Alan Moore Interview, Part V: Underland, Hancock, Jerusalem, Literary Difficulty

The fifth and final part of my Alan Moore interview.

As I was finishing up the book, I was re-reading an interview with you [in Reflex, December 1991] and there was a one line reference to a project called Underland that I’d never seen mentioned anywhere else.

That may even have been a follow up to A Small Killing for Gollancz. Somewhere around that time. I had a book called London Under London, that Neil Gaiman had sent me when I was researching From Hell. I wanted to do something with Steve Parkhouse, and I came up with the idea of a subterranean world under London that linked up all these interesting underground spaces and had its own inhabitants and its class system. It was going to have a girl whose sister had vanished, been spirited away into this underland, and the girl – I meant it as a grown up children’s story, the adventures of this girl exploring this world and finally rescuing her sister. The same length as A Small Killing, something like that. I mentioned this in that interview and I got a phone call from Neil Gaiman saying he’d signed a deal with Lenny Henry’s production company to do Neverwhere. Given that Neil had sent me the book originally, I felt duty bound to say ‘oh well, you were here first, so I guess I’ll forget Underland’.

You’ve not done many children’s stories, is it a genre that appeals?

I submitted a proposal, I forget who to, to someone who was looking for a children’s book. This was prior to Bojeffries. It was about an unprepossessing, oddly willful child like a younger Ginda Bojeffries who was a belligerent genius who could have adventures on the Moon. It wasn’t what they were looking for, they wanted something for very young children. I got the impression I wouldn’t be that good writing for young children, I’m a tiny bit bitter and ironic. That said, Blanket Shanty with Shawn McManus, that was a Tom Strong story done as a bedtime story.

You’ve got Timothy Tate and Lobelia Loam in 2000AD …

They were still horrific stories. Blanket Shanty was aimed at small children … I probably could do children’s material in the right circumstances. Whether I’ll get round to it now, I don’t know. I avoided it for a while because it was trendy. I like some of the things about children’s stories, but I didn’t want to be jumping on a JK Rowling bandwagon. The whole middle section of Jerusalem is about a gang of children running around time in a four dimensional afterlife. It reads like a children’s book, but it’s not because it’s a much stranger story, it’s adult, it’s not meant for children.

One thing I can’t work out is where your music fits in. Clearly some of the recent work is linked to the magical … project, if that’s the right word. But with things like the Emperors of Ice Cream, is that a hobby, is that you letting off steam, or is that part of your serious artistic endeavours?

I’m basically still at the Arts Lab, it’s just an incredibly enabled Arts Lab with whatever contributors I want. With the Arts Lab all of my needs to express myself, all my urges, had an outlet. I could do comic strips, I could do poetry, I could do music. My emphasis has had to be on writing, but I’ve never abandoned drawing or performance. There’s never been a need to. I don’t define myself purely as a writer. ‘Magician’ is a handy word, as it’s almost the same as saying ‘artist’, but artist sounds so pretentious. Like Tony Hancock in The Rebel. My approach has always been the same, and I’m more mature and capable, but it’s the same impulse.

I don’t feel I’m part of the comics industry, any more than when Jerusalem is done I’ll feel like I’m part of the literature industry. I certainly don’t feel part of the music or film industry. I am probably at an Arts Lab in my head. An enthusiastic amateur. Yes, I get money for it now, but in my heart I’ll always be an amateur – someone who does it for the amour, for the love.

So, do you have hobbies that aren’t artistic?

(Laughs) No. I don’t have time for anything other than reading, and that generally ends up being unexpected research. Just read a book today, by my friend the magician Joel Biroco, A World of Dust. Interesting, really good stuff. I continue to enjoy books and the very occasional film. The last enjoyable film I saw was A Field in England. So, I don’t really have hobbies. I’ve taken to going for walks lately, generally with Alistair Fruish, a very knowledgeable young man, we have walks all around Northamptonshire. I’ve known him since he asked me back to the Grammar School to talk to the kids. He works in the prison system now, he took me over to Wellingborough nick a couple of years ago, the lifers. They don’t get much entertainment, but I’ve apparently got a strong part of my readership inside. And these are ordinary blokes who had a really bad day and did something fucking stupid and after that point they would never be ‘not a murderer’. For the rest of their lives they can’t ever be ‘not a murderer’.

The other day, on a riverside in Northampton, Alistair and me found the source of the industrial revolution and capitalism. Check out the cotton mill founded in 1741, the first powered mill in the world. So there’s the birth of industry. Adam Smith heard about it or visited it, and said ‘all these looms work without anyone to manage them, it’s almost like an invisible hand’. So that’s the central metaphor of capitalism.

[Discussion has turned to Jerusalem, a massive novel Moore has been working on for many years which is set in Northampton.]

You’re nearly finished?

I’m on the last chapter, but then there’s an epilogue. So about one and a half chapters to go.

What are your hopes for it? How do you think it’s going to be received?

With Jerusalem, I embarked upon it purely because it was the book I wanted to write. It’s about the neighbourhood I grew up in and its very fascinating history, also the history of my family in the area which has its unusual side. Lots of lots of fantasy is mixed in there, and theories of the nature of time and life and death. When I was speaking to Melinda [Gebbie – Moore’s wife (and the artist on Cobweb and Lost Girls)] about it, she very perceptively said that it sounded to her like ‘genetic mythology’, and I thought, after all why should it be only aristocrats and pharaohs and monarchs that have genetic mythology? Shouldn’t people in slums be entitled to their own? So that was part of the urge, and in writing it, I realised that this is exactly the novel I wanted to write.

