Voice of the Fire by Alan Moore

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“History is a heat,” says Alan Moore at the end of his first novel, Voice of the Fire, when the author takes centre stage to add his own voice to those of his characters. History is a heat, and fire is its agent, the element that provides a connecting thread between the twelve people whose voices comprise the text of the book. Late last year I was asked to design a new cover for Voice of the Fire which will be published by Knockabout in a 25th anniversary edition later this year. I’d read the book when it was first published, and even saw Alan read some of the opening chapter in 1993 at an event at the Arts Theatre Club in Soho. That event, which took place on November 5th, was titled “Treason and Plot”, and the pages from the work-in-progress novel had been collected from the offices of Gollancz after Alan left the unfinished manuscript of Yuggoth Cultures—which he was supposed to be reading from that evening—in the back of a cab. I was in London that day to talk to Alan about illustrating Yuggoth Cultures, so to find myself illustrating Voice of the Fire many years later feels a little like being caught by one of the acausal connecting threads that he weaves through his novel.

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The first edition: design by Gary Day-Ellison, illustration by Robert Mason. The photo on the left shows Thomas Tresham’s Triangular Lodge, a folly outside Northampton encoded with references to the Holy Trinity via a profusion of triangles and tripartite details. Tresham’s Lodge is described in the Gunpowder Plot chapter of Alan’s novel; the triangles on my cover may be taken as a reference to this.

November is the dominant month in Voice of the Fire, and the ritual fires of November 5th are one of many recurrent motifs. The novel’s twelve characters live in Alan’s home town of Northampton at different periods of history, from 4000 BC to 1995, a span of time that charts the town’s foundation and growth, taking in the Viking invasions, the Roman occupation, the Crusades, the treason and plot of Guy Fawkes and his conspirators, witch trials, the poet John Clare, and Alan himself. A lot of history and a wealth of incident to try and symbolise in a cover design. Author and publisher both liked the stylised outline of a horned head that Robert Mason painted on the cover of the first edition, a reference to the opening chapter of the novel in which a Neolithic shaman performs a ritual that marks the land as the site of the future town. I liked the original cover but felt it made the novel seem too much like something by Henry Treece or Alan Garner, with no indication of more recent history. A stained-glass window seemed like a good solution to the problem of how to bring together so many disparate elements into a single design. Stained-glass windows are often things from the distant past still visible in the present day, and they have the additional convenience of being a single container for many small pictorial details.

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It’s Bonfire Night on the back cover.

My design doesn’t attempt to illustrate all the characters or events from the novel but shows the more salient moments together with smaller details, some of which (the noose, for example) appear in multiple chapters. The horned shaman is at the centre of the design which radiates out from his ritual fire. I avoided making the window design too much like a church window; the book contains many references to churches and Christian history but there’s also a strong pagan element in many of the chapters. Magic, in the occult sense, is a recurrent thread, and Alan’s favourite Elizabethan magus, Dr. John Dee, is present (albeit offstage) in the Angel Language chapter. To acknowledge this I placed an inscription in Enochian—Dee’s “Angel Language”—underneath the title. There’s more magic in the font used for the title and author’s name, Albertus, which was named after Albertus Magnus, a philosopher and theologian often described as an alchemist. The main reason to use Albertus is for its timeless styling and its readability, an important quality for such a busy cover design; the font is a common one on London street signs.

The creature with the floppy ears in the lower centre is another recurrent motif, the sinister “shagfoal”, or Black Dog, whose presence is a sign of the darker energies that seem to thrive in that part of the world. Black Dogs appear in folklore all over Britain but there are few pictorial examples to be found in old texts. I based my hound on the “Straunge and terrible Wunder” depicted in 1577 on the title page of Abraham Fleming’s account of the Black Dog of Bungay. Other details are more obvious for those who read the novel so I won’t spell out everything here. If you haven’t read it then I’d urge you to do so, it’s one of Alan Moore’s major works, and a book I’m hoping might receive more attention than it did in 1996 when Gollancz only saw fit to publish it in paperback. Voice of the Fire will be published by Knockabout in May in paperback and a limited edition hardback which will include a card signed by the author. Top Shelf will be doing something similar for the US but I don’t think they’ve announced any dates or other details as yet. Anyone looking for further information is advised to keep an eye on the Knockabout news page or the publisher’s social media accounts.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Blake Video
The Cardinal and the Corpse
Mapping the Boroughs
Tresham’s Trinities
The Triangular Lodge again
Art is magic. Magic is art.
Alan Moore: Storyteller
Alan Moore: Tisser l’invisible
Dodgem Logic #4
The Triangular Lodge

Weekend links 545

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Colour wheel from The Natural System of Colours (1766) by Moses Harris.

