The Whispering Swarm (Excerpt)

Almost anyone who has read or written Science Fiction or fantasy has been inspired by the work of Michael Moorcock. His literary flair and grand sense of adventure have been evident since his controversial first novel Behold the Man, through the stories and novels featuring his most famous character, Elric of Melniboné, to his fantasy masterpiece, Gloriana, winner of both the Campbell Memorial and World Fantasy, awards for best novel. As editor of New Worlds magazine, Moorcock also helped launch the careers of many of his contemporaries, including Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick, and J. G. Ballard.

Tor Books now proudly presents Moorcock’s first independent novel in nine years, a tale both fantastical and autobiographical, a celebration of London and what it meant to be young there in the years after World War II. The Whispering Swarm is the first in a trilogy that will follow a young man named Michael as he simultaneously discovers himself and a secret realm hidden deep in the heart of London.



My Realities

Every day of my life, after all I have learned and the many dangers I have survived, I still reflect on the circumstances which drew me to that part of the City of London I know as ‘Alsacia’, which her inhabitants call ‘the Sanctuary’. I learned that magic is as dangerous as we are told it is and that romance can be more destructive than reality. Worse, I came to know and fear the fulfillment of my deepest desires.

I suppose I’m a pretty typical Londoner of my generation. Born at the beginning of the Second World War, in 1940, I was brought up in Brookgate between Grays Inn and Leather Lane. We never moved away, even when the whole city surrounded us in yelling flame. By the time I was born, my family worked chiefly at the lower end of the entertainment business. People had to go on making a living as best they could. And they wanted to be entertained. We were settled Roma intermarried with Jews, cockneys, Irish. Culturally, we were metropolitan Christians. We had barely heard of Alsacia, which was no more than a bit of local folklore. There was plenty of that in London.

Seeing Ghosts Professionally

From the age of eleven in 1951, I earned my own living, first in The Gallery, Oxford Street, then, after I left school at fifteen, as a journalist (mostly a stringer for the Evening Standard) and writer of fiction. As an early reader, I especially enjoyed P.G. Wodehouse, Edgar Rice Burroughs and George Bernard Shaw, and when I first began writing I habitually used my middle initial because I thought the best authors all had three names. I had been telling stories since I was four or five, mostly as little one-act plays. Adults said they were amazed at my imagination. I had the sense not to tell them that I could see ghosts as well. I knew I could impose images on the air and taught myself not to be frightened by them, that they were a phenomenon which could be explained. Occasionally, I glimpsed trails not much wider than a high wire, stretching off into shivering emerald and silver. I took it for granted that this was some occasional trick of the eye. It went away soon enough. As I grew older and read Jung I became even more convinced that what I saw wasn’t real. Not, at any rate, in any other shared reality. Jung had analysed perfectly rational people who believed they had travelled in flying saucers. I was a perfectly rational person and I didn’t believe in flying saucers or any of the other stuff Jung wrote about. It soon became second nature to check when I saw something odd and remember that only crazy people had visions.

My Mum and Show Business

My mother, who let people think she was a widow, seemed to understand. She loved me unreservedly but didn’t spoil me when I was growing up. She was the first to understand what my ‘visions’ really were and try, with her friend Mr Ackermann’s help, to channel that imagination. She ran a tent show in Brookgate Market, where it widens, near the church, putting on melodramas like Sweeney Todd or Rookwood to audiences of the elderly and lonely. ‘And the downright creepy,’ she’d laugh. But it kept a few old actors in work. She was a kind-hearted if eccentric woman whose own life, in the telling, was a bit of a melodrama. When I was eight or nine my friends and I grew bored during the school holidays so she let us perform a couple of my pieces on slow afternoons. To the applause of an audience mostly made up of other market traders, Red Swords of Mars starred me as the hero, my friend Keith Rivers as the villain and a bunch of little girls we’d recruited in all other parts. It ended with everybody dying, including the hero and heroine. My first successful stab at pulp SF, with the accent on the stab! Mum had encouraged me to channel an overactive imagination into a useful craft. But Mum’s shows weren’t to last. Public taste changed, so she switched to running mostly short silent film comedies and cartoons until TV got into its stride. Then it was over.

Mum’s brother, Uncle Fred, who lived upstairs next to my room, owned The Gallery. This was long before Centre Point was built. The place was bang next door to Tottenham Court Road tube station, round the corner from Charing Cross Road and opposite the Lyon’s Corner House where a ‘gypsy’ orchestra still performed for lunch, tea and supper. They played selections from Maid of the Mountains, The Desert Song and The Bandit King, as well as In a Monastery Garden and In a Persian Market. Cheap romantic music to go with cheap romantic adventure books and films! My mum used to say I was born out of my time. She loved taking me to the revived silent classics at the National Film Theatre and the Dominion.

My Mum’s Sense of Drama

In order to pay for the extra archery and fencing lessons my friend Keith and I took at Brookgate Institute, I worked for Uncle Fred after school and at weekends. I gave change or cashed up the slots. Our family had survived the Blitz but Uncle Fred got a gammy leg at Dunkirk. My dad, a radio operator on Lancaster bombers, was shot down over France in 1943 and hidden by a French family for the duration. He became so comfortable that he stayed on there after the war, with the daughter of the house. My mother said she hadn’t minded much—she wasn’t cut out for marriage. She had me and the business, which, she said, was actually all she wanted from the bargain. I’ve never known how much of that was really true but I’m pretty sure I benefited by his absence, and it meant I spent my holidays with Dad in Toulon and Paris when most of my contemporaries were lucky to have a few days at Butlin’s every year. I had to tell strangers that I was visiting a family friend. Our immediate family knew the truth about Dad leaving her, but my mum, though sweet-natured, was an habitual fantast. To hear her tell it, she’d travelled all over the world. Actually, she’d hardly been out of Brookgate. She went abroad once, on a day trip to Boulogne, and didn’t like it. All foreign food, she would proclaim afterwards, was greasy, fantastic and inedible.

They used to say that Mum would climb a tree to tell a lie rather than stay on the ground to tell the truth. Nobody believed most of her stories. Only Uncle Fred and Mr Ackermann, a local tailor who spent quite a lot of time in our front room, visiting, continued to be sympathetic and supportive of her. Mr Ackermann had lived in Czechoslovakia before the war. A tall, slender man with pale, ascetic features, he dressed like a prewar dandy. His voice was very soft, his face gentle, with long jowls and large brown eyes that gave him the appearance of droll melancholy. He was very well educated. He had been a scientist doing something with radium but he needed fresh qualifications in England, where they were suspicious of him as an ‘alien’. He eventually took over his cousin’s thriving bespoke tailoring business at the Theobald’s Road end of Brookgate Market. He was a kind, rather introspective man, who also gave me books to read. Years later I came across his rather frustrated love letters to my mum. I wasn’t shocked. I’d known he loved her and I think, by association, me. He had left all his family behind. Few had survived. He was the only man I ever told about my ‘ghosts’. He was sympathetic. ‘When they begin to tell their stories, that’s when you should be worried.’ He smiled.

London Seasons

Keith and I got bored with the archery but we kept up our fencing, particularly after seeing The Prisoner of Zenda at the Rialto, Clerkenwell. I broke my mum’s favourite chair trying the trick James Mason played on Stewart Granger and Keith wasn’t allowed to see me for a week. Soon after that his mum and dad moved the family out to Epping. They said our neighbourhood was getting too rough. I felt very sorry for Keith, being so far from the centre of things. He wasn’t even living in a suburb of London. He was in the country!

To this day I still love London. There’s nowhere else worth living, even knowing what I know. Holborn Viaduct, that monument to art, science and industry, connecting the West End to The City, spans what used to be the Fleet River, now Farringdon Road, from Brookgate to Smithfield. I liked to stand on the viaduct, looking towards the Thames, inhaling health-preserving fumes from the traffic below. There was Blackfriars Bridge and the rich waters of the river, marbled by rainbow oil, poisonous and invigorating, buzzing like speed. What immune systems that environment gave us! It was an energy shield out of a science fiction story. The city lived through all attacks and so did we. Our bit of it—almost the eye of the storm—was scarcely touched. I grew up knowing I would survive. We all knew it.


