Around this time last year I was putting together materials for my dissertation on Alan Moore and Psychogeography, collating books, interviews and various other research materials to begin work. As I was in the lucky position of my dissertation subject still being alive, unlike Daphne du Maurier who is definitely dead, I decided to e-mail around and see if I could get some primary research. After a brief exchange with what I like to imagine Alan calls his 'Internet Goblin,' I managed to secure myself the following interview.
As I was in Chichester in the time and Alan, as always, in Northampton, this is merely a text interview. But still, it has some interesting bits in there, and I figured with my dissertation handed in it was okay to now post it and let others read it.
Here it is.
What exactly, in your not unlimited understanding, is Psychogeography?
In its simplest form I understand psychogeography to be a straightforward acknowledgement that we, as human beings, embed aspects of our psyche...memories, associations, myth and folklore...in the landscape that surrounds us. On a deeper level, given that we do not have direct awareness of an objective reality but, rather, only have awareness of our own perceptions, it would seem to me that psychogeography is possibly the only kind of geography that we can actually inhabit.
What books and writers ignited your interest in psychogeography?
The author that first introduced me to the subject was the person I regard as being its contemporary master, namely Iain Sinclair, with his early work Lud Heat. Obviously, since then my appreciation of the field has broadened to include a wider range of writers. Some of these, like Arthur Machen, would appear to have been consciously applying something very much like Iain Sinclair’s conception of psychogeography as ‘walking with an agenda’, while others such as H.P. Lovecraft sought only to draw poetic inspiration from specific landscapes and their atmospheres, apparently without a conscious understanding of the way in which these fictions could be said to have emerged from the geography in question. Nor did Lovecraft seem aware that his imaginings, superimposed upon the actual territories of New England, were inevitably to become part of the way those territories were perceived and thus part of the place itself. I think that what I’m saying here is that once introduced to the idea of psychogeography, one tends to realise that it is almost everywhere and that a given author’s own awareness of its processes within their writing is to some extent irrelevant. From one perspective, after all, it might be said that in such writings place itself is the true author.
Early psychogeography is quite different to modern psychogeography in theory. Which form do you see yourself writing? Are the two relatable?
My approach, in keeping with Theophile Gautier’s elegant definition of Decadent literature as being capable of plundering from the most ancient past or the most recent ‘technical vocabularies’ (which is also a good working definition of postmodernism), would be to see the current model of psychogeography as evolving from and thus essentially containing earlier versions of the practice, making these original techniques available to modern artists as important tools within their repertoire. For example, one need not subscribe to any nebulous New Age conceptions with regard to ‘ley lines’ to appreciate that Brecon visionary Alfred Watkins’s idea of linking geographic points into a web of sightlines could have modern application if regarded as a linkage of ideas, as in both Iain Sinclair’s work and in my own From Hell. By linking memory and history to landscape, psychogeography tends to suggest time as a solid object, which to some degree renders the linear progression of the subject’s literary tropes and fashions meaningless. If time is considered as a landscape then one is obviously free to wander anywhere within that terrain, into the recalled, recorded past or even the projected future, armed with the sophisticated sensibilities of the present as a means of interpreting and utilising what we find there.
When first entering into the realms of writing psychogeographic work, did you research much to gain an understanding what the genre could do, or were you more interested in making your form of psychogeography?
I did no research at all upon the subject per se. Once I’d grasped the basic concept then I thought it better to develop my own personal approach to the material, which is the way in which I tend to handle any of the fields of interest I find myself entering. This was the way in which I first approached my entry into writing, by observing the effects that other writers could achieve and then attempting to devise ways such techniques could be adapted and applied to my own work, rather than by consulting an outside authority or book on how to write. The same is true of my initial entry into magic, and in general it seems to be a tactic that’s conducive to original ideas and applications in whichever area of endeavour one is seeking to explore.
From Hell can be considered your first psychogeographic work, concerning itself with magic, murders and the Masons. How aware of the genre were at his point?
I had read Peter Ackroyd’s inventive fiction Hawksmoor at around the time when I was first assembling the ideas that would eventually become part of the furniture and structure of From Hell. This suggested that the presence of Hawksmoor’s unsettling churches in proximity to a majority of the Whitechapel murders might have relevance to the extended and digressive work that I was then conceptualising. The Ackroyd book led me to Iain Sinclair’s Lud Heat (from which Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor had derived much of its impetus and inspiration) and the same author’s White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings. The Brian Catling-illustrated map in Lud Heat seemed to me to invite an extension and elaboration into the more complex pentacle design presented in From Hell, at which point I embarked upon a one-day tour of London just to see if all of the locations could be visited within a single day. (Some of the photographs retrieved from this excursion are included in the forthcoming From Hell Companion as compiled by Eddie Campbell and published by Knockabout.) This was my entry, if you like, into the realm of hands-on psychogeography, and I only later became gradually aware of the field’s many antecedents and modes of interpretation.
