe we should ask an elephant? I’m fascinated by the way a living elephant inspects the bones of a dead one, clearly getting significant information from the process. Tom Disch and I were talking years ago and he said he’d always wanted to be a first rate intellectual, able to analyse the world and see it in a clear, new light. What had I always wanted to be Me? I answered. I’ve always wanted to be an elephant. So I look forward even more to the book…
Popular songs and their spirituality. Popular music as a form of prayer. Certainly as an expression of common rage against injustice. Dylan’s finest, known to millions. And Dylan’s still getting across to young audiences, if the last Dylan concert I went to a couple of weeks back is anything to go by — still a lot of teenagers ready to spend fifty bucks a pop to get in, listening with reverence and enthusiasm. Can Dylan and certain others represent some sort of model of art and commerce coming together via Mr Edison’s invention? Are certain performers the equivalents of old-fashioned charismatics? Successful tycoons and politicians dream of being guitar heroes. They secretly understand the real measure of acceptance by the world. If only they could be Joni Mitchell. Or even Public Enemy. Rock and roll music. Narrative country songs. The blues. Authentic experience restated in Elvis. The best of the Beatles. Serious anger. Songs of Innocence and Rage. Visionary songs. Songs of Love and Experience. Would you rather be a reasonably successful singer/songwriter? You’re certain proof that the novel isn’t dead but I think I’m asking you if you feel that the performing songwriter has more validity in today’s world?
Alan Wall: Yes, let’s ask the elephant.
One thing you can do with a guitar wrapped round your neck is perform that which you have written. There’s something tragic about the gap that appears between writing and getting the response — being a singer-songwriter heals the gap. It all happens at once. But I’m not a great one for public performance, even without the presence of those RTWs you and I have meditated on. I’m pretty solitary by nature, so novel-writing suits me in that respect.
But the great singer-songwriters have filled a gap other people can only dream of, I reckon. I’ve known people entirely ruined by Dylan, people who so wanted to be him they couldn’t ever become themselves. It was as though they were saying, if you couldn’t be him, what was the point of being anyone? I can understand it, though it seems a shame to so entirely miss his point, that it’s not he or she or them or it that you belong to.
Michael Moorcock: Commerce and Art? For me it always brings to mind an image of Holborn Viaduct, built to facilitate trade and public intercourse, supported by those cast-iron Victorian virtues, which passes over Farringdon Street. Farringdon Street then runs south to Ludgate Circus, a crossroads named for mythic King Lud, founder of London. One way to Fleet Street and the West End, with its theatres, galleries and museums, the houses of the wealthy, Buckingham Palace; the other eastward to St Paul’s and the City, Bank of England, the Stock Exchange (and brutal Barbican) and beyond that Tower Hamlets and the vertical homes of the poor. Then south again to the Thames, Blackfriars Bridge. The Elephant itself and Southwark, Shakespeare territory, a reproduction Elizabeth theatre replacing the Blitzed warehouses. Although you have now moved to a Welsh village, you lived in London for some time and most of your novels are set at least partially there. You share something with Ackroyd, Sinclair, Duffy. Your earlier books have tended to run parallel narratives, one in the present, another in the past. Do you look for parallels of today’s world in the past?
Alan Wall: Always liked Holborn Bridge. Something very comforting about the warmth of its red paint. That part of London is a bottomless quarry of memory and mischief.
Parallels. Nothing exists except in relation to something else. And nothing exists at all, in any meaningful sense, without its perception. Repetition and pattern give our lives meaning; novelty by itself is chaos. If we can’t find shared patterns between what we call the past and the present, then there can be no history and nothing can be redeemed. Remember Eliot in Four Quartets? ‘If all time is eternally present, All time is unredeemable.’ I think we want to make the past flare up, make it bright enough to catch a faint glimpse of recognition.