I think the Blitz only killed twelve people in Brookgate. Thirteen at most. That’s luck. And London’s still lucky for me. Its familiarity gives me a feeling of security. Repetition is important, too, so when I go through Brooks Passage at lunchtime, Ron the escapologist and his dwarf wife are always there, drumming up trade from the office workers. Gamages decorated their display windows every Christmas. Tinsel and coloured glass and cotton-wool snow. They had a Santa inside. So did Ellisdon’s, the big joke emporium on the corner where little drawers of practical jokes stretched from floor to ceiling: False noses (sm.); nail thru thumb. Blackface soap, bad doggy (lge), black eye, edible goldfish. Endless entertainment for generations. We went there for dress-up clothes, too. For under a pound they would rig you out as a highwayman, a princess, a pirate, a cowboy or a nurse. Both big stores are gone now.

Few children could have enjoyed growing up quite as much as I did. I lived more or less on the cusp of East and West London, where ‘Town’ ended and The City began. Everything was in walking distance—cinemas, theatres, restaurants, shops, museums, art galleries, antique places. Pretty much everything you might ever need. And behind the rebuilt main streets there were the endless ruins.

In the ’50s London was still characteristically navigated by bomb sites, rather than her midden heaps and church steeples. Almost every little red-brick street had at least one gap in it from some sort of bomb. In the east, people had trodden paths between shoulder-high stretches of rubble. Our hedges were broken brick, stone and burst concrete out of which shot branches of rusted steel rods, vibrating like fresh shoots.

The Docks

The South Bank of the river was even more of a wasteland, with hardly a warehouse standing. It didn’t matter. Better roads began to bring goods to the nearest train stations or even to the growing airports. But the Pool of London was still packed with ships, wharf upon endless wharf. You had to take trains between so many docks. For one summer during the school holidays I’d worked for Flexhill Shipping Company delivering bills of lading. But the commercial, trading heart of the city was already beating slower, anticipating the death of the trades which had created it.

Piles of blackened and soil-smeared remains, blazing with purple fireweed, lay between Billingsgate and the Royal Mint, between the Bank and the Monument, Katharine Dock and Smithfield, everywhere Bow Bells pealed. As if God in his mercy had left us at least a tourist trade. They showed clearly how the city had been designed before Charles Dickens’s time. Much of it was seventeenth century, from the Glorious Revolution. If this had happened forty years later they would not have rebuilt it. They would have preserved it as a theme park. Much more profitable. Ye Olde London Towne World. Wrenland. Hawksmooriana. Only the dead worked in London-land.

The Press

There was enough work for everyone. The back pages of the papers were thick with job ads. All the little twittens and lanes around Fleet Street yelled and clattered with the sound of linotypes and printing machines. They sweated ink and pissed hot air, stank of oil, sweat, exhaust fumes and beer. So many had survived, working through the war, the Blitz and the V-weapons.

There was hardly a basement without a roaring rotary press thumping out multiple editions of national and weekly newspapers, linotypers whirring and rattling away. The entire area ran on electricity and alcohol and was dedicated to the printed page, turning fact into fiction for the magazines and fiction into fact for the newspapers. Interpretation and prejudice; sensation and sobriety; a quarter filled with services for publishers and printers, for block makers, photographic developers, typographers.

Equipped with loudspeaker horns to announce their arrival, newspaper vans ripped through already lively streets or waited with chomping engines for the latest editions to come off the presses before hurtling away to train stations and distributors. Men in crumpled, grey three-piece suits and trilby hats stumbled straight from offices to pubs and chop shops, tearooms, self-service cafés and automats and back again. Swapping gossip. Putting a bit on a horse. Scouting for a job. Boys ran up and down the streets carrying satchels and bundles or rode their big sit-up-and-beg delivery bikes through the traffic, whistling at the office girls, shouting insults one to the other—noise which became elements of its own symphony as certainly as Messiaen’s birds were elements of his. It only stopped on Saturday afternoon and Sunday. By Sunday night it had started up again.

If cynics sitting at bars foretold the death of print, when radio and TV would deliver all the news on three or even four channels, their environment contradicted them. Fleet Street and her surroundings were dedicated to the printed word, to thousands of morning and evening daily newspapers published almost hourly; Sundays; weeklies; fortnightlies; monthlies; quarterlies; magazines; comics; pamphlets; textbooks; paperbacks on newsprint, pulp paper, art paper or vellum, printed by letterpress; offset; photogravure; fuzzy black and white; sepia; vibrant colour. Each publication had its individual scent and texture. I can recall every sound and smell, every glimpse and panorama of a world now utterly vanished.

Memory and Image

For me, linear time continues to be measured by the circulating seasons in St Giles’s churchyard, where big chestnut trees drop bright, bronze leaves on gravestones in autumn or stand stark against the grey stone in winter and swell with blossoms in spring and summer. London is the smell of tar from hot streets. Licorice. Melting vanilla. Sudden quiet falling over Clerkenwell Green on early closing day. The reflecting rain on pavements, the wet-dog smell of piled snow, veined with mud and topped with dust in St James’s, Piccadilly. Blooming spring in Hyde Park, the early daffodils, the scent of summer roses, sight of glinting conkers in autumn. These sights and smells carry me on uncontrollable moods, deep into vivid memory. That smell is a powerful drug, able to drag me back to specific times and places. Too painful. Not fair, that pain. I was a child of the innocent ’60s and ’70s, we thought we’d abolished misery, when it seemed so little effort was needed to build utopia.

When altruism wasn’t silly. Or didn’t cost you your life.

London after the War

We had done so much for ourselves since the war. In Britain hunger had been abolished and health care was available to all. Manpower was what we needed. Unemployment was a thing of the past. Poverty was a lifestyle choice and everyone could have a free university education. Best-fed, healthiest, best-educated generation anyone ever knew! We were proud of that. The postwar Labour Party was the builder of our courageous new world. Labour leaders had their eyes on a visionary future. I always had some elder to give me tips, tell me books to read, explain how to make a radio or shoot a gun. The British Museum was ten minutes away. I spent hours there, looking at the icons of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Strange, beast-headed deities for whom I felt an odd affection. There were film theatres of all kinds. Art galleries from Whitechapel to the Tate. Every day I was introduced to a new book, a painting, a film. At sixteen I was reading Huxley, Camus, Beckett, Firbank. The International Film Theatre showed Kurosawa, Bergman, Resnais, Truffaut and Cocteau as well as the likes of Fritz Lang, René Clair and Max Ophüls. And then there was Brecht, Weill, The Threepeny Opera. Lotte Lenya live on stage at the Royal Court. Ionesco absurdist plays a short walk from home. Camus’s Caligula at the Phoenix, Charing Cross Road. Merce Cunningham or the Royal Ballet at Sadler’s Wells, just down the road from where we lived. There was nowhere better to be in the world than London. Society’s last injustices were being taken care of. Slowly, not always graciously, we were giving up the Empire. Abortionand homosexual-law reform were on their way. In my romantic imagining London was the centre of the cause of the White Lords of Law and I was at the centre of London. It was so good to be a Londoner in those days as we came bouncing up out of the damp, dull decade of the austerity ’50s, when we all wore grey and were too cool to smile at the camera. And we had the reality of the Blitz, our defeat of Hitler, only recently behind us. The Gallery had remained open all through the war.

The Gallery

Long and narrow, marinated in the fumes of tobacco and gunpowder, stinking of sweat and damp, t he Oxford Street Penny Arcade and Shooting Gallery was an old-fashioned game emporium with a selection of dowdy slot machines and noisy pinballs whose nicotine-stained chrome and gaudy lights promised a bit more than they delivered, and a couple of cranes in glass boxes where you operated a grab to try to pick up a toy, all bundled in there bright as licorice allsorts. We had a Mystic Mary fortune-telling machine, whose paint was faded by the daily sun, a couple of ‘dioramas’ where you paid a penny to turn a handle and make a few creaky dolls go through their spasmodic imitations of life against some forgotten or unrecognizable historical drama browned by cigarette smoke on cracked linoleum.