In reading From Hell (which as a geeky side note, may well be my favourite work of yours), it seems remarkable that so many events such as the ‘invisible curve rising through the centuries’ are able to make sense. How much of this is creative meddling for the story, or is it just the magic of enough research and finding patterns?
Whether we’re talking about the apparent arrangement of geographic sites into a pentacle or the seeming periodic curve in English murder you refer to, there is very little in the way of what I’d call creative tinkering save for the sleight of hand afforded by creative interpretation. For example, although all the murders or attacks that make up the suggested ‘curve’ are based upon historic or reported fact, a moment’s scrutiny should make it plain that there were lots of other murders and attacks that didn’t fall within that periodic pattern, and that for the curve to have validity would have implied a major English murder every several minutes at some juncture of the 1990s. As with much psychogeography, the seeming magic lies in, as you say, sufficient research and a flair for pattern-recognition. In imposing or establishing a pattern, whether that be chronological or geographical, the natural impulse is to seek out elements which resonate or rhyme with one another, and indeed it might be said that in this sense the principal device of psychogeography is actually a form of poetry.
To what degree is this seeing pattern that aren’t there?
Given that patterns are a construct of the human mind and human sense of aesthetics, it would seem to me that in a sense all patterns can be seen as patterns that aren’t there. By the same token, though, the only measure of a pattern’s actual validity is therefore in its elegance or its utility. I think that this remains true whether we’re discussing the considerable usefulness and elegance that the conceit of London’s pentacle afforded to the narrative and atmospherics of From Hell, or the physicists’ beloved but unproven paradigm of super-symmetry that I’m apparently discussing with the eminently cuddly astrophysicist Professor Brian Cox on Radio Four at some point in July. In this last instance, though the notion that each particle must have its antiparticle would seem to be derived from an aesthetic sensibility which we have no real reason to believe that the insensate universe might share with us. However, the idea at least provides us with a place to start, a testable hypothesis which, while it may not lead to the discovery of a symmetrical space/time continuum (and will therefore turn out to be a pattern that’s not there), will almost certainly lead to us being in possession of more information. I assume that this is why, in terms of mankind’s biological or neurological development, we seem to have selected for increasing pattern-recognition skills which would appear to have a pro-survival benefit in terms of human evolution.
You’ve mentioned many times in interviews that one panel in this comic was the source of your Glycon worship and career as a magician. How important is magic to psychogeography?
Magic, as I understand and would define the term, is simply a more active way of interacting or engaging with the powerful and mysterious phenomenon of our own consciousness. Considered from this point of view, with almost all of human culture (art, science, language, writing, medicine, religion, sculpture, dance, music, mathematics) having origins in either Palaeolithic shamanism or some later offshoot of the magic arts, it is difficult to find a subject to which magic isn’t relevant. Psychogeography, which in practice requires the cultivation of a certain consciousness, a certain level of perception and attention, would seem more than usually suited to the worldview magic offers.
In writing Big Numbers, what would have been your ultimate aim?
That’s difficult to say, as I find that a major part of any work’s aim will only become clear in retrospect. That said, I think that at the time I wanted, with Big Numbers, to accomplish several things at once. I wanted to make clear, in a reaction to the then-recent appropriation by the comic industry of Watchmen and various other superhero or adventure narratives, that comics were quite capable of handling literary themes and a variety of concepts far beyond the confines of traditional adventure stories. Faced with a comic industry that at the time seemed to be struggling to imitate or duplicate the tropes of Watchmen, I was also eager to develop a completely different range of narrative effects and storytelling mechanisms to the ones established in the course of Watchmen, just to demonstrate that with the endless possibilities for narrative which comics offered there was little point in slavishly attempting to reprise all the stylistic quirks of Watchmen when it would presumably be easier to just come up with something new. Upon a different level, I wanted to demonstrate the richness of the world immediately surrounding me, and by the extension the book’s reader, by using Northampton as a kind of objet trouvé and then letting that decision shape the narrative. There were quite possibly a lot of other factors that have since faded from memory, and it would probably be fair to say that my apparently compulsive urge to psychologically intimidate the rest of my profession would be counted in amongst them.
I’ve read that the story was based around chaos theory as well as Northampton, history and obviously maths. How far does chaos theory affect a location/space?
Basically, the then-new field of fractal mathematics was the central metaphor on which the whole work rested. Fractal maths (or ‘chaos theory’) is mathematics at a higher order of complexity, capable of precisely duplicating the conditions that we usually perceive as randomness or chaos. Fractal mathematics turns out to describe the processes which will determine how glass shatters (as in the first issue’s splash page illustration), or how paper crumples (as in the splash page of issue two). It turns out to be principle which gives us our irregularly-contoured clouds or coastlines, or provides the distribution pattern for blood vessels in the human body, weather, stars in the night sky, fluctuations on the stock market and even how cars bunch together on the motorway into precise configurations known as ‘fractal dust’. It seemed to me, in the late nineteen eighties, that most ordinary people were developing a tendency to see the world and thus their lives within it in chaotic terms, subjected to incessant and seemingly random change in both their personal and socio-political experience that were perceived as a dispiriting and overwhelming buffeting by blind chaotic forces. It occurred to me when fractal mathematics was first mentioned in the scientific press that it might possibly provide some useful metaphors which could potentially help people understand and navigate the frantic and unprecedented times in which they found themselves. Essentially, my aim was to provide a sense that the apparent chaos in society and people’s lives, if looked at from the new perspective offered by this new form of mathematics, might resolve into a different scale of order and complexity; might even be a thing of beauty like the jewelled swirls of Benoit Mandelbrot’s eponymous set.
To date, this remains your only psychogeographic comic work on Northampton, albeit hidden behind the guise of ‘Hampton.’ Is there any reason why Big Numbers is a comic when later psychogeographic work is in prose form?
Big Numbers is a comic narrative because that was the medium that I was working in almost exclusively around that period, when I was obviously experiencing psychogeographic impulses even though at the time the term itself was unfamiliar to me. Having launched one comic book series based upon Northampton, even though it never reached its intended conclusion, it seemed to me that to attempt another would seem repetitious and obsessive. Consequently, I’ve since framed investigations of my home turf in the terms of other media, as with the different literary takes in Voice of the Fire and the forthcoming Jerusalem, or through the medium of cinema in the imminent Jimmy’s End.
Is there ever any hope to see this completed, if not as a comic then perhaps as another form?
No, I’m afraid not. There was an attempt to continue the work as a comic with a different artist, but that ended as disastrously as the earlier arrangement. Then there was the plan to turn the work into a television series, which may have conceivably been possible but which the television industry around that time appeared not to be interested in. I let the project go fifteen or twenty years ago, as a necessity allowing me to give my full attention to those projects actually in hand, and can’t imagine ever having any urge to take a journey back to the same territory again.
Voice of the Fire
In From Hell, the events of the novel eventually create the 20th Century. The events of Voice of the Fire are more obfuscated, lacking as it does a linear narrative or central protagonist. What are the events of this book building up to?
The events and themes in Voice of the Fire (in which the idea of the town itself is probably the major protagonist), including themes such as the development of language and consciousness or the evolving grain of urban history, are basically building like a palimpsest into the Northampton of the present day, in which I am writing the last chapter of the novel by allowing random events in the town to dictate the chapter’s sequence of events: an attempt to let the true ‘voice of the fire’ speak through the text to the reader. It was also, I felt, a suitable stylistic conclusion to the book to have what had previously seemed to be a collection of relatively conventional tales suddenly take a turn into postmodern narrative, where what Voice of the Fire turns out to be about is not so much Northampton as the processes of writing about landscape in this way.
This is the first time you had explicitly written about Northampton. What prompted you to turn your psychogeographic gaze upon your hometown?
Having whetted my appetite for the town’s history with the aborted Big Numbers and having wanted for some while to do this kind of investigation into my native ground, perhaps as a reaction to the already over-mapped territory of psychogeographic London, when Victor Gollancz invited me to write a first prose novel Northampton seemed an excellent candidate as subject matter. I was also, rather self-consciously, trying to avoid the usual genre ghettos that former comic writers seem to gravitate towards, such as horror, science fiction, fantasy or, more rarely, crime. Writing a book that could include elements from all those areas while remaining beyond genre in itself seemed to me both more ambitious and more personally rewarding, if unlikely to be rewarding in the financial sense. I was probably trying to establish my credentials as a literary author rather than as a lucrative crowd-pleaser, and I should imagine that the brutally impenetrable first chapter accomplished at least the second half of that ambition.