I am really proud of it, I think it’s sensational. That is, of course, just my own opinion. I am aware that conventional criticism will probably say that it’s about ten times too long, that it’s difficult in places, that some of the passages were deliberately alienating.

Actually I’ve just discovered – I’ve been reading lots of books of literary criticism, mostly about HP Lovecraft to do with Providence, which is a really big job that I’m about halfway through. My armchair is walled in with Lovecraft reference books, I’ve got everything. And I’m starting to pick up ideas from literary criticism, which I’d previously dismissed as poncey because I hadn’t seriously looked at it.

The concept of ‘literary difficulty’ – doing something that will put off a percentage of the audience but will force those who remain to engage with the work on a deeper level. It will challenge people. Now, if I’d had that concept before I’d written the first chapter of Voice of the Fire [told as the first person narration of a Neolithic settler, using a limited vocabulary], I’d have done it exactly like I did, except even moreso. That’s exactly what I did it for, even though I couldn’t have explained it like that.

There will be elements of literary difficulty with Jerusalem – actually lifting the book will be among the difficulties. It’s going to be a very forbidding book in terms of its sheer size and because it’s about the underclass. There is no better way of ensuring that you don’t get a readership of your book than making it about underclass people. In the current climate getting any fiction published is difficult.

I can take unfair advantage of my position. Only I could do this, only I could spend eight years of intense work on it, only I could actually recount what happened in that neighbourhood with those people, and only I am in a position where I could do that without worrying about getting it published. I don’t need to go with a big publisher, they don’t really have anything to offer me. It’s not a big, popular book or a beach read, I’d much rather have a small publisher who had some understanding of what I was doing.

The only ambition I have for Jerusalem is for it to exist. I’m under no illusions that anybody is going to say this is the greatest book of the century. No, no, it’s probably far too difficult for that. It’s just an accurate expression of part of my life and part of my being that also includes lots of other subjects that have become part of that: history, economics, poverty, the Gothic revival, the Gothic movement which started in Northampton with James Hervey, Charlie Chaplin, wars and ghosts, psychological and factual. Family and famous people who’ve passed through this neighbourhood.

Beyond that, fate will have to take its course. I don’t have another prose novel in mind after this. Maybe a really big poem at some point in the future, I have an inkling for one. There’s more League stuff, there’s the book of magic, there’s Providence which I want to be – in my terms – the definitive Lovecraft story. Then there are the films, we’ve got the Kickstarter money for that, and then there’s the possibility of a feature film and TV series after that, both called The Show. Pipe dreams at the moment, they may not come in to land. But a lot of things that have been brewing for years are falling into place.

Alan Moore Interview IV: Arnie, Bernie, Faecquels

In one interview, you talk about a meeting with a senior DC manager threatening you with Watchmen prequels, but you didn’t go into details of that meeting, so -

As far as I remember, this was when Jenette Kahn was in this country. If I had to take a guess, I would say that was the end of 1986. It was after we’d started to fall out, but at that time there was still the overhanging thing of the Watchmen film, which I’d initially agreed to. So this was right at the end of our relationship, when things were looking very, very dodgy, and this was a meeting with Joel Silver and Jenette Kahn.

As I remember it, we were in some hotel lobby. We met Jenette Kahn first. Joel Silver would be joining us. And in the time we were waiting for him to arrive, Jenette Kahn said that they were talking about doing prequels to Watchmen including Andy Helfer writing one, I think, somebody else was doing the Comedian in Vietnam. And then she said ‘but of course we wouldn’t do this if you were still working for us’. And I just went silent while I processed that. I think Dave Gibbons said, ‘Well, I’ve been assured that you won’t be doing that anyway,’ and she seemed to accept that. But I was thinking, ‘you just threatened me, I know what that was, I don’t know if you can do it or not, but you just threatened me and this is not how I want to conduct business relationships’.

There was then a rather uncomfortable meeting when Joel Silver turned up, and he was going through stuff like ‘what about Arnold Schwarzenegger as Dr Manhattan?’, and I was saying I didn’t think he’d be able to handle the dialogue about quantum physics, and he said ‘oh no, he’s a really smart guy’. I still didn’t think he could handle quantum physics, but … well, we left as soon as the meeting was concluded, and, yeah, that was one of things that made me sever contact with DC shortly thereafter. That was on the negative scale that was starting to add up.

[We then discussed the ins and outs of disputes over Marvelman at some length. To cut a long story short, Marvelman had been published in Warrior, edited by Dez Skinn and with art by Alan Davis. Pacific Comics bought the US reprint rights to Marvelman … and promptly went bankrupt. Eclipse acquired the rights (and eventually published it, as Miracleman, to avoid a trademark dispute with Marvel Comics). During this period, Moore and his Warrior editor Dez Skinn fell out. Moore had also fallen out with Marvel Comics, when his editor there (Bernie Jaye) left the company – Moore had been working with Davis there on Captain Britain. This, in turn, led to Moore and Davis falling out].

