Alan Moore (left) chose comedian Stewart Lee as the recipient of his Longplayer letter.
In January 02017, Iain Sinclair, a writer and filmmaker whose recent work focuses on the psychogeography of London, wrote a letter to writer Alan Moore as part of the Artangel Longplayer Letters series. The series is a relay-style correspondence, with the recipient of the letter responding with a letter to a different recipient of his choosing. Iain Sinclair wrote to Alan Moore. Now, Alan Moore has written a letter to standup comedian Stewart Lee.
The first series of correspondence in the Longplayer Letters, lasting from 02013-02015 and including correspondence with Long Now board members Stewart Brand, Esther Dyson, and Brian Eno, ended when a letter from Manuel Arriga to Giles Fraser went unanswered. You can find the previous correspondences here.
From: Alan Moore, Phippsville, Northampton
To: Stewart Lee, London
2 February 2017
I’ll hopefully have spoken to you before you receive this and filled you in on what our bleeding game is. Iain Sinclair kicked off by writing a letter to me, and the idea is that I should kind-of-reply to Iain’s letter in the form of a letter to a person of my choosing. The main criteria seems to be that this person be anybody other than Iain, so you’re probably beginning to see how perfectly you fit the bill. Also, since your comedy often consists of repeating the same phrase, potentially dozens of times in the space of a couple of minutes, I thought you’d bring a contrasting, if not jarring, point of view to the whole Longplayer process.
As you’ve no doubt realised, this is actually a chain letter. In 2016, dozens of the world’s most beloved celebrities, the pro-European British public and the population of the USA all broke the chain, as did my first choice as a recipient of this letter, Kim Jong-nam. I’m just saying.
In his letter, Iain raised the point of what a problematic concept ‘long-term’ is for those of us at this far end of our character-arc; little more than apprentice corpses, really. Mind you – with the current resident of the White House – I suppose this is currently a problem whatever age we are. In terms of existential unease, eleven is the new eighty.
Iain also talks about “having tried, for too many years, to muddy the waters with untrustworthy fictions and ‘alternative truths’, books that detoured into other books, I am now colonised by longplaying images and private obsessions, vinyl ghost in an unmapped digital multiverse”, quoting Sebald with “And now, I am living the wrong life.”
I have to admit, that resonated with me. I’ve been thinking lately about the relationship between art and the artist, and I keep coming back to that Escher image of two hands, each holding a pencil, each sketching and creating the other (EscherSketch?). Yes, on a straightforward material level we are creating our art – our writing, our music, our comedy – but at the same time, in that a creator is modified by any significant work that they bring into being, the art is also altering and creating us. And when we embark upon our projects, it’s generally on little more than an inspired whim and with no idea at all about the person that we’ll be at the end of the process. Inevitably, we fictionalise ourselves. In terms of our personal psychology, we clearly don’t have what you’d call a plan, do we? Thus we actually have little say in the person that we end up as. Nobody could be this deliberately.
Adding to the problem for some of us is that, as artists, we tend to cultivate multiplying identities. The person that I am when I’m writing an introduction to William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland is different to my everyday persona as someone who is continually worshipping a snake and being angry about Batman. My persona when writing introductions is wearing an Edwardian smoking jacket and puffing smugly on a Meerschaum. I know that my recent infatuation with David Foster Wallace stemmed from an awareness that the persona he adopted for many of his essays and the various fictionalised versions of David Foster Wallace that appear in his novels and short stories were different entities to him-in-himself. I wonder how you, and also how the Comedian Stewart Lee, feels about this? I suppose at the end of the day this applies to everybody, doesn’t it? I mean you don’t have to be an artist to present yourself differently according to who you’re presenting yourself to, and in what role. We don’t talk to our parents the way that we do to our sexual partners, and we don’t talk to our sexual partners how we do to our houseplants. With good reason. The upshot of this is that all human identity is probably consciously or unconsciously constructed, and that for this reason its default position is shifting and fluid. What I’m saying is we may be normal.
