Seabrook returns constantly to the closed-mindedness of the area’s inhabitants, describing their hatred of abstract art as “the anger of anyone brought abruptly face to face with ideas which he has no use for, but which he finds form the very basis of someone else’s philosophy. They did not admit it willingly that anything exceeded their ability to understand, and in consequence violence had to be done to everything they encountered in order to accommodate it.” This resulted in attitudes characterized on the one hand by intense suspicion towards “other people [who] were sure to abuse your hospitality, take advantage of your kindness and exploit your generous nature,” and on the other by an intense desire “not to be beholden to anybody.” He describes one group of relations simply as “mean. Of them it was said that ‘they’d bottle a fart and use it again if they could’. Tom’s mother was extremely reluctant to throw away anything she had used personally, and even left the water she had washed in cooling greyly for hours in the enamel bowl in the sink. Once they found some mice-droppings in a sack of flour, and they spent the whole night extracting the tiny black grains from the bag before offering the tainted powder for sale the following morning.” The sense of anti-intellectualism and insularity is profound, and the theme that Seabrook circles back to again and again, concluding that “the life of the streets had a devitalizing effect, and did not allow of any departure from a rigidly fixed pattern of behaviour and relationships.” But for all of this, he speaks movingly of the plight of his family and neighbors, explaining in the book’s final passage how, when the terraces were finally bulldozed in favor of some new vision of social engineering, the now displaced residents were “shown the error and irrelevance of their faith by those who have access to greater truths, and who tear the veils from the eyes of others, veils that prove to be not veils at all, but living membranes, the removal of which leaves nothing but empty and bleeding sockets.”
|Figure 789: Alan Moore (right) enjoying his happy childhood.|
Moore, for his part, is not quite so condemnatory towards his upbringing, or at least, not consistently so. In a 1990 interview with Gary Groth for The Comics Journal, he described himself as having had “a very happy childhood,” for instance. But he is elsewhere just as scathing as Seabrook; in the Mindscape of Alan Moore documentary he describes it as “a monochrome world with limited opportunities,” talking about how British comics like The Beano and The Dandy failed to appeal to him because “they presented a world that was almost indistinguishable from the world that I lived in,” and how the “bright, garish 4-coloured” world of American superhero comics appealed in contrast because it offered a sense of escape. Obviously, over the course of his life, this escape was one he managed, thoroughly escaping his class background, and while he has lived his entire life in Northampton, that is by this point firmly a choice, as opposed to, as Bauhaus would have it, an inescapable flat field of boredom. And, more the point, this escape is clearly the entire point of his comics writing career – a concept that is inseparable from his desire to get out of dead-end and soulless jobs in favor of making his living creating art.
It is also, of course, not the norm. Boys from the Boroughs do not, as a rule, become powerful sorcerers numbered among the great literary figures of their era, or, indeed, find any other form of escape from working class poverty. Some of this, of course, is luck, an irreducible component of any narrative of social mobility. Nevertheless, two factors in Moore’s life and attitudes seem particularly significant. The first of these is that Moore always had a broader vision than the parochial one described by Seabrook. Moore’s father was a voracious reader, and both of his parents prioritized literacy for Moore. Beyond that, as Moore explains, “I was left more or less to map out my own universe. I was looked after and cared for and all the other things that a child should have, but in terms of my inner life, or my intellectual life, I was largely left to my own devices. Which suited me just fine. I knew where the library was; I knew where I could find information if I wanted it. I was developing my own tastes which largely centered around comic books and juvenile science fiction novels. I was allowed to go my own way and make my own decisions.” This mix of intellectual encouragement and freedom to explore stands in marked contrast to the sorts of worldviews Seabrook describes.
|Figure 790: The Northampton School for Boys, which Moore attended|
It is, however, in no way sufficient to explain Moore’s trajectory. Certainly it is sufficient to explain how Moore came to do well on his Eleven Plus exam, earning him a place at the Northampton School for Boys, the local grammar school. (The vagaries of the British education system are a rare instance of a digression too big for this project, but the term “grammar school,” at the time, was defined by the Education Act 1944, which also set up the Eleven Plus exam, and described the most prestigious of three categories of schools, focusing on a traditional academic curriculum, with students sorted based on their performance on the exam.) This was the generally accepted path for social advancement – a fact that exists in the same tradition as the Victorian terraced houses and their subsequent demolition in favor of brutalist high-rises. It was also not a path that Moore took to. For all the broadening of his worldview that his literary childhood had given him, he had remained blissfully unaware of the striated subtleties of the British class system. As he tells it, “entering grammar school was the very first time that I’d actually realized that middle class people existed. Prior to that I’d thought that there were just my family and people like them, and the Queen.”