As I remember it, when Bernie Jaye was fired, we were both of us filled with young man’s testosterone, you know, we both really liked Bernie, and as I remember it, we were both saying ‘well, that’s it for us and Marvel’. However, I think that Alan [Davis] might have regretted saying that. If indeed he did. Maybe he didn’t gainsay it, and I took that as assent. This might be where some of the problems arose – if Alan had thought ‘I don’t really want to cut myself off from Marvel Comics’. It might have been then that these other fairly trivial things started to arise. He seemed suspicious of everybody and began taking jokes seriously. It might have been his way of distancing himself from any idea of a shared agenda.

By the time I was enmired with Eclipse I wasn’t in contact with Alan Davis, and I was totally at the mercy of what I was being told by [Eclipse editors] Cat Yronwode and Dean Mullaney . . . genuinely the reason I was stickling over delivering new work to Eclipse was because, while I didn’t much like Alan Davis at that point, and I thought he was a bit of a grumpy person who I hadn’t got any interest in talking to again, I didn’t want him to be cheated. I didn’t want anyone to be cheated. [Pauses] I should have done more. In retrospect I should have demanded.

By then, there were strains on the relationship with Dez Skinn. I had just signed the deal for Watchmen, which at that point I believed was a brilliant new deal that would allow the copyright of the material to return to us after an interval. As I remember, I sold the idea to David Lloyd on that basis. Which is one of the things I felt particularly bad about afterwards. They were offering a better deal than Eclipse. With Marvelman, that was something Dez partly owned, so I was prepared to let that go where it was going to go. That process was underway. DC was making the offer for V, and that was on the same basis as the Watchmen contract. Shortly after that came the realisation that we weren’t going to get these copyrights back.

So, um, shouldn’t you have read your contract more carefully?

The problem arose after the fact. Well after the fact. With DC we did read through the contracts and some of the language was impenetrable, but we thought we knew what it meant. And also when clauses say something like, I can’t remember exactly, ‘if for any reason you do not wish to sign a contract, then we have the power to sign it for you’, we were told that was standard contract stuff, it goes into all the contracts and doesn’t mean anything. And we’d never seen a contract before, and we had no reason to mistrust people at that point.

The Jim Lee contracts [in the late nineties, for the America’s Best Comics line, published though Lee’s company Wildstorm], that was done knowingly, because that seemed like a better deal and a more certain deal for the people whose livelihood I was trying to protect. It seemed they would be getting more money up front and this was a raft of characters who I was creating and I’d just be doing a few issues of each of them. Above and beyond that, I trusted Jim Lee, I thought he’d always been a perfectly equitable fellow to deal with, and if something showed up where the contracts weren’t working, we could renegotiate.

So nowadays do you read your Avatar contracts and your Top Shelf contracts?

Er .. yes. That’s not to say something couldn’t go wrong in the future. I still don’t get a lawyer to look at things, because that seems to me mistrustful. Yes, I know that sounds stupid, given that it’s obviously an industry I mistrust, but I do really prefer to be working with people on the assumption everyone’s being honest with each other. I’d rather not work with people than be in a continual state of mistrust.

[Moore picks up on a line in the manuscript that states that he’s entitled to money from the Before Watchmen prequel series]

I have received no money for the Watchmen faecquels, as I call them. I saw this word in the Viz profanisaurus, it means ‘a sequel or a prequel that is shit’. I certainly didn’t get any money for any of those books. I’m not sure DC did – I heard that they abandoned the final capstone of the series due to lack of interest.

Apparently, based on its chart position – and strictly when senior management are out of earshot – junior DC staffers have started referring to it as Below Hawkman.

(Laughs). Well. (Laughs). Yes … that’s amusing. To the best of my knowledge, they are not contracted to give me money for Before Watchmen.

There was a point writing this book where I suddenly realised that I had more rights and control over my work about Alan Moore than Alan Moore usually did with his own work. I thought it was a little insane that anywhere except comics -

- I would never have had all this trouble. Yeah. I’m naturally quite a placid individual in many ways. Looking back at some of the stuff that happened, I was laughing incredulously, not because what you said didn’t happen, but because it did. I’ve had people tell me ‘in any other industry, if someone like you turned up, they would bend over backwards to accommodate you’, and I don’t expect that, but there seems to be something personal in the way I’m treated by some of these people.

DC couldn’t have possibly thought Watchmen would be a bestseller for twenty-five years -

Nobody did.

- and I’ve had people who work in the publishing industry read my book and they’ve said ‘rights reversion clauses are absolutely standard’ and got a little cross with you … but then they’ve read on and seen the way DC treated you, and they all say that if they had an author like you who was selling books and winning awards, and that author wanted to keep working with them, but he wanted to renegotiate the terms of his old contracts … well, they’d invite him down and take him out for a nice meal and renegotiate the terms of his old contracts.

Course they would. The writers who followed me got much better deals than I did, because I’d been though that minefield.

So why weren’t DC nicer to you?