Iain Sinclair quotes the verdict on George Michael’s death, “Unexplained but not suspicious”, as a fair assessment of all human lives, before going on to mention Jeremy Prynne’s offended response to a request for an example of his thought, “Like a lump of basalt.” The idea being that any thought is really part of a field of awareness; part of a cerebral weather condition that can’t be hacked out of its context without being “as horrifying as that morning radio interlude when listeners channel-hop and make their cups of tea: Thought for the Day.” I know what he means, but of course couldn’t help thinking about your New Year’s Day curatorship of the Today program, where you impishly got me to contribute to the religiously-inclined Thought for the Day section, broadcast at an unearthly hour of the morning, with an unfathomable diatribe about my sock-puppet snake deity, Glycon. Of course, I’m not saying that this is the specific edition of the show that Iain tuned into and found horrifying, but we have no indication that it wasn’t. Thinking about it, assuming that Thought for the Day is archived, then thanks to your clever inclusion of the world’s sole Glycon worshipper in amongst a fairly uniform rota of rabbis, imams and vicars, future social historians are going to have a drastically skewed and disproportionate view regarding early 21st-century spiritual beliefs. Actually, that’s a halfway decent call back to the idea of long-term thinking.
After circling around like an unusually keen-eyed intellectual buzzard for a couple of pages, Iain alights on the ‘time as solid’ premise of Jerusalem, which he likens to “a form of discontinued public housing in which pastpresentfuture coexist” (and yes, I am going to continue quoting his letter in an effort to bring some quality prose to my stretch of this serial epistle). He talks about that central idea of a muttering community of the living, the dead and the unborn, all existing in their different reaches of an eternal Now, referencing Yeats with “the living can assist the imagination of the dead” and remarking how much these words have defined his literary project since he first started writing about London. In light of what I was saying about identity earlier, I was reading in New Scientist that what we think of as ‘our’ consciousness is actually partly infiltrated by and composed of the consciousnesses that surround us. This of course includes the consciousness of a deceased person that we may be considering, as well as that of any imaginary person we may be projecting on the present or the future. I would be a slightly different creator and a slightly different person, for example, had I never entered into a consideration of the work and the consciousness of Flann O’Brien, or Mervyn Peake, or Angela Carter, or Kathy Acker, or William Burroughs, or a thousand other creators. Looked at like that, it’s as if we take on elements of other people’s consciousness, living or dead or imaginary, almost as a way of building up our psychological immune system. This makes us all fluctuating composites, feeding into and out of each other, and perhaps suggests a long-term possibility that goes beyond our mortal lifespan or status as individuals. If this were the case, if identity were a fluid commodity and we all flowed in and out of each other, then you’d have to see someone like John Clare as an instance where the levees had been overwhelmed and he was pretty much drowning in everybody.
Mentioning Clare’s asylum-mate Lucia Joyce and my rather brave stab at approximating her dad’s language, Iain introduced a notion of William Burroughs’ manufacture that I hadn’t come across before, that of the ‘word vine’: write a word, and the next word will suggest itself, and so on. I have to say, that is how the writing process seems to work with me. Perhaps people assume that writers have an idea and then they write it down fully formed, but that isn’t how it works in practice, or at least not for me. I don’t know if it’s the same for you, but for me most of the writing is generated by the act of writing itself. An average idea, if properly examined, may turn out to have strong neural threads of association or speculation that link it to an absolutely brilliant idea. I’m sure you must have found this with comedy routines; that a minor commonplace absurdity will open up logic gates on a string of increasingly striking or funny ideas, like finding a nugget that leads to a small but profitable gold seam. I don’t think creative people have ideas like a hen lays eggs; more that they arise by a scarcely-definable action from largely involuntary mental processes.
Still talking about Burroughs, Iain then moved on to a discussion of dreams via Burroughs’ My Education – “Couldn’t find my room as usual in the Land of the Dead. Followed by bounty hunters.” On Jerusalem’s pet subject of Eternalism, Iain took a position that sees our real eternity as residing in dreams, “in residues of sleep, in the community of sleepers, between worlds, beyond mortality.” While I’m not sure about that, it does admittedly feel right, perhaps because of the classical world’s equivalence between the world of dreams and the world of the dead, dreams being the only place you reliably met dead people.
I’ve become much more interested in dreams since Steve Moore’s death in 2014. Realising how much I missed reading through the last couple of weeks of Steve’s methodically recorded dreams on visits up to Shooters Hill, I’ve even started a much sparser and more impoverished dream-record of my own. I just really love the flavour of dreams, whether mine or other people’s. Iain reports a dream where me and him were ascending the stairs of the Princelet Street synagogue, the one featured in Rodinsky’s Room, in what seemed to him almost like an out-take from Chris Petit’s The Cardinal and the Corpse. After a ritual exchange of velvet cricket caps between us, the vista outside the synagogue window began to strobe like the climactic vision in Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland. Martin Stone – Pink Fairies, Mighty Baby – was laying out a pattern of white lines on a black case, and explained that he’d recently found a first edition of Hodgson’s book in an abandoned villa, lavishly inscribed and previously owned by Aleister Crowley. Isn’t that fantastic? Knowing that I was there in the dream gives me a sort of pseudo-memory of actually having been present at this unlikely event.
