Books I’d Trade My Lunch For 1: Significant Objects, edited by Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn (100 contributors)

*[Series note: Well, there’s that Erasmus quote, right? I don’t think I ever actually traded my lunch for books as a kid, but I did stash the lunch money. I knew that books were expensive because they equalled exactly three lunches, give or take.]

When you hear someone putting a value on a sentimental object, it’s usually not a comfortable thing.  Someone has passed away and your trying to liquidate the estate for fair division; maybe it’s just been sitting in your drawer for twenty years too long and the money would be handy; maybe you’ve had the sudden urge to divest yourself of objects that are slowing you down. When you hear the price mentioned, speculatively or with certainty, you feel the contrast. You might as well be seeing two things in split screen in that moment: a kind of vision or aura of what that object means with all its associated human connections, and a pile of cold, hard dollars and cents. It never makes sense. Those two things are parallel lines that never cross, even if you make a deal.

If you don’t know about the “experiment” undertaken by Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn, hosted on their Hilobrow website, and you probably don’t, their new book might repulse you for a second or two. It seems to be all about strange, found objects and the price people are willing to pay. You may even think it’s a bit of a scam. Because with each object is a fictionalized but just about believable story relating to that object meant to increase its value. And the book even clearly presents the bottom line: were people taken in? How much did they pay? If that were really what the book was about, it’d be no better than a weekend flea market with a few clever pickpockets moving smoothly through the crowd.

That’s not it. Fortunately, the book contains plenty of explanation to dip into or scrutinize at will. It’s a study that’s profoundly interesting because it’s as much about storytelling as the intangible and non-quantifiable side of the role that objects play in our lives. Walker and Glenn invited the submission of objects with crafted stories attached, a communal project that brought new writers, famous writers, and the generally fascinated out of the woodwork to participate. The goal was to try to measure the ways in which associations raised the perceived value of these objects.

So, as you might imagine, this led to some pretty radical high-wire acts of the literary variety. In these short-form stories, contributors really pushed themselves to craft evocative prose, bizarre and unexpected incidents, and emotional resonance. But what happened, whether they realized it or not, is that the writers ended up telling so much about their own sliding scale for appreciating objects that Significant Objects produces a social biography on two fronts. After reading a few entries, which can be read in any order, a plus, you get the gist of how the writers feel about objects as well as the strange factors that might have influenced e-bay bidders to pay more for this than that. I personally find the autobio aspect the most compelling evidence because it seems whimsical. There’s an underlying principle among the contributors, a silent one: if they bothered to send these entries in, they find objects fascinating and were intrigued by trying to pin that down a little.

Walker and Glenn truly tapped into a wellspring of very human responses when they proposed the project, which became so successful that it spread into three “volumes”.  Out of these, 100 examples were selected for the book, published by Fantagraphics in April 2012. The book spans genres in its appearance; it resembles a miniaturized coffee table book light enough to carry around, and you’ll want to do that, too. Dual colorful cover designs to choose from highlight the nature of the book: you choose, explore, make connections between objects and stories that you find inside. One feature that’s particularly evocative is the use of gradient symbols to categorize and organize the featured objects: fossil, evidence, totem, talisman, and idol. There’s an extra avenue to explore if you wish: why does an object fit into one category rather than another, and how do they overlap? And is it the features of the object itself, or the way in which the contributing writer has interpreted the object in their story that influences that decision?

The categories take us back to the anthropological roots at work here and remind us that within incredibly urban settings, we still instinctually react to the patterns of life established by our ancestors. Even the irreligious may find themselves treating an heirloom or symbolic object in a religious way. A common theme arising in many of the stories might be termed something like the “effective moment”. In essence, many stories ask the question “what incident would be necessary to imbue an object like this with quirky or astonishingly deep meaning?”. And the wheels turn toward possible answers. The answers all form their own possible universes. The upshot is that many of these fascinating tales are about poignant, tragic, or memorable moments in time as much as the objects that channel them.

