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Pruning London down to her marrow: Michael Morcock’s attempt at a strategy of the implicit in London bone

Georges Letissier
p. 29-45


Plus connu en tant qu’auteur de science fiction, Michael Moorcock appartient pourtant bien à cette génération des « écrivains de Londres », dont parle abondamment Ackroyd dans sa récente biographie : London the Biography (2000). Parce que Londres est tout à la fois un palimpseste quasi infini et un organisme vivant, le récit court ne peut recréer cette densité et ce vitalisme qu’en empruntant les voies de l’implicite et en recomposant les sinuosités multiples des actes de parole. Précisément London Bone n’atteint cette moelle essentielle, tapie au cœur de l’os, qu’en définissant des modus operandi de l’implicite : l’indirection, l’interaction dialogique et le minimalisme. Entre le texte en filigrane, la force connotative des toponymes et la faconde hyperbolique des excentriques, Moorcock dessine une cartographie londonienne que le lecteur retrace pour son propre compte, en négociant des passages entre hyper-assertions et allusions discrètes. L’identité du lecteur que construit une telle stratégie de l’implicite, mobilisant différents subterfuges, est fluctuante. Il faut en effet que celui-ci puisse être ou bien le Londonien à qui ces courts récits s’adressent sur le mode de la connivence, ou alors l’étranger qui assiste fasciné à la construction de ce qui n’est rien moins qu’une mythologie de Londres !

Entrées d’index

Studied authors :

Michael Morcock

Texte intégral

  • 1  Ian Penman, “Magical history tours, London Bone”, in The Guardian, Saturday July 7, 2001.
  • 2  Michael Moorcock, Mother London, (1988), London: Sribner, 2000.
  • 3  Peter Ackroyd’s vision of London has much in common with Moorcock’s. In his London the Biography A (...)

1Michael Moorcock is probably better known for his ‘science fiction’ sagas than as a short story writer. This Londoner, now living in Texas, has hammered out no fewer than one hundred science fiction works so far. Yet there seem to be two Michael Moorcocks: alongside the ‘overlord of multivolume multiverse yomps’1, there is the native Londoner haunted by the sense of place, by London’s here and now – and here and then – since the historical perspective is invariably central to his works. This less known Moorcock, together with Peter Ackroyd, Iain Sinclair or Angela Carter, whose sense of magical realism he shares, may be ranked among the so-called ‘London writers’. London Bone, Moorcock’s 2001 tales collection is a sequel and companion piece to Mother London, Moorcock’s seminal London novel. The play on the titles – from ‘mother’ to ‘bone’ – points to a shift in narrative strategy to come to grips with one single obsession: London. Indeed, speaking about London, Moorcock remarks that the city forms ‘a geography passing beyond the natural to become metaphysical, only desirable in terms of music or abstract physics’2. From the novelistic alma mater London to a London pruned down to her backbone in the short stories and novelettes (nine in all), Moorcock has changed tack by resorting to a strategy of the implicit. But how is this implicit built into the short stories? Fiction of course presupposes the cooperative principle between text and reader. In this case it would seem that London’s written text – Moorcock’s intertextual, polyphonic London palimpsest – calls for the reader’s construction of an unwritten memory. It might be argued that London Bone, through the ‘encyclopaedia’ it somehow takes for granted, selects an ‘Ideal’, or ‘Model reader’, who would be close to an incarnation of the authentic, historically-conscious London-born and London-bred resident. So that whereas Moorcock’sci-fi tends towards the universal, his London novel and short stories are steeped in a given geographic location. Not only is such an approach directly in the vein of other London creators like Chaucer, Milton, More, Blake, Turner and of course Dickens, whom Peter Ackroyd3 describes as Cockney visionaries, but it also initiates a sort of mystique of reading by relying largely on a sense of the ‘unsaid’ and ‘unformulated, albeit over/omnipresent here and now:

  • 4  Peter Ackroyd, Albion The Origins of the English Imagination, London: Chatto & Windus, 2002, p. 30 (...)

