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.

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