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.

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