Auntie Ethel and the Cards

For a while Mum’s sickly eldest sister, Auntie Ethel, gave tarot readings in a curtained-off corner of The Gallery. She believed in what she did. ‘The trick is to put yourself in touch mentally with the person you’re reading for,’ she told me. ‘It’s something you do with your mind. Sort of telepathy. Empathy, really. It’s only guessing, Mike, but I’d swear you’re in touch with something. You tune them in. It’s the way they sit or talk. You can either read them or you can’t.’ I got the hang of it. The readings would sometimes exhaust her. Shortly before she stopped she let me dress up in a bit of a costume with a veil and do a couple of readings on my own. People were impressed and grateful. I got a strange feeling off it. Then Auntie Ethel disappeared. Uncle Fred said she had serious cancer and didn’t want anyone to see her. I think she died soon afterwards.

The Gallery

The shooting gallery itself was in semidarkness at the back wall. Rows of cardboard ducks and deer cranked their shaky perpetual progress through a paper forest while men, with skinny cigarettes sending more smoke up to cling against the murky roof or spread, thick as enamel, across hardboard surrounds, leaned the elbows of their greasy demob suits on the well-rubbed oak and killed time banging at the birds with post-1914 BSA .22 rifles. It always surprised me how many of those blokes who were at Dunkirk and Normandy didn’t seem comfortable without a rifle in their hands. Shooting back as they hadn’t been able to do? A funny, distant look in their eyes. Was it some unresolved terror? Were they trying for what people these days call ‘closure’? They played the slots with the same intensity. We had an ancient cast-iron post office red What the Butler Saw machine and that was about it. Uncle Fred reckoned his granddad had been a successful travelling showman, putting on circuses and fairs all over the country. He had a few faded posters to prove it. My favourite was MOORCOCK’S TREASURY OF ANIMALS, actually a rather tamelooking menagerie. ‘We go back, our people, to the time of the mummers,’ Uncle Fred said. He was deeply and widely educated, my Uncle Fred. All from books, of course. His wasn’t the last self-educated generation of his kind (mine was) but his might have been the best. He kept his wisdom and knowledge to himself, only answering when asked. Except within the family, naturally. At work, his longest and most frequent response was ‘Right you are, guv’nor.’

He took the Daily Herald every day and read the New Statesman from cover to cover every week. He gave me my first nonfiction books, like Winwood Reade’s The Martyrdom of Man or Wells’s Short History of the World. He was an atheist but his mind wasn’t closed. I read Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy from his library. All my inspiration comes from those books my Uncle Fred recommended. We’d discuss Shaw’s The Apple Cart on the morning walk to the Arcade but spoke in professional monosyllables all day at work. ‘Cuppa?’ ‘Ta.’ Or to a regular customer ‘Chilly today, eh?’ or whatever the weather happened to be.

My Mum and the Welfare State

My mum kept her wealth of common sense but she got a bit weirder as I grew up. Uncle Fred and Mr Ackermann tried to counsel me, told me not to feel guilty. Her upset was inevitable, they said, as she sensed me making my own life separate to hers. So I stayed away from home a bit longer, just for the peace. Sometimes I went home via the Westminster Reference Library where you sat and read without interruption because nobody was allowed to take books out. We were all serious readers, sitting on wooden chairs at rows of lecterns, turning the pages, united in mutual love of isolation.

I had been born into a world that had learned to value important things. The Tories didn’t dare mess with that infrastructure. An air of equality and tranquility filled my world. Class would still be with us for another generation but it was disappearing and the evidence was everywhere. Cheap travel. Cheap credit. Cheap and gentle little black-and-white comedies. Holidays abroad. As a result of our first great socialist government, we became the freest people in the world, if not the richest. Sometimes you had to make the choice between a nice meal or a trip to the West End cinema. The wealth was spread, the country became stronger and, bit by bit, better off. For a while I saw working-class London grow happier, better educated and more optimistic. Before they took it all away again.

Uncle Fred’s Wisdom

Oxford Street these days, of course, is far too posh for a shabby little amusement arcade like my Uncle Fred’s. His lease came up in 1958. There’s a tourist shop there now. They pay a fortune for those leases. Mugs and T-shirts. Postcards and miniature Beefeaters. Union Jacks on everything. Red, white and blue bunting. Bags. Hats. Coppers’ helmets. Red double-deckers. ‘London,’ as my cousin Denny always says, ‘is ikon rich. And that makes us rich, Michael, my son.’ They move thousands of little Beefeaters and queens on horseback a day, they turn over hundreds of thousands of pounds. Their turnover makes you feel sick. And crowded! Push and shove is the name of the game there now. Roll up, roll up! Can you blame me if I get nostalgic for my boyhood, when it was cheap to enjoy yourself and people said ‘pardon’ and ‘sorry’?

‘Years ago,’ said my Uncle Fred as we walked home towards Brookgate one night when I still worked for him, ‘we all liked to make money but we didn’t feel anxious if we didn’t make millions. We just wanted to nod along like everybody else. We thought in terms of equality and fairness. I’m not kidding, Mike. Of course there’s always thieves and troublemakers, people who are predatory and live off the weak. The stock market depends on our getting into debt. All this cheap gelt, it’s making us into addicts. It’s a drug culture and we’re mainlining money.’

He was talking about hire purchase. Precredit cards. A different way of getting the poor into debt, but I think he was right. It was nice when ordinary people could take a holiday in Spain, of course, but easy credit is what started the cultural rot. Tourism depends on lots of people everywhere with loads of disposable wealth, which means all kinds of changes go through a place that cultivates it. The real, messy, informative past disappears to be overlaid with bad fiction, with simplified folklore, easy answers. Memory needs to remain complex, debatable. Without those qualities it is mere nostalgic sentimentality. Commodified identity. Souls bought and sold.

‘The more lucrative the story,’ Uncle Fred said, ‘the more it gives way to falsification. Barnum knew all about that.’ Barnum and Marx were my Uncle Fred’s twin saints, his Freud and Jung. ‘My Jekyll and Hind,’ he’d joke. If he’d wanted to, Uncle Fred could have brought in a few props and called the arcade Ye Olde Charles Dickens Pennye Emporium or some such and done very well. But Das Kapital’s terrible Puritanism reined him back. When Fred’s lease ran out he couldn’t afford to renew it without borrowing, so he retired on a modest state pension (‘Fair and square,’ he always said. ‘You gets back what you pays in’). But of course he also had his savings and his stash of sovereigns to sell when the rate was good and hard times came around. Like all sensible socialists, he hedged his bets in the capitalist world.

Uncle Fred gave me books he was enthusiastic about. His generation had grown up on the Fabians’ popular paperbacks of politics, philosophy and history and the Thinker’s Library. He had a shelf full of such stuff. Herbert Read’s What is Revolutionary Art? was one of his favourites and Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul. Various commentaries on the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita and the Avesta were among the spiritual studies Uncle Fred had read on myth, human belief and the supernatural in general. He was a secular humanist but he was curious. ‘It’s always worth knowing what makes people tick, Mike.’ He’d read most of Mein Kampf by Hitler. ‘If you know your enemy and can see your enemy, you can protect yourself against him. Or at least know when to run for it. Everything that monster did was in his book. You only had to read it. That’s when I split with Stalin, when he signed that treaty with Hitler.’ Uncle Fred, like most of his contemporaries, spoke in a tone of taken-for-granted scepticism you heard everywhere in those days, in almost all the papers, on the radio and in films. You heard it in the language of those who had been ‘believers’ before the war. That tone reflected the common assumption that religion was a thing of the past and it was now time to build a more rational world. The clergy was represented by dotty old Whitehall-farce vicars and unworldly curates. Only Hollywood made a buck or two from God. Religion and the corrupt romanticism surrounding much of that, and the discredited fascist creeds and their actions, had helped create the horrors of the past twenty years or so. The Church of England, which still turned up on Sunday BBC, and was effectively the conscience of Parliament, was associated with the ‘caring’ aspects of the paternalistic establishment. Nobody thought much about that. The church created colourful traditions, of course, and probably we were none the worse for having them, but anyone who seriously believed in God as anything but a philosophical abstraction was sadly deluded. Even T.S. Eliot, the Church of England’s big catch, wasn’t sure Jesus had existed. It was left to romantics like me to ask what a rational world had got for us already if it wasn’t Stalinism, Hitlerism and fascism. All of which promised a golden future but without much attention to detail. We would discover romance in a big way in the 1960s.

