It’s interesting (and instructive) just how often a work of fiction will illuminate a character or events far better than a more scholarly piece will. And a current example of that has been the ITV drama Mr. Bates vs The Post Office, screened in recent weeks. Indeed, such has been the public anger that – just for once – it looks as if we may actually see justice for ordinary people who rode slipshod over by an uncaring system that was backed and enabled by a couldn’t-care-less government.
Despite the fact that many journalists attempted to keep this travesty reported on for more than a decade, it has been the work of fiction that has led to something concrete happening.
And it got me thinking of how a single chapter in Alan Moore’s gigantic novel Jerusalem brought to vivid life a small reflective moment in the early life of Charles Chaplin.
Moore will be better known to many of you as one of those creators in the mid-80s who were responsible for giving the then-humble comic book a leg up the ladder that was to make the form an acceptable one for adults to admit to reading. [Personally, I had been reading them since the 60s and always considered them a legitimate art form. But that’s just me giving my ego a big pat on the shoulder and saying, as I did back then, ‘I told you so’.]
The 80s saw the triumph of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, a graphic novel that redefined Batman in a manner that is still recognized today. This would be in the years before Miller went completely doolally, whatever happened to him, and he began to churn out his later demented drivel.
Then there was Dave Sim and the inspired Cerebus the Aardvark, a work that grew more and more complex as time went on, a fascinating Canadian original. This was in the years before Sim also stopped sending the lift to the top of the building (perhaps it goes with the territory) and began alienating… oh, everyone he could. ‘Way to go, Dave.
One of my favourites from that period was Howard Chaykin’s brilliant American Flagg! -- another work of powerful originality that burned very brightly indeed for some two dozen groundbreaking issues, before Chaykin grew bored, as he tends to do. But when the title was in its prime… man, he was on fire. This was in the years when Chaykin drew the most beautiful women in comics… and come to think of it, along with Jaime and Gilbert Hernadez of the great Love and Rockets saga, still does, God bless him.
There were others, but for me, the Big Cheese, the Head Enchilada, El Jefe himself was Northampton’s own Alan Moore, the increasingly irascible genius behind Watchmen, From Hell, Lost Girls, Promethea, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and a shedload of other projects, every one of which was steeped in the most marvelous prose and brim full of ideas.
In 1996 he published his first novel, Voice of the Fire, a wonderful and idiosyncratic take on his beloved hometown. And in a way, it is only the prologue to his enormous 2016 follow-up Jerusalem, a dense, sometimes almost impenetrable work that you have to be in the whole of your health to tackle, let alone to lift – but boy, is it worth it!
Moore has an interesting conceit about Northampton:
“It’s a funny little town: most of the wars in England have ended up in Northampton – the British Civil War was decided at Naseby; the War of the Roses was decided, I think, near Delapre Abbey in Northampton. It’s just because it’s right in the middle of the country; it’s like everything seemed to happen there or everybody seemed to pass through there on their way to whatever destiny awaited them.”
In 1909 the destiny of one twenty-year-old Charles Chaplin is still unformed, but the young Vaudevillian has definite plans for getting out of England and putting the poverty of these years behind him. He’s ‘halfway through another disappointing tour with Karno’s Mumming Birds’. He is musing on a new comic creation he has been playing around with, the Inebriate (a version of which Silent Cinema Galway regulars will recall seeing last month in 1921’s The Idle Class):
“[He] felt half proud at his act’s success and half ashamed for the exact same reason. He was far too good at doing drunks.
“Of course, all the drunks were his father, Charles, who he’d been named after and who had died from dropsy just a decade earlier, in 1899…
“Things could go either way for him at present, and it was as unpredictable and random as the movements of those roosting pigeons, how events would finally fall out. Without a break of some sort, he’d be spiraling around these northern towns until his dreams had all leaked out of him, had proven to be nothing but hot air from the beginning. Then there would be nothing for it but to live up to his mother’s bleak prediction, every time he’d come home with a whiff of drink on his breath: ‘You’ll end up in the gutter like your father.’ He knew that he was standing at a crossroads in more ways than one.”
His mother is also much on his mind this day, as he stands at the cusp of his transformation into Charlie Chaplin, into the man who will in a few years take the silent film era by the throat and force it to make sense for him. With bittersweetness, he recalls his mother trying to distract him as a child, lying recovering from a fever, as she plays out scenes from the New Testament:
“She’d put all the talents from a stage career she’d only recently abandoned into the performance and had almost done too good a job, with him left hoping that he’d have a relapse and meet this Jesus who he’d heard so much about. She’d been that passionate, he’d never doubted any of the stories for an instant. Mind you, that had been before he and his brother were dragged through the workhouse with her, and before she had been put in the asylum for a spell.”
Odd to think of this link between Chaplin and horror writer H.P. Lovecraft [‘To Charlie of the Comics’, Silent Times, November 2023], both of them terrified on different sides of the Atlantic for mothers with a tendency to end up in mental hospitals.
Chaplin as drawn here is shrewd and calculating in a way that I imagine he was -- already shaping things to be remembered in a certain way and no other, when he achieves fame; already mentally editing out the bad parts; already writing his own legend. And he knows how far to take a character:
“The public had an appetite for sadness and sentiment, and what they saw as all the colour of the worse-off classes, but nobody liked the taste of squalor. The Inebriate went down a treat for just so long as he was hanging around a lamppost, talking to it like a pal. The skit was cut off long before he shit his trousers…”
Don’t think that it’s all doom and gloom, though. Moore is a hell of a funny writer and here he has Chaplin musing on his boyhood nickname:
“He’d been a six-year-old at school in Lambeth when the other boys called him Sir Francis Drake. That had been at the outset of his mother’s slide to poverty, when he’d been forced to wear a pair of her red stage tights that had been cut down to look like stockings, although being pleated and bright crimson hadn’t looked like that at all, accounting for the name… Sydney, his big brother, had been obliged to wear a blazer, previously a velvet jacket of their mother’s, which had red and black striped sleeves. Aged ten and therefore more self-conscious than his younger sibling, Sydney had been known as ‘Joseph and his coat of many colours’.
“He consoled himself that Francis Drake had cut a famously good-looking and heroic dash, while Joseph had been dropped down a deep hole and left to die by brothers outraged at his dress sense.”
For me, Charles Chaplin at this point in his travels towards fame and fortune, comes alive through Moore’s deft touch in a way that many autobiographies fail to do, and all in one chapter of less than twenty-four pages.
I love Jerusalem and would recommend it with some caution as to its size. However, if you don’t happen to be driving the forklift truck that you’ll need to take the volume home with you, but want to read this chapter, then have a sneaky look around your local bookstore or library. You’ll have no trouble remembering the name of the chapter on Charlie. It is…
… Modern Times.