Alan Moore is waiting when I get off the train in Northampton, a majestically bearded figure in a hoodie, scanning the crowd that pushes through the turnstiles with a look of fearsome intent. When I wave, the glare becomes a beaming smile. ‘How are you, mate?’ he booms. ‘Splendid, splendid. I thought we’d go for a bit of a walk, so I can show you around and we can work up an appetite.’
Off we go up the hill. Moore swings his stick – a wooden snake coiled around the handle to symbolise his enthusiastic worship of Glycon, a second-century Macedonian snake god – and keeps up a constant flow of arcane local chatter. This station car park, he tells me, used to be King John’s castle, where the First Crusade began. That charmless glass-and-steel building was once a Saxon banqueting hall. Over there was a pub where, ‘if you’d come along here on a Sunday afternoon in the 1920s or ’30s, you’d have found a zebra tied up outside it.’
Before long, tramping through the riverside mud under a railway bridge, we’ve moved on to grander concerns. Moore has embarked on a potted summary of eternalism, the philosophical concept of time that ran through Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), played a part in his own revolutionary superhero comic Watchmen (1986-87), and is the central conceit behind ‘Jerusalem’, the million-word mega-novel the first draft of which he has now, after more than a decade, shepherded to its conclusion.
In essence, eternalism proposes that space-time forms a block – ‘imagine it as a big glass football’, Moore suggests – where past and future are endlessly, immutably fixed, and where human lives are ‘like tiny filaments, embedded in that gigantic vast egg’. He gestures around him at the rubbish-strewn path, his patriarch’s beard waving in the wind. ‘What it’s saying is, everything is eternal,’ he tells me. ‘Every person, every dog turd, every flattened beer can – there’s usually some hypodermics and condoms and a couple of ripped-open handbags along here as well – nothing is lost. No person, no speck or molecule is lost. No event. It’s all there for ever. And if everywhere is eternal, then even the most benighted slum neighbourhood is the eternal city, isn’t it? William Blake’s eternal fourfold city. All of these damned and deprived areas, they are Jerusalem, and everybody in them is an eternal being, worthy of respect.’
If this mixture of local history, cosmological speculation and messianic mysticism sounds bewildering, then perhaps you haven’t been reading enough Alan Moore lately. For many, his fame still rests on the comics work he produced more than two decades ago: as a writer for Warrior and 2000AD magazines and later as part of the so-called British Invasion of US comics, he wrote sprawling long-form works that, when published between covers and sold as graphic novels, transformed the way in which adult readers thought about the medium.
Watchmen, his intricate, noirish deconstruction of the superhero myth, appeared on Time magazine’s list of the top novels of the 20th century, and has not been out of print in a quarter-century. V for Vendetta (1982-89), an anti-Thatcherite fable about anarchy and terrorism, rose to prominence again in the late 2000s when the smirking Guy Fawkes mask of its protagonist was adopted by the Anonymous movement in the wake of a film adaptation. ‘Nobody was more surprised than I was,’ says Moore when I mention this. ‘But I’ve always felt that the interface between art and reality is porous.’
Since those days, Moore has been pursuing his muse down more esoteric avenues. His League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, begun in the late 1990s and illustrated by Kevin O’Neill, has morphed from a witty mash-up of Edwardian pulp literature into an episodic record of his engagement with the pop culture of the 20th century. Early storylines imagined Mina Harker, Allan Quatermain and the Invisible Man teaming up to take on Fu Manchu; more recent ones leap merrily from pastiches of Brecht and Weill to deft piss-takes of the Harry Potter series, Citizen Kane, Donald Cammell’s film Performance (1970) and even – in a story entitled ‘What Ho, Gods of the Abyss’ – P G Wodehouse.
In From Hell (1989), drawn by Eddie Campbell, Moore stirred Iain Sinclair’s dark theories about pentagrams and Hawksmoor churches into a tangled conspiracy set in Jack the Ripper’s London. In Promethea (1999-2005) he offered a primer on magic and the occult disguised as a feminist superhero comic. And in the infamous Lost Girls (2006), he and his wife Melinda Gebbie composed a gigantic porno-literary epic involving Lewis Carroll’s Alice, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz and Wendy from Peter Pan.
Eternalism, one senses, appeals to Moore so much in life because it’s already there in his work. Stepping into what a recent documentary called ‘the mindscape of Alan Moore’ means entering a zone where genre and period become fluid, where high and low culture mix and meld, and where imagination and reality crossbreed.
So significant are Moore’s achievements in the comics field that it’s slightly surprising to hear him say, as he does now, that ‘comics are not, for me, the most important part of my career’. He’s still writing them, of course – The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series continues apace, and a series called Providence, about the life of the writer H P Lovecraft and ‘the emergence of modern America out of the crucial period of the 1920s’, will appear next year – but his work has broadened considerably in scope.
