The pattern of these sections has been consistent so far. We meet a new POV character who wanders alone around Northampton, and all the buildings and streets get named, and we learn minutiae of their rental history. The POV character crosses paths with a couple of other POV characters briefly.
In this case, the character is Benedict Perrit, born 1954, now 52 years old. A childhood friend of Alma Warren, he’s a drunk who once had a poem published, so he tells himself (and others) that he’s a poet. Marla Stiles crossed his path in Chapter Two (“ASBOs of Desire”), so now we see it from his side. Some of Perrit’s musings as he drunkenly roams the streets:
• Why is Michael the Archangel the patron saint of Northampton? He’s an archangel, not a saint. • When buildings get renovated, do their poltergeists get renovated too? • Remember that monk who brought a stone cross from Golgotha to the center of Northampton? (As seen two chapters ago). That cross is part of the masonry at St. Gregory’s Church now. • Remember David Daniels, the black kid who loved American comic books and pulp sci-fi? He and Alma (Alan Moore) were good buddies. • Hi, Marla Stiles. No, I won’t pay you for sex. • Remember when my wife Jen left with the kids because I’m a drunkard, like my father Jem before me? (mother: Eileen) • A man in his thirties was killed when he swerved his car to avoid something in the middle of Grafton Street. Wonder what; surely we’ll have a chapter about that later. • Writers shouldn’t worry about acclaim. Those who deserve it will be found by history, like William Blake. I’ll go home and write.
This chapter comes as a relieving break from the tedious, obscurantist structure of its predecessors. It concerns John “Snowy” Vernall in the year 1889. His wife Louisa gives birth to their daughter May on the streets of London. Instead of standing by his laboring wife’s side, Snowy, has climbed to a nearby rooftop. A pregnant actress acts as midwife. Tidbits we learn about him and his family:
• Snowy has Doctor Manhattan’s ability to see any point along the timestream. He can stop time (an effect he calls “Pigeon Eyes”) or zoom out to focus on some object’s history over long periods of time. Like Doctor Manhattan as well, this makes him detached from the human condition and fatalistic. He is a skilled yet unemployable artist, both due to his debilitating insights. Again we see that madness is actually a heightened level of awareness. Snowy thinks all men possess but suppress this ability.
• He also has the abilities to teleport by folding space, and to see ghosts. The fairy painter Dadd is one of the ghosts he sees. William Blake also had this ability and used it to talk to the poet John Milton.
• In 1889, he is 26 years old. He is named after his father’s father.
• He has three siblings: Thursa is two years his junior, and Appelina (referencing the fruit that Eve ate, which was not an apple) and Messenger (which is what “angel” means) are substantially younger.
• Their father Ernest was put into Bedlam after his angel-induced mental breakdown. Thursa and Snowy visited him with decreasing frequency until Ernest’s death in 1882, which is how they learned and acquired Ernest’s super-powers.
• His daughter May is named after his wife’s mother. Snowy sees that May will have six children, but the first dies in infancy. The second-to-last child does not reach old age either.
• He foresees his own death in a corridor with many rooms, “his mouth crammed full of colors.” What does that mean?
• Perhaps it has something to do with this: Snowy carries two crystal doorknobs in his pockets. As he stands on the rooftop, he holds them aloft, and the diffracting light sends a rainbow shower down upon the scene of his daughter’s birth.
Along the way, we learn some more of the rules of this world. One that seems obvious in retrospect is that the talk of “Angle vs Angel” has another aspect, that of the tribe of the Angles who were subdued by the Saxon invasion.
We’ve previously heard about how our names are pregnant with meaning: a “Smith” works with iron, a “Cooper” makes barrels, and so on. According to Ernest Vernall, his surname derives from the word “Verger” which has several meanings: “One who cleans gutters (verges),” Also “carrier of the verge” (in British churches or politics, a rod of office, from the Latin virga meaning “branch.”
We’re reminded again that all multicellular creatures are toruses topologically, containing a tube from one end to the other. The shape defined by an orbiting planet is a torus.
So, a more engaging read than previous chapters, if only by returning to the well of Dr. Manhattan, one of Moore’s most interesting creations. Moore recounts here:
The strain of madness that was in the Vernon side of the family, with my Great grandfather Ginger Vernon, who turns up in the novel as Snowy Vernall and my father’s cousin, Audrey Vernon whom the novel is dedicated to and who turns up as Audrey Vernall, and this was just one of the strands that I knew about. How my Great Grandfather used to just run up walls. You’d be talking to him, then you’d look away, perhaps at something on the street and when you turned back he’d be gone and three stories above you, admiring a particularly nice piece of chimney breast.. and how he was once arrested for drunkenly haranguing the crowds from a rooftop – something reported in the local paper of the time – I’ve also heard other family rumours of how he had retouched the frescoes down at the Guildhall and made numerous other adjustments throughout the town...
