Mar 20, 2013

AM Portrait: A small sense of not belonging

An old map of Northampton
In the following you can read a piece written by well-known and prolific Italian comics writer Alessandro Bilotta (currently working on Dylan Dog and other stories for Italian best selling comics company Sergio Bonelli) originally included in Alan Moore: Portrait of an Extraordinary Gentleman book (2003, Abiogenesis Press, pp. 185-190).
Personally I always considered Bilotta's contribution as one of the most interesting in the book... and, telling the whole truth, a bit spooky, too. I am sure Alan liked it. Enjoy!

Posted on this blog with the author's permission. 

A small sense of not belonging

Dear Sir Alan Moore,
I hope you will forgive me because I do not exist.

I arrived in Northampton in July of 1985 on a local train which took a strange route, stopping in a lot of small towns in the south. On the last exhausting part of the journey I fell asleep, breaking all the solid principles of diffidence and prudence which, to a great extent, are responsible for what I am today. Or, if you prefer, for what I am not. Just a second to realise that my Prince of Wales jacket was still folded in four on the seat in front of me, and I started running down the narrow corridor looking for a ticket inspector who could tell me if I had missed my stop. The train stopped at yet another town. “Bedford” the sign said. A man with good manners, but with clay on his shoes, explained in an apparently kind way that we would arrive in Northampton in half an hour’s time. But I didn’t trust him and so I asked the inspector who confirmed what he had said. Once back in my compartment I checked that the suitcase was still in the space above the seat in front of mine and then stayed standing so I would not fall asleep again.

The house was welcoming, shabby and clean. You got a smell of newness yet of already used. I don’t know if you, Sir Alan, have ever bought a brand new car. Up to a little while ago I was not able to afford one. What you feel is something very like opening the box of a toy when you are a child. You are sure that that thing is yours because nobody has ever touched it before you. It is an inexact conclusion because someone will have taken that toy from the production line to put it inside the box.  But the difference between that one and another bought in a flea market is, in my opinion, the smell. I can say that the sour smell of a material which has been kept in a box or in an environment which preserves its original characteristics can give the impression of being virgin. And give the apparent omnipotence to do with it what you will. Prints, shoes, motorcars and apartments are all part of this same olfactory category. To walk into a rented apartment or buy a used car is an experience which leaves no smell because someone has already consumed it.

The first time I saw you, Sir Alan, was in the Grosvenor Shopping Centre. I would tell a lie if I were to say it was intentional. It was one of my first days in Northampton and I was still trying to settle in, I was almost not thinking about you. Later this would make me reflect on the strange way human destinies pursue one another.
That hair, that beard and that dragging walk, what seediness, I thought. You were   wearing a green spring jacket, with a military late-Seventies cut, the kind of jacket which was very popular with anti-militarists. Certainly not a designer jacket. And so I got the idea of following you as you made your way along the main aisle of the centre, your head down with that touch of agoraphobia which suits artists, like someone who is afraid that another person can pinpoint his own diversity. Like me who, in the midst of dozens of people, was afraid of losing you, and followed your unmistakable silhouette.
You went into the bookshop of the shopping centre and asked an assistant at the cash desk if the book you had ordered had arrived. The assistant apologised for the further delay and added that it was not easy to find but that they had guaranteed it would be there on the Friday of the following week. I pulled out my notebook and made a careful note of the title and author of the book. You went towards the exit, stopping for a second to peep at the first of a series of calendars on sale next to the door, then you left disappearing from my sight. This time I did not follow you. I went over to the shelves of novels which were piled up according to the author’s surname and searched for one which was not there, but could be easily found. I went over to the cash desk and asked if they had Camus’ “The Stranger”. The cashier got up and went over to the same point where I had looked for the book that was not there. That point which the inflexible alphabetical order had assigned to it. Returning to the cash desk he told me they did not have it, but that if I ordered a copy it would arrive in a short period of time. A question of two or three days. I left my surname and telephone number and headed towards the door. I took a step back to take a peep at the calendar which had caught your attention. It was illustrated by a certain Hokusai.
Three days later an assistant took a copy of “The Stranger” from a shelf on which the books ordered by clients were piled up neatly behind the cash desk. The shelf was clearly visible and within everyone’s reach. I peeped to see if your book had arrived, but it was too early. The bookshop was punctual in its delay.
On the Thursday evening of the following week the book was on the shelf. I could get close to it without any problem. You would pick it up only the next morning.
Returning home that evening I thought how much one of your fans would have envied me. Does the logic of the fanatic exist in the world of comic strips? I had met you, followed you, and got close to you. My glance had fallen on you recognising you as being different in the midst of hundreds of people. But I was not the slightest bit interested in your work, nor had I ever read anything you had written, because I don’t read comics. Indeed I thought you were an illustrator, I didn’t think there was a difference between the two roles, the person who writes the comic and the person who draws it. All this stimulated me and as soon as I got home from my suitcase I pulled out the last Superman Annual I had bought shortly before leaving. I read it and let it drop on the couch. I went over to the window and pulled the curtain aside a little to see your house on the other side of the road. The lights were on.