Over the past decade, his huge novel ‘Jerusalem’ has had to compete for attention with a variety of other projects: musical evenings, spoken-word pieces, a short-lived underground magazine called Dodgem Logic that Moore edited and published, and the Show Pieces films, a crowdfunded sequence of five Lynchian fantasies set in a Northampton workingmen’s club, part of a vast new work of fiction called The Show, written by Moore and directed by Mitch Jenkins, which they hope will lead to a feature film and a TV series.
Moore is also involved with Electricomics, a project to develop comics on tablet platforms. This idea originated in the fictional world of The Show and is now supported by a grant from the UK innovation charity Nesta. ‘It’s all about the idea of using the imagination as an export business,’ he says with enthusiasm. ‘If I can come up with these things in my fictional world and then export them to the real world, that will be… interesting.’
‘I am in charge of this universe, just like you’re in charge of that universe. So I am a supreme deity in this universe’
Not all of his projects of the past 20 years have been commercial successes. Then again, I rather suspect Moore likes it that way. His most famous works of the 1980s and ’90s were produced for the large US publisher DC Comics, with whom Moore had an on-again-off-again relationship characterised on both sides by accusations of creative meddling and bad faith. These days, he publishes his work when it’s ready, placing it with small presses and independent publishers who guarantee him creative control of the property. He insists that his name be removed from Hollywood adaptations of the books he doesn’t own. This has, he says, meant turning down fantastic sums, ‘but I’ve never regretted it. It’s empowered me more than anything. Money is code for everything, isn’t it? Everything you could possibly require in life or death. But as far as I know, I don’t have a price.’
He continues: ‘It’s not about the money. It’s about what I feel. I am in charge of this universe, just like you’re in charge of that universe. So I am a supreme deity in this universe, as everybody should be. And I am not going to impinge upon anybody else’s universe, to the best of my ability – it is not my wish to do so – and they’d better not impinge upon mine. That is pretty much the broad contract that I’ve got drafted up. My deal with reality. You leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone.’
Much of Moore’s creative thinking continues to revolve around Northampton, the Midlands town where he has spent his whole life. He was born in the Boroughs, an area that, he explains with relish, was a slum from the Middle Ages to the 1970s. As we walk through, it looks like a slightly down-at-heel council estate, with a UK Independence Party sign outside a dilapidated bungalow and a pair of monolithic high-rises with ‘NEW LIFE’ written on the side.
‘Those were erected back in the day, before they pulled our houses down,’ he says, flapping an arm. ‘We marvelled at the time. We thought it was like having skyscrapers.’ He has a fund of stories about the history of the area – the zebra outside the pub, the branded black slave who’d emigrated from the US, the clearances after the First World War – all of which, he says, find their way into ‘Jerusalem’.
His family moved out of the Boroughs when he was 17, shortly after he’d been expelled from school for dealing acid, but, as he explains, its core values – mischief, working-class egalitarianism, a healthy disrespect for authority – stayed with him.
‘We don’t just have skeletons in our cupboard, we have an ossuary’
These days, Moore describes himself as an anarchist. ‘It means no leaders,’ he says, ‘which is not a licence to do whatever you want: in fact it’s taking on an enormous amount of responsibility, because you are taking on the responsibility for leading your own life. It’s incredibly liberating and empowering – to be responsible for it and everything that happens in it. Not to say, as I might have done in another life, the reason why I’ve never succeeded is because I come from a poor background, or a deprived neighbourhood. I’m not saying that that is not a valid thing for other people, but it wouldn’t have been valid for me. My background and my neighbourhood were nothing to do with whether I succeeded or not. That was entirely down to me.’
All this – the history, the politics, the mysticism – finds its way into ‘Jerusalem’, a novel that, Moore says, ‘has a remit so vast that nearly everything fits in to it.’ The characters thronging the streets of its timeless Northampton include James Joyce’s daughter Lucia, who was a mental patient nearby, as well as Samuel Beckett, the 12th-century archbishop Thomas à Becket, the 20th-century composer Malcolm Arnold (‘He was held prisoner in a Northamptonshire pub for about a year,’ says Moore), the pop singer Dusty Springfield, the 17th-century writer John Bunyan, and so many others, in fact, that one almost starts to believe Moore’s thesis that his hometown is, both literally and figuratively, ‘the centre of the land’.
There will also be appearances from Charlie Chaplin (‘did his first performances here when he was seven, with a group called the Eight Lancashire Lads’), St Patrick (‘alleged to have been a Northampton boy’), the economist Adam Smith, the Gothic poet James Hervey, and even the Archangel Michael, who appears as part of a gigantic game of cosmic billiards as ‘the local champion, Mighty Mike’. One chapter is told as Blytonesque fantasy, another as a Beckett play. From time to time, characters from Moore’s own family, whose history he has exhaustively researched, wander in. ‘We don’t just have skeletons in our cupboard,’ he says, ‘we have an ossuary.’ Is he in it himself, I wonder? He pauses and blinks. ‘I’m in it in drag,’ he says. ‘I’m in the novel as a woman painter.’