Michael Moorcock: Wealth and guilt. Arts and sciences. I lived through the Golden Sixties in Ladbroke Grove, a relatively guilt-free time of considerable wealth flowing through society, before the giant grab-back of the Thatcher and Reagan years. It was also a time of commercial expansion and of dynamic creativity. In common with many at that time, we at New Worlds were keen on unifying the arts and sciences. In the magazine and at parties and conferences, we brought painters, writers, poets, physicists, economists, psychologists and engineers together. We published engineer poets like Redgrove. Eduardo Paolozzi, the pop artist, was our Aeronautics Advisor. Ballard’s training was in medicine. Jones was a trained concert pianist. Our designer had done mathematics before dropping out of Cambridge. In my own writing I began to search for the roots of modern argument from 1870 on. We wanted, if you like, to produce a magazine for the renaissance person. But gradually I came to feel that many of those with whom I had shared this ambition were withdrawing. The same thing happened with the broader radical movement. The eighties and nineties became rather miserable years for me, in that I seemed to be speaking to fewer people. We entered a period of snobbery, of reaction, exclusivity. It became easier to narrow down, to exclude, to deride any idealism, to measure achievements only in terms of money. Now there are hints that our idealism is returning, perhaps more substantially. Yet the world has in other ways seemed to reach a fresh level of imperial ruthlessness. I’m wondering, Alan. Maybe we always get the best art at a time of ferocious commerce? In your earlier novels, such as The Lightning Cage, you described the melding of scientific curiosity and spirituality, of the 18th century’s enquiring intellectual zest and the divine madness of Blake. Imperial commerce? The birth of modern concerns? Did you find the eighties and nineties spiritually rather bleak? Do you notice any change? Better or worse?
Alan Wall: The eighties and nineties seemed to be characterised by a curious lack of recklessness amongst the young. The great creative squander of what had gone before might have sounded some sort of klaxon horn, and people ran for cover towards the bank. I was just making a living for much of the time myself, like so many other people. I didn’t get seriously going until the nineties. I did what I suppose people all too often do in times of great confusion: worked enough to provide myself with a living, such as it was; surrounded myself with the books I cared about; played the music I loved. I’m not particularly proud of it. It took the catastrophe of redundancy with a young family to provide for that kicked me finally into writing. So as so often in life the worst thing turned out to be the best thing. It always amazes me that certain people, like Dylan or you, just step straight out of the house and get on with their work for life, as though there’d never been any doubt about it. It took me at least forty years before I noticed I wasn’t someone else. Some RTWs have still been known to refer to me as Bob.
Michael Moorcock: The ticking of the Great Clock, the measurer and creator of time. Do you know Langdon Jones’s story, “The Great Clock”? I agree with you about spirituality and creativity. I also agree that novelty for its own sake isn’t worth having. That’s fashion, though, isn’t it? Spilling, as ever, into and out of the arts? I certainly agree with you about the value of repetition. Without repetition we don’t get music. Or anything else much. Replication offers validity. We all of course bewail the rafts of repeated generic fiction we see today (and have certainly always seen since the days of the artificial Romance), the vast amount of commercial music which all sounds the same, ideas constantly recycled in the press. We despair of a public which seems to demand only the familiar, to reject anything genuinely novel. Our commercial entertainers seek only to repeat exactly the same frisson they get from others and are well rewarded for their efforts. At best they produce methods of saying the same thing in a different way. It’s depressing but of course through repetition we all find comfort, fundamental solace, even spiritual enlightenment. An animal likes to know it can walk the same path to the waterhole every day and not get attacked. A baby loves repetition. You can’t do much better for one than sing the same little song to it every night. We all need that in some form, whether it is the same old story, the same old song, the same old symphony, the same old Mass. Sometimes we need to chant the old mantras, look at familiar pictures, find something new in favourite books, movies and records. What are your own familiar favourites?
Alan Wall: Don’t know the Langdon Jones story. The old and the new. Anything entirely new would be unintelligible, wouldn’t it? And yet repetition should represent a deepening. You never kiss anyone exactly the same way twice. I’ve never re-read any Shakespeare without feeling as though in some way I’m doing it for the first time, and in some way I am, because such a rich writing is always inexhaustible.
Painting: Degas, Rembrandt, Picasso.
Music: Beethoven, Dylan, Mississippi John Hurt, Arvo Pärt, Gillian Welch.
Literature: Shakespeare and most of the scripts designated sacred. The richness of all those traditions never ceases to astound me. I also love the greatest work of T.S. Eliot, though he’s under a cloud these days for his improprieties.
Michael Moorcock: I’m with you there. I tend to go back to Shakespeare, Dickens, Eliot. You might as well start with the best models, even if you fall short of them. Better than falling short of Martin Amis. In the classics there’s repetition which never lets you down. Always something new. That this fundamental need for repetition degenerates into bad generic art, received critical opinion, the lowest common denominators, should scarcely worry us, should it? Isn’t it how most of us grope our way past the terrors of mortality? The nearest my mother seemed to get to a sense of spirituality was when she went to the Chelsea Flower Show. She never needed the consolations of religion, even when she was dying. But flowers, pets and pretty scenery gladdened her soul. She didn’t ever seem to need more. Otherwise she was happy to pass her time with the television, watching her various serials. My guardian, a very spiritual man, who was also a shrewd businessman, tried to introduce her to more stimulating books, plays and music, but while she hated to disappoint him she simply wasn’t interested in art. Shouldn’t we respect that?