It may go back to Paul Levitz’s initially incomprehensible remark about me: ‘you are the biggest mistake I ever made’. Which almost seems to be predetermining our relationship. This is only a guess, but I think they perhaps thought ‘yes, he’s selling a lot of copies, we’ll take advantage of this, but this person has too much talent to fit within the confines of the medium as it exists at the moment’. That there’s the fact that if they do it for me … like at 2000AD I said ‘give me and Ian Gibson the rights to Halo Jones and I’ll be prepared to do another few books of Halo Jones’. If they did that, they’d have to give Pat and John Judge Dredd, they’d have to give all their properties back to the people who created them. Where DC handled me particularly badly was because (sigh) I was very different on a number of levels. I was hard to corral. By that point I’d already got a reputation – I didn’t take well to authority, I preferred to work on a non-authoritarian level as just friends and equals. Which, again, probably wouldn’t fit with DC’s philosophy. Perhaps Paul Levitz was having a prescient moment, that he saw that the comics industry would have to change so radically to contain people like me and that wasn’t going to happen before I had kicked down the fence. He probably knew it would end badly.

But, yes, it’s a bit weird. I did feel somewhat singled out. This could be another instance of my famous paranoia, but it’s difficult not to feel that you are being treated somewhat specially. It was an unusual situation to be in, and when they bought Wildstorm, that was unbelievable. They’d already tried to buy Awesome on the condition I was part of the deal.

Perhaps it’s not for your benefit – perhaps they want to say to everyone else ‘if we can do that to Alan Moore, we can do it to you’?

They’d already done that to Jack Kirby. There were plenty of examples of heads on poles to intimidate the rest of the industry with. You might be right, I really don’t know how these people think, if think they do. I suspect they follow arcane programs they learned from some bestial editor that oversaw them when they were new to the company. It’s the equivalent of what you hear from a certain type of man about women: ‘treat them mean and keep them keen’. It’s probably all those pieces of received wisdom … the people in comics haven’t got a theory, any wisdom of their own, so it all amounts to ‘Stan Lee said once he didn’t like green covers’, so they’ll never, ever do a green cover. They’re completely stuck, they can’t do anything new. ‘Let’s repeat these memes from the 1960s and see what happens.’

Alan Moore Interview, Part III: Scary Dog, Sun Dodgers, Rob Liefeld, Urinals

There’s an article in Warrior by Steve Moore from 1982 where he explains that the way to get into comics is to do what he did: spend ten years working as a production assistant and junior editor, patiently learning the craft. He then says – and I imagine him saying it through gritted teeth – that the other way is ‘the Alan Moore Method’, which is just bombarding editors with scripts.

I love that quote. I don’t think Steve was saying it through gritted teeth, it was just that he’d never seen it done that way before.

Did you ever try the Steve Moore Method of breaking into comics?

When I was still at school, I’d written a letter to Mike Higgs, who’d done stuff for Steve’s fanzine Ka-Pow, saying I wanted to make it as a comic books artist. He gave me some really good advice: join any sort of art studio, even if you’re just making the coffee. Just learn the ropes, watch what other people do, try and get better. And then maybe have a go at comics.

When I was expelled, I noticed that there was an advert for ‘cartoonist wanted’, somebody to draw advertising, and they asked as a trial ‘give us an illustration that would work as an advert for a pet shop’ and I did this – in retrospect – quite scary dog, and I’d used Letratone on it to show that I was au fait with sophisticated shading techniques. It was rejected of course. What they actually wanted was a smiley picture of a puppy, which I could have done, but I’d thought they wanted to see what a brilliant artist I am. No, they actually wanted to see you could follow a brief intelligently, which I was incapable of doing. So, with that, I gave up. That’s when I decided to go down to the Labour Exchange and take whatever was available. So the next stop was the skinning yard. So I did make a feeble attempt at following Mike Higgs’ advice. It wasn’t until I was about twenty-four that I came up with Plan B.

And that was to write and draw an epic space opera, possibly one you could sell to 2000AD. You’ve said you had elaborate plans, but after a year you only had a couple of pages completed. I don’t think you’ve ever gone into detail.

It was all in my head. I think it was called Sun Dodgers, but whether I lettered that up, I doubt it. They were a group of superheroes in space, with a science fiction explanation for each of these characters. They were a motley crew in a spaceship, probably going back the kind of strips Wally Wood was doing in witzend and The Misfits. That was certainly the model Steve Moore was building on with Abslom Daak. I was thinking along the same lines. I can remember somebody looked a bit like a futuristic samurai -

Like Warpsmith?

- I suppose so. A coincidence. It was Garry Leach who came up with that look, I gave him a free hand, I wasn’t adverse to it. There was also a humanoid robot thing with a big steel ball for a head, which probably later surfaced as the Hypernaut in 1963. There was a half-human, half-canine creature who ended up as Wardog in the Special Executive. I only got a couple of pages done. The ideas I had … actually, thinking back, there was a character whose name was Five, and I don’t think I ever got around to drawing him, but my vague idea was that he was a mental patient of undefined but unusual abilities who had been kept in a particular room, room five, that might have been an element which fed into V for Vendetta. I don’t think there was anything else that ended up in anything.