As the book warns us “artificially increasing the subjective value of objects will most likely lead to unintended consequences” and one of the obvious “consequences” of the Significant Objects “study” is great storytelling. Artist Gary Panter’s contribution also points to another “unintended consequence” of the experiment: the expansion of the grey area between function and art. Many of these objects are purely ornamental, but quite a few also have some function attributed to them originally. Like the found objects of the modernist and postmodernist art movements, these objects, re-staged as new finds, take on a certain aura of possible meaning, and this meaning is at least partly shaped by the person who selected and placed them in the public eye. Gary Panter chooses a well-worn Dacor dive-mask with some perilously angled clamps that suggest the intense pressure of oxygen, depth, and strange adventures. The tale Panter weaves is entirely unpredictable: the detailed construction of a monster hoax at a lake by a young person, ingeniously staged and enacted with great relish, featuring the diving mask. No spoilers here, but the lines between fiction and reality blur for our narrator just as smoothly as the lines between “real” objects and semi-fictional narratives blur in the work as a whole. Dive into this book enough and you come to one conclusion: that line does not matter. Significance matters, and that has nothing to do with accuracy. The role of memory, and of re-imagining events, trumps every time.

Jonathan Lethem’s Missouri Shot Glass gave me pause. I felt I ought to prepare myself for this one since I had realized by now that this book could jump into strange territory without much warning. It should have occurred to me what a variety of styles and vantages the writers had at their disposal to suit their vision of their chosen object. Lethem plows into a stream of self-reflexive monologue from an intricate persona before you can even get through the first sentence. It’s a masterpiece of compression among many sterling examples of short prose. A distinct sub-category of the significant objects take us on a journey; this “totem” does also. It takes us back to the narrator’s Missouri, in memory, but it’s just as much a story about the vagaries of publication as a geographical portrait. You don’t expect to meet hoards of aspiring writers in a cornfield, but Lethem’s narrator assures us of a hidden world of rural prosifiers that have pushed him, shot-glass in hand, toward reassessment. Another common feature to some of these stories that Lethem brings out with a literal and figurative reductionism: the reflective, often sharp-edged memoir. You might assume from this that familiar objects, in fact, fill us with regret. Why we hold onto them becomes the great mystery.

It would probably take a literary genius of the highest caliber to sound the heights and depths of human experience as thoroughly as these hundred contributors do in their composite testament to the lost and found. That may be yet another “unintended consequence” of Significant Objects. In their analysis of the rise and fall of sales for these objects, all placed on Ebay with tale to sink or swim, Glenn and Walker come to some startling conclusions that really raise more questions than they answer. For one thing, the objects with stories by well-known writers did not necessarily sell for a higher price. Also, objects considered “talismans”, meaning “magical, lucky, and/or alive” fetched the greatest haul. Maybe this means that people are still, deep down, attracted more to certain types of objects than others when it comes to subjective value. Or maybe those kinds of objects just give them more to talk about. That’s the last thing to notice about this handbook to the bizarre, if we’re stating the obvious: there’s a very dynamic relationship between objects and what we want to say about them. It doesn’t take that much encouragement to get us talking. If we keep things, and even revere things, like a Rhino figurine, jar of marbles, Start Wars cards or a Hawk ashtray, it’s not because someone else told us that they have value, usually, but because we know there’s a story behind them. Significant Objects tells a small part of that very big story.

To learn more about Significant Objects, which is still an ongoing project, visit the Hilobrow website here and Fantagraphics here.

Leaping Tall Buildings Presents Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams in Conversation at Housing Works Bookstore and Cafe, July 17, 2012

I wrote a chronicle of the historical reunion of these two comics greats who haven’t been known to be very chatty to one another over the years, but they got together to support the ground-breaking book Leaping Tall Buildings, by Seth Kushner and Chris Irving, and also to support the local AIDS impact charity Housing Works. The topic was social relevancy in comics and the whole thing was sparky and intense. Visit the article, eye-popping photos by Seth Kushner and a complete audio track embedded at Trip City, home of cool stuff, here.