To hear the music of the stones, to glimpse the spiritual in the local and the actual, to render tangible things the material of intangible allegory, all these are at the center of the London vision.4

2This study of the implicit in London Bone will underscore three distinctive narrative strategies at work in the collection. First it will be shown how, by circuitous means, through obliquity and indirection, Moorcock pushes the reader to infer the presence of London even if the story overtly focuses upon another spatial referent: Cairo in “The Cairene Purse”; New York in “Doves in the Circles”and a Cotswold cottage in “A Winter Admiral”. Then, through the theatrical staging of voices, it could be argued thatMoorcock fictionally represents the interaction between speech acts: a journalist reporting on a series of interviews he has conducted with a London eccentric in “The Clapham Antichrist” or a salesman’s pitch in the eponymous “London Bone”. A double level of interactive exchange is involved each time, at the level of the story (intradiegetically) between the represented voices, and in the act of reading itself which posits the co-operative contribution of the reader to actualize the story’s potentialities. This doubling of the communicative process afforded by fiction enlarges the text’s implicit and also provides the reader with more interpretative leeway. Finally, it could be demonstrated that implicitness in London Bone also derives from reductionism and minimalism, notably in “Furniture”and “Through the Shaving Mirror”, two definitely short short stories, whose pith and terseness are blatantly un-Moorcockian.

Obliquity and indirection

  • 5  H. Paul Grice, Studies in the ways of words, 1989, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 26.
  • 6  Catherine Kerbrat-Orecchioni, L’implicite, 1986, Paris : Armand Colin, p. 123-31.

3Strikingly enough, in a short story collection flaunting the centrality of the London referent, three narratives are explicitly neither of nor about London: “The Cairene Purse”, “Doves in the Circle”and “A Winter Admiral”. Admittedly, each of these three tales flouts Grice’s maxim of relevance.5 Yet any reader familiar with what Kerbrat-Orecchioni calls ‘the fictional trope’6 will know that such departure from the common norms of communication may extend the possibilities of meaning. In short, a fair hypothesis is that, when not directly mentioned, London is indirectly conjured up. In “The Cairene Purse” for instance, it is not so much that London has to be substituted for Cairo when reading, but rather that the journey to Egypt offers a possibility of added meaning which ultimately reverberates upon London. It is no coincidence that the narrator is endeavouring to find his ‘archaeologist sister’ who, it transpires, was busy uncovering an unspecified city, located in the desert and described as ‘an observatory, a scientific center, a laboratory, a library’ (LB 199). The paradigm of the primal city, pristine and undefiled, proves to be equally relevant to London. The fantasy of a subterranean city, both a subject of curiosity and Gothic fascination, is indeed a recurrent topic in Moorcock’s Mother London:

I discovered evidence that London was interlaced with connecting tunnels, home of a troglodytic race that had gone underground at the time of the Great Fire...(ML344)

4Metaphorically, writing is equated with digging and excavating and the short story writer is the antiquarian striving to get nearer to the mystery of the ‘uncanny relic’ (LB 200). The riddle of an ur-London may thus be read into the tantalising promise of the improbable city of the desert. To operate fully, Moorcock’s strategy of indirection has to blur any firm, fixed spatial and temporal landmarks. Significantly, the narrator emphasises cultural and geographic syncretism: for instance ‘Aswan had acquired the pleasant, nostalgic qualities of unfashionable British resorts like Morecambe or Yarmouth’ (LB 145), and in the course of his investigation, the narrator comes across a couple of British who have brought ‘a little bit of rural England to Upper Egypt’ (LB 164). To this loss of any firm spatial bearings is added a deliberate short-circuiting of any definite temporal perspective, as the narrator refers to himself as an “anachronism”: ‘It suited me to know that I was an anachronism; it afforded me a special kind of security’ (LB 144). By interspersing clues pointing to the instability of the spatial/temporal referent, Moorcock in “The Cairene Purse”, implicitly opens up zones of undecidability. THE NAME IS THE GAME, as the narrative snidely suggests, at one point in ‘calligraphic Arabic phonetic English’ (LB 177), therefore it is little wonder that the narrator should enter into an intertextual pun upon one of Dickens’s most riddling and linguistically unhinged creations: Mr Dick in David Copperfield

‘You don’t look much like a potential playmate!’ His eyes strayed towards the brilliant jackets of his books.
‘And you’re not entirely convincing as Mr Dick, sir.’
I stood near the books, which were all well ordered, and admired his illustrated Dickens. (LB 168)

  • 7  There is a case to be made for regarding uchrony as a way of writing between the lines of history, (...)
  • 8  Stephen C. Levinson, Pragmatics, 1983 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 17-18.