• The Vatican’s favourite homosexual, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, receives the ludicrously expensive art-book treatment in a huge $22,000 study of the Sistine Chapel frescos. Thanks, but I’ll stick with Taschen’s XXL Tom of Finland collection which cost considerably less and contains larger penises. Related: How Taschen became the world’s most famous erotic publishers.

• “In a metaphorical sense, a book cover is also a frame around the text and a bridge between text and world.” Peter Mendelsund and David J. Alworth on what a book cover can do.

The Night Porter: Nazi porn or daring arthouse eroticism? Ryan Gilbey talks to director Liliana Cavani about a film that’s still more read about (and condemned) than seen.

What is important about reading [Walter] Benjamin’s texts written under the influence of drugs is how you can then read back into all his work much of this same “drug” mind-set; in his university student days, wrangling with Kant’s philosophy at great length, he famously stated, according to Scholem, that “a philosophy that does not include the possibility of soothsaying from coffee grounds and cannot explicate it cannot be a true philosophy.” That was in 1913, and Scholem adds that such an approach must be “recognized as possible from the connection of things.” Scholem recalled seeing on Benjamin’s desk a few years later a copy of Baudelaire’s Les paradis artificiels, and that long before Benjamin took any drugs, he spoke of “the expansion of human experience in hallucinations,” by no means to be confused with “illusions.” Kant, Benjamin said, “motivated an inferior experience.”

Michael Taussig on getting high with Benjamin and Burroughs

• “Utah monolith: Internet sleuths got there, but its origins are still a mystery.” The solution to the mystery—if there is one—will be inferior to the mystery itself.

After Beardsley (1981), a short animated film about Aubrey Beardsley by Chris James, is now available on YouTube in its complete form.

• Mix of the week: The Ivy-Strangled Path Vol. XXIII – An Ivy-Strangled Midwinter by David Colohan.

Charlie Huenemann on the Monas Hieroglyphica, Feynman diagrams, and the Voynich Manuscript.

Katy Kelleher on verdigris: the colour of oxidation, statues, and impermanence.

• A trailer for Athanor: The Alchemical Furnace, a documentary about Jan Svankmajer.

All doom and boom: what’s the heaviest music ever made?

• At Strange Flowers: Ludwig the Second first and last.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Krzysztof Kieslowski Day.

Ralph Steadman’s cultural highlights.

• RIP Daria Nicolodi.

Michael Angelo (1967) by The 23rd Turnoff | Nightporter (1980) by Japan | Verdigris (2020) by Roger Eno and Brian Eno

Weekend links 454

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Octopus and Pike (1937) by Ilna Ewers-Wunderwald.

• At Expanding Mind: writer and avant-garde publisher Tosh Berman talks with Erik Davis growing up in postwar California, hipster sexism, the hippie horrors of Topanga canyon, his impressions of family friends like Cameron and Brian Jones, and his charming new memoir Tosh, about growing up with his father, the remarkable underground California artist Wallace Berman.

• At Haute Macabre: A Sentiment of Spirits: Conversations with Handsome Devils Puppets.

• “We felt a huge responsibility.” Behind the landmark Apollo 11 documentary.

Jarman’s work was a statement that conservatism did not, or at least should not, define the perception of Britishness. His vision extended all of the way back to the likes of William Blake, John Dee and Gerard Winstanley, the radicals, mystics and outcasts of English history. His era, on the other hand, looked inwards and pessimistically so. The outward world was solely a free market. Our projected national identity was little else but the retread of colonial fantasies, a faux benevolence to the world that handily discarded the violence and tyranny that built it. Jarman saw through this imaginary landscape, often skewering it in his films.