After Uncle Fred’s lease ran out I got a couple of the better .22 rifles and some boxes of cartridges as souvenirs. He wouldn’t let me keep Mystic Mary. She was sold off with the rest. He had a share in the Bucket o’ Gold down in Leicester Square, which eventually became a rock-and-roll venue and where I opened with the reunited Deep Fix a few years later. Uncle Fred left six figures when he died not long after he retired. He was eighty-one. Left the lot to the Labour Party, for services rendered he said. The gold he divided amongst us the day before he popped off, singing ‘The Red Flag’ in his reedy old voice. Nobody but me joined in. ‘Cowards!’ he whispered, and was gone.



Friar Isidore

With Fred’s death my mum was heartbroken and her nerves began to worsen. Increasingly, she dyed her hair badly and put on her makeup erratically. She rarely got out of the same few cosmetics-stained clothes and gave most of her wardrobe to Oxfam. Mr Ackermann came ’round to console her, but she was never quite the same after Fred died. She had loved Fred and continued to love Mr A. But she and Fred had memories together going back all her life. Fred had understood her and known how to cheer her up. His love was reciprocated. As well as her talent for fiction, Mum had a huge, almost childish, capacity for unconditional love, and, like Fred, she still celebrated liberty and spoke disparagingly of children whose parents clung to them. When I met a bunch of like-minded teenagers and started hanging out in the Soho coffee bars, she didn’t try to stop me. She invited us all back and became quite good friends with some of the people I knew.

By 1955 the times were definitely on the change. Especially for me. And it wasn’t just the rock and roll. I was getting more ambitious in general. I wanted to write a novel. And make a record. I learned to play a few chords on my cousin’s Gretsch guitar. I became a fan of American folk music. I added Woody Guthrie and Robert Johnson to my pantheon. A bunch of us in Brookgate had formed The Greenhorns (who became the nucleus of the first Deep Fix line-up) and we were hanging around Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies, who played blues in the jazz clubs and were regulars at a place near King’s Cross. For a while my greatest musical heroes were Gene Vincent and Muddy Waters. I met Gene once and Muddy a few times. I wrote to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and they replied! At fifteen my literary heroes were almost all alive—P.G. Wodehouse, John Steinbeck, Ray Bradbury and E.R. Burroughs. Burroughs wrote the Tarzan and John Carter of Mars books. He was the first writer I tried to emulate. My enthusiasm for ‘ERB’, as his fans called him, would lead to me getting my first editorial job. But for that, I would never be telling this story. I would not have been introduced to the Sanctuary by the old monk, Friar Isidore.

Between the ages of fourteen and seventeen or so I put out an ERB fanzine, Burroughsania. The thing was typed without a ribbon so the keys could cut clear impressions in wax stencils which were then carefully placed over the drum of a mimeograph machine. That was how we reproduced things in those days, before Xerox, before computers. The stencils were delicate things and needed to be used with special skill, particularly if you had pictures or display lettering on them. To make sure they had come out right, you held them up to the light. If the typewriter keys had cut cleanly through the wax, you were ok. Pictures could be delicate as paper lace.

Jacob Egg, Mr Ackermann’s dwarfish friend, who ran an estate agent’s in Grays Inn Road, offered me free use of their big, modern Gestetner machine. ‘Remember who started you off when you get to be Lord Beaverbrook,’ he said. He was very indulgent, giving me free paper and stencils. I think he was a little fascinated by me and maybe wanted to be a writer himself. Mr Egg kept copies of all my fanzines—and there were quite a few—and years later would show them, carefully preserved in plastic folders, as from ‘before you were famous.’

I called mine ‘amateur mags’ before I discovered they were known as fanzines. I didn’t know there were other fanzines being produced until I put an ad in a print version of Craigslist called Exchange and Mart, addressing ERB enthusiasts. SF fans wrote from all over the country and people they knew wrote from America and Europe.

Suddenly, at sixteen, I was part of international science fiction ‘fandom’! I was invited to attend an informal meeting of fans which was held on Thursday nights at the Globe pub, Hatton Garden, about five minutes from where I was born. Almost everyone there produced or contributed to SF fanzines! I was astonished. I had never read a word of contemporary science fiction and precious little Verne and Wells and now, at sixteen but tall enough to pass for older, I stood holding my pint of bitter and chatting to the amiably posh John Wyndham, Arthur Clarke, with his benign intelligence and strange Somerset-American accent, C.S. Lewis, all benign Oxbridge behind his good-humoured pipe, and a bunch of others whose work, like theirs, I had hardly heard of. My heroes were at that time Firbank, Aldous Huxley, T.H. White and Mervyn Peake. I had a correspondence with White and would visit Peake later that year, as I would Tolkien, with Lewis’s help. Perhaps they liked me because I was enthusiastic but didn’t fawn. Before he died, Wyndham said they were all in awe of me, though I was so young, because of my energetic dynamism. I can only guess what he meant.

I was soon on first name terms with the SF editors, too: Ted Carnell of New Worlds and Science Fantasy, dapper in his fashionable casuals, with a Ronald Colman moustache; rangy, six-foot-three-inch raconteur Ted Tubb of Authentic and bookish little Peter Hamilton of Nebula with his heavy Scots accent. Useful contacts? It didn’t necessarily pay to know them. Barry Bayley got on well with them all but took years before he sold to Carnell and that was by changing his name. More useful contacts for me in those days were the Fleet Street newspapermen like Peter Phillips or John Burke, who knew when a bit of quick copy was needed. I remained a working journalist for years before I saw myself specifically as a fantasy writer.

At the Globe I became close friends with Barry, Pete Taylor and John Brunner, all recently demobbed from the RAF. Brunner, I think, had been an officer. In those days young men inducted into the national service were, if reasonably intelligent and technically savvy, sent to the RAF to be trained as wireless operators or electrical engineers. The theory was that you came out with a skill. Sadly, the only skill we all shared was the one they’d gone in with, as writers. Barry, the spitting image of Voltaire and not much above five feet high, was a clerk at Australia House and all brain. That twin of the great French comedian Fernandel, Pete Taylor, like me, got work as a supply typist between jobs. We were both superfast, which made us always employable. Only John Brunner was self-employed, somehow running a flat in Hampstead, a Morgan sports car and a Gibson guitar. Maybe he had money. He was rumoured to be from a posh background. His voice was the exaggerated bray of a RAF officer. He wore a Vandyke beard and moustache, an ascot, a maroon velvet jacket and baggy flannel trousers and smoked expensive cigarettes from a tortoiseshell holder. As the outspoken American writer Harry Harrison put it, John had got himself up in the complete Hampstead left-wing intellectual set. He had a CND button in his lapel. He was a socialist. He had written the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s marching song ‘Don’t You Hear the H-bomb’s Thunder?’ and was famous for following the Aldermaston March in his Morgan. He wrote science fantasy with tremendous brio. His first, The Wanton of Argus, came out in the pulpiest of pulps while he sold sophisticated hard SF to the prestigious Astounding. His posh drawl, however, unlike Wyndham’s or Allard’s, got people’s backs up. He had a way of treading on their toes. He never meant to be rude, but he wouldn’t learn. I tried to tell him he irritated people. He explained how I was wrong. He would die of a heart attack at an SF convention in Glasgow, an embittered shadow of his former self.

Another friend made through ‘fandom’ was Ray Napoleon, a kind of modern-day remittance man. Ray’s parents had sent him to Europe after he’d refused to marry a girl he had made pregnant. He’d been told to stay there, on a modest stipend, until he matured. The logic was a bit strange. Ray was perfectly happy with the arrangement. He said he had been sent away to save his mother and father embarrassment. From San Francisco, Ray was heavily built with dark, Italianate features. I remember meeting a Bay Area folk-singing couple who brought their baby to a London gig. I asked the man if they knew Ray. His face clouded. ‘Ray’s not our kind of people,’ he said. The woman merely smiled. When I looked into the carrycot, there was a miniature version of Ray looking back at me. At sixteen I went to stay with him in Paris. That was my first big step towards becoming an adult. I met a whole bunch of writers and musicians in the couple of weeks I was there. I even had a brief vision of the four musketeers walking arm in arm out of the Luxembourg Gardens, coming down Boulevard Saint-Michel towards me. I wasn’t fazed. I’d had similar flashes all my life. I always knew that these visions weren’t real. They were just something I could do.