I knew for instance that Ginger Vernon had at one time eaten his way through a vase of tulips. And I can kind of see that, because they would look very succulent... I knew that he also, when he was down at my Gran’s house on Green Street – she used to have two mirrors on opposite walls and he became convinced that these were two windows looking into the rooms of the terraced houses and that you could see in these rooms the various patriarchs and that if he waved they would all wave back to him...
[H]e was the first cartoonist in the family. In bars, for the price of a pint, he would draw a caricature of somebody. And that was something I didn’t know. I knew that he would have these incredible fierce tempers where he would break most of the windows in the house, and yet everyone respected him. Conversely, he was so respected for his craft that one of his acquaintances who was just setting up a business making glass and supplying a lot of big contracts asked him to be a director of the company he was setting up, on the condition that Ginger stayed out of the pub for two weeks. And Ginger said, ‘No, I don’t much like being told what to do so you can stick it up your arse,’ Later, his wife would really berate him as they’d walk past the mansion of this guy up on Billing Road, while they traipsed back to their little terrace dwelling on the end of Green Street, so you can imagine what he’d missed out on all sorts of levels and in all sorts of areas. And yet I really respect that.
This chapter is unusual for two reasons. First, it follows directly upon the previous chapter, in which Snowy Vernall witnessed the birth of his daughter May and foresaw the entire course of her life through his super-powers. This chapter shows us the course of her life; thanks to Alan Moore, we too have this super-power. Thus the second unusual thing about this chapter is that it's not a vignette from a single day in the life of a character, as all the previous chapters have been. Rather, it's divided into three sections.
In the first section (1908), May is at home at age nineteen, giving birth to her own first child, also to be named May, and assisted as midwife by the local deathmonger Mrs. Gibbs. Just as Snowy was thinking last chapter, life and death are inextricably linked. May and her husband Tom Warren live with May's parents Snowy and Louisa Vernall and her younger siblings Cora, Johnny, and Jim. Moore compares the mood at the birth to Joseph Wright's 1768 painting "An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump," which renders a scientific, clinical matter with a reverential glow normally reserved for religious matters.
Mrs. Gibbs is addicted to snuff, which she uses to deaden her nose to the foul smells associated with her job. At another point, Mrs. Gibbs is compared to a figure in a portrait by famed artist William Gainsborough, an 18th century contemporary of Wright.
The newborn infant is called a "painting of a child" as well, and we recall that May's grandfather Ernest Vernall and father Snowy are both artists by profession. Snowy has previously turned down a lucrative art partnership, foreseeing that if his family were more affluent, May would never meet her husband Tom.
The second section of this chapter follows the familiar pattern: A character walks around town, thinks and talks about her life and the city, and meets some of the other characters on the street. We already know how this is going to go from Part Five (in which elder May and younger May met Charles "Oatsie" Chaplin) and Part Six (in which they met Black Charley the rag-and-bone man on his rope-wheeled bicycle). She also thinks some more about the monk who brought the cross fragment from Jerusalem to Northampton. May's meeting with charming Chaplin also leads to amorous thoughts which she carries home to her husband, and they conceive a second child either that night or the following morning.
One new character is mentioned: Mr. Paine the chimney-sweep enjoys boating while listening to records on his Victrola. He also has a colorful urban garden which May compares to Eden. May's thoughts about him take up half a page, so I bet he'll get a chapter later. Mr. Beery the lamplighter makes a briefer appearance.
While out walking, May feeds nonpareils to herself and the toddler. This is a chocolate snack with colored sugar sprinkled on one side. Moore twice makes a point of telling us that the baby gets one at a time. But when mama May eats them herself, she pushes two together so that the chocolate sides are hidden inside, and only colored sugar faces out. This implies naive May's unwillingness to face the "dark" parts of life; she wants everything beautiful and sugar-coated. Moore compares the French confection's appearance to the work of a French painter.
Along the same lines, we're told numerous times that May is obsessed with keeping her baby clean, so much so that the physician Dr. Forbes worries that the baby is not being sufficiently exposed to the real world and will not be prepared to fight disease when it inevitably comes. Everyone agrees that Baby May, now eighteen months old, is the most beautiful child the world has ever seen, leading her mother to think that she is not worthy of the child, hence her eagerness to give the baby a perfect life.