This new category of person had generally gone to considerably better schools than the working class primary school Moore had attended, and Moore quickly went from being the star pupil to being among the lower reaches of the class rankings, beginning a path of steady alienation that culminated in his expulsion at the age of seventeen. Moore is open about the degree to which he is responsible for his washing out of the class ladder, admitting that, in the face of his steadily declining class rank, admitting, “I decided, pretty typically for me, that if I couldn’t win then I wasn’t going to play. I was always one of those sulky children, who sort of couldn’t stand to lose at Monopoly, Cluedo, anything.” But this wry self-deprecation exists alongside a more ideological position – Moore also described his education in The Birth Caul, saying that “the real curriculum is punctuality, obedience, and the acceptance of monotony, those skills we shall require later in life. Oblique aversion therapy to cure us of our thirst for information and condition us so that thereafter we forge an association between indolence and pleasure,” a critique that, once again, is not entirely unlike that of Seabrook, who described the grammar school’s “unacknowledged curriculum” of “advanced snobbery and social climbing.”
For a while, at least, Moore and his social circumstances maintained something of a detente. He was not a star pupil by any measure, but he rarely got in trouble, save for being busted smoking occasionally, and the banning of the poetry magazine he worked on, Embryo, after it published a poem containing the word “motherfuckers.” But come the dawn of the 1970s, the situation deteriorated rapidly. First came the New Towns scheme, which resulted in the bulldozing of his terraced street and his family being relocated. This was a traumatic process, to say the least – Seabrook opens the final chapter of The Unprivileged with a description of the abandoned terraces, saying that “the street is condemned now, and the wind blows through the derelict houses… everything has been left as it stood. A dead bird lies in its cage in the window, a dusty tray of butterflies impaled on pins hangs obliquely on a parlour wall, milk bottles in congealed cream rings stand on the scrubbed deal tables… in each interior the abandoned belongings remain like those of refugees overtaken by a sudden disaster; a stained striped flock mattress, fragments of rosy china vases and teapots and Coronation mugs of five reigns, blue-eyed Victorian Jesuses in gilt frames suffering the little children to come unto them, a Monarch of the Glen, school prizes awarded to the names of old men and women for Diligent Study and Application – Isabel’s Secret or A Sister’s Love, stories abounding in hospices and orphans and untimely deaths and little girls in frilly pinafores taking the place of Mamas who’d been called home, serious and stoical at eight years old.” (Another Moore/Seabrook parallel, this time to Ginda Bojeffries description of “six hundred lame obituaries in the local press that read: ‘the angels called and off went mum’” in “Song of the Terraces.”)
|Figure 791: The tide, sweeping it all away. (Words by Alan Moore, art|
by Eddie Campbell, from The Birth Caul, 1999)
Just six months after the family was moved, Moore’s grandmother, the first magician he ever knew, died. Moore is unequivocal about the cause: “being moved from the place where you got your roots was enough to kill most of these people. Yeah, I mean, the place where I’d grown up was more or less completely destroyed. It wasn’t that they put anything better there; it was just that they were able to make more money out of it without all these bothersome people.” Two weeks later, Moore’s expulsion. “Within a fortnight it can all fall down, the luminous Wurlitzer palace of our youth: no luck, no school, no happy home. The job down at the skinning yards where men with hands bright blue from caustic dye trade nigger jokes. The tide comes crashing in and sweeps us all away,” he writes in The Birth Caul.
It didn’t, of course. Despite being unwilling to thread the needle of state-sanctioned social mobility and thrown upon the world’s blunt engine, with no visible prospects save for soul-destroying menial jobs that seemed designed for no purpose other than breaking any independent spirit or energy for a life of the mind he might still entertain, Moore nevertheless plotted his escape. Mere intelligence was insufficient to the task. This would require some other discipline – some other point of character.
|Figure 792: Hugh Stowell Brown, a Liverpool-based|
minister of the 19th century famed for his work
among the poor, or, at least, the poor he considered
Unsurprisingly, a key clue can be found in Seabrook, who, in discussing the songs and hymns that were sung at family Christmases, notes that “the only people from their own class who appeared in these compositions were wastrels and drunkards who came to a bad end or pious and sober artisans who had signed the pledge of temperance and who behaved themselves lowly and reverentially towards their betters.” This is a reference to the age-old distinction between god’s poor and the devil’s poor – the one made by Puritan philanthropist Thomas Gouge when he explained that “I am not against the relieving of all beggars, some of them I know are blind, others lame, aged, and past their work; these impotent poor, in regard of their present condition, are objects of charity; but not the impudent poor, who have strength enough to work and will not, those canting vagrants who are the burden of the earth, and the same of the kingdom, for these I have no charity: Neither had the apostle St. Paul, who towards God’s poor was full of compassion; but for the Devil’s poor, he gave this command, ‘That if any would not work, neither should he eat,” and by Victorian minister Hugh Stowell Brown, who, in his Lectures to Working Men distinguishes between “God’s poor [who] are those who are poor through no fault of their own” and “another and a very different class, viz. – the Devil’s poor,” who “are to God’s poor as ten to one, or more probably a great deal more than that,” and who have “a cunning, a mean, a hardened, or a ruffianly look, about which there can be no mistake; their faces are enough to hang them.”