Comics that Punch You in the Face 1: MARATHON by Boaz Yakin and Joe Infurnari

Comics that Punch You in the Face 1: Marathon by Boaz Yakin and Joe Infurnari

On the same day that historic elections rocked the capital in Greece, a graphic novel was released that makes history of its own, retooling an well-worn and often vague mythical memory of where the Olympian event known as the marathon actually came from. If you ask people on the street, the school kids are most likely to remember that the marathon arose out of  a particular battle on the plains of Marathon and a crucial message bearer who crossed them between Athens and Sparta. The average adult might get confused and think that the messenger was actually called “marathon”. You get the idea. Popular memory, passed around one too many times like a weak xerox, knows how to drain the drama out of a good story.

Boaz Yakin rediscovered the drama in this story and found it shocking enough to think it deserved a good screenplay and film attention, but after frustrations in bringing it off as a film, he adapted it to what many fans would say is the next medium most suited to heavy action sequences: the graphic novel. Action sequences would be necessary, too, to set the stage of this epic struggle between a returning tyrant, Persian emperor, and a peoples’ movement to save their city. Like any great epic it comes down to one great man with a small group of highly devoted and brave people behind him. The unusual thing about this epic, particularly for the period, 490 BC, is that this man was a slave without any type of social status except for the acquired notoriety associated with his athletic abilities.

Sound like Gladiator? Well, that was a pretty good story too, for some of the same reasons. Yakin brings his in-depth knowledge of screen writing and film directing to the graphic novel script to pull off difficult characterization, pacing, and moments of emotional impact. Not to mention a remarkably even-toned use of dialogue which zooms right over the plate in terms of common parlance and a nod to historical context. This story was not one to be undertaken lightly. For one thing, it’s full of complicated names, interrelated characters, a variety of geographical locations, and modes of life that a reader is not likely to have ever encountered before in such detail. To make all this fly, Yakin pares things down the basics and works hard to balance the epic battle scenes with more episodic elements that help you get to know the main characters and care about them. One other thing: the narrative structure is highly inventive. It moves around, but not without guidance for the reader. We encounter our hero Eucles the Athenian messenger, in a “present” moment when he is setting off not on one “marathon” run, but the first of several that will push him beyond endurance, and encounter the formative experiences of his life in flashback sequences as he runs. These increase in historical detail and significance as Eucles forms a complicated relationship with the rulers of Athens, who he serves. This structure is very effective in keeping up a driving pace in the story as you root for Eucles under increasingly difficult conditions and you realize what exactly this unassuming hero is made of.

Joe Infurnari, a multiple Eisner-award nominated artist, brings a depth of experience to this project equal to Yakin’s. His book Mush! Sled Dogs, particularly, shows off his ability to create compelling character studies and a sense of natural environment. If there’s one more thing to notice about Infurnari’s work before diving into Marathon, it’s that he knows perhaps more than most comics artists working today how to handle and depict motion. This made Marathon an ideal project for him and he for it. A reader’s experience of this graphic narrative, all 188 pages of it on high-gauge paper, is totally defined and guided by this sense of motion. Yakin’s narrative sets that up, and asks for a world of speed. Infurnari accomplishes this through the use of small, liberally scattered but carefully placed panels depicting bodies in motion, particularly feet, as they move over hostile and unreliable surfaces to the skitter of sound-effects. For the reader, this does give a cinematic feel of motion and sound. But it’s probably the larger motion panels that are most impressive and give the sense of an epic in full-flight. Infurnari uses a trademark swoop in battle-scenes, viewed from a number of angles and distances to emphasize violent action, and doesn’t shy away from the gore necessary in a historical piece like this.

