Alan Moore: "I've disproved the existence of death"

The comic book author talks about writing a 750,000 word prose novel about Northampton.

Alan Moore can't be accused of playing it safe. In his 40-year career, he has written a genre-busting superhero comic (Watchmen); a graphic novel in which the hero is a terrorist (V for Vendetta); and one of the most beautiful -- but scandalous -- pieces of pornography ever produced (Lost Girls).

Since 2008, he has been occupied largely with writing his second novel, Jerusalem, due for publication next year. It could easily be the oddest novel ever written. Ostensibly a history of Moore's home town, Northampton, it features his favoured technique of appropriating characters from other literary works; the author describes its middle section as being like a "savage, hallucinating Enid Blyton".

Its wider purpose, Moore says, is to "disprove the existence of death" -- but that is if he can get it into print at all: it will clock in at 750,000 words, making it longer (by far) than Vikram Seth's hefty A Suitable Boy and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. The book is so long that the only printers who might be able to tackle it are Bible-makers.

“It is a very big book -- but it's very readable," he assures me when I call to ask how it's going. "Apart from the Lucia Joyce chapter, which is completely incomprehensible." How so? "It's all written in a completely invented sub-Joycean text. I read it through again and I can actually understand most of it -- well, all of it. But it's the only way I could have written that stuff. It's an experiment."

Then there's chapter 29, composed in the form of a stage play by Samuel Beckett, based around one of the times the playwright visited Northampton to take part in a cricket match. (I'm not making this up: the 1925 and 1926 matches appear in Wisden, which records that Beckett was "a useful, left-arm, medium-pace bowler".) While his team-mates took off in the evenings to patronise the city's pubs and prostitutes, Beckett decided instead to go on a "church crawl". It is this event that Moore is restaging.

Apart from these literary jeux d'esprit, the main thrust of the book explores Moore's belief that time doesn't work the way we think it does. "I've come to think that the universe is a four-dimensional site in which nothing is changing and nothing is moving. The only thing that is moving along the time axis is our consciousness. The past is still there, the future has always been here. Every moment that has existed or will ever exist is all part of this giant hyper-moment of space-time."

Confused? Moore puts it this way. "If you think about a standard journey in three dimensions -- say, being in a car driving along a road, the houses you're passing are vanishing behind you, but you don't doubt that if you could reverse the car, the houses would still be there. Our consciousness is only moving one way through time but I believe physics tells us all those moments are still there -- and when we get to the end of our lives, there's nowhere for our consciousness to go, except back to the beginning. We have our lives over and over again."

Moore is friends with (and revered by) several leading physicists -- many of whom will gladly tell you there are probably more than three spatial dimensions. He is particularly taken with the pop-star-turned-TV-populariser of science Brian Cox, and asked him recently: "How do you square the second law of thermodynamics with your earlier assertion that 'Things Can Only Get Better?'" (This joke is very funny to only a very small number of people.)

Surely Moore must be worried that, in the age of Twitter and rolling news, no one will ever finish his super-sized masterpiece? "As long as I finish it," he says. "Although I have doubted that people will even be able to pick it up. I'm not averse to some kind of ebook, eventually -- as long as I get my huge, cripplingly heavy book to put on my shelf and gloat over, I'll be happy."

That said, he does worry that while his first prose novel, Voice of the Fire (published in the mid-1990s), took 300 pages to cover the county of Northamptonshire, Jerusalem uses 750,000 words to explore an area of Northampton about half a square mile across. "So the next one will be several million words and it'll just be about this end of the living room."

Moore says he hopes never to write anything as long as Jerusalem again but he won't countenance scaling it back. "Any editor worth their salt would tell me to cut two-thirds of this book but that's not going to happen. I doubt that Herman Melville had an editor -- if he had, that editor would have told him to get rid of all that boring stuff about whaling: 'Cut to the chase, Herman.'"

One question remains: how do you celebrate finishing a 750,000-word novel? Moore pauses. "I'll probably have a bit of a lie down."

The full Q&A with Alan Moore will be published tomorrow.

Helen Lewis-Hasteley is an assistant editor of the New Statesman. She tweets @helenlewis

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Rowan Williams guest edit

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Standing up to China’s censors: an attempt to delete history backfires

For years now, the official Chinese position has been that no one was killed in Tiananmen Square.