Adam Scovell on the much-missed radicalism of Derek Jarman

• Director Nicolas Winding Refn: “Film is not an art-form any more.”

• Mix of the week: Secret Thirteen Mix 281 by Blakk Harbor.

• At Greydogtales: Hope Hodgson and the Haunted Ear.

Hans Prinzhorn’s Artistry of the Mentally Ill (1922).

Michael Rother‘s favourite albums.

Renaissance metal

Puppet Theatre (1984) by Thomas Dolby | Puppet Motel (1994) by Laurie Anderson | Maybe You’re My Puppet (2002) by Cliff Martinez

Weekend links 453

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The Moon photographed by Andrew McCarthy.

• Top twenties of the week: Anne Billson on 20 of the best (recent) Japanese horror films, and Britt Brown‘s suggestions for 20 of the best New Age albums. (I’d recommend Journey To The Edge Of The Universe as the best from Upper Astral.) Related to the latter: Jack Needham on lullabies for air conditioners: the corporate bliss of Japanese ambient.

• At Expanding Mind: Erik Davis talks with writer and ultraculture wizard Jason Louv about occult history, reality tunnels, his John Dee and the Empire of Angels book, Aleister Crowley’s secret Christianity, and the apocalyptic RPG the West can’t seem to escape.

• “It’s like someone looked at the vinyl revival and said: what this needs is lower sound quality and even less convenience.” Cassette tapes are back…again. But is anyone playing them?

• Mixes of the week: Secret Thirteen Mix 280 by O Yuki Conjugate, Bleep Mix #53 by Pye Corner Audio, and 1980 by The Ephemeral Man.

• The fifth edition of Wyrd Daze—”The multimedia zine of speculative fiction + extra-ordinary music, art & writing”—is out now.

Midian Books has a new website for its stock of occult publications and related esoterica.

Mark Sinker on three decades of cross-cultural Utopianism in British music writing.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Nastassja Kinski Day.

Utopia No. 1 (1973) by Utopia | Utopia (2000) by Goldfrapp | Utopian Facade (2016) by John Carpenter

David Tibet meets Derek Jarman

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For the past week I’ve been reading the Strange Attractor Press edition of England’s Hidden Reverse by David Keenan, a book that’s not only a handsome volume in its own right but is also an excellent chronicle of the post-Throbbing Gristle Industrial scene in Britain from the late 70s to the present. There’s too much I could say about that side of the 1980s since it was a part of the decade I was fully immersed in. Not only the music either; I still have correspondence with some of the key figures (David Tibet among them), and accumulated a mass of newspaper and magazine features, reviews and interviews. The internet has rendered this aspect of the hoarding imperative redundant but pre-internet if you didn’t keep old papers and magazines then the information in them was effectively gone forever, especially if the publications were fanzines or small-run amateur mags that wouldn’t be archived by libraries.

Keenan’s book prompted me to dig in some boxes to see what clippings had survived various relocations. Most of the stuff was familiar but I’d forgotten this piece from David Tibet’s fleeting career as a music journalist before Current 93 established themselves. Derek Jarman gets a passing mention in Keenan’s book via his connections with Throbbing Gristle and Coil, two groups who provided soundtracks for his films. Tibet’s interview was occasioned by the publication of Dancing Ledge, Jarman’s diary/memoir that’s been quoted here on several occasions. Tibet was writing for Sounds on this occasion, an unusual venue for a piece about Derek Jarman (Sounds was always more rock-oriented than the NME) which no doubt explains the lengthy contextualising; I’m sure Tibet would have preferred to talk more about John Dee and Jarman’s magickal preoccupations. Not a great interview, then, but a curious meeting that reinforces some of the connections of the period.

