by Alan Moore
Transcribed by Pádraig Ó Méalóid
I: Golden Square
Out of eternity into one stinking moment, out of light and into history, its horseshit and its rags, the stuck-pig squeal of its machinery. Not born so much as ground like pigment from his times, a colour squeezed from fish-head, flag and fetor, pressed like perfume from a petrol century. A fog like pewter trickled in the wheel ruts and plague concertinas wheezed out their half-hearted wretched guts into the dark down Broad Street. Vomit sweet, the backyard breath of Soho, rancid with excuses, gin and stories, pours itself into the instant, into fleas and firelight and November. Slick with flame, the frog-eyed boy descends into the filth and splendour.
His skin is watercolour paper, soaks the world up and grows plump with pamphlet ink, drinks in the dirty rain, the streets, their slogans and their tipsy rhythms. The morning walk down Air Street, through its hyphen arches to the Strand and drawing school, the church-high shops and sagging faces, jewelled already into pencil line. The wine-stained cheeks, the reeking Thames, sick dogs and makers of perukes, the old man he saw dying once in Fountain’s Court, and never told a soul. Already certain that the lanes and clouds were nowhere save in his imagination, he redrew the city with his eyes, and collaged angels in amongst the harvesting. And he was twelve years old. He could knock together angels out of almost anything.
And once Emanuel Swedenborg called by upon his self-invented hovercraft, and took the boy aboard, off for adventures in the spirit world or far Americas. And drunk on Chatterton reeled ruddy-faced amongst the pale apprentices, where in the aqua fortis fug he squinted the sweet wings of tenderness. He beat himself from copper scraps of song, from the Freemason’s Tavern in Great Queen Street, from Westminster’s waxworks and tanned parchment kings revealed. From Durer’s scowling lion and Ossian’s phony spectres he distilled himself, and roamed, his fingers splashed with acid, sweet from field to fiord. And there were lamps in Drury Lane and Covent Garden, sots and actresses and schemers, where his innocent and angry angels knocked each other bloody on the cobbles, and London inhaled him, sucked him down her ancient beer-stained throat. In nimbus dream us.
Sex draped its hairy banners everywhere, the gutters slippy with its residues and its results. At Russell Court print traders, handshakes damp as gussets, the discreet nod, the unrolled tableau, human arrangements with more legs than banquet tables. Miniaturist frenzy of each split-nib orifice. He breathed an atmosphere of mattress sweats, pubic infusions, skirt dust; drank the pepper-freckled shoulders and the salty linen swing, women were undergrowth, best glimpsed across the common, once within that humid smother men were blinded, lost. Were tenderised by fawn. “Are you a fool?” she said, wet lips pursed hatefully about the sounds. He’d asked of other men, pig shadows grunting, squealing in the ale-yard’s corner dark. “Are you a fool?” she said, the flat slap of her incredulity like bromide sent him flinching down a street of nails. Rust puddles, stinging nettle jeers. Draws her shape on pink swept butcher’s paper, crumples it in anger, strokes it smooth. Outside the baby haulers are singing about holes to put poor Robin in, a night with Venus and a month with Mercury. The streets awash with grey suds from the back mews, chalk monsters aching on the midden wall, meat noises, smiles like open sores. He knew it by osmosis and grew turgid with its hurts, its sights, its language, with its heaviness upon his back, that bent his neck, his vision, to the loveless slabs, until at Battersea a woman pitied him and from the sodden fence and pawned caress, from chimney-rooted flowers and scabs and horse despair unfolded now sweet wings of tenderness.