5If anything, “The Cairene Purse”, through its strategy of indirection, adumbrates ‘the relative reality of London’ (LB 172) that, in one way or another, all the stories in the collection illustrate. “Doves in the Circle” is a New York story in which the narrator gives short shrift to the notion of lost Edenic bliss. As one of the characters cryptically points out ‘If there is such a thing as unearned innocence, then America has it’ (LB 30). In the tale, two secrets are subsequently revealed: how a priest who had sexually abused a young woman was eventually castrated by his former victim, and how a tribe of Indians, the Kakatanawas, are actually the descendants of Trinovante Celts who had fled Britain after the Romans had mercilessly crushed Boudicca’s uprising in A. D. 69. Whereas the second revelation is pure uchrony7, the first disclosure – concerning the priest’s sexual misdemeanour and his prey’s retaliatory act – is crude and overexplicit. The girl claims to have bitten down the abusive priest’s penis: ‘like the worst sort of gristle’ (LB 52). The hyperstatement violates the tacit rule of implicitness that should obtain in such circumstances. It is as if the narrator were bent on transgressing what Levinson describes as ‘general conventions about the use of language that require (or, perhaps, merely recommend) a certain degree of implicitness in communication, with the consequence that it is virtually ensured that what the speaker means by an utterance U is not exhausted by the meaning of the linguistic form uttered’8. In the above example, the narrator’s incidental violation of the rule of implicitness produces a trash effect which then sends out parodic echoes through the whole short story. Hence, in retrospect, after the merciless mutilation act has been made so bluntly and graphically unequivocal, the butcher’s seemingly harmless remark that ‘All the goodness is in the marrow’ (LB 44) may be construed as a shameless double entendre. So, in the end, this supposed New York story has much of the London fibre about it. Indeed having first perfunctorily toyed with the paradigm of innocence attached to the New World, it unreservedly revives the tawdriness and bestiality Ackroyd associates to the ‘babooneries’ tradition which largely originated in London:

  • 9  Peter Ackroyd, Albion, pp.132-3.

the grotesque miniatures which obtrude in the margins of sacred books; they are known as ‘babooneries’...These ‘grotesques’, often described as ‘hideous’, appeared at the end of the twelfth century.. They are marked by bizarre medieval humour, the visual equivalent of Thomas More’s verses on farting and eating excrement. The provenance of many babooneries is taken to be London.9

  • 10  Bill Broun, “Exile from Streatham”, The Times Literary Supplement, July 10, 2001.

6If, to quote Bill Broun in the TLS10, Moorcock is occasionally prone to drive ‘his point home with all the subtlety of a double-decker bus’, some of his better stories nonetheless achieve ineffable wonder through a poetics of the implicit, as in “The Winter Admiral”, the opening tale of the collection. In this text too, London is called up from a distance and the whole narrative revolves on a loss of perspectives. Mrs Begg, a retired Londoner, now lives in a secluded cottage in the Cotswold. She is momentarily disturbed by a scraping noise coming from the pantry and, unable to get rid of this minor disturbance, she sets out for a short walk in the sunshine of a late February afternoon. By the time she returns home, on opening the pantry door, she releases a new-born red Admiral that she takes out of the house to allow it to take its flight. Framed within these two minimalist episodes, the story hinges on two traumatic scenes dating back to days long since gone, both located in London: the old lady’s father’s death, after a drinking bout in Hammersmith, and the no less frightful demise of Jack, her husband, years later in their Streatham flat. It seems that the gaps in the narrative, more precisely all the elided material – as the old woman’s whole destiny eventually boils down to two salient episodes that are merely touched upon – together with the distance at which the ageing lady is kept, make of this trivial slice of life nothing short of a story of London. The topographic precision by which a London imprinted on the memory is evoked – Hammersmith, Streatham and Mitcham – is in vivid contrast with a somewhat indefinite present location: ‘A story in a Cotswold book said this had once been known as Crone’s Cottage’(3). Through the use of the third person and free indirect speech:

He wouldn’t have known anything, love, they consoled her (5)

  • 11  Moorcock uses variations of the same patronym in several of the stories collection: Edwin Begg is (...)
  • 12  Penelope Fitzgerald, Human Voices, Flamingo, 1988.

7Mrs Begg is kept in a halo of blurredness, out of focus. Her very surname Begg – indicative of lowest human need11 E as well as the name of her cottage, Crow once known as Crone, makes of her a type more than a psychologically individualised character. Now inhabiting a place some miles off the outskirts of the metropolis, she is like a barely sketched out, scarcely audible choric figure, hovering on the edge of the polyphonic city which also happens to be the locus of most of her recollections. The bubble and the music of the distant city, so felicitously captured by Penelope Fitzgerald in Human Voices12, are wafted all the way to the rural Cotswold by the radio, which incidentally, Mrs Begg leaves playing as she sets out from her cottage for a walk.