[We’re working through the manuscript in order, with Moore offering corrections and clarifications. We’ve come to the longest passage that got cut out. In the draft, I’d said this: ‘March 1983 saw the last of Moore’s strips for Sounds. He says that it was simply because he was now getting so much writing work, he didn’t have time to continue drawing The Stars My Degradation (for the last year, Steve Moore had been writing the series). This would make sense, but may not be the whole truth. Sexually explicit panels from the 18 December 1982 instalment were omitted from the published version – note the gaps and editor’s note:

december_18_1982

Moore – both Moores – may well have been ready to move on, but it is reasonable to imagine that an act of censorship like this might have provided an added incentive. Alan Moore had thought about producing a strip for Sounds centred on Mycroft the Crow from Roscoe Moscow, but in the event his work for the paper ended when The Stars My Degradation came to a cataclysmic halt seven episodes after the ‘Censorious Ed’ issue. He would say the following year ‘They treated me OK … I had my stuff censored fairly regularly – certainly enough to irritate me.’

Moore corrected this:

When me and Steve stopped doing The Stars my Degradation, yeah, there had been some explicit panels censored, but we’d kind of expected this and it was a minor irritation. I loved Alan Lewis, an old school music editor. I stopped simply because I didn’t have time to do the strip any more. I’d been gradually winding it down. That was why the last issues look so rubbish. I always heard real professionals use a brush, and I understand that is true, but I have no facility with a brush, and some of the artwork in those final issues show that. I wanted to continue it, but it was completely impractical. It wasn’t because of any instances of the odd little bit of very infrequent censorship. We got away with an extraordinary amount, and I don’t have any grievances regarding that.

Oh, a couple of pages on from that I’ve given you a big tick. You’ve got the line, ‘While Moore is not a ruthless man or a cunning businessman, he clearly does not like coming second.’ I thought that was quite funny. That actually made me laugh.

Right. Later, you quote Rob Liefeld saying: ‘He once called us up to tell us that he had just been in the dream realm and talking to Socrates and Shakespeare, and to Moses, dead serious, and that they talked for what seemed to be months, but when he woke up, only an evening had passed … etc etc … I think it’s all shtick … That’s the kinda stuff Alan would say all the time.’ OK. I’ve never spoken to Rob Liefeld at all in my life. I don’t ever remember ringing the Image office. I have had some conversations with [Image partner] Eric Stephenson, er –

OK.

For the record I have never had conversations with Socrates, Shakespeare or Moses.

If this was a magazine feature, I think I’d just have got my headline.

[laughs] Then there’s the urinal anecdote.

Ah. Not true, either? [Legend has it that at one comics convention, Moore was standing at a urinal when he realised that the queue of people behind him didn’t want the bathroom, they were after his autograph].

No, but it’s charming. I may have had one person follow me into a urinal and say ‘can I have an autograph?’ . . . there certainly wasn’t a queue of people, so that’s a piece of entertaining apocrypha.

Alan Moore Interview, Part II: The Arts Lab

The second part of my Alan Moore interview. The first part is here.

Me: When I wrote my Pocket Essential I typed the line ‘Alan Moore was a member of the Northampton Arts Lab’ and left it there and I didn’t really have a clue what that meant. It’s really only when I wrote this book that I found out anything at all about them …

Alan Moore: They were a strange little bubble, the Arts Labs. What happened in Northampton, how it was instigated, was that there was a couple called Dick and Janice Smith. There was a hippy venue called Badge after the Cream track of the same name. They used to meet in the Carnegie Hall at the back of the library. I never went there, I was slightly too young. But one night after the music had been played, they put out an announcement that if anyone wanted to join an Arts Lab, they should contact Dick and Janice. So a few people attending that night, including my friends John Woodcock, Brian Ratcliffe and Nick Bunting – who I think was the only published poet out of the whole lot of us, he had a poem published in the Love, Love, Love anthology from around 1967, 1968, and he was a member of the international socialists, and he had a Stalinesque moustache – they became the nucleus of the Arts Lab.

They met on Tuesday nights at the Becket and Sargeant Youth Centre. They and a few other people were doing gigs around town. The first I heard of them was through Ian Fleming, who was younger than me but hipper. He was in my year at school. He collaborated with me on the first issues of Embryo, and he mentioned that he knew these people who’d formed an Arts Lab and we should go along and join. I admit I was suspicious at first, because I didn’t want this magazine we’d just got off the ground to be absorbed by this larger body. But I went along, and I got on with everybody, and we became members. And yes, I really loved going down there on Tuesday nights. I wasn’t enjoying my school work, didn’t see any future in it. I did see a future in the Arts Lab, a completely hallucinated future with little practical application.

Arts Labs thinking has been an underlying factor in a lot of my subsequent work. It is how I do tend to organise projects: let’s have fun, let’s experiment. We always tried to be practically-minded at the Arts Lab, although we very often failed miserably, albeit enjoyably. I can remember me and Brian Ratcliffe had the use of an overhead projector, and we thought ‘can we do some sort of performance around this?’ And we came up with the idea of doing a live comic strip, where we would project up speech bubbles and an array of characters stood in the right positions on stage acting out this drama. It certainly wasn’t a total success (laughs). It was an interesting fusion of two forms, neither of which I fully understood. It was a lot of fun, some of the gigs were really tremendous.

I remember Ian Fleming writing a poem called ‘Message to the Winter Trees’ that went, in its entirety: “Message to the winter trees: cover yourself up”. And he wrote this on an end roll of newsprint which had been liberated from the [local newspaper] Chronicle/Echo and the audience unravelled this fifty foot long poem. It was immense fun. We kept coming up with more complex ideas going into the performances and into the magazine.