In the third section, tragedy strikes a couple of weeks later, as Baby May dies of Diphtheria. This was foreseen by Snowy in the previous chapter, when he saw a branch from May's life-tree terminating very quickly. Mrs. Gibbs, who also has the power of foresight, is preparing the toddler corpse for burial. Adult May asks to assist; this is her entry into the career of deathmonger, which she continues for many years. May subsequently has five children with Tom: Louisa, Tom, Walter, Jack, and Frank. Tom fights in the first World War and survives. Snowy Vernall dies in 1926, and Louisa Vernall goes "cornery" in her dotage and stays indoors until she dies in 1936.
Mrs. Gibbs says that although she doesn't believe in Christian heaven, she does believe that people who die go "Upstairs" to another dimension much like our own. Presumably when they live and die there, they graduate to yet a higher world. Did they come from a still lower world before arriving in our own, or is our world the dregs of the multiverse? Is it turtles all the way down?
This chapter largely fills in the first quarter of the 20th century in the Vernall/Warren family tree. Apart from the sad story of the two Mays, the most interesting bit concerns Thursa Vernall, sister of Snowy and aunt to May, who wanders the streets playing a non-melodious cacophony on an accordion all day. There is a method in the madness; the notes that Thursa plays on her accordion are actually the exact pitches simultaneously being uttered by various city inhabitants in their moment of deepest despair. Thursa is an empath who is intimately connected to the pain of her community. Once more madness is actually a kind of superior sight.
There’s also much talk of a Great Aunt Thursa, who I’m certain existed, and yet Leah, who’s been doing a lot of the digging up of the genealogy of the family could find no trace of her, so whether she was a family friend who was known as an Aunt, or an actual relation is unclear. And yet she was completely mad. There’s reports of her taking her accordion out and playing it during the blitz, while the bombers were going over, totally unconcerned. I thought this was just wonderful. And then there’s the stories of my paternal grandmother who was a Deathmonger.
Deathmongers; now I’m sure the word doesn’t exist outside of certain boroughs in Northampton, although I’m sure the occupation does. A Deathmonger is someone who in areas that are too poor to have Midwives or Undertakers, there is a working class woman – always a woman – down the end of the street who will take care of either for a shilling. So, if you’re about to give birth, you call the Deathmonger! If someone’s just died you lay them out and call the Deathmonger. And my Gran was one. Terrifying woman. But I believe she probably became one after the early death of her first daughter at the age of eighteen months, so, yes I thought, well, there’s a story there and a sense that all these stories have an element of weirdness in them... And Deathmongers of course, I’m assuming that they called them that since it became inadvisable to call them by their other name. Because women who helped with birth – most of the witches who were hung and burnt, were midwives, so Deathmonger was a term that was brought in strategically to replace the term Witch, or Wisewoman. This was the 1940’s...
So when I found out about Ginger having turned down this Directorship, without which I would not exist, had he not done that, because my nan would have been far too middle class to have ever married my grandfather and then produced my father and so on...
The story moves forward a generation to May’s children, with Tommy, aged 36, as the point of view character. He thinks about his relatives and his life while waiting outside the hospital for his wife Doreen to give birth to their first child. A concert pianist Mad Marie plays down the street. Things we learn:
• Snowy’s wife Louisa had been a busty waitress in the 1880s when they met. • Tommy’s uncle Johnny Vernall married Celia and has a piano playing daughter Audrey in his dance band. When Audrey was 18, she went mad and spent the rest of her life in the asylum. • Thursa is said to have played her accordion in the streets during the Blitz blackouts, as Moore already said in the interview quoted in the previous chapter. • Tommy read comic books like Journey Into Space. • He used to sit around with his grandfather Snowy and study number patterns in the multiplication table. • Tommy’s parents couldn’t afford to send him to the good school that his grades would have allowed. • His sister Lou (named after her grandmother, Snowy’s wife) has married Albert and has two girls and a son. • His brother Walt married in 1947. • As a young man, he took devout Liz Bayliss on a disastrous date to hear Maxie Miller, a comedian whose routine turned out to be far more ribald than Tommy expected. That embarrassment was the end of Tommy’s church-going days. He thinks of Jesus as a blue-collar worker. • His brother Jack did not return from World War II. • Tommy’s family had a Christmas tradition of mixing various liquors in a single large flagon and passing it around. This detail came directly from Alan Moore’s upbringing. • When Tommy married Doreen Swan in 1952, they first lived in the crowded Swan house with Doreen’s mother Clara, sister Emma (and her husband Ted and kids John and Eileen), and brother Alf (and his wife Queen and toddler Jim). Three bedrooms, ten people. Ted and Queen were biological brother and sister, apart from being married to the Swan brother and sister. • Many others mentioned offhandedly: Jem and Eileen Perrit, Three-Fingered Tunk, Freddy Allen (“a moocher” and already the revenant subject of Part Three above), Mary Jane (“a brawler” likewise in Part Three) Podger Sameo (an organ grinder)
My Two Cents: Another chapter of the now-familiar form: A character strolls the streets and thinks about stuff. It’s almost 100% exposition about the Vernall family without the benefit of a meaningful narrative arc of his own except for the repeated punchline that the meaning of our lives is not well understood in the moment.