Still relatively sparsely populated, extremely relaxed and unjudgmental, Paris was one huge vision to me. Never scarred by the war, she had a beauty I could hardly believe was real. Foreigners were slowly drifting back to the city. Ray had a Swedish guitarist friend, Monica Helander, who sang old music hall songs at a little tourist cabaret in Montmartre. On Sundays, she would drive her Citroën 2CV down onto the cobbles of the quay and, under the golden chestnut trees, would wash it with water drawn directly from the Seine. Today, you aren’t even allowed to go there on foot! We would take a bottle of wine and play in the bays under the embankment, where you could get a good echo. I took over from Monica for a gig or two, learning to sing interminable verses of ‘Clementine’ and ‘Careless Love’, which all the tourists seemed to like and which, happily, I could play. I wasn’t great, but you didn’t have to be in those more-innocent and less-demanding days. I went reluctantly back to London in an ambitious mood. I would return to Paris at least once a year after that.

My fanzine improved considerably once I was in touch with fandom. Like most British musicians at that time, talented SF people were semipro. The fields didn’t pay enough, even to the top professionals. From Gateshead-on-Tyne, Jim Cawthorn started to send me stencilled illustrations of extraordinary quality. From Brixton, Arthur Thomson, who already illustrated the professional SF mags, drew me cartoons and headings. Professional writers who had sold stories to Nebula and Authentic wrote features as I expanded my fanzine’s parameters to include writers such as T.H. White and Mervyn Peake. Thanks to my new contributors I had begun to look pretty professional. I tried to get interviews with more fantasts and ran articles on people like Ray Bradbury, Talbot Mundy and M.R. James. When I told them how close to the Globe the weekly Tarzan Adventures magazine was, my fellow fans suggested I interview the editor whose offices were below the rooms where Chatterton died, between Leather Lane and Grays Inn Road, in Brook Street, Holborn. It seemed as if I could live my entire life in a bubble less than half a mile across and find everyone I wanted to meet, everything I wanted to do!

Tarzan Adventures was a bit of a crossover between a weekly comic book and a text magazine primarily for boys. I enjoyed it better than most but I didn’t like every artist who drew the strip and I thought the features and short stories were pretty pathetic. Still, it seemed a good moment to ask the editor, Bob Greenway, for an interview. He was a bit lordly about it but permission was granted and I went to see him in his old-fashioned editorial study at Westworld Publications. Plump, boozy, aggressive, he knew nothing about Burroughs and of course my piece on him in Burroughsania reflected this appalling ignorance.

Mr Greenway didn’t bother to send back my next submissions. But then, about the middle of 1956, I received a phone call from his young assistant editor, Alistair Graham. Bob had got a new job on Gardening Weekly. A tall, gaunt, cheerful, bearded Scot, Alistair had loved my piece. Everyone there had hated Bob. Now the editor, Alistair liked the idea of carrying some features on ERB characters, then perhaps something more substantial later. He was only a couple of years older than me. Soon I was writing short features on John Carter of Mars, Carson of Venus, Tanar of Pellucidar. Alistair was delighted. The readers loved them. Next I was asked to write a Burroughs-style serial. Could, I wondered, another fanzine contributor perhaps illustrate a story? Agreed. Jim Cawthorn, later to sketch out illustrations for Elric, illustrated Sojan the Swordsman. I got a guinea and a half an episode for them! I wrote thousand-word features for the same money. At sixteen I was on my way to becoming a full-time professional. I discovered that Alistair played banjo. We formed a skiffle group with his friends from Notting Hill and rehearsed at the office in the evenings. Then one lunchtime Alistair asked me to come and work at Westworld as an assistant editor. Surprised, I wasn’t sure. I enjoyed freelancing. I still worked part-time at The Gallery and did temp typing work when I needed to, but my freelance earnings were improving. He murmured that it might be a good idea to accept. When in a few weeks he left to hitchhike round the world with the rest of the skiffle group, I could take over from him. I would be editor. But, I thought, I was only sixteen!

Uncle Fred saw sense in accepting the job, a great start to a career. ‘You’ll be editor of the Daily Herald at this rate.’ He stretched an arthritic hand towards the teapot. After all, he told my uncertain mum, editing was like show business. ‘Still selling illusions,’ he said.

So, when a few weeks later Alistair left to travel around the world, busk with his friends and write mysteries, sure enough I was the editor! I must admit I wasn’t especially flattered by the wage offer. I was to get six pounds a week. His face scarred by fire from the downed Hurricane he had flown in the war, Donald F. Peters was primarily a commercial printer who had sought higher profits in publishing. That dream had faded by the time I turned up. He knew I was prepared to work for a much lower wage than an older journalist! My enthusiasm might prove profitable. As it turned out, he was right!

I was responsible for the whole magazine. I didn’t just make the old American Sunday Tarzan comic strip pages fit our quarto format, sometimes with drastic surgery and amateurish redrawing, I also commissioned features, fiction, illustrations and our back-pages comics serial, sometimes bought from Italy, sometimes commissioned. Through my fanzine contacts I had a large pool of talented semiprofessionals to draw from. They soon started appearing regularly in Tarzan. By 1957 I was producing a semijuvenile version of the US pulp magazines I loved and which were dying in the US. The circulation began to improve. Donald Peters cheered up a little.

They gave me an assistant, a septuagenarian Fleet Street man, a subeditor all his life who hated everything I did. He particularly hated fantasy and science fiction, believing it ‘unwholesome’. He came in twice a week to Brook Street and took the office at the farthest end of the narrow building piled with bales of Westworld’s unsold publications and divided up into mysterious spaces whose original function was only remembered by the accounts people and Donald F. Peters, our sad-eyed boss, who had designed them in more optimistic times. Sometimes, if I was alone in the office and had a bit of a hangover, I slept on top of unsold bales of Marvelman, Pecos Bill and various reprints of other Italian comics stored in the basement. I can smell their musty, yellowing paper to this day! They hadn’t been a great success in the UK market.

My ancient assistant’s name was Reginald ‘Sammy’ Samuels. Mostly he did paste-up. His scissors and can of Cow gum seemed a comfort to him. He used shirt suspenders and the green eyeshade Bob Greenway had left behind. He wore a dark suit, shiny at knees and elbows, a frayed shirt, a greasy bow tie and a tobacco-stained waistcoat. He smelled a little sour. He had a long, unhappy face and was bent over with scoliosis. His skin fell in long, discoloured facial curtains which the nicotine from his cigarettes, smoked in long holders, had tanned kipper-gold. I think they paid him less than I got. I found it a little awkward, being the boss of a much older man, and he didn’t much like it, either. I would introduce him as our senior editor. He taught me some of the tricks of the trade but probably his most useful tip was how to survive on very little money. At lunch, for instance, he would order two rounds of toast at our nearby greasy spoon round the corner in Grays Inn Road. When the toast arrived he shook salt onto one piece and sugar on the other. ‘There you are,’ he said, ‘the savoury course and the sweet course, and all for threepence!’ When broke I frequently used his tip. I already knew how to make a cheap sandwich from a bread roll and a portion of Branston pickle in Lyons teashops!

I seemed to have a knack for the work. I could quickly eyeball a piece of copy and know how much of the page it would fill. Even Sammy couldn’t do that as well. He showed me how to draw a title and embellish it to look professional, if a little old-fashioned, and passed along his prowess as a proofreader. I learned the trick of bulking out a short piece and cramming in a long one.

We got our typesetting done by Olympic in Old Bailey. They occupied a basement not far from the courts. I would deliver next week’s copy on Wednesday and check it over on Thursday. The typesetters would photograph it and send it to our lithograph printers in St Albans. They would already have the pictures and layouts. The printed copy had to be turned around quickly to coincide with the existing pasted-up pages.

Which was how I met Friar Isidore.

Because I was editor and printer’s devil, every Thursday I went down to Old Bailey and checked the proofs. I was getting great experience. When copy was late and we were short of time I learned to read type straight from the frame in reverse, making corrections without the type being ‘pulled’ off on paper, by rolling ink onto the frame, putting a sheet of cheap paper on top of that, then rolling over it to make an impression. If copy was too long I could cut in an instant and if not enough, I could write a short article and have them set it on the spot. They had a couple of typewriters on a high desk so you could type standing up. I was born to the job. I could turn an issue around so quickly, I usually took an hour or two off before going back to the office. On a good day, I didn’t have to go back at all.