Did you know there is also a Northampton in America, in Massachusetts, and that there is even one in Australia? During my entire stay I always asked myself what they could have in common with yours. If, by some contorted destiny, they had illegitimately taken possession of some other detail which was not the originality of the name.
I found the neighbourhood horrible. A long row of houses which stretched as far as the eye could see like a long spinal chord of the fossil of a brachiosaurus disappearing around the curve of the horizon. These kind of panoramic monstrosities do not exist where I come from. They cannot even be compared with Hell, because there you imagine things to be in perpetual motion and constantly changing like inside the crater of a volcano. Northampton, on the other hand, looked like a motionless advertisement for a Fifties white goods company. Yet I liked it.
For my job I have travelled and still travel often. But I never get used to that feeling of being a stranger. Funny isn’t it? How can someone who does not exist feel part of something? Every place I visit remains at a distance from me, everything is lovely and sometimes even welcoming, but it remains at a distance as if waiting for me to go back to where I came from and take back my own place. And so, when you travel, everything is like an invitation to a party, you are enjoying it, but you can’t take off your shoes and fall asleep on the couch, because the very reason you feel well is because you do not belong to that place. It rolls off your back. And so, Sir Alan, I don’t know if you agree, but finding oneself in another city, be it on business or holidays, makes it even more enjoyable, perhaps only because it is easier to accept. We don’t belong to it and it does not belong to us. The next morning, after waking up, there is no traffic to make us late and no work to go to. Because we come from somewhere else. We are not there. In my case we do not even exist.
And so Northampton could even have poured cement over those few flowerbeds left along the road, the little houses could have squeezed even closer together like packets of cigarettes, that grey sky could even have made me keep the light on at ten in the morning. I was a spectator.

Next to the window Hokusai’s calendar stared at me, open at the first page, January 1986, although it was July 1985. I stared at it in a dream while the lights of the house on the other side of the street filtered dimly through the design on the curtain and were imprinted on my retina. Two men crossed a bridge which seemed to be suspended in space. It must have been a rope bridge because under their weight it was bent almost into a V. Except for a detail which struck me about the two men, it would have been possible to lose oneself in the scene depicted. The impression was that of finding oneself higher up than the mountain tops, so much so as to be surprised that the birds managed to be so high up, violating an apparently virgin place. The bridge seemed to be beyond the clouds. But the two men caught my attention more than the rest. They both seemed to be intent and decided on the same destiny. Perhaps they barely knew one another, but they were both certain they had to go where they were going. Together and for the same reasons. But then why was only one of them carrying an enormous weight on his shoulders while the other following him was carrying practically nothing? Maybe the direction was the same, but the determination was not.
From the headphone I listened carefully to your conversations, you, Phyllis, Amber, Leah and Deborah. Presumably the book was at a transit point of the house, perhaps at the entrance. I waited until you had gathered all your conversations and left. I saw you get into the car, that embarrassing heap of tin which looked like a coffin. I waited a few minutes. Then I crossed the road and entered.