At the time, the massacre in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing on the night of 3 June 1989 was the worst thing I’d ever seen. In front of the Beijing Hotel, where my camera team and I took refuge after we’d escaped from the square itself, I counted 40 people killed or wounded by soldiers of the Chinese army. A photographer who was standing on the next balcony to ours was shot dead when the gunner of a passing tank casually sprayed the hotel with machine-gun bullets.

During the previous three weeks I had spent almost every day in the square, making friends with dozens of students who were demonstrating there. How many of them were killed that night I have never been able to find out. It’s not the kind of thing you can easily forgive or forget. 

For years now the official Chinese position has been that no one was killed in Tiananmen Square that night. This may or may not be literally true, though I saw for myself the bullet-scars on the stone steps of the monument in the middle of the square before they were repaired, so it probably isn’t. But this is just playing with words; the real killing fields were the avenues leading away from Tiananmen Square, such as Chang’an Avenue, which runs past the Beijing Hotel. The implication of the official line is that the massacre was simply invented by the western media. Fake news. Sad.

Tiananmen paralysed China for an entire month, and damaged its relations with the outside world for years. Even today, more than a quarter-century later, it retains its intense toxicity. A Chinese newspaper journalist I know got into trouble for referring to it as a “tragedy”; if you have to refer to it, you must call it simply “the Tiananmen events” – but it’s better not to mention it at all.

It was bad enough in what now seems with hindsight like the liberal, benevolent reign of Hu Jintao. Since 2012, when Xi Jinping came to power and introduced an increasingly ferocious crackdown on dissent, every official throughout the vast Chinese system is aware of the urgent need to keep away from sensitive subjects: not just Tiananmen, but the Cultural Revolution, Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Which is how, earlier this month, a Chinese import agency came into conflict with the oldest publishing house anywhere, over the world’s best and most respected journal of Chinese studies. The China Quarterly, double-blind and peer-reviewed, is owned by the School of Oriental and African Studies, but Cambridge University Press publishes it. The Quarterly’s website of course carries many articles on just these subjects. The import agency suddenly ordered CUP to take down all 315 of them, some dating back to the 1960s, from its website within China; if it didn’t happen, the Chinese said, they would be forced to close the entire website down.

CUP fell over itself to obey, in order, it said, “to ensure that other academic and educational materials we publish remain available to researchers and educators in this market”. Which, as a defence of freedom of speech, isn’t quite up there with John Milton, himself a Cambridge alumnus, in Areopagitica:  “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

The China Quarterly’s admirable editor, Tim Pringle, in the quiet but steely way that befits a scholar under pressure, allowed it to be known what CUP had done, and dozens of outraged scholars and others yelled about it as loudly as Twitter and Facebook would allow. The China Quarterly’s first editor, Roderick MacFarquhar, nowadays a sprightly octogenarian who teaches at Harvard, weighed in angrily on behalf of the organ whose high reputation he had helped to create, and some rough words were used about academic publishers who did the work of an autocracy’s censors for them.

To do it credit, CUP listened and realised what irreparable damage they were doing to the China Quarterly; and it announced on Monday that it was reinstating all the articles.

Pringle couldn’t resist a bit of high-minded reproof:  “Access to published materials of the highest quality is a core component of scholarly research,” he wrote. “It is not the role of respected global publishing houses such as CUP to hinder such access.” And he added:  “Our publication criteria will not change: scientific rigour and the contribution to knowledge about China.” Milton would have been proud of him.

Does any of this really matter? Well, it’s a useful object-lesson in how to approach China. Personally, I don’t think Xi Jinping and his friends, as they splash around in the lakes and swimming pools of Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party retreat beside the Forbidden City, will have known or heard anything about it. In spite of its refusal to admit the dreadfulness of the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square massacre, China isn’t really just an Orwellian society where officials labour away destroying or rewriting the files of the past. No doubt the party would like to, but it simply isn’t a shot on the board in the modern world.

You just have to turn to Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. After CUP decided to reverse its self-censoring operation, hundreds of brave souls in China took to the internet to greet the news with pleasure and relief. Some had the courage to put their names to their comments: “It is a triumph of morality,” wrote Zhang Lifan, a Beijing historian. Another historian, Sun Peidong, praised the international chorus of disapproval that had brought about CUP’s change of heart. Someone else, unnamed, wrote “Cambridge University has backbone.”

Even in the days of clampdown and repression, you can just about get away with saying this kind of thing; though within hours some government job’s-worth had deleted the entire discussion from Weibo. But right across China decent, honourable people who believe in telling the truth now know CUP and Cambridge University haven’t, after all, sold the pass.

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia