I didn’t specifically intend to go to Northampton this trip to the UK. I think it’s important to establish that, because I usually do plan things out, but this trip due to a combination of factors I kind of let things slide and found myself in the revolutionary position of deciding each day what I was going to do with myself, or at best, the night beforehand. I am a pretty entrenched fan of comics master and magician Alan Moore. I’ve written about his work for several years, and the more I read the more I write, the more I like his work (pun intended, I guess). Northampton is a massive part of Alan Moore’s work and life. His hometown was the setting for his first performance piece turned into comics by Eddie Campbell: The Birth Caul.
That work tells the story of Alan’s life backward, from the point of the performance itself, into his youth and finally, infancy, tracing the strange unity between language, DNA, and place. The significance of Northampton is embedded in every prose-poem line of narrative. It seemed very lazy of me not to go there. The night before I went, I debated back and forth and reasoned it was too difficult a journey for a day. No rail lines linked Northampton to my location. When I discovered I could go with reasonable easy and time saved by bus and then train, I caved. The Mooreiana commenced.
I traveled through expansive farmland populated by slowly-moving sheep to what seemed like the middle of the middle of England. Lack of planning meant I turned up at the train station and simply followed the other people walking, assuming they were headed toward the center of town. I knew that Northampton was fairly industrial. My memory wasn’t strong enough on the subject to tell me what I could find there linked to Moore’s works. I stopped suddenly in front of an Anglo-Saxon era church just down from the train station, St. Peter’s. It was a fair bet that anything really old in Northampton was probably mentioned in Moore’s novel Voices in the Fire, which I had yet to completely read. Churches, and old churches especially were a good idea, I decided.
The church had an oddly abandoned feel, slightly overgrown, but my background in medieval stuff identified saxon features, hidden in the later Norman overgrowth, in the decorative door arches, the squat long arcade of a nave, the solid and less than daring bell-tower. Anglo-Saxons were not used to building in stone, but they succeeded in creating these mellow little outposts in ecclesiastical history that are often encased in later Norman architecture with more severe lines. This church retained its character. An information sign suggested an original settlement “Ham-tun” had stood near by. That the “tun” had developed into an important center during the period of Danish Viking rule in the midlands. When I continued walking by, I had already learned more than I bargained for about Northampton. It’s the difference between writing about someone you don’t know versus someone you know. Now we’d been introduced and it’d turned out a little differently than I expected.
More uneasy surprises were ahead. Somehow I hadn’t been aware that Northampton is full of remarkable architecture from the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly in the center of the city. Nor did I know that it’s vast Elizabethan brick sprawl had been destroyed by fire in the 1600’s requiring this massive renovation. So it hit me all at once as I approached All Saints Church in the centre of town. It was a sudden voice from the past: sedate, ornate, formal Regency and Victorian pomp. It denoted a burgh with a fixed, stolid identity. It was proud and upper middle class, and maybe a little smug. It was, most importantly, part of a past era that had survived tides of change.
Those who know Northampton will probably squirm at my gauche first impressions, but I know that Northampton is a town that has struggled economically, and been part of the midlands boom and bust from the industrial revolution onwards. Because I knew that, I didn’t expect the center to be so beautiful nor the town so disparate from its high-end shops to its discount stores, plenty of which looked like they had seen better days. But All Saints Church stands in the center of it all, a testament to something. Perhaps to what Northampton could have been or perhaps to what it still is. It’s the dark wood and packed pews of a middle class that worships together suggesting in its oversized interior a population bursting at the seams, barely contained. There’s plenty of the dour about it, but no gainsaying the impression that it leaves with you. You are small. It is big. Whatever society aspires to can be contained within it. It is part of the ritual pace of life from birth to death. It was an impressive but ambivalent place.