Tommy ponders how his mother May had wanted two daughters. When her first daughter baby May died of diphtheria, she subsequently had one daughter and then four sons. But for the death of baby May, the four sons would never have been conceived in an attempt for another daughter. This is another example of most people not being able to see the larger patterns, the “whirlpool of occurences,” that bring about the details of our lives.
Tommy also thinks a lot about Noncomformist (i.e. non-Anglican) pastor Philip Doddridge, who began his ministry in Northampton in 1729. We’ve heard of the general reverence for this activist minister in previous chapters as well. “He was the Burroughs’ most heroic son.” Doddridge wrote the hymn which gives its title to this chapter.
1 Hark, the glad sound! The Savior comes, the Savior promised long! Let ev'ry heart prepare a throne, and ev'ry voice a song. 2 He comes the pris'ners to release, in Satan’s bondage held; the gates of brass before Him burst, the iron fetters yield. 3 He comes the broken heart to bind, the bleeding soul to cure, and with the treasures of His grace t'enrich the humbled poor. 4 Our glad Hosannas, Prince of Peace, Thy welcome shall proclaim; and heav'n’s eternal arches ring with Thy beloved Name.
This chapter focusing on Alma’s brother Mick Warren starts off with an interesting scene: An industrial accident sprays Mick’s face with mysterious chemicals. In a comic book, Mick would awaken the next day with super powers, maybe the ability to change his face. But alas, this is real life, so Mick just gets a chemical burn that takes a few weeks to heal.
The rest of the chapter descends into the now-tedious pattern. Mick thinks about his family:
• Mick’s wife, the former Cathy Devlin, had an unhappy childhood. • Cathy’s sister Dawn is a social worker who lives in Devon and has a daughter, Harriet. • Once at a funeral, a distant relative Chris attended while handcuffed to a policeman, because he had been let out of prison just for the day. • Where his paternal grandmother May Warren was bulky, his maternal grandmother Clara Swan was slender, “stick-like.” Clara once bit toddler Alma to teach her not to bite. • Alma used to steal Mick’s toy soldiers after she discovered that lighting them on fire caused a sparkly glow.
Mick recalls in detail the day in 1959 when at the age of three he died choking on a piece of Tune candy, and then was revived. This is where the chapter title comes from. As he lay dying on his couch, he saw an angel in the upper corner (angle) of the living room, beckoning him upward, but he did not go. The angel was a blond ten year old girl wearing “a fur scarf…drenched in blood. With little heads growing out of it.”
Alma disapproved of TV shows depicting the working class, like “Shameless,” an acclaimed 2004-2013 British show which inspired an American version on Showtime (2011-2020). Alma, eternally grumpy, felt that such programmes romanticized poverty and alcoholism, comparing it disparagingly to the similar 1986-1991 BBC programme “Bread.” On this particular episode of Shameless, the family sings the hymn “Jerusalem” to get a baby to go to sleep. The hymn touches Mick deeply and releases a fountain of images drawn from other parts of the book, other characters. Mick purposes to meet his sister Alma for a drink to discuss it. This meeting already happened in the book’s Prelude.
My Two Cents: As before, there’s little obvious narrative significance to the detailed descriptions of the Warren family. I wonder whether Moore has read John Steinbeck’s 1952 novel “East of Eden,” which was based on a hundred years of his family’s history. Moore has similar aspirations, but as yet (on page 363) no narrative structure has emerged. Is Moore testing the reader’s patience as to how much interesting-to-him family history the reader will endure in hopes of a cool Alan Moore moment to pay it off?
The episode of “Shameless” remembered by Mick is the season 2 finale (2005) “True Love.” Although he describes Alma as disliking TV shows like this, I bet Mick’s tearful response to the episode reflects Moore’s own reaction. The old softie! He even named this whole book “Jerusalem” in honor of it. Happily, I was able to find the TV clip on YouTube.
And suddenly I know the reason for the previous chapter title “ASBOs of Desire.” It’s a pun on a line in the hymn Jerusalem: “Bring me my arrows of desire.”