The comic is composed in a combination of sepia and black and white tones, the sepia most often used to highlight our central character in the often dense crowd scenes of running competitions, or the frenetic large-scale battle sequences that depict struggles between the Athenian army and the invading Persian imperial alliance. Infurnari uses fine, cross-hatching, and layered ink lines to give an impressive amount of detail and expressiveness to clothing, human figures, and facial expressions within this limited palette. It’s worth noticing that the ways in which a modern enthusiast encounters the culture of ancient Greece mainly takes only two forms: they encounter it through statuary or through the famous “Grecian Urns” celebrated by Keats.

Sculpture that survives is often in pale stone and any coloration or tint given to those carvings have long since disappeared, giving us a single-tone image with evocative texture. Grecian Urns are typically composed of a dark background with tableaux images in profile provided narrative moments in history or mythology and use earth-tones for coloration. The point is, we know Greek culture through sepia and black and white already and so a story set in motion in that palette is particularly resonant for us. It was a great choice for a historical piece grounded in the gritty, realistic suffering and determination of a remarkable slave boy become a national savior.

Infurnari’s gift for the physicality of his characters comes off with particular verve in close-up battle scenes. One of my favorite confines an small army of pursuing foes and a couple of tragically brave defenders in a gnarled, dense wood on a mountain side. The close confines of the wood draw attention to the intense motion of the combatants and make the struggle seem more personal and more devastating in physical terms. Infurnari also has a kind of genius for pacing in depicting struggle. Like Yakin, he pares down the unneccessary and resists the repetitive, which is a danger when dealing with a text like this one. Even the most compelling high-budget action film fails to grasp our attention if shots and angles are simply too similar episode after episode.

To combat this, the artist struggles with invention. You would find it difficult to locate two pages where the panel layout is overly similar. He employs a pretty vast array of panel sizes and arrangements to compliment the story telling. Infurnari uses very few full-page spreads, but when he does, they have a profound impact on the storytelling. Eucles, near the end of his relentless ordeal, appears almost saintly, washed in a white-out background, suggesting a kind of transformation he’s undertaken through commitment to his cause: saving Athens from tyrannical rule or abandonment by the populace.

First Second Books produces all-ages comics and this graphic narrative plies a confident course through historical realism to create a universal hero tale. There’s just enough grit and gore to make you feel like it all really happened, while making sure this is a story that younger readers, say from high-school upward, could fathom. This is living proof that an all-ages comic can definitely “punch you in the face”. Don’t underestimate Marathon: it will put you through the ringer. It’s unique combination of tight storytelling, intense motion, and emotional realism creates a total comics experience that gives more mainstream hero comics a run for their money (you can take or leave the pun).

To learn more about Marathon, Boaz Yakin and Joe Infurari, visit First Second Books here or Marathon’s page here.

Catching up: articles, Leaping Tall Buildings, Cinco de Sandra, The Stan Lee Universe

A few illustrated articles that date from April and May 2012 include:

Leaping Tall Buildings at BookCourt in Brooklyn, a launch of the fantastic chronicle of comics traditions by Seth Kushner and Chris Irving, found here with pictures by Seth Kushner.

Cinco de Sandra, a chronicle of the beat happening performance in Dupont Circle, DC that took Trip City, and this reporter on the road (or train at least), here.

A spotlight on the new book by Danny Fingeroth and Roy Thomas, The Stan Lee Universe at BookCourt in Brooklyn, a fabulous tour of a life in comics, here.




Jen Ferguson’s Delirium Imaginarium at Brooklyn Oenology on

A consideration of the role of the painter-storyteller examining phenomenal artist Jen Ferguson’s installation opening at Brooklyn Oenology wine tasting room with images from the show. Find it here on, a Brooklyn-filtered literary arts salon in digital form.