During these extra hours there was time for a stroll by the river, or a walk to the Tower of London, to watch the Tower Bridge open for shipping, explore the alleys and courts off Fenchurch and Liverpool streets, or cross the river and dive into mysterious Southwark or Bermondsey. The Blitz had destroyed those Victorian boroughs more thoroughly than the Restoration buildings. Councils were putting up great blank blocks of modern flats where the old alleys had been.

I had known Fleet Street, of course, since childhood. I spent more time there once I had decided to become a writer. I drank and ate the atmosphere. It enriched me. It was the stuff of life. I had developed an unbeatable immune system from it. I had gone there for as long as I could remember but now I was fully part of it! I was a pressman, treated as an equal by most who knew me (though because of my youth some still took me for an office boy), including the other editorial staff members who congregated around the typesetters early on Wednesday afternoons when we put our charges to bed. I carried a pica ruler, which we called an em-stick, for measuring type. I knew the number of words which would fill two or three columns on a quarto page, how to mark up and turn an illustration into a reduced block, how to prepare a picture. We understood the same trade jargon. We were brothers (sisters were not yet even a novelty) of the typewriter. Most of my fellow pressmen only had time for a quick familiar nod as they rushed in and out, but one rather eccentric regular, Friar Isidore, shared my hours and was willing to pass the time of day, to ask me an opinion, to offer a thought of his own on the news as I presented it, addressing me with a kind of mild, respectful goodwill which was as welcome as it was unfamiliar. His smile, if a little distant, was infinitely benign.

I was fascinated by Friar Isidore. A tall, scrawny, hunched, pink, bright-eyed man, he would push back his hood to reveal a tonsured, stubbled skull. Carefully rolling up his habit’s sleeves, he tackled the sheaf of proofs the setter took out of the pigeonhole for him to read. His magazine looked a bit dull to me, mostly closely printed text in double columns with mysterious titles which meant absolutely nothing, using unfamiliar words in Greek, Latin or Hebrew. Some were even in Arabic, he told me, pointing to what looked like shorthand. And Aramaic. The title was equally meaningless: The White Friar. I had no idea what a white friar was. Judging by Friar Isidore’s appearance, he surely had something to do with religion.

Religion, in a view shared by the majority of my fellow Londoners, was something mostly associated with our superstitious past. All the Jews I knew were nonbelievers. Occasionally I saw an Hasidic oldster in Hatton Garden but as often as not, he was from Amsterdam. I had never met a Moslem. I knew no one who went to church. In common with most of my contemporaries I thought people needed to invent a creator to give authority to their ignorance. Our remaining churches were chiefly empty, their congregations almost entirely made up of growing numbers of tourists; impressive architecturally and artistically, but essentially alien mausoleums. Westminster Abbey was reserved for royal pomp, also considered a pleasant exercise in nostalgia. Yet I think we were proud of our ‘red’ priests and outspoken archbishops. We still heard them on the radio every Sunday. We used an Anglican church, if we used one at all, for weddings, christenings and funerals, yet continued to see St Paul’s as the proud ikon of our wartime survival. We’d tell you we were agnostics, mostly to appease any potential Mormon or Seventh-day Adventist on the old door-to-door.

The holidays we kept were essentially pagan with pretty much the same measure of sentimentality reserved for Easter chicks, the baby Jesus and watching the Queen’s Speech on Christmas Day. We were vaguely tolerant of others’ beliefs, remembered most of the words of well-known hymns and carols, shared the common views about ‘low’ and ‘high’ churches (Baptists went to chapels and were tightfisted and Catholics were more generous but bred like rabbits). The few prominent Anglicans who appeared in the media probably had greater moral authority than equally prominent politicians.

I knew only a little about my ancestors. My mother’s father had died of drink in a pauper’s hostel. My grandmother had thrown him out years before. He’d been a journeyman newspaper journalist of some kind, a stringer. His family was Jewish anarchist. Hers was strictly Orthodox. The gypsies were on my father’s side, just a generation or so back. I was rather proud of my Jewish heritage, through a daughter of Isaac D’Israeli, the great nineteenth-century scholar and writer, father of Benjamin, the novelist and politician. Until I hitchhiked one summer from Stockholm to Hamburg, I never encountered anything I recognised as anti-Semitism. Brookgate slang was full of Yiddish. We were on the edge of districts traditionally occupied by tailors, clockmakers and diamond merchants. We had a synagogue across the road from us. Admittedly it was attended less and less, but so were the churches. Very few Jews were culturally any different by now from their neighbours. Clerkenwell, and Brookgate in particular, pretty much forced socialism, secularism and self-schooling on us all. We supplied London with a lot of her best taxi drivers, too. I had three uncles who were cabbies and had the traditional left-wing populism and self-education London cabbies were famous for. I have to this day a horror of undertipping, listening as I did to my uncles’ opinion of stingy customers. In general, though, the old men cultivated a rather tolerant view of their fellow creatures.

We used as much Yiddish and gypsy slang in our language as cockney but we swore according to a Christian god. Monks weren’t a very common sight on our streets any more than Orthodox Jews or Sikhs. Black faces were still rare in most districts. (My mother and her sisters touched a black man for luck but bridled at prejudice.) West Indians were only just beginning to arrive to replace the manpower destroyed in the war. Three evening papers were crammed with ads for jobs and low-rent flats. We were still essentially the indigenous, white, Protestant people we had been since the Reformation. Monks figured largely in advertisements for tobacco, beer or meat pies, as jolly, life-loving versions of Friar Tuck; manifestations of the Good Old Days, of Merrie England. So this ascetic, kindly, somewhat vulnerable, grey-faced man was a bit of a puzzle, even though I had an instinctive liking for him. I had never seen a monk on the street, as far as I remembered.

I was familiar with Carmelite Street, Whitefriars Street and Blackfriars Bridge, of course, but they had no more religious significance than St Pancras, Charing Cross, Kings Cross or the Temple tube stations. They were names, like the ‘gates’—Aldgate, Brookgate, Bishopsgate—nonexistent barriers to barely distinctive districts. If I hadn’t met Friar Isidore, I might have taken ‘Carmelite’ for something you spread on bread like Marmite or Nutella. For all I’d known, The White Friar was a trade magazine run by a man who liked to go to work in his dressing gown. Yet Friar Isidore had such an air of genial dedication, even, if I dare say it, godliness, that, one autumn afternoon, I felt confident enough to ask him what the magazine was about.

He answered with perfect good humour. The white friars were Carmelites, he said. A celibate religious order, they vowed to serve God in poverty, serving outcast and downtrodden people. Like me he was also editor and proofreader of their magazine, which mostly debated theological matters, usually in Latin. He chuckled when he added, ‘Well, I am also the chief trugmoldy.’ This was clearly a bit of a joke but, when he saw that I was unfamiliar with the word, he explained. ‘I go up and down Fleet Street, selling it in the taverns. It is how we’ve paid up to now for its publication, though we do have a small endowment. You might have seen me at the entrance to the caverns, too—yes, yes, those ill-smelling Underground stations, I should say. I sell it there. Taverns and caverns. Wherever light might help.’ He smiled as if for my approval. I was now trying to place his accent. Was it rural? Some kind of American? It sounded old-fashioned.

‘So you’re a bit like the Salvation Army,’ I said. He nodded vaguely. I assumed he was local, though I wasn’t entirely sure where monks lived. St Paul’s? I asked him how long he had been in the area. He responded with what might have been amusement. The priory was long established, he said. It had been continuously inhabited since the thirteenth century.

I told him this was fascinating. ‘I had no idea!’ I wasn’t kidding. Religious stuff was mostly new to me.

I think he spoke next partly from a sense of duty, as if to a pagan ready for conversion!