I have to admit it was a rash thing to do. It was not my business yet I felt it was my duty. As soon as I was out of your house I didn’t head straight for my house, but turned left and once again recalled all the details of that strange experience. I started with those which were closest. Your living room, the bedroom and the smell of the clothes in the wardrobe. The bathroom, the children’s room and the view from the window. The glass was a perfect frame for the house on the other side of the road, it was the same as all the others, yet at the same time more anonymous. The lights were off and maybe the person who lived there was asleep, but no, it was too early. There was nobody at home. Perhaps the lodger was at a party with friends, in a restaurant with a woman, or perhaps quite simply by himself at the cinema, comfortably seated watching the lives of others on a white sheet. Or better still, nobody lived in that house. Yes, that was probably the assumption closest to the truth. Often there is no need to travel with fantasy to seek the reality of facts. Sometimes the facts just don’t exist.
Then I was distracted by the thought of that huge horrible painting which hung on your wall. But I had learned that your genius often goes arm in arm with bad taste, although it is something I find unpardonable. In the meantime I had come close to a fence which enclosed a park. I sat down on it and fixed my gaze on a small lake inside the park. Then I picked up the thread of my thoughts again. What infinite coincidences had brought me there? Among the people I had just got to know in Northampton some of them had even been willing to become friendly with the newcomer. But I had not arrived, I was merely passing through. I even remember, Sir Alan, the time a policeman came round and wanted to use my house as a look out for your house. Really crazy, don’t you think? Forgive the irony but don’t worry, I refused.
Sitting on that fence I was overcome by a profound sense of sadness and I remembered that Superman Annual you had written and which I had read a short time earlier. When Kal stops the fluctuations in the crater and descends to think, his gaze lost in space, followed by the anxious eyes of his son Van. The son asks for explanations and looks for a concrete word or gesture which only his father can give. But Kal, on the other hand, feels that everything is unreal, he himself is making contact with what is around him, he can no longer perceive a relationship with the outside world. Just as when one is desperate. And so he feels the world is moving away, although at the same time he is moving away from the world. Does this ever happen to you, Sir Alan? Do you ever get the impression, at times of great difficulty, that you are cut off from everything else? Do you get the impression that the more you try to recapture a rapport, the more it draws away like a floating feather when you try to grab it too violently? Do you never get the impression that you cannot even pronounce a word which comes close to describing all this?

I got down from the fence and returned to the two houses. One facing the other and so different. Yet so dependent one on the other, more so than you perhaps can even imagine. I opened the door of my house and crossed the hall without turning on the light, holding out one hand so as not to run into the door of my room. I opened it banging it against the almost full suitcase which was lying on the ground. I turned on the light. I gave one last look at the notes I had written carefully in pencil on a very long sheet of paper, of the kind they use in printers, and then threw it into the suitcase. I got undressed and sat for a while on the side of the bed stroking my thighs the wrong way up, letting the many little needles wake up and straighten up on my skin. I turned off the light and slept.

I don’t know why I am telling this story of my brief stay only now, Sir Alan. Maybe because it concerns you very closely, maybe because I think you can understand. I hope you will forgive me because, after all, I have neither a face nor a soul. I hope you will forgive me for having allowed myself some boring dissertations, but then the people I used to know always said I was verbose. Ironic isn’t it. After all, it is the people around us who are historians and biographers and, as historians and biographers, give their version of us. Which is the version that lasts in time. Now only a few people surround me, and the things I have told you are perhaps something of a liberation for me. I hope that one day, Mr Moore, you will want to tell the small story of a man who does not exist.

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