Archive | December, 2013
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Merry Christmas from Laughin’ Lou Reed

25 Dec

In memory of Lou Reed, here is a charming Christmas-flavoured tale off the White Light/White Heat album, written by Lou in his college days, called The Gift. It’s longish at 8 mins, but repays careful listening to those who don’t already know it. Ho ho ho.

Gay abandonment: Time Out axes LGBT section and editor

20 Dec
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Paul Burston, outgoing LGBT editor of Time Out. Pic: Adrian Lourie.

Bit of a departure today from my usual topic of film. The Media Guardian has just published a short piece of mine about Time Out canning its LGBT listings (The Listings Formerly Known As Gay), along with its editor of the last 20 years, Paul Burston. First, read the piece here.

I also wanted to share with you the story of how Paul got the gig in the first place, a tale of split personalities and being held hostage by Lesbian Avengers…

I employed Paul when I was Editor of Time Out in the ‘90s. The previous Gay Editor, Michael Griffiths, was a lovely man who also doubled as the receptionist. You would know when he fielded a call for the Gay Editor, as he would first answer in his high, lilting, very camp voice, “HelloTimeOut, howmayIhelpyou?” Then: “I’ll just see if he’s in.” He’d put the phone down, inspect his nails, wink at anyone who happened to observe the charade, then pick up the phone again and speak in a deep, butch voice: “Hello, Gay Editor Michael Griffiths here.”

Problem is, Michael was too nice. He gave everything glowing reviews, even when he admitted to me that the play or whatever was awful. “We all have to pull together,” he would say. So when, very sadly, he became too ill with HIV to work, I was determined to employ a trouble-maker, someone who, as in other sections of the magazine, would speak their mind without fear or favour. That man was Paul Burston, and he’s been causing wonderful trouble ever since.

I know this to my cost, as I was once “held hostage” (as the papers later put it) in the Time Out lobby by 20-odd Lesbian Avengers, a group of activists who in 1988 famously broke into the BBC studios and chained themselves to the cameras as Sue Lawley was reading the 6 O’Clock News live on air. The reason was a supposedly “anti-lesbian” piece in Time Out – written in the Gay section, by a gay woman. I came down to hear their concerns and explain why we stood by our story, and they left after half an hour, agreeing to disagree but happy to have had a dialogue.

Paul, as his many friends will know, has become a flamboyant figure, not given to hiding his light under a bushel. Author of several novels, founder of the Polari literary salon which just won LGBT Cultural Event of the Year, prone to photo-shoots in terrific hats and, often, none too many clothes. Yet quick as he usually is to take up arms on issues that affect LGBT readers, he has remained touchingly loyal to Time Out and keen to avoid knocking it, even for cancelling his section.

I, too, am loath to criticise my beloved old mag and the talented and tireless people who still work there following successive waves of cuts; not least CEO Tim Arthur, a second-generation Time Outer whose step-dad was the lovely Comedy editor, Malcolm Hay. Nevertheless, I felt the Guardian piece needed to be said.

Shia LaBeouf’s plagiarism scandal – and how history repeats itself

17 Dec

Yesterday, actor Shia LaBeouf admitted plagiarising a short comic strip by Daniel Clowes. “In my excitement and naiveté as an amateur filmmaker, I got lost in the creative process and neglected to follow proper accreditation,” he Tweeted after Buzzfeed broke the story that his short film HowardCantour.com bore uncanny similarities to Clowes’ Justin M. Damiano, including word-for-word dialogue.

“Im [sic] embarrassed that I failed to credit @danielclowes for his original graphic novella Justin M. Damiano, which served as my inspiration,” he continued, even though in past interviews he gave the distinct impression he had come up with the script himself. He closed with a simple, “I f***ed up.”

People are scratching their heads that he ever thought he could get away with it: Clowes is hardly unknown in Hollywood, having written Ghost World and Art School Confidential. But then again there was a much more extreme case, back in 1990, that I broke while at Time Out.

We’d received a tip-off from a comics fan (Alan Jones, I think) that the forthcoming Brit sci-fi flick Hardware (below left) bore a striking resemblance to a four-page strip in a 2000AD comic (below right). So I set up a classic journalistic sting.