Strange Britain: Mooreiana, Comics and More, Part III Comics and Christ Church

Strange Britain: Mooreiana, Comics and More, Part III Comics and Christ Church

After leaving Red Lion Square, I was immediately confronted with the strangely glam pop culture products at Forbidden Planet, London on its ground floor, but then overwhelmed by its fairly vast basement level stash of comics and graphic novels. The ground floor level, with its fairly consistent media tie-ins, from films to television shows, raised a question for me that I’ve heard before recently. It just hadn’t quite hit home for me until then: when did geek culture become mainstream?

I’ll clarify that I was never a card-carrying geek as a young person, strictly speaking. I just found, over time, that that’s where my sympathies and loyalties lay. It was like an ocean of cultural input receded and left me standing on solid geek ground. The fact that the world has started to become a geek playground amazes me. I wanted to buy at least half the Doctor Who products, for one thing, and I stood staring at a small army of V for Vendetta masks long enough to probably alert security, even in a comics store. But when I went down stairs, I was relieved to find that it wasn’t all Dalek totebags (not that there’s anything wrong with that). The hard stuff was well represented. In fact, there was also a liberal sprinkling of art-book and prose tie-ins. Alan Moore’s work figured prominently. The place was a carnival of pop-culture, but maybe not quite the temple of comics that some fans might have in mind. As the geek mainstream rises, some are headed for higher ground. But let’s remember that even Moore would have stared at a small army of V for Vendetta masks.

I was distracted long enough by this that I had to hurry along on the fairly long subway ride and walk to try to get to the Whitechapel area so helpfully documented by Eddie Campbell’s reference pictures as posted on his blog. There are many, many reasons why a fan might wish to find the locations and psychogeography of Moore and Campbell’s work From Hell. If Moore’s performance pieces are about the psychic state of a geographical region over time, From Hell is an opus on the subject. While its narrative is speculative, albeit based in history, its geography is scrupulous. We may not be sure what exactly happened, but we know exactly where it happened. Campbell helps confirm that with his web-published reference photos for the work. And the thing is, the atmosphere of locations are of such importance to Moore’s work that it leads to curiosity. If you had a chance to stand in known, significant locations from the work, you’d take it just to see, to ponder whether you’d pick up on the atmosphere Moore and Campbell found in that location, too.

At least that was my logic. I nearly got lost getting there, “there” being Christ Church in Spitalfields, which ought to be called “the wickedest church in the world” a la Crowley. I kept walking along the possibly right road quizzically in a complete lack of street signs. I glanced down at a styrofoam chip container I was trying not to step on, and when I looked up, I couldn’t believe my own eyes somehow. I not only stopped walking, but I took at least half a step backward without even thinking about it. There might have even been a moment wherein I could have continued backing up instinctually. The architecture of this church would have attracted any artist or writer investigating the Ripper murders immediately. I don’t mean to take away from Moore or Campbell’s ingenious choices in staging and handling geography, but it only takes one glance at the enormous, imposing tower of Christ Church to command one’s full attention. This is the point where trying to convey the atmosphere I’m talking about may get a little slippery.

First off, there are quite a few 19th century brick rowhouses still standing in the area off Commerce Street, some virtually abutting the church grounds. To the credit of local preservation, these brick homes have not been sandblasted and rendered more sanitized. They look like you would imagine the area to look like in the late 19th century, collecting the soot, wear and tear of everyday life. Maybe films and documentaries have rendered these types of low-income dwellings iconic to the Ripper stories, but I found them immediately recognizable. Then again, it could have been the influence of Eddie Campbell’s detailed architecture in From Hell. So, firstly, you have the looming, unusual church architecture. Then, in reasonable proximity, plenty of architecture you’d associate with Whitechapel (even though this territory is not quite yet Whitechapel). These impressions hit me all at once. Despite my reactions, I walked closer to the church, assuming I’d go inside. Having arrived at 4:15, I was barred. The church had shut at 4PM. I stood watching the caretakers finish up inside. It was frustrating.