Has the writing of this affected your view of Northampton? Especially if you go to locations mentioned in the book (i.e. The Church of the Holy Sepulchure, the site of the former castle, etc)
Any work of art that seeks to change the perceptions of its audience should be expected to change the perceptions of its creator to a comparable or greater degree. Yes, in the wake of writing the book I have inevitably informed my view of the town in which I live, to the point where in passing a landmark like Northampton’s guildhall I will have all of my personal associations...the place where I was married twice; the place where my great-grandfather Ginger Vernon was also married and was employed in retouching the frescoes of the guildhalls interior...and then added to these I will have the awareness that Alfred Rouse’s condemned cell is underneath the building, untouched since the day in 1931 when he was taken out to Bedford prison to be hanged. I mentioned earlier the notion of the town as palimpsest, and this is certainly true when you’ve written a number of narratives based either on or in the place in question. For example, with the advent of Jerusalem I now have an entire new tranche of information on the guildhall, a new layer to the palimpsest in which I now have to remember that statue of the Archangel Michael on the building’s roof was carved by R.L. Boulton, late of Cheltenham. This may be one of the reasons I don’t go outdoors quite as much as I used to.
Obviously there isn’t a huge amount of historical record for things like Hob’s Hog, but more recent chapters such as I Travel in Suspenders have basis in historical fact. Then there’s Simon de Senlis, of whom not much historical record exists besides the fact that he did and fought in the Crusades. How much of this is based on actually historical characters and how much creative license to make it up?
The general rule of thumb in Voice of the Fire is that where a historical character is introduced, nothing is said which contradicts the established facts known about that person. In the case of Simon de Senlis there are intriguing fragments in the recorded history that enabled me to a least conceive a little of the man’s personality and possible inner life. He was basically parachuted in by William the Conqueror to govern Northampton after the ruling baron, the Saxon quisling Waltheof, had been fitted up in a supposed plot against the monarchy and executed. His wife Judith, William’s niece, was ordered to marry de Senlis in an attempt to give his rule legitimacy, but she balked at this and gave the rather contrived-sounding reason that de Senlis had ‘a halten foot’, or a limp, which provided the chapter with its title. The details about de Senlis’ meeting with the prototype Knights Templar is an extrapolation based upon the fact that although the resultant round church is of the unusual design favoured by the Templar Knights (and was certainly a site of much Templar activity in later centuries) and given the fact that there is some historical doubt about whether de Senlis ever got as far as Jerusalem itself to view the building’s original model, it is nevertheless dated from a period some while before the Knights Templar announced their existence to the world. It would seem to be an established fact, however, that the order were active in the Holy Land long before this point and thus a meeting with a possibly-related French aristocrat such as Simon de Senlis seemed to me to be at least a possible solution to this seeming discrepancy. The speculations as to the true nature of the Templar totem-object were based upon the conjecture that the order were exerting some sort of hold over their papal patron, and the apparent testimonials under torture that the order worshipped ‘a head’ that they knew as Baphomet (apparently a word which shares etymological roots with the similar word ‘Mahomet’ which means simply ‘prophet’). Given all of the above, it’s fair to say that once I’d satisfied myself that I was not knowingly contravening established historical fact, I went ahead and made it all up.
The secret below the Church of the Holy Sepulchure: in how far is that fictional? Does it matter? Does the mere legend of what it is have an effect?
The notion that there is a sealed vault beneath the church is an established fact, with much supporting evidence such as seemingly hollow spaces in the five-feet-thick walls that could easily accommodate a passage giving access to the crypt. The mention in the final chapter of a council work-gang accidentally breaking through into a subterranean space beneath the church only to have the council concrete up the entrance overnight is also true, and since speculating that this may be because the council have co-opted to town’s subterranean spaces for post-nuclear civil defence contingencies, I have heard reports that appear to suggest that my informed guess was probably accurate. Since it is likely that the council will never disclose the purpose that this putative space may have been put to, I suppose that the idea could be seen as unimportant, but simply in raising the possibility I have added a speculative strata to people’s ideas concerning the church (and possibly concerning our clandestine civil defence capabilities). I have also probably explained the reason why the surface of Sheep Street subsided at least twice in the last ten years to leave a gaping hole looking down onto the darkness of what is presumably the connective tunnel between the spaces under All Saint’s Church and the spaces below the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Is this a short story collection or one single narrative?
No, it’s a short story collection and one single narrative.
If From Hell is the story of William Gull and the Ripper victims and how intertwined with London and in particular Whitechapel giving rise to the 20th Century, how far is this the story of Steve Moore’s (no relation) presence on Shooter’s Hill building Shooter’s Hill? Or did Shooter’s Hill create Steve Moore?
I would say that if the writing of Unearthing taught me anything it was that to a certain degree psychogeography is perhaps inseparable from psychobiography, and that just as we are demonstrably extensions of our landscape, so are our landscapes unavoidably extensions of ourselves. Each in a sense creates the other, like Escher’s self-reflexive illustration of two clearly pencil-drawn hands drawing one another.
The ending of Unearthing is very similar to that of Voice of the Fire. What does an author insertion add to the story? Is it similar to the prestige of a magic trick, or is it a peak behind the curtain?
I feel it’s important for the veracity and power of certain stories...such as Unearthing, Voice of the Fire and even the Dance of the Gull-Catchers appendix to From Hell...that the author be honest about his or her role in creating the narrative that the reader has been involved in. It’s a way of admitting the subjectivity of the piece and underlining which areas of the text are pure inventions. In the case of Unearthing, the vanishing sequence at the end is the only such invention (although even then Steve Moore went out and made the walk on the day that he received my manuscript, and it did rain torrentially on Shooters Hill at that time on that date, just as I’d imagined it might. My only cheating was to rework the manuscript slightly to include the genuine shudder which Steve reported upon acting out the story’s final instructions and standing with his back to the Bronze Age burial mound, where he incidentally intends to have his ashes scattered).
Your second major prose work returns to Northampton – what compelled you to return to Northampton?
When I’d finished Voice of the Fire I was left with the feeling that while I had imposed an interesting quasi-historical narrative upon Northampton, I had perhaps ignored a potentially larger and richer story concerning the history of the specific neighbourhood in which I was born and the history and mythology of my own family in the context of that neighbourhood. I could see that this would give me a chance to discuss a much more diverse range of issues than Voice of the Fire had afforded, and the concepts central to Jerusalem just seemed to snowball and accumulate from that point on.
In a recent article for the BBC, you said that ‘everything in the observable universe has its origins in Northampton.’ Given what we know already about the book, is the book about unpacking this sentence?
Not really. The line in the BBC website piece was intended as a humorous overstatement rather than as a fact that I’d ever wish to seriously defend (although I did claim in my address at the TAM rationalist and sceptic conference that the Big Bang had occurred in Northampton, in Wiggin’s Coal Yard just across the street from where we used to live, in around 1929).
Your work in psychogeography also encapsulates magic history and in this one your grand high theory of death. If we were to ‘unlock’ Northampton, as it were, would our understanding of everything else increase?
I’d refer you to the Charles Fort quote with which we commenced From Hell, regarding how one measures a circle beginning anywhere. If the whole universe is suffused with connectivity as both Fort and I construe it to be, then in fully unlocking the secrets and information of any given location, we are presumably also unlocking the secrets of the whole continuum in which that location exists.
Dodgem Logic was the underground magazine about Northampton, and as a Uni student living away from Northampton was a great way for me to stay connected. With some of the articles written about Northampton for the magazine, did this help you refine your idea of Northampton?
I guess that they probably did, most notably the series of short pieces that I researched and wrote for the magazine’s Notes from Noho section. The opening pair of articles about the Destructor, the waste-incinerator tower in Bath Street, were inspired by the fact that the Destructor had already by that point become one of the major symbolic elements of Jerusalem, so it’s fair to say that there was a degree of feedback between the two projects, although that’s very often true of all the projects that I’m working on at any given time.
Angel Passage and The Highbury WorkingWhat is it about a live performance that differs from a written piece?
There is obviously a lot more that can go wrong at a live performance, and I find that this lends performances a kind of adrenaline-rush immediacy that is perhaps unachievable by any other means. This is not to say that I don’t also equally enjoy the leisure and precision of a written piece. It’s largely a matter of what sort of treatment the individual piece seems to demand.
Does a live performance contribute to an area?
Yes, it does. This is a fact that I hadn’t really considered at the outset, but I quickly realised that a unique performance will of course become part of the psychogeographic residue of any given area. I think this first came home to me when I was reading an article by someone upon the psychogeographic importance of Conway Hall in London’s Red Lion Square, where one of the pieces of supportive evidence for this claim was that I’d originally performed Snakes & Ladders there.
Psychogeography in General
In all honesty, how much of what you write now is part of some über-large magical ritual for you to take over the world? With your beard? You could do it you know.
Of course I’m not attempting to take over the world. What a grotesque concept. On the other hand, in Jimmy’s End and its projected sequel The Show we do present the story of a bearded Northampton-based occultist, performer and writer who is attempting to subjugate the globe by first colonising its imagination, but that obviously only has a coincidental relationship with any real circumstances or people. I mean, the very idea. Do I look like the sort of person who might do something like that?