Since I didn’t have any maps with which to locate churches, and the tourist office wasn’t open, I followed people walking again down a main shopping street. When I saw a side-street terminating in another church, I turned off. Three churches were becoming a collection and I decided I better try them all. I might regret it later when they all turned up in Moore’s forthcoming mega-novel Jerusalem or something, and then I’d say “I was only 100 yards from there and didn’t see it! Goddamnit!”. So I went down to St. Giles which seemed strangely cheery. It was a Norman church, with a little Saxon engulfed by it for good measure. Sturdy, iconic bell-tower, neatly aligned cruciform shape. Not a stone out of place. Well-maintained. Massive churchyard with teetering old gravestones. A couple of people who looked down on their luck loitering among the graves. But the thing that stood out aside from the confidence and jauntiness of the architecture was a gigantic triangular statue-like sign announcing the name of the church and its services. The language was pretty clearly evangelical. It was Church of England, of course, but it was reaching out to the community in a “save your soul” kind of way. Interesting contrast to the previous two churches. The derelict Anglo-Saxon past and the imposing social classism. This was much more about “now” in the community but also slightly aggressive. It’s bright green signage stayed with me. I certainly hadn’t expected to turn that ideological corner in Northampton.
At the end of the shopping street, I saw the spire of what might have been a Friend’s Meeting House far ahead of me, according to a laminated map of the center posted on a metal frame. I didn’t go further. I noticed there was another church, though, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and started to look for it. Following signs did no good, it seemed, and even seeing a spire gave me the run-around. I was ready to head back to the station, really, wearying of my tour. It had been a chilly, dark day and it was getting chillier. I wondered whether my expedition had really contributed to my understanding of Northampton or just confused me enough to make me avoid the subject in future writing. As I headed back to the station, I saw one more sign for the church, followed it, and found it.
It was large, with an impressive gate, and stood surrounded by working mens’ clubs and unopened cheap restaurants and bars. This was where the city center which preserved so many fragments of identity from the past began to merge with the “real” Northampton, and one which I recognized like a familiar scent, from The Birth Caul. This was the world I had encountered in glimpses. The church had an impressive gate house. A historical plaque added another piece to the puzzle. This was an originally Anglo-Saxon church that became overlaid with Norman architecture, and then, crucially, became the focal point of Crusader zeal. It was the missing link, for me, between the Anglo-Saxon church, St. Giles, and All Saints. It took things into the fourteenth century, and I could fill in the rest until we arrived in the late 17th. It was massive, grand, well-kept, and completely dodgy. It was ethereal and haunted by drunks asking me for money. I staved them off and kept taking pictures. This place was unbelievable. The octagonal Anglo-Saxon chapel is an extreme rarity, yet there it was with its lead roof. The multiple round towers looked mock-military and also had that hint of the exotic. Influences from the Holy Land? And then you had the gargoyles and sculptures which brought the place into the high Gothic, the lively and Chaucerian. Fabulous. It somehow all made sense now, but it stood on its own, a mystery to itself, while the community rose and fell around it.
What did any of this tell me about Moore’s work? I don’t know that I could give you a simple thesis. But Northampton went from being a fictional place to a real place via these historical stepping stones. I had to go back to the beginning to even hope to understand it or its influence on Moore’s work. Alan has refused to ever move from Northampton, and he continues to embrace its extreme contradictions. It’s a town that, according to the plaque placed at the now invisible castle, started going downhill in the 1400’s when it stopped being an important royal residence. That burned to the ground in the 1600’s, rose from the ashes during the industrial revolution and now quietly reframes the past by preserving its old buildings and harmonizing new constructions with them. It’s university is beginning to get a reputation for the arts, for a certain liveliness and curiosity about the role of education in society. It has never been a dead city, but it carries a heavy load. It has a great deal of history to live up to and overcome. In The Birth Caul, Eddie Campbell depicts Moore performing wearing the face-paint of a proto-Celtic shaman, invoking the past and conjuring up the inherent messages in our DNA. Emphasizing the locale and community a shaman serves in his “rites”. It’s no surprise that Moore steps us back in time through that performance, right to the heart of history, when an unguided ramble around Northampton did the same for me without even trying. He grew up in a place with layers encoded in stone. He still thinks it’s important to decode those messages from this “middle of the middle” city, learn from its past, decipher in its future, perhaps Britain’s too.