* * *

THIS JARMAN MAN by David Tibet (Sounds, February 11, 1984)

DEREK JARMAN. Where do I begin? Some people concentrate on the area they excel in (or think they excel in). Others try to dabble their fingers in any and every pie that presents itself—Bob Geldof as singer (ha!) and actor (double ha!)—and end up by proving their incompetence in all of them. And then there are that select few who effortlessly master every discipline they attempt, and who leave you with the feeling that they could do anything that they put their hands to, and do it well. Like Derek Jarman…

So, as I said before, where do you start with a man who first sharpened his nails on notoriety’s face with his production designs for Ken Russell’s infamous film of possession and oppression, The Devils? David Bowie christened him a “black magician” (if ‘christen’ is the right word…

He moulded the media’s consciousness and image of punk with the anarchic Jubilee, exploding myths and erecting new ones with as much alacrity as if legends were prefabs. Well, maybe they are! Petrol bombs crash into a policeman’s room… “No Future”. Good morning, this is your early morning
Molotov cocktail service. Where do you start? Easy. You go to interview him.

Derek Jarman lives in comfort, not the opulence that would be his if activity equalled wealth. His room is a testimony to his eclecticism, his fascination with areas alien, cloudy, dark. A vacant beaten aluminium clockface hovers on arches in the corner of the room, its hour hand a solitary coffin nail. On the hearth a huge sculpted head gates morosely, shades of Easter Island. On his double lined library shelves, alchemical texts rub spines with Nijinsky in a danse macabre. A cup of coffee is served. Time to recap…

The most recent occasion that Derek Jarman had our self-appointed moralists and ‘art-experts’ squealing and squirming was with his version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which he released in 1979. But that wasn’t an isolated incident, or an insular shock to a nation’s pomposity. As the blurb in his press release has it: “His films have been critically acclaimed internationally, while at home their political and sexual forthrightness has triggered only scandal.”

Not surprising either. Prophets are always without honour, and not only in their own country. For the benefit of the reader who isn’t quite sure of the impressiveness of Jarman’s track record, a quick history lesson follows. Although he had worked on stage sets and ballet before his excursions with Ken Russell, it was his designs in the two films he did with Russell that first brought him to the public’s blinkered eye. (Though perhaps not as much as it should have done; he recalls watching a documentary made for TV because of the topical shock of The Devils, and thinking, “Oh god, I’m sure they’re going to mention me now.”)

They didn’t, although they should have done, as it his sets as much as Russell’s over-the-top directing that gained the film notoriety: huge cruciform doors, priests wheeled along on movable lecterns by doting nuns.

Then he worked on the same director’s Savage Messiah, based on the life of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, a brilliant sculptor who married a woman twice his age, he dying in the trenches in 1915, she dying soon after in a lunatic asylum. Then, time to shift, to stop. Despite the fact that he was asked to work on the overblown opus Tommy, he felt the time had come for change.

“It was time to go my own way”, he explains. Referring to his exhibition of painting at the ICA, he says, “I was eight years old when I knew I wanted to be a painter. People criticise me by saying ‘He’s a film-maker who’s messing around with painting.’ They completely miss the point. Painting was my first love; films are something I became involved with because it was an area which was open, and in which I wouldn’t feel that I was following in other people’s tracks.”

Having decided to develop his ideas, he started an intensive study of the subjects that he felt drawn to and which would later, influence his own work so strongly. At the same time, he began to keep a film-diary in Super 8 and a written diary record; the former more abstract, capturing his feelings and moods, the latter more precise: names and events.

His early films of this type, many of which are being shown for the first time at the ICA exhibition, were experimental, magical—Studio Bankside, Garden Of Luxor. In some ways a far cry from his later linear ‘plot’ projects, they stiil possess the same English, masque-like quality. The first major film of his to bring his name to the fore in its own right was Sebastiane. Its dialogue entirely in Latin (!), it was the story of a slave trained as gladiator who was executed for his Christianity, and subsequently became regarded by the church as a Christian martyr. For the soundtrack, Jarman brought in the talents of Eno, and the film also featured Lindsay Kemp, Bowie’s mime mentor, who had also worked in Savage Messiah.

Sebastiane was followed by Jubilee, which featured the cult punk bands of ’77 in their seminal underground phase: Adam And The Ants, Siouxsie And The Banshees, Toyah (then a pudgy skinhead) and Wayne (before he became Jayne) County. A revolutionary tale of the decline of the West set in a graffiti-jewelled London ruled over by Queen Elizabeth the First and a power-mad record tycoon, the plot became so surreal at the end that no-one could be sure what was happening! Then to The Tempest, again with Toyah and the honey-throated Elisabeth Welch.

