Brian Holt. What a great teacher.
Good teachers bring their subject alive. They transmit their enthusiasm. It’s infectious and addictive and, apart from hooking you with a habit that will last a lifetime, they introduce you to material you’ve never previously encountered, material that will change your life.
Brian (”Bri”) Holt was my English teacher for the last two years of my secondary school education at Wigan Boys’ Grammar School, circa 1968/70 and he was the best schoolteacher I ever encountered. He brought Shakespeare, Dickens, Graham Greene, The Canterbury Tales et al to life for me. I’d enjoyed reading stories ever since I could do so but “English Literature” had for me always been cloaked with a dusty and stultifying patina of boredom. Up until Bri, my English teachers were, on the whole, old and apathetic gown-shrouded bores who were reduced to repeating mantras they’d been trotting out since the late cretaceous. They also wore mortarboards on occasion, rendering them even more antediluvian.
Bri never wore a gown, not for teaching anyway. He shone. He stalked up and down his classroom, in which he had arranged the desks so we could view his performance in the round, reading texts out loud with an actor’s skill and generally holding forth like a witty and eloquent evangelist for literature. As well as a teacher, he was also the director of the plays performed at the school and the local am dram group.
Once a week he made a point of deviating from the ordained curriculum and simply reading us a chapter or sequence from a book or short story completely detached from our prescribed exam texts, anything from Henry Miller to science fiction. I was already a fan of horror fiction and had read some SF (struggling through Frankenstein when I was twelve) but he introduced us to a genre I knew little about: Fantasy. He started with The Lord of the Rings: the Mines of Moria sequence. Good start. A month or two later he announced that the reading for the week was the last chapter of Stormbringer by one Michael Moorcock.
That was it. The grammar school was in the centre of Wigan and, as soon as the bell sounded for lunch hour, I immediately rushed out and bought the book along with the collection of earlier Elric stories, The Stealer of Souls. I was hooked.
And I was lucky to be hooked at exactly this time. Though there were a few books already available, I was able to read most of Mike’s output as it was published. I breathlessly raced my way through each book of the Hawkmoon, Count Brass, Corum, Eternal Champion and Dancers at the End of Time series. The sheer visionary experiences I enjoyed reading these stories blew my mind. A quaint expression I agree, but it perfectly describes the effect they had. The Oswald Bastable books, steampunk well before the genre definition, were a huge influence on me, along with the Jerry Cornelius and Una Persson stories. And, just when I thought I knew his range, Mike would produce something like The Brothel on Rosenstrasse, The Retreat From Liberty or Mother London.
I started my career in Brit underground comics and the first few I did, although mainly hallucinogenic picturebooks for acidheads and the terminally stoned, were very much influenced by Mike’s psychedelic sensibilities and the whole ethos of shifting realities that pervades his writings. In 1976, when I had the opportunity to do a science fiction strip, I jumped at the chance to produce a comic in line and watercolour wash, the medium of a favourite underground comic artist of mine, Richard Corben. I needed a suitable story and hero.
I’d read somewhere, probably in New Worlds, that Moorcock had designed Jerry Cornelius to be a sort of template – a protagonist any writer was free to use. I don’t know if this was correct, looking back, but that’s how I understood it at the time, so I based my English assassin, Luther Arkwright, on JC. This first adventure, an eight –pager, was entitled The Papist Affair. It was a violent, tongue-in-cheek romp set in a parallel England rent by religious wars and featured such unutterable silliness as machine gun-toting, cigar-smoking nuns clad in black stockings and garter belts, the “sacred relics of Saint Adolf of Nuremburg” and a kung fu fight with an evil archbishop (later plaguarized in Grant Morrison’s very first published comic strip starring his own copycat Cornelius, Gideon Stargrave).
It was only after I’d finished drawing the strip that I started thinking about the character and situation in any real depth. Parallel worlds were nothing new in SF but I’d been introduced to the concept through Mike’s stories and I found the notion fascinating. Ideas flooded my imagination. I saw that here was a great potential for another Arkwright story, a serious story, bigger, more intricate and, more importantly, my own. Cornelius’ “Time Centre” evolved into my “Parallel 00.00.00” – a whole atheist temporal alternative at peace within itself, ruled by science and logic and bent on “maintaining the equilibrium” in a multiverse infiltrated and corrupted by “Disruptors”. The story itself was a vague metaphor for the second law of thermodynamics.
I reinvented my protagonist. Arkwright ceased to be a Cornelius clone and became his own man: one part David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, one part Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, one part me. I saw him as part of a literary progression that went something like: Sherlock Holmes > Phillip Marlowe > James Bond > Jerry Cornelius > Luther Arkwright. The whole story was filtered through a wide gamut of influences from Nic Roeg through Robert Anton Wilson to William Hogarth via Sam Peckinpah and William Blake. Mike’s influence was still definitely there to be seen – Arkwright had white hair and his companion, the flatulent, foul-mouthed Harry Fairfax, was clearly a bastard cousin of Moonglum – but the hero and story were definitely mine. I discussed this once with Mike and he agreed, much to my relief, and later kindly wrote the introduction to the Arkwright graphic novel.
Of course, this wasn’t the first time he’d influenced comic creators. In the early 70s, Marvel Comics’ innovative Adam Warlock, complete with a soul-stealing jewel in his skull, was an obvious homage by writer/artist Jim Starlin. In the UK, Jim Cawthorn adapted several Moorcock stories for Savoy Books in the late 70s and the French SF comic Metal Hurlant featured Moorcock inspired strips, notably Moebius’ The Airtight Garage of Jerry Cornelius and and Phillipe Druillet’s Elric. Since then, Mike’s ideas have become part of the SF and fantasy comic language, totally pervading both genres.
And I’ve worked intermittently in the world of steampunk ever since: drawing the Gothic Empire storyline in Nemesis the Warlock for 2000AD and writing and drawing Teknophage for Tekno Comix. The Adventures of Luther Arkwright was the first steampunk graphic novel and has been in print for thirty years in several countries, now in a new digitally remastered edition. A few years ago I wrote and drew the sequel, Heart of Empire and I’m currently working on a steampunk detective-thriller, Grandville, none of which would have come to pass without the direct influence of Michael Moorcock who changed my life by teaching me, through his writings, a way of viewing the world and a way of perceiving fiction.
He and Bri Holt have a lot to answer for.