This was, of course, the exact same sort of distinction made by Moore’s headmaster after his expulsion, who, as Moore tells it, “had written to all of the colleges and schools that I might have thought of applying to and told them that they should under no circumstances accept me as a pupil, because this would be a corrupting influence upon the morals of the other students. I believe that he did at one point in the letter, refer to me as sociopathic, which I think was rather harsh.” Nevertheless, it was the label Moore was now branded with. But within this label Moore found and carved out his own sort of freedom – the same sort of freedom he explored in the development of V for Vendetta when he probed the cultural “tradition of making heroes out of criminals.” And it is this that is, perhaps, the key fact to understand about Alan Moore – the realization without which no aspect of his career or his actions during the War make the slightest bit of sense: he’s a con man.
|Figure 793: The wideboy occultist Moore created|
for a US comic book. (Written by Alan Moore, art
by Steve Bissette and John Totleben, from Swamp
Thing #38, 1985)
This is, after all, a well trodden image within the British working class landscape. The specific term would be “spiv” or perhaps “wideboy,” as in “the wideboy occultist I’d created some years previously for a U.S. comic book.” And there are, perhaps, few images more finely suited to a working class man who quite literally makes things up for a living. Certainly it is an identity that Moore seems to inhabit well – one he alludes to when he disclaims that “in my work as an author, I traffic in fiction. I do not traffic in lies, although I’ll admit that the distinction is a nice one.” It is implicit in his early career admission, no doubt with a satisfied grin, that “just between you and me, I’m grossly overpaid,” and in his blurb for Lance Parkin’s biography, in which he proclaims that it “belongs on the bookshelf of any halfway decent criminal profiler.” It is a self-image that is immediately evident in the twinkle in his eyes when, in a 2012 interview, after he explains that he’d only sold the film rights to From Hell and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen because he assumed the films would never get made, the BBC interviewer accuses him of “trying to get money for old rug,” and he agrees with unbridled enthusiasm. It is the implicit link in the final chapter transition of his first Northampton novel, Voice of the Fire, where he transitions from his story of murderous huckster Alfred Rouse to the book’s final chapter, in which he himself is the tacit narrator with a line repeated across the two chapters: “They’re buying it.” And perhaps most obviously, it is the logic behind one of the first acts of his career, his use of the Curt Vile and Jill de Ray pseudonyms for a spot of welfare fraud that is, in hindsight, blatantly a two-fingered statement of intent to Thatcher’s Britain.
It is only when this is understood, for instance, that Moore’s propensity for falling out with former friends and colleagues. To Moore, “artist” and “con man” are in effect synonyms; it is not merely that he views himself as one, but that the idea that there might be any other way to view one’s self as an artist simply does not register. This explains things like his statement that “I still don’t get a lawyer to look at [my contracts], because that seems to me mistrustful. Yes, I know that sounds stupid, given that it’s obviously an industry I mistrust, but I really do 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.” It is a view that has its roots in the sort of endless suspicion described by Seabrook – not entirely dissimilar to the way that his family “never trusted articulate people, and always held ‘the gift of gab’ in great contempt.” To Moore, anyone who wants to set up elaborate rules for a transaction is presumably doing so in order to swindle him, whereas anyone willing to work on a simply negotiated handshake deal can be trusted as a fellow grifter. And likewise, when Moore’s understanding of a deal is violated and he feels that he has been done wrong by a colleague, he reacts with all the righteous and ruthless fury of a criminal whose sense of “honor among thieves” has been betrayed, until, over the course of his career, his set of friends and colleagues slowly concentrated into a set of people he considered reliably like-minded in their basic roguishness.
And so at last a true understanding of Moore’s career before the actual commencement of hostilities within the War comes into focus, at least from his own perspective. It is not a narrative of assent or conquest at all, but a snowballing long con that begins with some petty welfare fraud and gradually escalates, the stakes and payoff growing and growing until, preposterously, a wideboy from the Spring Boroughs found himself the golden boy of one of the two biggest comics companies in America, writing a magnum opus that would change the world forever. And, in turn, at last the inevitability of what was to follow becomes clear. It would end like any well-executed con: with burnt bridges and a thief on the run.
There is, however, one final beat to the buildup of this mad caper – the work that would end up as Moore’s farewell to the mainstream British comics industry in which he made his name. [continued]