The obvious challenge to the reader in a million-word novel – ‘longer than the Bible,’ says Moore approvingly, ‘and with a better afterlife scenario’ – points to another theme in the author’s recent work. Time and again his conversation circles back to contemporary entertainment culture: its laziness, its lack of ambition, its tendency ‘to enslave and pacify more than it does to excite or stimulate’. ‘Jerusalem’ was conceived as the kind of Modernist exercise in literary difficulty that would test both writer and reader, since people today, Moore says, ‘want as much as possible with as little effort as possible, which completely removes the concept of the pleasure of effort’. For himself, he says, perhaps joking, he wanted to find out if ‘you could possibly do something that was so unwieldy it could no longer be called a novel’.
He directs considerable anger towards the education system in Britain, for which he retains an autodidact’s contempt. ‘It’s aversion therapy,’ he says. ‘It’s like Antabuse or one of those things you give to alcoholics. It gets the child to equate learning with work, and work with drudgery… That’s the conditioning, to condition people not to want to learn anything. I used to think it was accidental and incompetent. Without wanting to sound like a conspiracy theorist, I’m no longer quite so sure.’
The frequently confusing cross-currents of Moore’s late work make much more sense, in fact, when one sees them not just as entertainment products but as attempts at building a better reality: a miniature personal counterculture, rooted in Northampton but with its sights set on the very soul of man. ‘Art isn’t doing its job any more,’ he says at one point. ‘It’s not filled with the real and the marvellous. There’s no vision. There’s no William Blake.’
This microcosm-macrocosm approach, as well as its visionary strand, is a theme in the kind of esoteric occultism that Moore has inhabited since announcing, on his 40th birthday in 1993, that he’d decided to become a magician. It is reflected throughout his writing: whatever one thinks of the much-publicised snake-worshipping and the stories about contacting Asmodeus, the demon of mathematics, and Selene, the goddess of the moon, it would be a grave mistake to underestimate his seriousness. ‘The more I think about it, the more absolutist I get,’ he says now. ‘I believe exactly that art and magic – specifically writing, but art in general, and magic – are almost completely interchangeable. They share the same terminology, they match up in nearly every respect.’
So why call himself a magician, I wonder, rather than a writer or an artist? He replies that magic is the broader and earlier notion: ‘It includes all the other things, and it has other connotations as well.’ A fair definition of magic, he says, might be ‘engaging with the phenomena of consciousness. All modern linguists and consciousness theorists seem to agree that we have to have the word for a thing before we can conceptualise it. The first magical act was the act of representation – just saying “this means that”.’
‘Most of the things you’ve read of mine are first drafts: the cutting and the censoring is kind of ongoing’
Until recently, Moore explored the magical strand in his life in collaboration with one of his oldest friends, the comics writer and classicist Steve Moore (no relation), with whom he was working on an occult history due to be titled ‘The Moon and Serpent Bumper Book of Magic’. But Steve Moore died this spring, meaning that much of Moore’s summer was occupied with related undertakings both professional and personal: he has thrown his influence behind various republications and new printings of his friend’s work. He tells a story about the confusion among Steve Moore’s neighbours in London: as far as he can tell, he says, there’s a good chance that his friend might have appeared to two people a day after he was supposed to have died, ‘which is kind of annoying, as neither Steve nor myself had any axe to grind for ghosts’.
On the other hand, he says, the ghost story writer Algernon Blackwood’s house was just over the road from the house where Steve was born, ‘and it’s very like an Algernon Blackwood story. A practising pagan magician with an obsession with the moon, who dies two days short of a full moon but whose spirit apparently still persists. Make of it what you will.’ Moore will, he says, be finishing ‘The Moon and Serpent’ book himself in due time. ‘I don’t think it’s going to be a huge problem that one of the heads of the order is no longer corporeal.’
Life in Northampton, meanwhile, remains intensely busy. Moore has finished the screenplay for The Show, his feature film, which, he says, will be shot relatively cheaply and will deliver ‘Fellini at Ed Wood prices, which I think is a motto to live by’. Then he’ll be sending his million-word novel out for a copy-edit, a task previously allotted to Steve Moore, who will now be replaced ‘by about five people’. He’s not really used to this process, he says, ‘because when you’re working for the comics medium, by the time you get to Chapter 4, Chapter 1 is already in print. Most of the things you’ve read of mine are first drafts: the cutting and the censoring is kind of ongoing.’
‘Certainly,’ he says, ‘no one will be able to criticise it for lack of ambition.’ He’s even drawn the cover himself, and written the piece for the inside dust jacket. ‘It reads, Ingredients – then there’s a colon – and then there’s a list of all the subjects that are included in the book. Mathematics, predestination, the English Civil War, Cromwell. All of these characters, themes and topics. And at the end it’s got “Sentiment: trace”.’ He smiles enigmatically. ‘Pretty much everything. And a homeopathic dose of sentiment.’