I dug out a copy of the comic from my boxes (finally, a purpose for my hoarding!), and wrote out a synopsis of the strip, which was about a killer robot accidentally activated inside a home. I told our Sidelines editor, Alix Sharkey, to call the producer of Hardware and say that we were planning a story on the film, but wanted to make sure we had the story down correctly.

He then read out my synopsis of the comic strip. Throughout, the producer went uh-huh, yep, that’s the plot of our film all right, until the end when he said there were a few extra minutes Alix had missed out. Only then did Alix tell him he’d just agreed that Hardware was exactly the same plot as a comic strip. A long, lo-o-o-o-ong pause ensued. Then: “Can I get back to you on that?”

I later heard from the strip’s writer, Steve MacManus, that he and artist Kevin O’Neill were subsequently offered a cash settlement (way too low in my opinion given that Miramax were involved in the film, but Steve seemed delighted), plus a credit, which you’ll still see on IMDB. Writer/director Richard Stanley, a known comics fan, was even vaguer in his apologies than LaBeouf: “The story came to me in a dream,” he insisted, and even in a recent 2009 interview he downplayed the connection.

But we know better, Richard… and so, bizarrely, should La Beouf, who is one of Hollywood’s biggest actors – even if not, apparently, one of its biggest thinkers.

Alan Moore channels David Lynch in his film debut

9 Dec

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Siobhan Hewlett as Faith in Alan Moore and Mitch Jenkins’s first short, Act Of Faith

 

The films made from Alan Moore’s comics range from the terrible, bearing no relation to the original beyond a shared premise (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Constantine), to the not-at-all-bad-but-the-best-bits-are-lifted-straight-from-the-comic-so-what’s-the-point? (V for Vendetta, Watchmen). So it’s fascinating to see how Moore approaches writing for the screen himself.

I thought we’d never get the chance: even before he fell out terminally with Hollywood, back in 2002, I asked him to rate his five favourite art forms; cinema did not make the cut. But recently at the Prince Charles Cinema, following a fascinating interview (click here for the highlights), Alan Moore staged a screening of the first two of five projected linked shorts. His reluctant celebrity status has worked to his advantage this time: the fifth and final short recently raised £60,000 on Kickstarter — £15,000 more than they asked for, and many times the budget of most shorts (though a lot of it will go on the Kickstarter perks of T-shirts, DVDs and books).

For me, part of the interest is that both Alan Moore and the director, photographer Mitch Jenkins, are new to film. Both were quite upfront about this at the Prince Charles. “I’d never seen a film script before I got Alan’s,” said Mitch Jenkins. “Since I’d never seen one before writing one, I’m not sure you have even now,” quipped Alan Moore.

How would they fare, free of the “tyranny” of script structure classes and Save The Cat books?

The first short, Act of Faith, is an uncomfortable watch which has already provoked heated debate online about its sexual politics. [SPOILER WARNING: major plot points ahoy. But as you will likely see these two films only when all five are completed, I feel this only gives away the beginning.] A woman, Faith (Siobhan Hewlett), arranges to meet her lover, talking dirty on the phone. We follow her with almost painful slowness as she undresses and dons “slutty” clothes. She places plastic in her mouth, handcuffs herself inside a wardrobe, and settles down to wait…

… until her phone rings: her lover is frantic; delayed by an accident, he can’t get there in time. She wakes up to the danger, too late – and we watch as slowly, helplessly, handcuffed, she suffocates, alone.

It’s especially uncomfortable because for much of the 15-minute short the camera does not show things from her POV: we see her from behind, as passive voyeurs, then peering in at her from outside the wardrobe, unable or unwilling to step in and help her. It’s uncomfortable, too, because there is no clear message. Does she “deserve” to die for being (her words) a “slut”? Is she a damaged individual, showing how a cycle of abuse is endlessly self-perpetuated? Does the film demonstrate that the supposed feminine empowerment behind sexual experimentation can too easily turn to victimhood? Is this is a reactionary message in liberal (un)clothing?

Perhaps all will become clearer in subsequent films. But it’s more likely that Moore sees his role as a writer to pose the questions, not to come up with the answers. Certainly he’s a purist: “I have a kind of Khmer Rouge, Year Zero approach to film-making,” Alan Moore said at the Prince Charles screening. “Nothing which isn’t real, no special effects.” And, as he’s pointed out elsewhere, no non-diagetic sound, ie that the characters themselves can’t hear.

