Title: The Highbury Working: A Beat Séance
Artists: Alan Moore & Tim Perkins
Catalogue Number: Re: PCD03
Alan Moore is undoubtedly the finest and most important comics writer in the world at the moment, and quite possibly ever. Watchmen alone would have guaranteed him his immortality, without works like The Killing Joke, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or (a personal favourite) Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? Not all of his work has been brilliant, mind you, as anyone who had the misfortune to read A Small Killing can probably tell you. Bearing all this in mind, I had no idea what to expect when those fine folk down at my local comic shop showed me this CD.
The Highbury Working is Alan Moore's third CD, apparently. Like all the previous ones, this is essentially a monologue, or, more correctly, eight monologues. Moore is attempting to divine the essence of the London suburb of Highbury, which is having its identity submerged into the surrounding districts. He examines it in four sections of two tracks each, entitled Terrae, Aquae, Aeris and Ignis (or earth, water, air and fire, for the classically challenged.) In the two pieces that comprise Terrae he introduces his subject and explains his intentions:
From Track 1 Lady, That’s My Skull:-
Think of us as Rosicrucian heating engineers. We check for pressure in the song lines, lag etheric channels, and rewire the glamour. Cowboy occultism. Cash-in-hand feng shui. First you diagnose the area in question, read the street plans' accidental creases, and decode the orbit maps left there by coffee cups, then go to work. Slap up a wall of ectoplasm, standard Moon-and-Serpent contract, tables tilted while you wait, Manifestations-R-Us. Money for old brimstone.
Incidentally, it is a true pleasure to here Moore pronounce feng shui as it is spelt, and not according to however they’re saying it this week, and in his wonderfully warm, earthy and somehow reassuring Northampton accent.
After all of this, he describes Highbury from a purely geographical point of view. The Hackney Brook flows under Highbury, springing from twin sources. This eventually becomes part of the sewer system.
From Track 2 A Skeleton Horse:-
One pig-iron colon winding under Highbury Hill to swallow Hackney Brook in giant acoustics. Underage toshers trawl the human silt for coins, for lost engagement rings, prospectors up shit creek panning for diamonds, like the rest of us.
Actually, it’s almost impossible to resist the temptation to quote extensively from this, as virtually everything is beautifully written, and delivered in a wonderfully melodramatic style. Everywhere, too, Moore seems to have found anecdotes to fill out his picture. The story of the coalman whose horse fell into the earthworks during the building of Highbury Stadium, and was killed on the spot. Moore imagines the skeleton horse being ridden around underground by Epona, the horse goddess of the Roman troops at the Highbury garrison.
The second section, Aquae, deals with the people who provided Highbury with its ‘fluid’, first dealing with the successive buildings on the site of St John’s Priory, scene of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, which eventually became the Alexandra Palace. This became home to Gio Vanelli’s freak show and Music Hall in 1869, featuring acts like Namatar the man frog, Leotard the acrobat (the inventor of the garment named after him), and Chang and Eng, the first ‘Siamese’ twins. (Although they were really Chinese, of course. Chang is the one on the right, incidentally, as you’re looking at them. An extensive library is a wonderful thing, all the same.) Moore perfectly evokes the sense of wonder and otherworldliness engendered by all this, where, as he says, “Anything could happen!” Eventually the establishment closes down the whole thing as a danger to public morals.
Possibly the most comical piece, ‘Hat-trick’, deals with 1919 Arsenal side’s dabbling with ‘courage pills’. Moore draws a picture of them in their role as ‘clubland pioneers’, drinking too much water, with baggy shorts and whistles, off their faces on speed. All of this is coupled with tales of crime and murder, showing Highbury’s descent into a more mundane and seamy level.
The third section, Aeris, is getting closer to Moore’s real interest in all of this. “This is an astral Highbury of the air, the element of mind, a stratosphere in which rarefied intellects might dance... only accessible by heart, or drugs, the rhythmic trance, the willing eye.” Almost inevitably, we find that Aleister Crowley lived in the Highbury area for a period, as did Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Crowley is haunted by his heroin addiction, and Coleridge by the ghost of his lost love, Sara Hutchinson, in his opium narcosis.
From Track 5 Opium Nights:-
Her pubic hair has been replaced with tiny peacock feathers, his saliva tastes like stars. Highbury coruscates, crusted with sixty million year old nautiloids. He tries to kiss her and she breaks against his lips, disintegrates, was never more than a misunderstanding. He cries out, and remembering his eyes are closed, he opens them.
The next piece, ‘Limbo’, is an interlude, an overview of what he’s looked at so far, and he surmises that the true essence of Highbury is to be found in the element of Fire. One last tale remains to be told, though, before he finally comes to this. In the first part of ‘Ignis’ he recounts the murder-suicide case of Joe Meek in 1967. Meek was a famous record producer, and was, according to Moore, trying to find a new effect for the record he was working on. A handy shotgun under the bed, and before you know it, he’s offed the landlady (by accident, it seems) and himself. There’s a moral there, somewhere.
Finally, we reach the last track, and Moore’s synthesis of all he’s examined before. The ghosts of all the characters dance together, “Highbury’s on fire with resurrection”, and Arsenal play a little friendly football with Vanelli’s freaks. This is about redemption, both for all the unfortunate people who lived there, and for Highbury itself, now personified as ‘The Angel Highbury.’ Moore’s ‘voodoo CPR’ has worked, and Highbury is revitalised.
From Track 8 The Angel Highbury:-
And up above them all the Angel Highbury stands, a thousand feet tall, with her pinions fanned from Hampstead to Stoke Newington. Her robe is stitched together from the tattered cover fronts of pulp science fiction magazines, erupting from the Fantasy Book Centre in Holloway Road. Her hair is woven from the blazing priory, long curls of flame caught in the wind that writhes about her face, a beacon fire against the sharp November dark.
And there you have it. Highbury dissected physically, psychically and psychoanalytically, amongst other things. It is often said that Dublin could be recreated, street by street, from James Joyce’s Ulysses, and it wouldn’t be unfair to say the same thing about Moore and Highbury. Did I like it, though? My god, I loved it. I adore it. It’s never far from my turntable. It’s just the kind of think I like musically. The music is always perfectly suited to the narration, and I’m intending to find out more about Tim Perkins. The fact that there are three more of these performance CDs out there is a source of great joy to me. If I was forced to make any comparison, it would be to Jah Wobble’s The Inspiration of William Blake, or, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica. The voice, maybe? This is Alan Moore the artist at a new peak, and is somehow all the more enjoyable due to the fact that there is a feeling of real connection with him, due to his narrating it himself. This is, beyond any doubt, the best thing I’ve bought this year. Buy it.
This review originally appeared on The Alien Online on the 3rd of April 2002