Meanwhile, Derek was also working with [Throbbing Gristle], who provided the soundtracks for In The Shadow Of The Sun (soon to be released) and Psychick Rally In Heaven, and in filming William Burroughs at the Final Academy. Which brings us up to the present, more or less, and to my talk with Derek Jarman.

I asked Derek why he had called his book Dancing Ledge. “Because the period I’m writing about was a dancing time…one or two people have been very critical of this view, but you must think back to the period I’m writing about… The fifties were, actually, fairly grim here, and so when the sixties did happen, it was like a butterfly coming out of a chrysalis. It’s an affirmative title, but the things we were doing at that time were affirmative.

“Now, everybody has lived through the hangover of the seventies, and people can say. ‘Oh god, what an awful party it was. But if you think back to then, and think of the really grim post-war ’40s and ’50s; and then, suddenly everything is happening, here in London. There’s new clothes, new music—a whole new lifestyle—which was really delineated between 1964 and 1968. One danced, and that was in its own way a statement.”

Some people have felt that Jarman’s fiIm versions of ‘sexual forthrightness’ were too forthright. Does he feel that sexuality is important to his work?

“When I came to London and realised that I was gay, in those days it was only mentioned in the media; there were no clubs, it was illegal. I was terrified of it; all you ever heard of was trials in the newspapers. It’s difficult for people to realise how really, really grim it was then. There was nowhere to go, and even if there was, I wouldn’t have dared to go there. It was important to affirm we were enjoying ourselves, and that is something that is still important in the work that I do.

He flashes back to the early days, when he first moved down to London: “When we lived in a warehouse at Upper Ground, it was £2 a week. I’m certain that there were other people living in warehouses, but I was the first that I knew of. It was really cheap, and took you right out of all these dreadful Georgian row houses into space. So you had to give parties: it was open house down there all the time.”

The past—his experiences in London, his attendance at boarding schools when they were even more unpleasant than they are now—has obviously influenced his work, but I was interested as to whether there was any particular influence in his films and his paintings, an essential theme at the core of everything he did.

“It’s difficult to know. I think I’m unaware of it. What work is, perhaps, is to find it. I think it would be disastrous to really find it, because then you’d cease to work, as you would have completed the scheme, as it were. At this moment, I’m just beginning.

“There’s magic—not particularly Crowley—but alchemical magic, like Marcel Duchamp and that area. Crowley was not selfless enough, too self-involved, unlike Dr John Dee (a magician and spy who served under Queen Elizabeth I). Crowley took it all down to his own physical body, although as a sexual libertarian he was extremely valuable.

“As I read Dee and Jung, I found that things I had been doing unconsciously which might have seemed slightly aimless actually had a centre; it gave me a way of interpreting my own work. The little drawings and notebooks that I did for my Super 8 films are very like Cornelius Agrippa (another Renaissance magician) did in his book Occult Philosophy. It distances you from the way most people are looking at things—it gives you an outsiders viewpoint.”

So is there a final message to the world, Derek?

“Yes. When a friend read my book he said, ‘You seem to be enjoying yourself too much, Derek. Well, I say, ‘Enjoy yourself as much as you possibly can. because you only live once’. This culture is so hung up on making people believe that having a bad time is serious, and it ain’t. It’s a whole Victorian puritanical attitude, and it’s coming back very strongly. Go out and dance. Dance against everyone who stops you.”

Derek Jarman pop-mage and visionary, I take my mitre off to you. •

Previously on { feuilleton }
Shooting the Hunter: a tribute to Derek Jarman
Derek Jarman’s landscapes
Derek Jarman album covers
Ostia, a film by Julian Cole
Derek Jarman In The Key Of Blue
The Dream Machine
Jarman (all this maddening beauty)
Sebastiane by Derek Jarman
A Journey to Avebury by Derek Jarman
Derek Jarman’s music videos
Derek Jarman’s Neutron
Mister Jarman, Mister Moore and Doctor Dee
The Tempest illustrated
In the Shadow of the Sun by Derek Jarman
Derek Jarman at the Serpentine
The Angelic Conversation
The life and work of Derek Jarman