London’s Babel of voices

8As Peter Ackroyd shows in the biography he devotes to London, the city is principally a place of theatricality. Theatrical may be construed as referring to burlette plays, variety acts all in the tradition of the Cockney braggadocio expressed in music hall performances (Max Miller, Marie Lloyd), but also in Erving Goffman’s larger acceptation of social interaction. In this sense it can be established that systems-constraints and ritual constraints foster dramaturgical mises en scène in the most banal of everyday occurrences. Moorcock writes no less than three stories as verbal performances: “London Blood”; “The Clapham Antichrist”and “LondonBone”. “London Blood”is a re-enactment, through telling as performance, of events involving shedding of blood: the Tooting tramcrash of 1929 and the woman-narrator’s probable defloration by her father. The story is recounted by an old age, one-time actress, who still ‘does some radio stuff’ (15). Right from the outset, the process of bringing back the past into the present is shown as partaking of physiology and metabolism rather than the intellect:

[Memories] stay in your blood like a dormant virus. (8)

9Short-circuiting the brain, recollections are revived by an event recreating all the conditions necessary to produce a perfect replica of the ‘original experience’: ‘It’s the reliving, not the original experience, that your brain registers.’(8) Precisely, narration is the trigger-event that is instrumental in creating felicity conditions for the memory virus to get a new lease on life. Blood therefore is both the transmitter of the mnemonic activity and the tale’s central metonymy. ‘Old blood-red brick’ is both a short-hand for London as a whole, and a conflation of blood and city. ‘That’s London for you...You see it everywhere, don’t you’(14) exclaims the narrator in a phatic injunction to the addressee. The challenging aside posits a virtual audience, an unstable you nudged into acknowledging the asseverations of a pushy old lady. The narrative capitalises on the constant indeterminacy of the signifier blood associated with the pronoun you. Of course you comprises the full-blooded pre-war generation of Londoners whom the woman-narrator belongs to, but it also concerns today’s young bloods who, by spraying hard-fired pale brick walls restore to those walls some of the old blood-red brick tinge of yore. By the same token ‘You’ is the reader, or better the radio-listener as the narrative is shaped like a broadcast and, in the last resort, the ‘you’ of the addressee bounces back on the she-narrator, whose mother repeatedly urged to give herself roots by making up her story and sticking to it:

You invented your ancestors if you didn’t have any. And those were the roots you kept alive and they kept you alive. (15)

10The fictional activity that shapes the reader’s ‘you’ fixes a plausible version of the past by keeping alive the memory of a nondescript quarter, namely Tooting. As the woman-narrator learns to differentiate ‘pretending’ and ‘deceiving’ (25) it transpires that yarn-spinning might possibly be the shortest and most sincere way of remaining faithful to the past.

  • 13  Peter Ackroyd sees in this additive, non analytical way a distinctive feature of the Cockney visio (...)

11Moorcock’s concern to revive ‘London’s picturesque obscurities’ (59) by lending them an idiosyncratic voice is nowhere more present than in “The Clapham Antichrist”. The latter is an enigmatic figure resulting from a hodgepodge of conflicting discourses, having left in their wake distant echoes of contradictory rumours. To stage this ambivalent personality, Moorcock writes a hybrid novella in the form of pastiche, imitating the conventions both of press journalism and of fiction. The narrating ‘I’ is a newspaperman who meets the so-called Clapham Antichrist specially to publish a series for The Star. Little by little, like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, the journalist dismisses gossip and hearsay to see through the perplexing London eccentric, partly falling under his spell in the process. The short fiction is laid out like a replica of an eighteenth or nineteenth century novel with a short italicised synopsis of the plot heading each section. Polymorphic writing is used to flesh out the composite character of the Antichrist, who is in turn an East-End preacher-proselytiser, a talker-entertainer touring the country with a circus to wind up as a TV personality in the 1950s, before withdrawing once and for all from public life. As the fiction of this paradigmatic lesser London celebrity – quintessentially an object and subject of discourse – unfolds in an additive, non-analytical way13, the reader is led to infer a subtext on speech pragmatics. By featuring a professional orator analysed by a journalist, Moorcock claims the meta-discursive intention underlying the tale. Indeed, notwithstanding his successive commitments and loyalties, the Clapham Antichrist abides by one central maxim:

he spoke with the deliberate air of one who respected the effect of word upon the world. (73)

12This moral premise could be interpreted as the expression of a categorical imperative bearing on the illocutionary act. Totalitarian or monolithic discourses are precisely those which, according to the narrator, depart from this principle by forcing the world to fit pre-selected words:

The Depression years had almost as many homeless and hungry people as today. Mosley was gathering a more militant flock than Jesus. (60)Goebbels’s propaganda became more interesting and rather more in the line of an authentic harbinger of evil (62)

  • 14  See Stephen C. Levinson, (1983), Pragmatics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992: ‘A secon (...)