‘Perhaps, if you have time, we could talk over a cup of tea? I might explain a little.…’

History had always fascinated me. At that time I was more familiar with Sir Walter Scott and Ivanhoe or Quentin Durward, Dumas, Hugo, Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood or Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel; Harold Lamb, whose stories I read in second-hand pulps, wrote about Erik the Red and the Crusades: Richard the Lionheart; the noble Saladin. Needless to say, I preferred my history dressed up with a bit of romantic action but it had already occurred to me that I might be able to run a series on London history in Tarzan. Would Friar Isidore be the man to do us such a series? Crusaders and Saracens sounded okay, too. There was a new line of toy soldiers I’d seen in Gamages, Holborn. Crusader Knights and Turks. Theology? I didn’t know much about that. Perhaps we could angle it on the folklore of either side? I had featured several pieces on old Irish mythology by a friend of mine. Though fascinated by the colour and pageantry of war, I had no interest in war itself. I didn’t collect historical lead soldiers, just bright Imperial troops of the kind you could build up into mighty panoramas of Rorke’s Drift or even the Charge of the Light Brigade complete with running Highlanders and Russian troops behind the gunners (not that you could ever afford them all). I had a couple of sets of crusaders and ‘Arabs’ in my toy soldier collection and had already run a series about collecting model soldiers called ‘Commanding Your Own Army.’ Maybe I could interview this vicar bloke and get material for a series about battles on the Thames?

So that was the ignorant muddle which served me for a decision-making brain when I accepted his invitation. We walked down Old Bailey and round the corner to grey, drizzling Ludgate Hill, as always crowded with busy messenger boys, sergeants-at-arms, girl typists, salesmen and wandering journalists. The Hill’s tall, dark, gilded-glass shop fronts displayed stationery, smoking accessories, coffee beans, sandwiches, books, model ships. Down under the railway bridge the street ended with the Old King Lud on one side and The Kwik-U-R, a rapid-service restaurant, employing a lot of staff to get your food to you as fast as possible. You could eat three courses there in fifteen minutes. Then came Farringdon Road and the tall modern concrete offices of Amalgamated Press, following the bed of the old Fleet. Once, Holborn Viaduct high overhead might easily have crossed a river. The traffic flowed around Ludgate Circus and on over Blackfriars Bridge to Southwark and beyond, turning left to continue into Fleet Street and a thousand newspapers, journals, magazines and comics. But Friar Isidore and I stopped at the ABC Teashop across the road.

The ABC Teashop, with its busy clatter and smart, modern, art deco silver, chrome and glass, was fairly empty at this time. Before we entered, Friar Isidore stopped in the street’s bustling pedestrian flow and asked embarrassedly if I would mind if we bought our own refreshments. He couldn’t really treat me. He was close to tears. ‘The white friars are a poor order. Anything we spend comes out of the common purse. I have my brothers to consider.’ Then he might have blushed.

When I offered to pay, he smiled his gaunt thanks and shook his head. ‘It was my suggestion. But I appreciate the thought.’ We went inside. Here was the world where 1984 was conceived. The Aerated Bread Company’s teashops all had a smell, largely disappeared from the English culinary landscape, of weak, overboiled tea, grease, brown sauce, sweet pastry, what used to be called spotted dick and thin vanilla custard. As we picked up our metal trays and joined the line, the friar looked around the crowded cafeteria as if experiencing it for the first time.

Reaching into his habit, the monk took out a worn, nondescript leather bag with drawstrings, holding it tightly as we moved down the line, picking up a plate with a toasted bun on it, a thick cup of milky tea, all as if he did not quite understand what he was looking at. He checked the prices carefully before counting the big pennies from his bag to his hand. I was aware of people making jokes about him, a girl sniggering. In comparison he had an air of artless dignity. At seventeen, of course, I felt awkward on his behalf and angry at the other customers. Remembering how he behaved, I now think he knew exactly what was happening.

We carried our trays to the nearest glass-topped table. At his request, I told him a little about myself. He didn’t seem surprised that I was editing a magazine at such an early age. But he had not heard of any of the writers I liked until I mentioned a recent favourite book, absurdist Ronald Firbank’s The Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli.

The name seemed familiar to him. ‘Oh, really? Are you acquainted?’ He meant, I thought, did I actually know Firbank.

‘Well, not personally, of course. He died so long ago. Before I was born.’

He seemed startled. ‘Surely?—’

‘I’m not certain when.…’ I was puzzled by his puzzlement. I then mentioned Charles Williams but this produced confused babbling from him about theology so I gave up. I thought later he might know a Cardinal Pirelli.

He sipped his tea glancing towards the plate-glass window and the busy traffic of the Hill, at a Number 15 bus, all red-and-gold enamel, splashed with the city’s filth, purring and quivering and steaming as it waited at the stop. ‘We lose touch with the world so easily in the abbey. You must forgive me if I seem a little stupid.’

‘Not at all. Do you like him? Williams?’

‘I fear we are a little restricted in our reading. Might I ask when you were born?’

I told him January 1940 and he laughed. ‘How foolish of me. I should have realised. I have absolutely no sense of the passage of time out here.’

‘Surely you’ve lived in this area for a while? The whole of Fleet Street around you. You’re not exactly far away from the sources of news.’ I then became apologetic. I had sounded rude to my own ears. But he was shaking his head.

‘Surprising as it may be, Master Michael, we are pretty well shut off from this world.’ He glanced down at his cup, wetted his little finger and rubbed at what was probably a smudge of lipstick on the rim. ‘Close as it seems!’

I said that I envied him his solitude.

At this, he shook his head again. ‘Oh, it’s not exactly solitude in the world of the Sanctuary.’ I think the sound he made was a chuckle. ‘Only if you’re lucky.’

This was the first time I’d heard him use the term. When he noticed my enquiry, he added, ‘You probably know the Sanctuary better as “Alsacia”.’ And when I shook my head, he gave a small shrug. ‘I forget. We’re a little off the beaten track.…’

‘I was born in Brookgate,’ I said. ‘I thought I’d explored all the local back streets. Perhaps you could point your abbey out to me sometime. I’ve probably passed it on a hundred occasions and not noticed it. There are parts of London that are really rural, whole fields, like the ones behind Sporting Club Square. All the allotments. They’re disappearing. I’ve been trying to teach myself to be more observant.’

‘Well, it’s surely best when you have a guide,’ he told me. He seemed to reach an important decision, his expression changing markedly. He frowned to himself. ‘Would you care to see it today? This would be an ideal moment. The abbot…’

‘I’m free.’ I finished my teacake. ‘This would be a good time for me, too. They don’t expect me back at the office today. I mean, if it’s no trouble.…’ Should I have trusted him so readily? Had he already slipped something in my cup?

‘Never any great trouble for me,’ he said. ‘You always do need a guide, I fear. At least at first. I, of course, had mine.’ Now his chuckle was spontaneous, self-deprecating. ‘It’s practically impossible to find the Sanctuary’s gates without help. But you must be prepared for a surprise or two.’

‘The other monks won’t mind?’

‘That’s never the question. We welcome to Alsacia all who discover us. We have done so almost since we were founded. Our articles demand we turn none away. Noble or commoner. Saint or sinner. Man or woman. That is the nature of our calling, to provide sanctuary for any who needs it. The wealthy give us donations. The poor and the needy benefit, for they can hide here as well as work. Just as we took vows of poverty, to follow the example of the Nazarene, so, too, do we neither judge nor seek to punish. We are bound to forgive and to pray. To take in all who suffer. All who are in danger of persecution.’

I was impressed. This was the first time I had encountered such an idea. I realised how ignorant I was about church institutions. ‘Well, I’m not exactly…’ Maybe there was a brochure. I got up and followed him from the teashop, out into the grey press of Ludgate Hill. We turned together down New Bridge Street and crossed over to stand at the intersection of Fleet Street and Ludgate Circus. I looked back up the hill to where St Paul’s stood washed by the rays of the late-afternoon sun. Suddenly a silence fell over the busy streets. I found myself mesmerised by the sight of the great cathedral, remembering the stories I had grown up with, of the Blitz, the miraculous failure of the Nazi incendiaries to do anything but minor damage, while the surrounding streets all guttered and howled.

As we waited for the traffic lights to change, I asked him, ‘Did your abbey suffer much during the Blitz?’

We began to cross Fleet Street. ‘Oh, not at all,’ he replied. ‘We were always singularly blessed, you know. The Plague. The Great Fire. It’s believed our covenant protects us.’

‘Somehow Brookgate didn’t get much damage either,’ I said. ‘A few people called that a miracle.’

As we walked he told me how the Carmelites had originally lived on the slopes of Mount Carmel, near Haifa, mostly inhabiting caves and shacks, before being expelled by zealous Saracens in the thirteenth century. They had no saintly founder like the Dominicans and Franciscans. Other orders sometimes questioned the Carmelites’ religious credentials. Happily, Christian kings wished to show their piety by giving them lands, especially in Britain and France. They had found homes for their order in various parts of Europe, including Amsterdam, Paris, London and Oxford. They were called white friars because of their robes, just as the Dominicans, with their dark habits, who had arrived in London at about the same time, had been called black friars. Both orders had been granted the land under Royal Charter, by devout noblemen.