While I’m not sure about the connection between dreams and Eternalism, Iain is probably right. I very recently stumbled across – in a fascinating collection of outré individuals from David Bramwell entitled The Odditorium – the peculiar scientific theories of J.W. Dunne. Dunne proposed a kind of solid time similar to the Einsteinian state of affairs posited in Jerusalem, which I found mildly pleasing just as a supporting argument from another source, but I was taken aback by Dunne’s reasoning, in which he suggests that the accreted ‘substance’ of our dreams is somehow crucial to the phenomenon. This is so like the idea in Jerusalem of the timeless higher dimension of Mansoul being made from accumulated dream-stuff and chimes so well with Iain’s comment about eternity being located “in residues of sleep” that I should probably chew these notions over a bit more before coming to any conclusions.
Dreams certainly seem to be in the air at the moment, with dreams being the theme of our next-but-one Arts Lab magazine to be released, and Iain winding up his letter by referring to Steve Moore’s dream-centred rehearsals for eternity up there on Shooters Hill. For the anniversary of Steve’s death, I’ve decided to pay a long-postponed visit to his house, or rather to the structure that’s replaced it since the place was sold and rebuilt. I’ll hopefully get a chance to visit the Shrewsbury Lane burial mound where we scattered Steve’s ashes by the light of the supermoon following tropical storm Bertha in August 2014. Around a month or so ago I noticed an article in The Guardian about the classification of various places as World Heritage sites by English History, and was ridiculously pleased to find that the Shrewsbury Mound, the last surviving Bronze Age burial mound of several on Shooters Hill with the others having all been bulldozed in the early 1930s, was to be included. Steve’s instructions that his final resting place should be his favourite local landmark seems to me to be a way of fusing with the landscape and its history, its dreamtime if you like, which is perhaps as close to a genuine long-term strategy as its possible for a human being to get.
Anyway, it’s late – the moon tonight is a beautiful first-quarter crescent – and I should probably wrap this up. I’d like to leave you with the ‘Brexit Poem’ that I jotted down in an idle moment a month or two ago:
“I wrote this verse the moment that I heard/ the good news that we’d got our language back/ whence I, in a misjudged racial attack,/ kicked out French, German and Italian words/ and then I ”
With massive love and respect, as ever –-
Alan Moore was born in Northampton in 1953 and is a writer, performer, recording artist, activist and magician.
His comic-book work includes Lost Girls with Melinda Gebbie, From Hell with Eddie Campbell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen with Kevin O’Neill. He has worked with director Mitch Jenkins on the Showpieces cycle of short films and on forthcoming feature film The Show, while his novels include Voice of the Fire (1996) and his current epic Jerusalem (2016). Only about half as frightening as he looks, he lives in Northampton with his wife and collaborator Melinda Gebbie.
Stewart Lee was born in 1968 in Shropshire but grew up in Solihull. He started out on the stand-up comedy circuit in London in 1989, and started to work out whatever it was he was trying to do zoo after the turn of the century. He has written and performed four series of his own stand-up show on BBC2, had shows on at the Edinburgh fringe for 28 of the last 30 years, and has the last six of his full length stand-up shows out on DVD/download/whatever. He is the writer or co-writer of five theatre pieces and two art installations, a number of radio series, three books about comedy and a bad novel. He lives in Stoke Newington, North London with his wife, also a comedian, and two children. He was enrolled in the literary society The Friends of Arthur Machen by Alan Moore, and is a regular, if disguised, presence on London’s volunteer-fronted arts radio station Resonance 104.4 fm. His favourite comics book characters are Deathlok The Demolisher, Howard The Duck, Conan The Barbarian, Concrete and The Thing. His favourite bands/musicians are The Fall, Giant Sand, Dave Graney, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Bob Dylan, The Byrds and Shirley Collins. His favourite filmmakers are Sergio Leone, Sergio Corbucci, Andrew Kotting, Hal Hartley, and Akira Kurowsa. His favourite writers are Arthur Machen, William Blake, Ian Sinclair, Alan Moore, Stan Lee, Ray Bradbury, DH Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, Philip Larkin, Richard Brautigan, Geoff Dyer, Neil M Gunn, Francis Brett Young, and Eric Linklater and Robert E Howard.
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