13By contrast, the Clapham Antichrist is averse to closing off the Word in dogma and would rather press his congregation to ‘take a risk on God being right’ (61). He opposes two types of discourse: one which is homophonic and monophonic, aiming at precluding the possibility of implicature14 as much as possible:

He believed that in our terror we imposed linearity upon a naturally turbulent universe. (26)

14while the other, by contrast, relies upon polyphony and heteroglossia:

he spoke of a richly populated multiverse... We’re all reflections and echoes, one of another, and, originals, dear, are probably lost for ever. (26)

15The centrifugal novella bursting at the seams to accommodate a composite, many-faceted rhetorician promotes a form of linguistic pluralism which somehow baffles any single interpretation. Admittedly, when the story closes, the controversial Clapham Antichrist has remained largely elusive and retained much of his capacity to arouse wonder. At a loss to clinch the story once and for all the narrator resorts to a sort of evasion, thereby leaving paths open to the reader:

I had found his last revelations disturbing and my tendency was to dismiss them, perhaps as an early sign of his senility. (104)

  • 15  Peter Ackroyd, “London Luminaries and Cockney Visionaries”, in The Collection, London: Chatto & Wi (...)

16From many regards, through his linguistic odyssey, the Clapham Antichrist is closely related to the London tradition of the monopolylinguits: ‘in other words comedians or actors who play a number of quick-change parts in the course of one performance’15, the performance being in this instance confined within the boundaries of the tale.

  • 16  Peter Ackroyd, London the Biography, p. 79.

17“London Bone”, the eponymous tale, is another attempt to lend voices to colourful Londoners and to represent the city through what Ackroyd calls ‘changing soundscapes’16 The boastful, bantering tone is set immediately as the narrator refers to himself as ‘one of the last great London characters’ (107), ‘a quintessential Londoner.. a Cockney gentleman’(108). The whole narrative is a tall story, a gigantic hoax staging two cynical and unscrupulous hawkers who make a fortune by selling what they advertise as true, authentic London bone and by merchandising fragments of a putative mastodon buried under the city of London.. The story is of course reminiscent of ghoulish Victorian tales involving corpse snatchers, as it soon turns out that cemeteries are mercilessly foraged and emptied of their contents. The London bone soon becomes the latest fashion and the plot is blown out of proportion till the moment when the trick is exposed:

We both knew that it was dodgy,’ he told me...What it feels like to me, Ray, is - it feels like a sort of massive transformation of the Zeitgeist -you know, like Virginia Woolf said about the day human nature changed...Everything seems normal. Then you wake up one morning and - bingo! - it’s nazi Germany or Bolshevik Russia or Thatcherite England or the Golden Age - and all the rules have changed. (134)

  • 17  The maxim of quality:
    Try to make your contribution one that is true, specifically
    (i) do not say wh (...)
  • 18  Alexis Berelovitch, “Autrement dit”, in Essais sur le discours soviétique, Univ. De Grenoble III, (...)
  • 19  ‘Native Londoners have for many centuries been known to talk louder than their contemporaries, wit (...)

18The propensity to resort to hyperstatements, the abrupt shifts of register and the apparent non-sequitur, complete with apocryphal references are all stylistic devices instrumental in foregrounding the illocutory force of the message. The reader cannot help but think that there is method in this seemingly mad and preposterous patter. Indeed if the Gricean maxim17 of quality is being flouted - more so in fact than in ‘serious’ fiction, since in “London Bone” there is not even any plausible semblance of the referential world - some rational subtext is nonetheless implicated. The fact of the matter is that much in the same way as in Gulliver’s Travels,the whole narrative may be read as a single extended metaphor. What is presupposed - a denunciation of mass tourism trivializing London - actually informs our reading of the text. Moorcock resorts to what Alexis Berelovitch18 in an article on the SovietUnion once called Aesop’s language, in other words the use of an easily transferable fable to pass on a half-concealed meaning. However Moorcock’s purpose is obviously not to hoodwink or sidetrack any censors. What the reader can reasonably infer from this ‘London bone’ joke carried to its breaking point is the narrator’s deliberate intention to recreate the loud, rambunctious braggadocio of Londoners19 at a time when, with the increase of trans-world flights, cities are ever more liable to be pruned to mere been-to lists destined to be perfunctorily ticked off by gregarious visitors from overseas:

Saturday: Tower of London, Bucket of Blood, Jack-the-Ripper talk, Madame Tussaud’s, Covent Garden Cream Tea, Dogs. These are people so traumatised by contact with strangers that their only security lies in these rituals, these well-blazed trails and familiar chants. (106)

  • 20  Peter Ackroyd, London the Biography, p. 413.

19London, once apostrophised as a ‘City of Trees’20, has been lopped off to a mere parody of itself. Through ventriloquy, by lending his voice to garrulous, articulate Londoners, Moorcock does justice to the spirit of London while risking to adulterate somehow the conciseness of the short story form. Two tales endeavour to reconcile the pithiness of the short fiction piece with the voraciousness attached to the spirit of London: “Furniture”and “Through the Shaving Mirror or How We Abolished the Future”.

London marrow: reductionism and minimalism

20To prune London down to her marrow, Moorcock strives to convey the sense of London time. That time is closely knit with the spirit of London hardly needs emphasising. It suffices to mention in passing that Gog and Magog, the two tutelary deities of London, used to strike the hour in the eighteenth century and that because of the proximity of Greenwich upon the meridian, it was as if London were manufacturing time itself before distributing it to the rest of the world. London remains connected to the chimes of Big Ben standing for monumental time in Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and also to an old ditty preparing children for the innate destructiveness of time:

Oranges and lemons,
say the bells of St Clement’s
You owe me ten shillings,
Say the bells of St Helen’s
When will you pay me?
Say the bells of Old Bailey?
Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head.

21London’s time is linked to money in this inexorable countdown leading to death. In both “Furniture” and “Through the Shaving Mirror”which are the two shortest narratives in the collection, Moorcock plays on temporal relativity and suggests the sense of London being caught within the vortex of a vortex within a great whirlpool of time.

22In “Furniture”two historically distant events are closely interwoven in the confused mind of an elderly Londoner: Vi Corren. The eponymous piece of furniture, a second-hand table, has saved the old woman’s life twice. In 1945, when a V2 rocket hit her parents’ house, and in some indeterminate present when a bomb device has been set to blow up the building where she lives and which happens to have been earmarked for destruction, in all likelihood to make room for new featureless skyscrapers. Thanks to a superimposition of temporal strata, the Miracle Girl of the Blitz becomes one with the stubborn old lady who disregards repeated evacuation summons, and literally blacks out (228) - a most felicitous lexical choice conflating two historical moments - at the moment of the explosion. The text is thus made up of shards of kaleidoscopic time, so that the sense of historical perspective can only be inferred by the reader:

Terrible devastation. All the surrounding office blocks affected. The wireless had said Mo was on his way home when he heard the news. He usually rang her on his mobile. A real worrier, Mo. She felt so sorry for him. He hadn’t had her happy childhood.
Her mum had just been glad she was alive. (228-9. Italics mine)

  • 21  Peter Ackroyd, London the Biography, pp. 777-9.

23Past and present are merely juxtaposed as time markers have been done away with, so that the reader can only assume from details (such as the mobile) the shift from one temporal layer to another. In a way, by placing two temporally distant events on the same level, and by alluding indifferently to one or the other, the narrator calls up an idea of eternity. What strikes the reader is the undifferentiated presence of rubble. Whether those ruins are due to the Blitzkrieg or come as the result of urban development in today’s London is in fact immaterial. In both cases they allow a primeval London to resurface (resurgam21) and also make it possible for nature to reclaim her rights in this urban environment:

rosebay willowherb and dandelions and cow parsley down to St Paul’s. Good old St Paul’s. Thanks to the bombs you had a clear view across the city. Ludgate Circus. The Old Bailey... Timeless security in the heart of the city. (229)

24Historical events, it would seem, beat time to restore the immemorial past. Peter Ackroyd comes to a similar observation in his section on the Blitz in his London biography. It is, he writes, as if ‘the bombed city travelled back further back to the time when it was prehistoric marshland’. (LB 746)

25In “Through the Shaving Mirror”, Moorcock proves more daring, not to say abstruse in his treatment of temporal relativity. Obviously, this minimalist short story bears witness to the interest for science that might be expected from a sci-fi writer, yet it could be suggested that it capitalises too much on the implicit, here essentially on the reader’s own encyclopaedia, to work fully. The title is obviously a parodic reference to Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and signals Moorcock’s intention to set aside the common, empirical logic of our referential world to favour a brief foray into alternative forms of rationality. Still, the reader is tugged in two directions at the same time, farce and epistemology. The explicit reference to Chaos Math and Mandelbrot in the opening paragraph immediately prompts the reader not to dismiss as arbitrary and illogical what is apparently mind-boggling, such as the fact that a midget boxer should knock out time on a ring. In the meantime, Moorcock cracks jokes by playing on words, hinting that this scientific extravaganza should not be treated as high brow stuff. For instance, having mentioned the part of subjectivity that is allowed for by quantum physicists, the dwarf metaphysical boxer exclaims:

‘I think, therefore I thump’ (234)

26which sends waves of panic in his interlocutor, a drunkard by the name of Float:

Float’s timid attention returned to the claret. The merest whisper of big bangs had him reaching for his jug. (234)

  • 22  In 1935, Erwin Schrödinger proposed a ‘thought experiment’ to highlight one of the ways in which q (...)

27The text evolves a form of baroque aesthetics by sending out significantly different signals: ‘metaphysical’ (233), ‘Surrealist’(233), while being replete with scientific jargon ‘photon’, ‘neutron’, ‘pixel’, ‘space time curve’, ‘baffled-quantum trick’ and so on. So much so that an unexplained allusion such as: ‘How cats can turn off time? With a suitable lens, of course.’ could be read as a not very convincing aphorism, when in fact a more plausible assumption would be that it is an oblique hint at Shrödinger’s cat experiment22. Within the context of London Bone, the salient episode of this short story is the knocking out of Big Ben by the metaphysical boxer. The anecdote is spiced up by the allusion to corruption:

Strong rumbles in the sporting fancy. Someone had slipped the monster timepiece a heavy envelope to lie down. London was now on Chinese time... (233-4)

  • 23  In Dali’s The Persistence of Memory or in The Soft Watch or Soft Watch At the Moment of First Expl (...)

28This story in the form of a parable on London time is Moorcock’s own attempt at tackling the aporia of temporality. In a sense, through the visual impact it seeks to produce, it is reminiscent of Dali’s own endeavour to picture the paranoid camembert of space-time23. Yet the profusion of allusions in Moorcock’s short fiction piece largely prevents the text from attaining maximum effect.

29Moorcock’s perceptible intention in London Bone is obviously to provide the reader with his quintessential version of what might be called the London palimpsest. Because of the scope of this subject matter, such an experiment in writing can only rely on the capacity to draw maximum profit from the implicit. In this study, diverse modus operandi of the implicit have been brought to light, chiefly indirection, speech act performances and minimalism. In this plurivocal evocation of London which often takes the form of an anamnesis, emblematic topoï are selected through their connotative force: blood red brick, waste grounds, Big Ben and so on. Place names are undoubtedly abundantly used as they are likely to spark off images in the reader’s mind. This naturally raises the question of the receiver’s ‘you’ implied in the text. ‘You’ simultaneously designates the Londoners sharing in a common experience - ‘that’s London blood for you’ strengthens this sense of group belonging - and the outsider, whose curiosity is aroused by the mythology in the making. After all, those short tales are all initiations to the arcane mysteries of the Great Wen. The London oral tradition is paid homage to in this short story collection which, while merely purporting to convey the ‘the relative reality of London’ (my italics), leaves ample space to the implicit.


Ackroyd, Peter. London The Biography (2000), London: Vintage, 2001.

The Collection, Journalism, Reviews, Essays, Short Stories, Lectures, London: Chatto & Windus, 2001.

Albion, The Origins of the English Imagination, London: Chatto & Windus, 2002.

Brown, Gillian & Yule, George. Discourse Analysis (1983), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Fitzgerald, Penelope, Human Voices (1980), London: Flamingo, 1988.

Kerbrat-Orechioni, Catherine. L’Implicite (1986), Paris: Armand Colin, 1998.

Levinson, C. Stephen. Pragmatics (1983), Cambridge: Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics, 1992.

Moorcock, Michael. Mother London (1988), London: Scribner, 2000.

— Michael. London Bone (2001), London: Scribner, 2002.

Woolf, Virginia, Mrs Dalloway (1925), London: Granada, 1982.


1  Ian Penman, “Magical history tours, London Bone”, in The Guardian, Saturday July 7, 2001.

2  Michael Moorcock, Mother London, (1988), London: Sribner, 2000.

3  Peter Ackroyd’s vision of London has much in common with Moorcock’s. In his London the Biography Ackroyd describes Moorcock’s Mother London as ‘a late twentieth-century hymn to the city’, see London the Biography, (2000), London: Vintage 2001, p. 565.    

4  Peter Ackroyd, Albion The Origins of the English Imagination, London: Chatto & Windus, 2002, p. 307.

5  H. Paul Grice, Studies in the ways of words, 1989, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 26.

6  Catherine Kerbrat-Orecchioni, L’implicite, 1986, Paris : Armand Colin, p. 123-31.

7  There is a case to be made for regarding uchrony as a way of writing between the lines of history, for giving a form of textual or fictitious actuality to the implicit of historiography.