And like his sister, like his mother, it was Catherine, the woman, always Catherine. With his ferocious signature there in the register beside her small neat cross. Their fledgling years together, first at Broom Street then, when business bettered, Poland Street. His brother Robert dying, coughing colours, only gouged the vision deeper, and in Lambeth, tangled steaming by the hearth, it seemed the century was also lit. Light on its flank, light in its eye. And heaven, sex, and insurrection swirled together through the blazing mills, and off in Paris beasts were leaping, hungry in the sparks, their faces striped with soot and fire. Those rocket nights delirious with ideas in the confetti flurry of sensation and event. The Songs of Innocence condensed to fragile crystal from the gangrene monk, from angry bonnets and blood skies reflected in the slop of Lambeth’s stare. He sizzles with his times, the wine of him moulded [...] by Paracelsus, Jacob Boehme, his boyhood’s jungle tigers prowl the Swedenborgian chapel in Eastcheap when over the stone arch it reads Now, Now it is Allowable. And so it seemed. What might not now be dreamed, be writ, be done? Now, surely fell the temple, fell the barrack and the gibbet, fell the counting house. Now rose mechanic saints, a tinker multitude, to found Jerusalem in brooms of joy. But then the word from Paris was tense. At home, dragoons and oaths of loyalty, through streets hung with tiger belts, there spreads the prison hush of dour authority.
The lockstep roads, the exercise yard trudge, a population made to anxious children, darting-eyed as they await the rod. Their golden skies transmuted by bad alchemy to lead. And on each tongue the Pentecostal nightlight flickers and goes out. The rhetoric turns back to chain-gang consolations. The red bonnets are removed, are hidden, buried, burned, and justice treads the curfew as an angry widow, vigilante whispers in her trailing skirts. As well to own a bomb-hoard as a printing press. This is no time for trust.
Across the lane a curtain moves. He plays his business cards close to his chest with limited editions sold to friends, subscribers. No advertisements, no exhibitions, voice suppressed, lips stitched, the vision has nowhere to turn save inwards. Psychic cabin fever. At Hercules Buildings on the landing is a cruel-eyed ancient crouching at his measurements. The human soul has fallen to anatomists, is flensed with the dividers' every slicing arc. The tyrant ratio is everything. The wings grown from his temples are clipped back for battery convenience. He takes the decade personally, its nightmares are his own. He is at home to every panic and delirium. The spectre rushes at him down the stairs, green, gold, and scaled, its snake tongue licking at the air for blood. Hail, horrors! Hail!
With language now under surveillance he resorts to code. Stealth prophecy. Boils down oppression and resistance into glowering essences, to barbarous names. Uncharted pantheons, past legislation's Newgate reach, in cryptic masks to sing his teeming mind behind. But how to sing of this? The casual brickings, word of innards dragged about the highway, infants lynched or else discovered dead and nameless out on Lambeth marshes, sooty warts already blooming on the half-dropped balls. London as suburb of Inferno. Bad news waiting maggot-lively on the tide line, and the spirit hobbled to a rock of care. His tightening gin-trap finances, grey prison shadows stripened in graver's tablet. In his dipping jar, the water black at once, although he's used none. Both his father and his mother gone by turn into the mortal clutter off in Bunhill Fields. The turf in pregnant hopes wherein bone babies incubate with bare jaws working in their sleep at the imagined berries of the yew tree, sticky nipples, white and poisonous. He doubts if he will live another year.