So would this be individual members performing just to the rest of the group?

What would generally happen was that we would have a gentlemen called Paul Green, and he didn’t have any artistic talent, but he was brilliant with that crew of people, he was a great organiser, he would sort out the venues, he would sweet talk the management, he would get them as cheaply as possible, he would do all the practical work. We’d ask ‘shall we do a poetry reading, shall we do some kind of event?’ Paul would book it, and once we had a date, we’d all start to work towards it – maybe we could do this, maybe we could do that.

We never had a shortage of poets (laughs), and as a way of relieving the monotony of the evening, we invited [local musician] Tom Hall. Tom took me under his wing. I later found out that his mother and my father had been dance partners back in the fifties. My mother didn’t like to dance, Tom’s father didn’t like to dance, so they’d sit down and chat and my dad, Ern, and Tom’s mother, Kitty, would take a turn around the floor. Tom came along and would listen to all our poems, and he’d play something impromptu and we’d perform it with that, and it would be beautiful. We had a splendid evening.

Later, there was a rather caustic member of a northern Arts Lab who’d relocated to Northampton, and he was abrasive about how we did things, the Arts Lab and Northampton in general, and he took a dislike to Tom Hall. And he was saying ‘let’s not have Tom Hall there, he just lives off benefits and turns everything into the Tom Hall Show’. I remember Nick Bunting angrier than I’d ever seen him, saying in a very cold and deadly voice: ‘Tom Hall does not accept a penny of benefits. If Tom Hall can’t live by his music he can’t live’. Which was the first time I’d actually heard that spelled out. I remember thinking that was awesome. That that’s what I wanted to be: somebody who could be completely themselves, who did not have a master or boss and who subsisted entirely upon the fruits of their own creativity. Tom was a real formative idol.

Those were great days. When it was over, it was over, and we could all feel the vitality had gone out of it. The end of the sixties. There wasn’t going to be a revival of that spirit. Some of the people who joined later perhaps didn’t really fit, but they couldn’t be excluded under the general ethical code of those times.

If we’d have seen you back then, would we have imagined you’d go on to bigger and better things?

I have heard some people from back then saying ‘oh, it was obvious. You knew just what you wanted to do, that you’d be something like you are now’. I’m not sure I believe that. It may be obvious in retrospect. It wasn’t obvious to me back then. I felt that I would feel most comfortable working in the arts, supporting myself. Whether I would be able to do that, I really didn’t know.

If you’d have seen me back then, you might have thought I was good at reading poems, I could engage an audience, I was a decent performer. I’m not saying the poems themselves were any good, but I was increasingly aware of what an audience responded to.

The pinnacle of that way of thinking was 1974, 1975, when I wrote Old Gangsters Never Die as a recitation piece. The language in that, and the rhythms, that was the pinnacle of my style of writing at that time and I’d written it to perform. I realised it had great emotional effect, it had a got a lot of punch, especially with a little bit of music in the background. I also realised it didn’t mean anything. Other than evoking this very rich material about gangsters. It didn’t say anything. I started to think the best thing to do would be write stuff with the same command of language this stuff has, but if it means something as well, I might be getting somewhere. It was a gradual process mastering that.

Alan Moore Interview Part I: The Paris Commune, Aunt Hilda, PJ and Duncan

This week, I’ll be posting an interview I did with Alan Moore. This is one of the very last things I did when writing my biography of Moore, Magic Words.

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I interviewed Alan Moore twice via telephone, on July 9th and July 24th 2013. He had read the manuscript of my book, and he wanted to work through the book and offer a number of clarifications and corrections in the first call, then we had a more conventional interview in the second session. Each call lasted a little under two hours.

A lot of the first interview involved matters of detail – the name of the caravan site where the Moore family stayed when he was a child, that kind of thing. There were places in the manuscript where I wasn’t sure about something and I’d said things like ‘perhaps Moore hoped’ or ‘Moore probably thought’, and Moore was able to clarify many of those.

This is an edited transcript that splices the two interviews together by subject matter. I’ve omitted a lot of the nitpicky stuff from the first interview. Some of the material that doesn’t appear here is in the biography itself, either because it’s suitably juicy or (more often) because without the context of the book it would mean very little.

I’d read a lot of interviews with Moore as I was researching and writing my book. As with the other people I interviewed, I was keen not to ask things he’d already been asked a hundred times. I was also keen to get names and dates, and to dig into some of the details. As a result of that, some of the following is a little wonkish, but I think it covers some ground that’s not been discussed before. And, obviously, if you want the full and rounded picture, then there’s Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore, available in all good bookshops, and possibly even some lousy ones.

We start with me fumbling incompetently with my Skype Recorder …

-ot sure it’s recording … er … yes, OK. On. Recording.

[Moore:] Shall we steam into my long list of complaints? OK, the first thing is David Lloyd’s view of anarchy. [when I’d interviewed him for the book, David Lloyd – co-creator of V for Vendetta – had expressed some scepticism about the practicalities of anarchism] Fair enough: his views aren’t mine, but there is a point I felt compelled to answer. He said ‘when was the last time something like anarchy worked?’ That would be the Paris Commune, which worked fine until they sent the troops in. Before that, there were the Spitalfields Huguenots. They had a completely self-contained system that worked fine, which didn’t really sit well with the British government. So they put a crippling tax on lace and ribbon, which were the two Huguenot staples. When the Huguenots went out onto the streets in protest, they sent the troops in.