With passersby occasionally glancing at us, we continued past the Punch, the Old Bell, the Cheshire Cheese, the Tipperary and all the other many pubs which served the street’s journalists; past the offices of the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, Daily Sketch, News Chronicle and half a dozen other national newspapers. It seemed strange that such a pious man should have his home in what was, after all, a pretty impious place. I didn’t notice which side street we turned into. Perhaps Bouverie Street, where that least godly of newspapers, the scandal-mongering News of the World, had its offices, possibly Whitefriars Street. Another side street and then we were crossing a small Georgian square, one of the minor Inns of Court, where lawyers had their chambers. Then Friar Isidore stopped in another old square, an Inn of Court I wasn’t familiar with, and stared at a big, battered oaken gate, one of a pair, bound with huge strips of black iron, on massive hinges. Worn, grimy, weather stained, it seemed as old as time.

‘That must be more ancient than most of the City,’ I said.

‘You can see it?’ He seemed enormously pleased.

I laughed. ‘Well, of course I can. It’s massive.’

He stepped forward and pushed hard at the gate, ushering me through.

I expected to find myself in the courtyard of an old ecclesiastical building. Instead, as the door closed behind me, I saw that I was in a cobbled street, like several you could then still discover in the area. I was struck by an unusual smell, completely different to anything I’d ever experienced and impossible to identify. The smell was at once earthy and sharp, more like a market at full pitch, a mixture of vegetables, fish, fruit, cooked food, spice, malfunctioning lavatories and all different kinds of smoke. On both sides of the narrow alley leaned tall half-timbered houses, their second, even third storeys pitched at crazy angles out above their ground floors. Such houses, too, could still occasionally be found in my part of London. An entire stretch of them stood minutes from where I lived in High Holborn. Others were at the western end of Fleet Street. Most were all rather too tidily preserved. These buildings, however, had a different air to them, at once decrepit and full of vitality, with crooked wooden blinds, some hanging by a single hinge; paint peeling on doors and woodwork; part of the plaster exposed to reveal lathe or brick; creepers, vines crawling up, over and through tiles missing from roofs out of which also jutted crooked stone chimneys gouting sooty clouds into the damp grey air.

The cobbles were grubby and I was just able to avoid stepping into horse droppings directly in front of me. Apart from the gypsies, the Brookgate and Holborn dairies’ nags and the occasional policeman’s mount, I had never seen a horse in the Fleet Street area. Even more astonishing to me, a couple of fat, red-combed white chickens were pecking at the dung. They were dispersed, clucking and flapping, as a woman in a long, nondescript skirt, wearing a grubby cap on her dirty hair, came running from the house with a shovel and bucket, to scoop the stuff up. I remembered my Uncle Fred doing this when he followed the milkman’s cart down Leather Lane during the war, bent on getting the manure for the little rose-and-vegetable garden he tended behind our house in Fox Street.

An early autumn afternoon fog was darkening a day not yet lit by gas. Behind some of the thickly glazed windowpanes yellow light began to flicker and bloom. Their blinds and curtains drawn, a number of windows were patched with oiled paper. Most others had green-tinged ‘bottle-glass’ panes. Maybe they had been blown out in the Blitz and not yet replaced? This was still austerity Britain emerging from that long, grey, hand-me-down period. Some parts of London, too, had either resisted government improvements or been overlooked. The yellow glow grew warmer, steadier, either from candles or oil lamps and not gas, as I’d originally guessed. I began to wonder how on earth I had failed to discover this quaint bit of London as a boy. It was extraordinary. The smell alone, being so much like one of the big London markets, was acrid, sweet, musty, ancient, intense, impossible to identify. Why did I feel uneasy?

From hidden alleys came shouts, the occasional cry of a child, coarse grunts and elaborate curses. I was reminded of the old public slum courts and Peabody estates that still survived around Brookgate, where our narrow lanes wound through to Grays Inn Road. I tended to avoid those blocks of flats in case I was challenged by one of the ‘court cliques’ which metamorphosed into the 1950s Ted gangs. Luckily they fought mostly among themselves from echoing court to echoing court. They barely bothered you if you were an obvious neutral.

I couldn’t see any gangs in the Sanctuary. A lot of people crowded together here but no more than in, say, Leather Lane market on a Friday. They could belong to some religious sect, judging by their old-fashioned clothes. I saw them strolling, gossiping, chatting on cobbled corners, seated at open windows. We passed a massive coaching inn, with servants’ or guests’ rooms built out above the central stone-and-red-brick archway. Overlooked by balconies, there was space in the inn’s cobbled yard for a full-sized express coach and team, or three modern buses. The odd picture on its sign was explained by the tavern’s name: The Swan With Two Necks. What I could see of the stables looked new enough but logically had not been used in half a century at least. Dull brass, black leather, dark green paint, black beams and whitewashed walls, almost fresh. I could even see some tack. Recently dressed up for something. The coronation, probably. Around the time Queen Elizabeth II had been crowned, there had been a lot of ‘New Elizabethan’ nostalgia for the glorious days of Good Queen Bess. Days that never really were, of course. New myths for a new age. Above was a gallery of leaded glass behind which someone moved swiftly, lighting candles. The entrance’s signboard showed the mythical swan encountering three happy greybeards seated in a row on a bench with huge two-pint ‘shant’ tankards on their knees. It might have been painted by Tom Browne or Phil May, those master-draughtsmen of Edwardian London. I was surprised I had never heard of the place. From it came a smell of strong beer, shag tobacco, frying chops.

I heard a shout from nearby and looked back. From around the corner, ducking beneath the tavern’s low overhang, straight from a Dick Turpin story Tom Browne himself might have illustrated, rode a dramatically pretty young woman. Kitted in some sort of eccentric hunting outfit, with shining black thigh-high boots, doeskin breeches, a cutaway velvet midnight-blue coat, frothing lace at throat and wrists, she wore a befeathered tricorne on her long, red-gold curls. Pure Howard Pyle stuff. Even though she probably was dressed to rehearse for a coming pantomime, with herself as the ‘principal boy’, I fell instantly in love with the woman’s huge violet eyes and full, red lips. Almost riding us down, she struck one bold, appraising look back at me before cantering into the innyard yelling, I’d swear, for an ostler. An ostler? Was there a film crew in the upper galleries? Her horse was a beautiful chestnut stallion, furnished in oiled leather and silvered steel, his flanks flecked with sweat. Those brass-wrapped holsters on her saddle were big enough for monstrous horse pistols the size of carbines. I laughed, guessing they were making a movie about rural Ireland, and watched her long legs as she swung off her horse. My heart beat rapidly. I recognised her.

She’d appeared often in a recurring dream I’d experienced several years earlier. Probably puberty had something to do with it! Then I’d seen her as my sister. Now the feelings she sparked were not brotherly. I wanted to follow her, find out her name. Of course I couldn’t possibly leave Friar Isidore, but the urge to do so was strong. I might never have the luck to dream of her again!

Then the tavern was behind us. We turned left. With the fog still thickening, we reached a large stone building at the end of a cul-de-sac. We had reached a narrow Gothic archway and a door whose battered ancient oak and iron were older even than the first. Could that sight or the fog be causing the pressure in my chest? I drew as deep a breath as possible, observing a massive brass crucifix nailed to the door. No, not a crucifix, but more like the looped Egyptian cross. Beneath it, carved on a piece of wood, was a mysterious Greek inscription, Panta Rhei. Below this an iron grille was set into the door. Friar Isidore lifted the old black knocker and rapped out what was evidently a prearranged sequence. A dark brown eye gleamed on the other side of the grille, blinked as if in surprise, then disappeared.

A moment later I heard the scrape and squeal of bolts and bars and then, feeling sudden alarm for no obvious reason, I was admitted to the ancient London abbey of that Most Pious Order of Old Flete Carmelite Friars.

Friar Isidore drew a deep breath, as if in relief, and put his arm around my shoulders.


Excerpted from The Whispering Swarm © Michael Moorcock, 2015


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