I took various photos of the exterior of the church, then crossed the street to the covered Spitalfields Market, which had not yet closed for the day. There were racks of cheap fabrics, and voices of vendors chatting to each other in its cavernous interior. I was still trying to decide what I thought of the church. I turned out of the market randomly and was confronted with what seemed, architecturally, to be the intended view of the church. I was standing in an avenue that aligned directly with its front steps and to my right was another row of perfectly broken-down 19th century brick houses. It felt like the same sudden combination of impressions over again. I concluded that there was something very mentally affecting about the architecture and its position in the surrounding streets. You could try to pin it down to the relative height of the enormous steeple to the surrounding, lower structures, or perhaps the proportion of the steeple to the church, which is rather exaggerated, or point out the rather blank cement-like stone that makes the edifice seem strangely dour. But none of this would be definitive.

I was glad that I visited, despite my failure to get inside the church but I didn’t need much encouragement to get out of the area before nightfall. I took the underground back to Leicester Square and started looking for Gosh! Comics. It took a little doing since I wasn’t that familiar with narrow roads around its new location. When I did find it, there was no mistaking it. It’s new venue is brightly lit, colorful, inviting, with plenty of glass flashing the sharp covers of the most recent and desirable graphic novels. Walking into Gosh! Comics is a comics lovers dream come true, from its polished wooden floors to its well-lit shelves and loaded sale tables. One whole wall gathered works by author, including Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison.

Indie works received much more focus than is typically given in American shops, and the small indie comix magazines received an entire wall for display. Every surface was tastefully loaded with wares. Titles were grouped by carefully labeled genres. The only explanation for a comics store this richly and sensitively arrayed with the finest works in the medium was that it was a store designed for enthusiasts by a true comics lover.

I saw titles that I knew were obscure and self-published proudly stacked alongside established imprints. The egalitarian approach was clear. This wasn’t about the strength of the publisher but the strength of the work itself. It was a delight to visit. The only problem was deciding what I was taking home with me. Within a few seconds of entering the shop, I grabbed something I’d seen online but not managed to acquire, the latest journal volume from STRANGE ATTRACTOR that contains Alan Moore’s notes for a John Dee opera. Moore and O’Neill’s Century 2009 packaged with a limited edition print of the cover art was the last thing I noticed and also snatched up. I could have stayed for hours but it was closing time and I had other places to be.

Though I’ve been familiar with London for much of my life, the London I saw on my “Mooreiana” tour was a very different London. These places weren’t really even off the beaten path, but they were hidden in plain view. Sometimes you need a magnifying glass, or a particular lens to reveal the hidden qualities of the world around you, and using Moore’s work as a guidebook to a few locations was a remarkably rewarding thing. I felt like I had engaged with the history and significance of locations much more directly than I otherwise would have been. Moore’s work had opened up little windows of insight, encouraging me to go further, even, than the text, into my own impressions. A great deal of art and literature connected to geography, or even psychogeography does just that. It provides the first step toward perception, after which the viewer or audience must process their own interaction with the artifact. For Alan Moore, though, with the emphasis and value he places on performance and interaction with geography, however, I think visiting these locations is key. If you can’t, the text will bring these places, full of their unusual associations, to you. But if you can, you’ll find that the doors are unlocked and waiting for you.

(*As a strange caveat, I found, while writing up these experiences, that I had picked up a copy of It’s Dark in London, edited by Oscar Zarate, now from Self-Made Hero Press, that includes photos of Christ Church and district, and Moore and Zarate’s account of entering the gutted church in “I Keep Coming Back”.)

Strange Britain: Mooreiana, Comics, and More, Part II Red Lion Square

Northampton threw me for a loop. I think I got that much more historical context than I expected. It left me thinking of Alan Moore as a citizen of Northampton, a denizen of a particular cultural place and moment. I should have gotten that from The Birth Caul or maybe even Snakes and Ladders, but this was sharper, more direct. No one comes from nowhere. In Moore’s case, he’d never want you to think that either.