And yet his fortieth English winter comes and goes and he survives, but not with ease. The work grows thin. The doubts made sleek and stout with nervous fear sat often at his elbow now. Though he'll conjecture with Hoxton diviners, Rosicrucian brickies, cabbalists from Cripplegate, in mantic lulls, or when the wind is in the south, then bedlam shrieks, its lights out, bellows madhouse rape, shit murals, bleats and stammers while amongst the audience soup a voice that weeps and laughs in turn and sounds so like his own. Unwelcome futures limp, all spit and bandage-seep, along the Blackfriars Road. But Catherine believes in him, though how much more unbearable, to slide below the mire with her sweet, loyal weight dragged down beside him, unprotesting, blameless save for having wed a fool who swore he talked with angels when he but imagined them. Whose vanity was not placated by his works, his ordinary talent, but insisted that each verse and picture be the handicraft of God. The dread of his undoing seizes him and when his benefactor Hayley offers premises upon the coast at Felpham then he packs his sixteen trunks amidst the bread riots and the bun fights and he's drummed out of the city then, a tiger on the lam. Their cottage, once the early beatific ozone rush is gone from the sea air, is damp and poorly humid. Mildewed pointillism bleeds into the stipple of his miniatures. Angry at his subservience to a lesser writer, to a lesser man, he comes to loath the thing that he depends upon. Hayley, his patron, is a self-inflated mediocrity and yet so generous. The work, the fine commissions, portrait cameos of poets. He can see them, funeral processions of giant phantoms on the Sussex shore. Milton and Dante, Chaucer, William Cowper lost and broken, shying at the bar of his own lunacy. A lesson there. His drawing paper cockles with the damp. He put a brave face on it all, one of the only faces he has left. Across the Channel, Bonaparte is tooling up. On each salt-breeze the idiots tattoo of a recruitment detail, table-slamming rally songs with cannon meter, then, the dray-breathed squatty in the garden, Scolfield, just when he was spoiling for a fight, just when he'd had enough of drums and bunting, drums and bully buttons, and all right, with hindsight, he might have done better than to make a fist and throw the bugger out but then the harm is done. Sedition trials, stomach-heavy months 'til the next hearing and the shackle-rattle in his dreams, yet, in the end, he is acquitted. Even they can see how vulnerable he is. At last he can no longer stand the constant salvo of the tide bloom and returns with Catherine to the city, to South Moulton Street, but not unscathed. The cowering whipped-cur letters to his patron, the missed deadlines and the friendships lost to paranoid diatribes. Dog eat dog London barks above the dull slave-galley thudding of his heart.
The passage of the years is measured in an increase of stacked copper plates. Tilt them against the light, and figures limned in brightness posture in night fields beneath jet skies. Piled watercolours, edges corrugating gently into estuary waves, black baryonic matter is accumulated on the nib, the ferule, over time. The downpour's stopped, its last sienna beads gleam trembling on the flaking lip of a tin waterspout. Across the flag-shaped puddle in a corner dip of Fountain's Court, the ripple orbits widen, disappear. And overhead the tattered under-britches of dyed cumuli, unpicked by jet stream fingers, one strand at a time, for future use. Immense gold girders of cast sunlight crash and tumble soundless in the street, lean propped haphazardly, a junk of glory up against the rooftop's edge.
He's sixty-nine. His passions come from a more muted palette now. And yet their glaze is deeper, with more subtlety, more truth. An understanding now of his career. It's never going to happen, was already happening, all this time. To think he’d never noticed. Catherine, at her sewing, chin tucked in, that smile of secret private satisfaction. Waking to the grey before first light, her breath beside him in its steady ebb and flow that laps the pillow shore. At this hour, with the sky's pall somehow lower, fresh whet birds form rings like goblet glass and is a wonder. Dawn is dabbed, uncertainly at first, upon the highest church spires, on the shoulders of surrounding hills. A rolling mail of diamond on the Thames. And sometimes drizzle, sometimes disappointment. An infection in his gallbladder, a weakness in his blood. Grown still with the unbidden memory of the exhibition at his brother's shop in Broad Street, where they'd known him since his boyhood, where he would be recognised, but nothing sold, and no one came. His sole review called him "an unfortunate lunatic," as did his friends. Shame, anger, pounding in his temples. And sometimes glorious and sometimes lions in his mouth and singing like a fountain, every thought a bell, a thunder. He need only give the word and breaking up as grass between the slab-cracks shall come saints, a crude and roaring throng, and in the armour of his mighty love he could kick mountains down, or kings. If joy were gunpowder then every moment is explosion.