Alan Wall: I’m afraid I haven’t yet managed to grope my way past the terrors of mortality, but I’m delighted to hear you have, and as soon as we’ve finished here for the day, I trust you’ll be slipping me the nod.
I’m not telling anyone what to do, believe me. If your mum was at peace at the Chelsea Flower Show, good for her. I reckon the likes of you and me need negotiated torment to approach any form of peace. That’s the nature of our reality, no way round it. We have to cross the wasteland to get to the garden. If others don’t have that problem, I might even envy them, but I can’t share that world, so there’s no point lamenting it. Just hope one actually makes it to the garden, finally.
Michael Moorcock: I must admit I thought I’d confronted and bypassed those terrors in the introduction to a book I did thirty years ago, called Breakfast in the Ruins, where I confounded my readers by announcing my death at the front of the book. Since then I might have been living on borrowed time. However, as the future shrinks for me, passing sixty and getting health problems, I see I might have been fooling myself with nothing more than subtler strategies of avoidance. But that, too, is another subject.
For many years I lived off the Portobello Road. When I first lived there most of the stuff you saw for sale was, for what it was worth, original, or at least the manufactured artefacts of an earlier age. Gradually the dealers learned that what most customers really wanted was the familiar — that is, art or an antique which they recognised either as valuable or inspiring, something already approved — so the dealers began to reproduce it. I think I mentioned to you I had wondered for some time about doing a novel set behind the scenes of the business of manufacturing scrimshaw, Chippendale, Lalique or Dalton, art nouveau lamps, deco statuettes for those tourists who will buy them, value them, treat them as any renaissance patron might have treated the art he commissioned. Once these ersatz treasures are taken back to Atlanta or Oklahoma City and proudly, lovingly displayed, they become unique again. Do they take on something of the quality the original artist imbued them with? It’s a question you ask in China, I know, through that rather vulgar, good-hearted neighbour Jonty whom you seem to have a soft spot for. From what you say, it comes up again in White Ivory.
I long since gave up telling American friends that their valued discoveries were probably fakes, that the provenance offered was almost certainly a lie. They might be poor copies, or machine-made reproductions, but if the individual values the object, however many times you have seen it being made and remade, then the object is surely valuable? Context is surely important? We despair of the young. Their enthusiasm for things we believe are third-rate, all done before, yet wouldn’t we like to know their undiscriminating enthusiasm again, that sense of engagement, of revelation?
Is it really only novelty and uniqueness in art we’re searching for? Aren’t we also trying to reproduce those first experiences of life, of confirmation and revelation, just as some people need to fall in love over and over again to confirm their own existence? Or cling to the Latin liturgy? This certainly seems one of the questions China is asking. That’s what makes it the satisfyingly good book it is. Without moving away from common experience (mostly that of a group of contemporary, recogniseable South Londoners) you discuss such questions, including the function of the market place in the production or reproduction of art. You ask what price we pay for the comforts of art, for the solace of repetition. Or, at any rate, that’s what the book offers me as well as an engaging story! There is no sense that you despair of ordinary people in China. Almost all the characters, however they affect the others, are seen in what I’d call a sympathetic light. And that includes the vulgarian Jonty. Did you feel that general sympathy for them?
Alan Wall: I lived off the Portobello Road for years too — Denbigh Road. We must at times have been a matter of yards from each other. Curious. Parallel worlds again.
Well, given the number of meals I shared with Jonty during my hidden years, I’d have to have a bit of a soft spot for him, you know. I’d best say no more. It’s conceivable, though incredibly unlikely, that he might be looking in on us and, however amiable, he’ll still be up for a bit of litigation from time to time.
Yes I know what you mean about this remaking of something. I once had to show a young Swiss woman round (believe it or not) Portobello Road. This was part of my professional duties, even though it was a Saturday. Portobello seemed to represent some sort of Shangri-La for her, and I daresay it made a pleasant change from Berne. At least everything hadn’t been entirely cleaned. She finally found what she was after, after hours of darting in and out of the dark interiors of sundry vendors. Know what it was? A wood-framed mirror advertising Coca Cola. A copy, I suppose, of some homely product of the US from decades before. I shifted uneasily, and tried to point out to her that it wasn’t… well… authentic. She shrugged: she wasn’t shopping for authenticity. I was the one carrying that baggage around.
In China I think the crucial image for this problem culturally (since Jonty’s sleep is uninterrupted except for his nuptial engagements with Tessa) is Wynton Marsalis. Remember how the Breezer says that Miles Davis once said jazz had turned into a museum. Breezer adds that Marsalis is the curator. I can’t listen to him doing jazz, though I tried once. It’s an odd thing, spontaneity recaptured, because it isn’t spontaneous any more, however faultless the performance. The faultlessness of the recapturing destroys the spontaneity being recaptured.
But the icon painter is different, surely. And Arvo Pärt isn’t pastiche, but resurrection.
We both know there are no new stories, but how could we get to sleep (or pay the bills) without telling one of the old ones — with just the odd word rearranged. Tradition and the individual talent.
Michael Moorcock: Good point. I also liked your point about Marsalis in the book. Came across very well. But that’s a new problem of aesthetics isn’t it, since we became used to the idea of spontaneity in an age of improvisation, of performance music rather than performed music? The tensions in listening to jazz quite often are wondering how a musician is going to modulate from one key to another, to produce a resolution when it seems impossible to reach, to return to the theme. Have there been previous ages where individual musicians or groups of musicians came to symbolise our own spiritual and political convictions, where a singer who changes direction can be said to ‘betray’ their audience? Was this what bards and troubadours provided before universal literacy? When previously did we criticise an art for its lack of immediacy or connection with the politics of the day?
Alan Wall: Wordsworth and Coleridge were both attacked (savagely by Hazlitt) for having betrayed the revolutionary beliefs of their earlier lives and work. In the case of Wordsworth I think it was assumed that the great organic form of the earlier work had taken on a mechanical and premeditated shape in things like the Ecclesiastical Sonnets. In Coleridge’s case Byron obviously felt that the immediacy of the earlier work had come to protect itself in a baffle of abstruse philosophy: ‘Coleridge explained his metaphysics to the nation/I wish he would explain his explanation.’ In both cases I think there was a sense that what had been a spontaneous engagement with the time and its history had defaulted to a set-response in the form of social and religious conservatism.
So, nothing new there then. The age-old shift from left to right has been going for a while, and produces the same sense of outrage.
Beethoven’s the interesting one here — he does the denouncing. Withdrawing the dedication to Napoleon the minute the Corsican upstart dubs himself Emperor. That’s what I call class. Faeces in the chamberpot under the piano, and a sense that what he does is worth ten times any king’s daily labour. Some of them probably left their faeces about the place as well.
Michael Moorcock: Well, I wouldn’t call Beethoven a great improv performer, mind you. Or Wordsworth. I take your point about spontaneous involvement, though I don’t think this is the same as spontaneous performance. And there was no expectation of poetry that it should all be radical, the way we sort of expect good popular music to be nowadays. Still, the innovators no doubt have almost always become shadows of their former selves and establish a genre which then threatens to swamp what’s original to them. And Theo is, of course, a representative of more than just jazz. You’re one of the few modern poets I can think of who, in their novels, creates form out of content rather than working within an established, if personal, form. Quite a lot of the writers I admire actually seem to adapt their material to suit their style and structural methods. Ballard, Nye, Harrison, even Sinclair to some degree. You certainly haven’t done that in China. China has an organic feel. Its form emerges from its themes, its characters, its time and place. That’s not all that common, these days, in my experience.
Alan Wall: Well I’m glad you feel China found its own form. I always have so many obsessions going in my books — at least three in any one — that I never have the faintest notion how I’ll pull it all together when I start.
In China there was the sense of industrial decay and death linked to the Potteries; the notion of the troubadour without a function in Theo; the sense of financial trust betrayed through greed and incompetence with Digby; the notion of the difficulty of parenting in the modern world with both Digby and Daisy; and Howard’s critique of corporate capitalism from an anarchist angle, but using the new technology and the internet. Now anyone running a course on writing would tell you that’s too many themes. Someone reviewing one of my earlier books said there were three good novels here, and it was a pity Alan Wall hadn’t chosen one and written it. I fear I haven’t changed much, though I’m happy to say I’ve forgotten the name of that reviewer.
I’ve got such a low boredom threshold, I have to keep changing the subject. And yet it’s the same subject finally, isn’t it? That’s the hope anyway. The structure of the book is the scaffolding you put up so you can construct this weird edifice, and just hope it’s substantial enough for people to live in for a while.
Michael Moorcock: It’s the wealth of themes and ideas in your books which, of course, make you so much more satisfying than the average writer. It’s certainly what first attracted me to your work. But most critics, poor things, are only able to grasp one idea at a time and, of course, the novels which offer only that are often the most successful, these days. Science, society, art, industry, replication, the creation of wealth, the making of money… As I said earlier, almost all your books will touch on notions of science at some point, some of them more than others. You seem fascinated by the origins of modern scientific thought. I’m thinking especially of The Lightning Cage, which has just come out in the USA, where you describe the idea of treating lunatics with electricity by exposing them to lightning storms, rather as Viktor Frankenstein used lightning to bring life to his composite corpse. Why the fascination with early science? And, with reference to gravestones in Bless The Thief, why the fascination with stones. Is it a Yorkshire thing? Didn’t you climb for a bit?
Alan Wall: Actually, the critics have been pretty positive about China, to be fair, though a certain Roz Kaveney in Time Out needed to reach for the word bourgeois. You know a poor soul must be in dire straits when they’re reduced to fossicking about as far down in the lexicon as that.
I suppose I’m always trying to get to the bottom of things. Origin is the goal, said Karl Kraus. I’m trying to explain to myself how things came to be thus and thus. The continuities can be startling. It was thought that electricity might be curative in the eighteenth century, for those indisposed in mind or body. ECT — electro-convulsive therapy — was popular in this country certainly until the late sixties. Electricity versus madness. The other technique used — to get the bad spirits out of us — was trepanation. Corpses found in the house in London where Benjamin Franklin lodged for many years had been trepanned. We’ve been drilling holes in people’s heads for a very long time, as far back as the Bronze Age possibly, and we’ve been at it pretty recently too. Egas Moniz, the Portuguese neurologist who invented the technique of lobotomy, won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1949. Cut a hole, saw away. Watch as the evil spirits fly. How quiet you seem now, dear.
George Braque was trepanned, you know, after he received a serious head-wound in the Great War. Picasso said he could never talk to him properly afterwards — because by then he’d entered his mystical phase. Braque’s Art didn’t suffer: I think he became even greater. It’s part of the theme of that extraordinary film Pi.
I try to read books as I read gravestones. Imagining each word might have as much weight — when all’s said and done, the gravity of our lives is so forceful it will ultimately put us underground. There are the lovely lines in Bunting’s Brigflatts:
Words are too light
Take a chisel to write
One’s dream is to be a lapidary writer, however long the book. From lapis, stone, of course, the cutting of epigraphs. Words can be too flighty. We should all be given chisels and blocks. That would slow us up, although I’m already the slowest reader I know.
I did some climbing — but more falling. The main function of my few years of grappling with mountains was to assert the laws of gravity to even the most committed levitationist. I’m fascinated by climbers in the same way I’m fascinated by people who can play Die Hammerklavier. I actually started climbing to see if I could get rid of my fear of heights, which is chronic. In fact it just became worse, as it gradually dawned on me how bloody dangerous it really is up there.
Michael Moorcock: I’ll drink to that. Can you give us any idea when White Ivory will be finished and when the publisher is thinking of bringing it out? I know Andy Hedgecock thinks highly of your songs, which he’s had the opportunity to hear and I haven’t yet. Any plans for performances? Any other subjects stacking up for future examination?
Alan Wall: White Ivory has only just been started. I need to do lots of research yet before I even settle down to the serious slog. I’ve been greatly heartened by your comments on the little sections I sent you.
I finished the long novella/short novel Dealer, which I mailed you electronically, and which I’ve a feeling you haven’t read. That’s not a complaint — I’m astonished and very flattered indeed you’ve read as much of me as you have, and read it so attentively. Dealer’s length makes it problematical to publish alone, so it will have to sit there for the moment. Be perfect for periodical publication. Now I reckon what the contemporary literary world needs is Moorcock’s Weekly… it does need it, actually. I’ve been astonished in reading those copies of New Worlds how good they are, and how they filled a gap which has simply re-appeared. If there’s an intelligent philanthropist out there he should endow you for the purpose immediately. Looks like we’ve just missed John Paul Getty, sadly.
I’m waiting to hear if I’m to be awarded a research fellowship which would involve me writing a book over the next year about the biggest and smallest things in the universe, or rather their representations. We’d need a whole interview to talk about that one. If I get it, White Ivory will have to be set aside for a year while I do a lot of work in areas about which I know remarkably little. If I don’t get it, I’ll press on with White Ivory and my teaching at Warwick University. Would like to think the book might then come out in January 2005, which seems like a very long time away.
The music. Right. I’m sending you a tape this week, and you can finally judge for yourself. No plans for performances, to be honest, though if you can get yourself over to dear old blighty, as you occasionally promise, we’ll fix one up for you. As long as you join in. Tuxedos and bottlenecks will be optional.
Michael Moorcock: Thanks, Alan, I look forward to all of that! Including reading Dealer… And let’s hope China continues to do well and get you the readers who deserve you!
Alan Wall and Michael Moorcock were in conversation by email during the second week in May, 2003.
Copyright © 2003 by Michael Moorcock.