I took a day off to recover from the strangeness of that historical encounter, but by the next day,I felt like I was as ready to go to London as I ever would be, looking for a few choice locations in Mooreiana. This time, I had a little more help from my friends. Advice poured in. Trouble was, there weren’t enough hours in the day. I made my choices and set out.

The first place I headed for, actually, was Red Lion Square. Conway Hall in Red Lion Square is where Alan Moore and The Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels performed Snakes and Ladders, later available as a CD re-recorded performance and in a phenomenally original comic format, illustrated by Eddie Campbell (who also translated Moore’s The Birth Caul into comics). Snakes and Ladders was an unusual performance piece for many reasons, particularly because it was commissioned upon request by the Order of the Golden Dawn of London and Oxford, and the venue was close to home regarding OTO foundations. Moore had a remarkable amount to work with in terms of his then-new interest “psychogeography”, the historical accretions of a particular location and its numinous presence as psychic overlay of impressions in time. The fact that I could actually visit Red Lion Square, where the historical layers of Snakes and Ladders were set, much less performed, was unusual. It felt like choosing to walk into a play. But there was an irony, of course, in the psychogeography angle. By performing Snakes and Ladders in Red Lion Square, Moore had actually added a new layer, explaining and bringing things together, and I hoped to find that new layer myself.

I found the square by walking up from the Tottenham Court Road station and passed by a number of very chromed looking modern office buildings. There was an amusing jumble of strange local street names that seemed to conjure historical significance alongside the unexpected: a building called Pendragon, a street named Dane, a college of anesthetists. Glass and steel tower blocks formed a hodge-podge with Victorian brick. I would later learn why that “gappy” aspect characterized the area. In Moore’s work, he recounts the burial and exhumation of Oliver Cromwell from the center of Red Lion Square. It was quiet, green, slightly mossy little place full of pigeons and remarkably sheltered from the sounds of nearby traffic. An outdoor café with plastic awnings invited a few visitors.

I walked past, but didn’t hear the sound of a single human voice. It was incredibly placid. Conway Hall stood in the corner of the square making an architectural statement. It is both one of the older buildings left standing in the area, and also somewhat ornamental in its brickwork. It had a definite presence about it, and is a functioning community center for events hosted by the Ethical Society.

I walked by it and explored the streets leading into the square a little more closely, found some more surviving old architecture. While eating lunch in a nearby café, I jotted down some notes:

“It’s amazing how the entire square feels a little like Northampton. It’s not particularly the architecture, though there is old architecture. It’s the mix mash of old and new, the weathered half-oblivious feel, the strange stillness to it. Moore found plenty under the surface here: Cromwell, Lizzie Siddal, ceremony, exhumation, decay, unearthing”.

I had gotten what I came for, more or less, and a few photos, too, and I could have gone on with the rest of my day in London at that point.

I stood in an alleyway looking down into Red Lion Square, hesitating and trying to make up my mind. What more was there to see? I realized that I hadn’t walked down the narrow alley, which was lined with strange, colorful small shops rather crammed in, so I took a photo and moved forward, noticing new angles to snap. In that way, I had moved down most of the alley and realized, to my surprise, that I was standing at the back of Conway hall. To my left a bold sky-blue café read “Casanova’s Treats”. It made me laugh for a second. “Hey”, someone said “Do you like that?”. I looked immediately to my right. Seated at one in a cluster of small tables was a spry older man in shirtsleeves. “That’s me”, he said, “I’m Casanova”. I commented that it was a great name, but before I had finished my sentence, he commanded me to sit down at his table.