You’re a distant descendant of those Huguenots, aren’t you?

It turns out that there is a Huguenot that made it into the family, in the seventeenth century. So that may be when they were dispersed from Spitalfields. Anarchy has worked, and worked well on occasions, and on those occasions it’s been ruthlessly suppressed.

The other point [again, he’s quoting Lloyd]: ‘the earliest form of society is tribes, who leads tribes? Somebody.’ This isn’t actually accurate as far as I know. In the New Scientist over the last six months or something, there has been an informative article about the earliest human societies, the Paleolithic and Neolithic, so thousands of years, where the biggest taboo was status, anyone seeking to acquire a larger cut of the pie or higher status than the other members of the tribe – anyone bigging themselves up – would be ridiculed and persistent offenders ostracised. Once status and authority enter a situation, society will become unstable and you’ll get resentments that will destabilise these fairly precarious social groups. This was the prevalent mode for thousands of years.

If it worked so well, why don’t we still have it? There were other forms of culture that were hierarchical, and they were unstable and those who were cast out would join a non-hierarchical group and destablise it. This is the latest theory: anarchy, far from being the unnatural and unworkable state that it is assumed to be, may conceivably be our natural state of being.

As I understand it, when a situation is disastrous, or it’s disastrous in an economic sense, when people have nothing, that is the place where human society starts to cohere and people genuinely start looking out for each other. A terrible cliché, but in the Boroughs, you didn’t have to lock your doors because no one had anything worth stealing, so that removed a lot of social tensions.

[Moore is from the Spring Boroughs area of Northampton, once of the most socially-deprived areas of the UK. The town had traditionally been known for shoemaking, but even by the time Moore was born in 1953, the industry was in decline. For the book, I contacted Jeremy Seabrook, who has a long career writing about the global issues around poverty, but who started with The Unprivileged, a 1967 book about Northampton].

Oh … this is one of the things I thought was one of the best bits: you got in touch with Jeremy Seabrook. I quoted him in Voice of the Fire, he was my first year French teacher. I really like his quote: ‘The shoe people were generally narrow, suspicious, mean, self-reliant, pig-headed, but generally honourable and as good as their word.’ I don’t think I’m narrow or mean financially … but everything else is spot on.

So coming from the background you did, what did your parents make of you, do you think?

I was regarded almost from the outset as unusual, but this was within a family tradition where unusual people were not actually that unusual. There had been previous people in the family line, mostly on my father’s side, who were quirky, talented and, in certain instances, certifiable. Generally my parents seemed to be very impressed that I could draw a picture and string words together, sometimes in rhyme, in a way that they did not feel competent to.

As I started to realise some of these idle teenage ambitions, it was … I don’t think they quite believed it at first. At least to start with they thought it was probably going to end in disappointment and it would prove to be impossible. But they didn’t discourage me, they just looked on anxiously. It started to work out. My father was very impressed when he saw me on television for the first time. That meant a lot. He never read my work, he used to read pulp novels and books about anthropology, but didn’t have any time for airy-fairy fantasy stuff. But he thought it was good if you appeared on television and people said nice things about you.

My mother read a volume of Swamp Thing and she said she enjoyed it, she thought she wouldn’t. My mother listened to the first Moon and Serpent CD and that seemed to really affect her. She was saying ‘ooh, I could have gone’. Gone into the music, something like that, gone into the words. The odd thing was that when I announced I was a magician, it didn’t faze my family at all. My mother really, really liked the picture of Glycon I gave her.

glykon

And my devoutly Christian Aunt Hilda, her sister, who had a little shrine of religious items in the corner of her living room, she asked if she could have a copy to put on this shrine, a picture of a snake with long hair and surrounded by all sort of strange magical symbols … I think they recognised that this was something benign. My mother, on the other hand, didn’t want a copy of the Asmodeus picture

asmodeus

in the house, because she recognised that was something that wasn’t benign. But they didn’t have any problems at all with the fact I’d just announced something ridiculous and, to rational examination, impossible – that didn’t seem to bother them at.

My parents and my family accepted me as, in my mum’s phrase, ‘a funny wonder’. That was an all-embracing phrase that included an awful lot of things. It was something that was slightly wonderful, but funny in the peculiar sense. Such people were not unknown in the bloodline. ‘Oh, we get one of these every hundred years or so.’ I always had an odd relationship with my family, because turning out to be someone like me did sometimes bring problems with it. It sometimes changes things. Luckily with my close family I don’t think it has at all.

I don’t see them as much as I used to, largely due to the pressures of my work and my lifestyle. We get together at funerals and weddings. I’ve started to even find funerals quite pleasant experiences. That seems a bit odd, but you get to see a lot of people that you’ve not seen since the last funeral, and you find you’re having a good time seeing everyone again. It connects up the family fabric, in a way which is probably necessary after part of it has suddenly become missing.

One of those problems was you being expelled from school for dealing LSD, and you said last year that the police were involved. Were you charged with anything, or fined?

