HOW inspirational do you think Northampton is?... We spoke to a writer who has been inspired to write a novel of around 650,000 words, all on one area of the town.
“I HAVE been told it will be longer than The Bible by a bibliographer... and hopefully it will be better written,” says Northampton’s own literary heavyweight Alan Moore, of his forthcoming novel Jerusalem.
Following a bit of research ahead of interviewing the writer, primarily known for his work in comic books, such as Watchmen and V for Vendetta, I discovered his latest literary endeavour was expected to be 750,000 words long and all centred around Northampton.
However, neither of these facts turned out to be entirely true.
“That was my original estimate. I have cut it down a bit, it’s now nearer 600,000/ 650,000 words,” said Alan.
“It is different from anything I ever written. I think it is different from anything that has ever been written.”
The book is also smaller in scope than covering the whole of the town.
“My earlier book Voice of the Fire was set within Northampton/ Northamptonshire, but this book is a lot less cosmopolitan and far reaching and is focused for the most part on Spring Boroughs, or The Boroughs, when I lived there,” said the 58-year-old.
“But then that was once the whole of Northampton, if you go back to Saxon times The Boroughs’ boundaries were pretty much the boundaries of Northampton.
“Things have changed a lot, but most of the big history of Northampton is focused on that little area.
“King John’s castle was there... Thomas Becket was brought to trial there, one of the crusades was there....”
Alan was born in and lived in “The Boroughs” until he was 17-years-old, and although he now lives in the Kingsley area, it is clear that time had a profound effect on him.
“It’s not just about the history and the famous people who passed through it, like Charlie Chaplin.
“People who were not famous but were no less extraordinary also appear in the book. One of the characters, who has his own chapter is a guy called Henry George... otherwise known as Black Charlie.
“He was not the first black resident in The Boroughs, that was someone called Peter, who I believe was a crossbow maker.
“Henry George was a slave from Tennessee who made his way here after the Civil War.
“He was well-known in The Boroughs as he had a bicycle that towed a cart and instead of tyres had lengths of rope around the rims.
“There was also Mr Newton Pratt. He had a zebra that he would take out for a pint and was often tethered outside the Friendly Arms, in Scarletwell Street.
“I have worked with everything I remember of The Boroughs from the phraseology to local legends.
“I have drawn on my personal history, from when my family was in The Boroughs for two or three generations.”
One of his family memories to make it into the book is about when his brother Michael choked to death on a cough sweet as a young child, after contracting tonsillitis.
“The local doctor wasn’t paying much attention and he said to my mum to just give him a cough sweet.
“My mum, who believed anything someone with a refined accent told her, tried him on a cherry menthol which was far too big for his throat.
“At the time we lived down near St Andrews Road and no one had a telephone or a car, luckily our next door neighbour had an old lorry, so when we realised my brother wasn’t breathing he rushed him to hospital, which was a good 10 minutes away.
“From what I understand two minutes without breathing leads to death but my brother returned to us at the end of the week.
“For someone who writes fiction something like that does leave an intriguing question.”
Although Alan paints the picture of an area peppered with interesting characters and stories, the novel also delves into darker aspects associated with Spring Boroughs’ history and its current state.
“Since the Great Fire in 1670, it has almost been an untouchable area of the town,” said Alan.
“The fire started in The Boroughs, but with the straight West Wind it annihilated the rest of the town, while The Boroughs was untouched.
“That meant the rest of the town was rebuilt and The Boroughs wasn’t. I think that period began the decline of The Boroughs, until now, where it is an area which is in around the top two per cent for deprivation.”
He also explores the area’s wider significance. At one point he tells the story of an 8th century monk who had been at Golgotha in Jerusalem, the supposed site of the crucifixion.
Mr Moore says legend tells that he took the stone cross from there and was told to put it at the centre of the land, and as Northampton was seen as the centre of the country, it was put on the wall of St Gregory’s in The Boroughs.
“It became a site of pilgrimage, but it was lost when the church was pulled down,” said Alan.
“It struck me as significant, that if in the dark age of imagination The Boroughs was believed to be the centre of the entire country, what did the gradual disintegration of The Boroughs say about the country as a whole?
“At the moment it is like a crater, and what does it say if we had let a place with that much history go to hell?
“I became worried that The Boroughs might end up being a condition that was contagious. And in the five or six years that I started to write Jerusalem, this has become scarily accurate.
“The better off people never wanted to visit The Boroughs but in these time of austerity they may find that The Boroughs is coming to visit them.”
Local landmarks also make their way into what could become an estimated 1800 pages long, with the Archangel Michael on top of The Guildhall, forming part of a band of working class angels who play billiards with people’s souls.
“I am sure he is holding a billiard cue in his right hand,” said Alan. “That’s where the idea of the angels playing billiards came from.”
Another strand of Jerusalem is its exploration of the notion that time does not work in the way that we think it does. For Alan, instead of there being a passage of time, he sees time as a fourth dimension “solid and eternal”.
“And if space/ time was a solid thing and time an illusion then would we experience the same life over and over again?” said Alan.
“So working on that premise every atom, every stray dog, or broken exhaust anywhere in The Boroughs will be eternally there in the mass of space time.”
Alan was inspired to tackle this topic by an Albert Einstein quote which describes death as an “illusion.”
“That quote sums up everything I was trying to do: all those buildings we love that are pulled down, the people we loved that died... They are all still there. The past is a place if Einstein is right.
“My belief is that the vanished landscape of The Boroughs is still there.”
This theory also links into the title of the novel and the themes of the eternal in William Blake’s Jerusalem.
“It’s trying to reinvent The Boroughs as the mythical territory I believe it to be,” said Alan.
“As much as Jerusalem is about history it is also about the outrageous, the fantastic and metaphysics.”
Alan says the final part of the book is by far the most experimental and it is this that he’s trying to finish.
“I have got at least three chapters left to write.
“But I’m hoping to be finished by the end of the year.”
Now that Alan is working on his second work that gives the town a starring role, I wonder if he will ever leave the place that has provided him with such inspiration?
“I can’t think of anywhere I would rather live,” said Alan.
“I deeply love this town, although I do not love all that has been done to it.
“When Richard I gave us our charter it happened on my birthday and I do feel I have a deep connection to Northampton.
“Also, I know people here and they know me and they don’t bother me.”
Alan will be reading a chapter from Jerusalem tomorrow at 7.30pm at Northampton Central Library in Abington Street.
“I will be reading a bit from Clouds Unfold which is from the point of view of the statue of the angel on The Guildhall,” said Alan, who is particularly keen that the talk takes place in the library.
“I don’t think people realise how vital libraries are or what a colossal danger it would be if we were to lose any more.
“Having had a truncated school life myself, all of my education from the age of 17 has been self-taught.
“I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it wasn’t for the opportunities the library gave me.”
Tickets for the library reading are sold out.