The talcum quality of winter light, the clock creep of his shadow measures Cecil Court, and pointing children told "there is the man that speaks with angels." After rain, the shine and glimmer on the streets by dazzle broken into smuts of shape or movement fraught with imminence. A cheering porter belch. Sometimes at dusk the grudging river can seem almost luminous. Hung from the guttering, icicles, silent, chiming only to the eye. The incense of boiled bacon fills the close where arbour-weathered flags like fossil postcards ripped from Babylon, from Eden. Half-torn words upon advertisements and handbills, pasted-up, wound edged to brick, read as the names of undiscovered lands, forgotten martyrs, peelings of mythology. He has disciples now, young visitors who've come, unknowingly, to ape the mute and marvelling stare that often Catherine is caught with, watching as he talks. The earnest boys, not even twenty, leaning eager to catch every syllable, each cough. Samuel Palmer kisses the brass bell handle each morning with his own face swimming forward in reflection. All we ever really see. Out on the common, striding through a storm of thistledown like all the armies of the fall, he blows his nose, and in his kerchief spreads the frescoed wealth of Asia, ghouls and monkey lepers snarling in the wood grain. Given unexpected leeway to complete his life, he tends to work the detail finer. Layers of gold washed blue, grown rich and purple as a byacinth spy. And then Fuseli dies, the white and cataracted mare leans through the bedroom window and he’s gone, is carried off. Next Flaxman, on a Buckingham street breeze in the December chill. The diarrhoea, the piles, and sometimes Catherine can’t look at him without she weeps. Squatted about his scolding stool in the immortal stench of Adam, he grows tired, and thinks again of Job. And in their gloaming towers the clocks tick ever faster. But bursting aches of music, pockets full of war and in his throat cathedrals shuddering like wine. His words colliding stars and laughter smells of brass and honey, prayers taste of Vesuvius, and pigeons crash their cymbal wings together, startled at his smile. His hot eyes poked the runny albumin of clouds, make them opaque and London, London, London, London, London, is his chariot rumbling. Death a step unnoticed in his rush, a tissue torn aside impatiently from the Eternals, brilliant from [...], the unknown yet beloved book. With trees like fanfare in the parks to sound him home and lovely earthquakes in him, landslides of compassion in his breast. This blazing harmony, each dawn a charging cavalry and praise the flint and bless the cut and know the churning skies. And now the world sinks through him, pouring in a wondrous sink, and Kate is clutching at his hand, and sign it, it is done. And now, and now.
The bedroom comes and goes. He’s walking up the same familiar stairs again remembered from before, a wide-brimmed hat upon his head, a precious lantern in his hand, towards the door, its stone arch and its lock. The ancient knotted oak, the city fanned unseen beyond. The bedroom comes and goes, a feathered edge now on the light, the sound. He’s walking up the stairs again towards the door and at their summit he looks back across his shoulder at us. He looks back.
Into eternity out of one stinking moment. Clocks reversing and the smashed bowl mends, wet salmon-gilded cloud sucked streaming back, inhaled by morning. Time is made a place, made London. Moment windows glinting, decade lanes, and that short Hercules forever stamping in its passages. He is not small, but only far away. He strides through bread riot, match-girl strike, and blitz, through joss-stick parks and dead princess’s funeral. We can’t keep up with him. He barely keeps up with himself. That headlong charge down twelve streets at a time. He slams through low performance tables, school assembly halls, and rustles chip-wrap at the Proms. He almost runs. Along Museum Street in Duchamp stop-motion with too many arms that raise the hat, tap cane, check pocket-watch, like some fantastic engine, some hallucination, like some slumming Hindu god. Whirlwind litter skyjacked carrier bag his breath, aerosol hiss across election hoarding. Racing, pacing, he sees blossom flaming into slain Nigerian boys in trees at Peckham Rye, and God in Union Jack sunglasses and a guardsman’s coat comes barrelling down Carnaby, and peering through a Broad Street window terrifies the child. He’s all of him, at once. He barges from the manicurist in South Moulton Street with round the corner handle frowning. Hendrix bucket-splashing vandal sound like paint across the tidy precinct. Boots delighted through the silver scratch card drifts, grabs windfall figs up from his blind guest grave at Bunhill. And from Lambeth out by Waterloo his trains like Behemoth, complaining in the dark. Where by the tracks he’s writ great flaming names in spray, the giants of London’s quarters now, sees Blad and pest and mane, and there in nude pink letters NoLove, weary Afric titan of the self, and on the high cloud buttered yellow by the moon he’ll paint them, soapstone calf and bicep, a cyanic tincture in their modelling, their wide mad eyes stunned by the sun, by love, by tragedy, by everything. And higher still, blown tumbling through the searchlight pillars of a siren night, he sees hot Satan chains of electricity dragged in the lanes below and plunges down into the fireball knot of Soho. He pushes, rude and spluttering, through Les Miserables queues at Leicester Square, and waiting in her bonnet on the ghost of Green Street’s corner, takes Kate by the arm, and they duck whispering down confetti alleys. Rent boy cherubs in the tangerine peel and the bubble wrap up Queen Anne’s Court. He walks on with his wife, both made from sparks. It’s not enough to study or revere him, only be him, kicking down the Greek Street night. And from the frot spots and the lesbo shows, the gleeful orgies of his margins spill into the road. Wet torso clay, lips, limbs and skin, in glistening miles grind yellow in the sodium lights. And smiling, he and Catherine hurry on, order cold mutton in Trattoria’s, offer bouncers out, orange and turquoise sparklers in their fists, run up and down the moving stairs of Tottenham Court. Big Issue sailboat-folded for a crown, he’s young again and she, and garden-bare they dance the swerving cabs down Oxford Street. He swings her by the waist and everywhere about them flutter cell phones, trilling. The lysergic smear of Russell Square, Huxley and Ginsberg call out to them, giggling and stumbling from the park. Beneath the museum portico he kisses her, and from its vaults reel festivals, parades. Pharaohs and Indian idols with a foam of Soma on their tusks, and alligators crawled up from the Thames, a heavy cancer crust of sapphires creaking on their hides, all teeming in the drunk sloped labyrinth. Time never happened. Past revised unendingly is but the fretful play of mind. We are not jailed by continuity. History’s prison bursts, its mortar only spit and wish. We caper outside and away. Now from the galleries and print shops are his fiends and marvels joined with the procession. He and Kate climb naked up astride Nebuchadnezzar’s back and ride him, thumbnails sparking through the torchlight. Here the real and unreal of the ages step together and embrace this place behind the verse, below the colour seeping from the squirrel hair, where wed the flesh and mind, the hand and eye, amongst the antic marriage guests. And in the rice and streamers and the copulation is his vision now descended to him as the woman in his soul who is Jerusalem, the bride, who is the shining city lowering from the firmament. For this is Golgonooza, sand-grained township of eternity, where now comes pleasure sweet Islamic angels as a gem flood pour, comes smiling houris in a streaming radiance, a comet wind. Light fluttering like pages, sound like oil, the ratio transcended in each tree. About him in his nude simplicity, a way to smouldering white, the spectre boil. He rails, divine in tongue but laborious speech, a gentleness more loud than cannon’s boom and drafts creation from a tiny room. The universal there in his unique. Hands stained with Paradise or Milton’s Fall. He will not let the shock of being fade, but pummelled by the star stands weeping made a boy before the marvel of it all. Godiva sky and her atomic blush, the trailing peacock hem stained white with flair reflects in puddle mud, while everywhere, tattooed in heathen gold, the children rush. And all the wheeling cosmos comes to this, its orbits to an evening’s walk pared down. Vast swirls made stains on Catherine’s dressing gown and suns careening in the fond, brief kiss. His thumbprint’s heat in every just fist curled, in hand on pen, or sharing the last crust. On lovers arse, or tumbling jails to dust, his rages, lusts and fears those of the world. He is our human compass, jumps, limbs splayed to all points, up from the common ground. In fireball dawn, mad glare, torrential sound, is William Blake, amazed and unafraid.