8  Stephen C. Levinson, Pragmatics, 1983 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 17-18.

9  Peter Ackroyd, Albion, pp.132-3.

10  Bill Broun, “Exile from Streatham”, The Times Literary Supplement, July 10, 2001.

11  Moorcock uses variations of the same patronym in several of the stories collection: Edwin Begg is the Clapham Antichrist in the eponymous story, his ancestors were the van Beeks (84) and in the “Cairene Purse” the narrator is von Bek.     

12  Penelope Fitzgerald, Human Voices, Flamingo, 1988.

13  Peter Ackroyd sees in this additive, non analytical way a distinctive feature of the Cockney visionary tradition, see London The Biography, 771.

14  See Stephen C. Levinson, (1983), Pragmatics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992: ‘A second important contribution made by the notion of implicature is that it provides some explicit account of how it is possible to mean (in some general sense) more than what is actually ‘said’ i.e. more than what is literally expressed by the conventional sense of the linguistic expressions uttered.’  

15  Peter Ackroyd, “London Luminaries and Cockney Visionaries”, in The Collection, London: Chatto & Windus, p. 344.

16  Peter Ackroyd, London the Biography, p. 79.

17  The maxim of quality:
Try to make your contribution one that is true, specifically
(i) do not say what you believe to be false
(ii) do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence. Stephen C. Levinson, Pragmatics, p. 101.

18  Alexis Berelovitch, “Autrement dit”, in Essais sur le discours soviétique, Univ. De Grenoble III, 1981, pp. 139-156.

19  ‘Native Londoners have for many centuries been known to talk louder than their contemporaries, with a marked tendency towards shouting. London has become one unyiedling and unending shout.’, London the Biography, p. 79.  

20  Peter Ackroyd, London the Biography, p. 413.

21  Peter Ackroyd, London the Biography, pp. 777-9.

22  In 1935, Erwin Schrödinger proposed a ‘thought experiment’ to highlight one of the ways in which quantum mechanics contradicts our experiences of reality. His proposal involved placing a cat (a macroscopic object) inside a closed box with a vial of cyanide and a radioactive atom initially prepared in the metastable state (a microscopic object). The radioactive atom has a probability of decaying in one hour. If it decays, then the cyanide is released and the cat dies; if it does not decay, then the cyanide is not released and the cat remains unharmed.
The paradox arises because the atom, being a microscopic object, must be described by quantum mechanics. After one hour, and before it is observed, the atom is in an equal superposition of being decayed and undecayed. However, if quantum mechanics is a universal and complete theory, it must describe the whole system. And, since the state of the cat is correlated with the state of the atom, the cat must also be in a superposition of being dead and alive. This clearly contradicts our everyday experience of cats!
This apparent contradiction arises whenever the state of macroscopic objects is correlated with that of microscopic objects. It comes about because in our own experience of our macroscopic surroundings, objects are either in one state or another, but not in a superposition of several states at the same time.    

23  In Dali’s The Persistence of Memory or in The Soft Watch or Soft Watch At the Moment of First Explosion, time’s relativity is pictorially suggested by flabby watches hanging loose on a skeleton-like tree branch or by a watch in the process of being blown to pieces. Time is, as it were, visually beaten in the same way as in “Through the Shaving Mirror”there are many allusions to time being knocked out: ‘Expensive watches would only be the first victims of our dwarf’s distemper’ (234), or to pugilistic fighting involving time, ‘Against advice he’d challenged Big Ben to a ‘no quarter’ fin-de-millenium celebratory bout. That the parliamentary clock had accepted was surprising...’ (233), ‘A classy clock fighting for a consortium of Istanbul high rollers backing the Julian calendar’ (236)

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Georges Letissier, « Pruning London down to her marrow: Michael Morcock’s attempt at a strategy of the implicit in London bone », Journal of the Short Story in English, 40 | 2003, 29-45.

Référence électronique

Georges Letissier, « Pruning London down to her marrow: Michael Morcock’s attempt at a strategy of the implicit in London bone », Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 40 | Spring 2003, mis en ligne le 29 juillet 2008, consulté le 29 mars 2017. URL :


Georges Letissier

Georges Letissier is senior lecturer at Nantes University. He has published articles on 19th century fiction and poetry and on contemporary novel-writing (Ackroyd, Byatt, Swift). His main field of study is “Victorian afterlife” in postmodern culture, and more especially in literary creation (historiographical and epistemological aspects). Through Ackroyd and his London’s palimpsest, he has come across recent “London luminaries and Cockney visionaries”, among whom Angela Carter, Michael Moorcock and Iain Sinclair. Currently he is working on a study of the post-Victorian novel.

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