Michael Innes and Michael Moorcock, From London Far and Modem Times 2.0

I’ve just realised how long it is since my last post – it’s longer than I thought. Neither have I been getting out much lately, in part because we had ongoing building work; I did get to a talk at the Royal Society on Paul Dirac a fortnight ago, which was excellent. Graham Farmelo wrote an excellent biography of Dirac, The Strangest Man. Dirac was a decidedly odd person, but the biography gets behind the peculiarity and shows, very sympathetically, that there was a feeling human there. It does a good job of explaining the science, too. I enjoyed the talk very much, it wasn’t just a reiteration of facts from the book, and Graham Farmelo is quite funny, too.

I haven’t read a Michael Innes book for several years, but have enjoyed the ones I have read in the past. I picked up an old copy of From London Far the other day. Once I got a little way into it I was mildly surprised, I imagine because there was a subconscious expectation of Appleby appearing at some point; but he doesn’t. Instead the main protagonist is Meredith, a very donnish middle-aged academic (the book was written at a time when Innes (i.e. J I M Stewart) was a middle-aged academic) who unwittingly stumbles ‘from Thackeray to Buchan’. It is a Buchanesque plot, in particular I am thinking of the Dickson McCunn stories which feature a well-to-do middle-aged grocer from Glasgow who is propelled into mysterious and dangerous activities in Huntingtower, although with shades of The Thirty-nine Steps. Both From London Far and Huntingtower are amusing as well as exciting, and revolve in part round isolated mansions and mysterious foreign agents or international criminals.

As is usual in an Innes novel there are many and varied literary allusions, the majority of which I don’t recognise; the title of the novel comes from Samuel Johnson’s poem London, which I have read, but still didn’t recognise. Highly recommended, well constructed, I found myself very much propelled through the book, although as in many books of this genre some of the coincidences, or perhaps rather, the number of coincidences, strains the credulity somewhat at times. Graham Greene described a different Innes story as ‘both fantastic and funny’, and that is a good description of From London Far.

There’s also the language, so well crafted it’s a joy to read. Two examples: ‘Mrs Cameron was given to religious enthusiasm and so, in Jean’s view, was on the thither side of sanity also.’[p202] ‘The man was … simultaneously enjoying the remains of a cigar and a thoughtful study of the girl’s knees. Habit apart, there seemed to be no reason why he should not study the superincumbent parts of her anatomy as well, for the girl was stripped for bathing to a degree which Meredith could not at all approve.’ [p238]

Reading From London Far has also prompted me to read Johnson & Boswell’s Scottish travels once more, as well as resolving to reread the Dickson McCunn series in the near future.

Modem TimesThe other piece of fiction I’ve read recently was a new Jerry Cornelius story, a character that has been written about by a plethora of authors, as well as appearing in comic strips, rock songs, and a rather bad movie, but this novella is by Michael Moorcock, the character’s inventor. Reading Modem Times 2.0 was quite comforting in a way (which is the last thing one might expect) – because of the familiarity of the characters rather than the cosiness of the subject matter. Shakey Mo, Major Nye, Bishop Beesley, Miss Brunner, and of course Catherine, Frank and Mrs Cornelius. The major difference between this and The Final Programme, where it all started, is Moorcock’s style which has developed since the late Sixties.

Jerry Cornelius is, apparently, one of those things you either get or you don’t get. If you are one of the people who do, this is well worth reading; if you are someone who doesn’t, it’s not going to change your mind. There’s also an interesting short nonfiction piece, My Londons, a bibliography and an interview, which just about manage to pad the thing out to slim book length (122 pages).

I imagine the Cornelius story will eventually be anthologised – I feel sorry for completist Moorcock collectors as he is forever repackaging story collections and lightly rewriting novels.

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