No, no, no, no. The expulsion was technically groundless. I was searched, but there was absolutely nothing on me and the only thing that they had was the hearsay evidence of a number of my school friends who had named me – we were young then and easily intimidated by the police – and that wasn’t conclusive proof. I was expelled from school, but there were no charges brought. I have a clean record, but I did have a headmaster who tried to prevent me from … my first thoughts were “I don’t want to get a job”, so I applied to Northampton Arts School and had somebody there make me sit through a lecture that in substance was quite like that PJ and Duncan anti-drugs rap before telling me I couldn’t have a place at his school. Ironically, a couple of years ago the same institution offered me an honourary degree. I told them I turn down all that kind of thing on principle, but in this instance, no, I particularly still associate it with being expelled from school. A bad time.

Talking of turning down honours: Grant Morrison has an MBE. Mark Millar has an MBE. A fair few comics’ fans have speculated that, um, if they’re working down a list of prominent comics creators …

Mark Millar has an MBE? Well … I was approached during Gordon Brown’s premiership. I think some people had raised a petition, which I wasn’t involved with of course, that said I should be given some sort of honour for being a national treasure or something, and they had received a message from Gordon Brown’s office saying they were considering giving me an award. Something like that. Immediately after that, I did an interview with Padraig O Méalóid, and he asked me if I’d accept any kind of award, and I’d said of course not, because to accept is to give tacit approval to the government involved, and institutions like the British Empire and monarchy and things like that. So, I told them that I couldn’t take anything like that.

When I heard that Grant Morrison had received an MBE, I could only assume it was the MBE you get for not unleashing a horde of thousands of masked anarchists on the global political stage, which I’ll admit he’s always been better at than I am. But whether you accept an MBE or not is entirely up to you. I told Padraig I hoped no one offered me one, because I didn’t want to ostentatiously turn one down, because that’s pretty tacky. I’m happy how things turned out.

[Part Two will be posted here tomorrow]

Retreat of the Daleks (fourth stage)

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The fourth part of my writing exercise. Again, a strict four hours work, including thinking time. So this is what it looks like after sixteen hours’ work. It’s nearly complete. It now has a sketched in ending, but one that needs to be beefed up. It’s that awkward point where the Doctor stands around explaining what you’ve been looking at all this time, with the writer desperately trying to disguise (or at least distract) from that. I still have placeholder names, I still don’t establish the other monks well enough. Bits of the ending are rushed. It’s roughly the right length, I think.

This is a tricky bit of the process. I need to go back and polish the whole thing, I need to make sure that everything connects up and makes sense, or at least the Doctor Who version of ‘sense’. Again, I think it’s a bit light on the religious satire stuff. The idea is that the Daleks are cherrypicking a religion, finding the bits that agree with what they already believe and running with those, ignoring the rest. That’s not coming across at all.

Again, I wrote this yesterday, before I saw Into the Dalek … a story about a lone ‘good’ Dalek with a crisis of conscience who ends the episode in a fight with a bunch of mean Daleks, with the Doctor being a rather negative influence. Hmmmmm. retreat

 

Daleks III

Cadet Card 41+a

 

Another four hours’ work on this writing exercise. I wrote the new stuff yesterday morning, so before I saw Deep Breath, and I’ve not re-read it since I’ve seen Peter Capaldi in the role (or the relaunched Clara). Feels a little like the home stretch now, which are always famous last words for a writing project. Now I’ve decided to complete the script, I’ve had to go back with an eye to giving it a proper story and set up a few twists and reveals better. There’s still quite a lot missing. The Daleks-as-Buddhists thing is a funny idea, but there’s meant to be something with bite behind it, and I need to get more of that across. If only to make it seem like something a Dalek would do, rather than a silly idea a writer had. There needs to be a better sense of what the human monks are doing, more of a sense of community. I realised that this story is yet another ‘Daleks pretending to be friendly / one Dalek on his own is OK’ variation on The Power of the Daleks, and that’s played out, now, so I’m trying to get across – and I’m not quite there yet – that it’s more like Bruce Banner, that it’s about keeping the lid on genuine anger and violence.

Reading it, I also started to wonder what would have happened if the Doctor hadn’t shown up. One of my golden rules when I’ve written Doctor Who is that I ask that question. What difference is the Doctor making? I’ve found that the stories that work are ones where the answer is ‘everything is different’. There are stories, particularly in some of the early EDAs, where the Doctor just kind of observes and doesn’t disrupt. Asking that question is really useful, because it crystallises what the stakes are, what the threat is. ‘If the Doctor hadn’t shown up, then … ‘ is a sentence that any Doctor Who writer should be able to complete very early in the plotting process, and which they need to keep in mind right to the end.

Not that there’s been a ‘plotting process’ here, as such. But it’s interesting: if the Doctor hadn’t shown up, perhaps ‘Gandalf’ (sorry, still using a placeholder name) and the Eternal Dalek would have reached a stable point, perhaps there would have been peace. Not going to happen, is it? The Daleks haven’t fired a shot, yet. You can’t have a Dalek story without at least something getting shot, can you?

And at some point I really need to time it, to make sure I can tell this story in the, er, 47 minutes. Does that sound about right?

I’m going to try to get this finished before the actual Dalek episode next week. So … yeah, more famous last words for a writing project.

Normal caveats apply: this is unfinished, it’s a writing exercise, so on and so on.

Retreat3