This was, by the way, quickly turning into a very strange conversation. “Why are you here?”, he asked with some seriousness. I told him I was researching the area. He sprang into narrative. Here are some of the stories that he told me: that the hodge-podge architecture in the square was the result of serious bombing, not during World War II but during World War I by Zeppelins. With vast areas standing vacant between the old surviving buildings, modernity had gradually filled it all in with tower blocks, but had left room for a couple of pleasant little gardens, including the miniature park in which we were sitting. A clock reputedly hung, stopped, in a nearby pub, that marked the instant of the bombings.

But then he looked beyond us, toward the park, thoughtfully. “There”, he said “was a very big church, I think. It was destroyed, too”. Suddenly it made sense to me, and if I had been paying attention to Campbell’s illustrations of Snakes and Ladders I would have picked up on this: a massive church once flanked Red Lion Square and the “park” was part of the churchyard. In fact, in that churchyard, Cromwell was buried and exhumed. Right in the center according to tradition. “Is it true”, I asked him, instinctually lowering my voice, “what they say about Cromwell?”. He leaned closer and with real gravity touched only briefly on the subject “Yes”, he said, “that’s what I have heard”, as if it had happened yesterday, “and they did that thing…”. He paused, somberly. “They dug him up”, I supplied, at even more of a whisper. He nodded, “I think so”. It was clear that for Mr. Casanova, this was a dark matter. We dropped the subject after a respectful silence.

(insert for Snakes and Ladders CD by John Coulthart)

He gestured to the alleyway and its tidy bouquet of bright shop-fronts, each a different hue. It had been a series of shops even in the 19th century, with workshops facing the street plying practical trades, and keepers living above. He had been running his café for forty years, and in that time had weathered changes. One dramatic incident involved a ruptured water main in the vicinity of Conway Hall that, because the alley was on a slight slope, turned into a sudden, major flood that rose over three feet above ground level, having already overtaken any lower levels of the shops. Casanova found himself wading through his shop, aware that its 19th century, carefully preserved features were no more. Officials visited each shop owner and worked with them on the restoration of the street, allowing a fair amount of modernization as desired. Almost all the shops modernized. Casanova did not. He weighed the matter and asked for it to be restored exactly as it had been before the flood and was very relieved when it was complete. And he had since continued to preserve its historic features for forty years.

I told him a little bit about Snakes and Ladders and the performance in Conway Hall. He would have been there, right next door, when it happened, but he didn’t know about it. He did, however, frequently cater events in the hall, of which there were plenty of weddings and, for a time, drama performances and rehearsals. He’d seen it all, really, but he was pleased to hear that a local performance had been commemorated in words and images. Customers were nosing around his shop looking for lunch, so I tried not to keep him. He encouraged me to go around the corner to the local library if I wanted to do some “real research”. His description of the helpful people there made it clear that he’d made a research trip or two of his own.

I sat looking at the shop for a minute, and the square beyond. It hadn’t seemed like a particularly cold or impersonal place to begin with, but this had been a plunge into things below the surface. The way that Mr. Casanova saw things, the multi-layered presence of time in the square, really harmonized with the logic of Snakes and Ladders which tracks the historical layers of a place while mapping out the relationship between DNA and the human spirit. It had truly been a performance suited to a place. That was something that Moore had tried to explain to people, and could even be held up as a terribly obvious thing about his performance pieces, but going there proved that it was much more than an assertion by Moore. He did his research. He performed the place. And that place was still alive, with living history. Now Snakes and Ladders could be part of the history of Red Lion Square, also.

I felt very lucky to have been pulled aside and given another view of this historical island in time. As I concluded even before Casanova gave me his multi-temporal view on his home territory, “It’s a stop on the psychogeographical road that Moore mapped then left- a somnambulant oasis- for others to find”. I stepped back out onto the busy streets surrounding the square feeling as if I’d just woken up from a strange but interesting dream. The spell of the oasis stayed behind me but thanks to Moore, Campbell, and the Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels, it’s been extended to thousands of readers and listeners now, a gift. There were even still a few more hours left in the day for my hunt.