19 MAY 2001, Page 43

Danger just round the corner

Miranda France

LONDON BONE by Michael Moorcock Scribner, £9,99, pp. 246, ISBN 0684861429 Michael Moorcock's new collection of short stories shows that you should never trust polished surfaces. His characters speak reassuringly, often directly to the reader. As a rule of thumb, the more friendly the tone, the more worried you should be about what nasty revelation may be coming up.

Some of these men and women move in high circles and have epicurean tastes. Others are ingenious, like the West End ticket tout who finds lucrative work selling pieces of dinosaur bone from London's ancient clay-pits. The fragments, which are attractively luminous and seem to have been etched by primitive hands, become prized by rich tourists. As sole dealers, the tout and his mate are soon rolling in money.

Then it transpires that the bone is neither ancient nor animal, but something closer to home: the unwitting tourists have been shelling out for bits of dead Londoners. That ought to be an end of it, but Moorcock's world is not so straightforward Rather than being repelled by 'London Bone', the collectors become greedier, getting a taste for dead celebrities. Winston Churchill disappears, then George Eliot and Oscar Wilde. The tabloids shout for an end to the 'disgusting trade'. Cremation becomes more popular than burial.

There is no safe ground in these stories. Long before we know the deed that Father McQueeny has done, we realise that it must be something really awful from the description of his entrance into a pub: 'His almost formless body undulates to the bar, settles over a stool and seems to coagulate on it.'

Moorcock unravels a little mystery at a time so that what starts out seeming ordinary, even dull, slides gradually into an unworldly realm. A man in a suit talks casually of having a love affair with an angel. In 'The Cairene Purse', an archaeologist, renowned for her pragmatism, swears that she has been made pregnant by an alien. Even in this uncertain world there is room for a few down-to-earth jokes. Her alien lover won't be returning, the archaeologist confesses, because 'Earth's not a very important project.'

The unworldly sensation in these stories is heightened by their setting, which is often in a very near future. In 'London Bone', Andrew Lloyd-Webber still dominates the West End. His latest venture, Dogs, is a 'last desperate attempt to squeeze from Thurber what he'd sucked from Eliot'.

`The Cairene Purse' is also set a few years hence, at a time when pollution and climate change are beginning to take their drastic toll. Parts of the world have been lost to flooding. Plane travel and energy use are now rationed. People are taking refuge from the frightening changes in cranky beliefs, with various groups around the world claiming a reincarnated John Lennon as their leader.

In the weird and anarchic world Moorcock creates you can well understand why people might turn to unorthodox beliefs, even to John Lennon. But getting pregnant by an alien is surely always a bad idea.