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Jimmy’s End. “I do quite like David Lynch,” says Alan Moore.

The second short, Jimmy’s End, is at over 30 minutes more artistically successful and more cinematically ambitious. A silver-haired gent finds himself in a strange bar in a strange part of town. It’s quickly apparent to the viewer, though not yet to Jimmy, that this is hell, or at least Limbo. “I never knew this was here,” he tells the barmaid. “Yes, you did,” she says, significantly.

The sound engineering is brilliant, with distorted jukebox music and endlessly ringing phones creating an unbearable tension as Jimmy wanders corridors graffitied with magical sigils, encountering a series of laconic weirdos – notably a threatening-looking clown who tells him, by the urinals: “I don’t tell jokes anymore. I just masturbate and cry. Usually at the same time.”

Faith, the woman from the first film, is here, too, in reluctant thrall to a devil figure, and Alan Moore himself makes a spectacular appearance as a god figure, in gold boots and white trousers, his gold-painted face haloed with frizzed-up white hair like Aslan gone Elvis, or a 60-year-old version of The Teletubbies’ sun-baby.

If there is a problem with Jimmy’s End (and there is), it’s that it’s not so much a homage to David Lynch as a wholesale steal.  Alan Moore made light of this: “I do quite like David Lynch,” he said at the screening, “however I would have to say the red curtains were Mitch’s idea. And the only film I can think of without any curtains is perhaps One Million Years B.C.

It’s not just the curtains, though, that recall David Lynch: it’s the eerie soundscapes; the latent menace; the gallery of grotesques; the slow pace and long takes; the red, red lipstick; and the very idea of vaguely cabaret-style waiting rooms that are suggestive of the supernatural.

Ah well. There are worse people to copy. And if you are going to make your film debut, why not dream big, and cut straight to kinky sex, death, and the afterlife? 

Alan Moore: my ‘lost’ interview on books, magic, tattoos and the source of ideas

4 Dec
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Alan Moore: “I was a mere amateur in lunacy back then”

Following on from my last Alan Moore blog, I simply haven’t time to write up Alan Moore’s film screenings. So for now, here’s one I prepared earlier. It was my fourth interview with Alan Moore, done shortly before his 50th birthday. It’s a goodie. Besides, given Alan Moore’s concept of time, it’s still happening right now…

And here’s the kicker. As you’ll see below, Alan Moore loves coincidences — which he doesn’t quite believe are coincidences, more cross-temporal echoes. Well, the place I chose to conduct the interview in, some years before he began the magnum opus novel which has now ended up ‘bigger than the Bible and I hope more socially useful’, was a bar near Tottenham Court Road called… Jerusalem. [Cue Twilight Zone doo-dee-doo-doo theme music.]

“I continually monitor the possibility that I might be going mad,” said Alan Moore when I last interviewed him in 1996, on publication of his first “proper” novel.

Reminded of this now [that is, in Nov 2002 when this piece first appeared], Moore chuckles into his beard: “Oh, I’ve gone much madder in the last six years, though my ideas have become more sophisticated. Yes, I was a mere amateur in lunacy then …”

If an author tells you that he has become a magician (think Aleister Crowley rather than Paul Daniels) and is worshipping a second-century Roman snake God, you do begin to wonder about his state of mind. But no one could question Moore’s success. Seldom straying from his home in Northampton, he works on eight comic titles at once; his Jack the Ripper saga From Hell was turned into a movie starring Johnny Depp; his latest,The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, is now filming, with Sean Connery heading a £60 million production.

This last began when Moore, who redefined the superhero genre in 1986 with Watchmen, was struck by its 19th century roots: Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde was clearly the model for The Incredible Hulk, while The Invisible Man could have joined The Fantastic Four. He conceived of a team of heroes in an alternate Victorian universe in which those two fought alongside Alan Quatermain (from King Solomon’s Mines), Captain Nemo (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) and Mina Harker (Dracula), with the film version adding a grown-up Tom Sawyer for American audiences. “There was a point in the first issue when I had just had Zola’s Nana murdered by Stevenson’s Hyde on Poe’s Rue Morgue when I realised just how much fun it could be pulling down the picket fences between various fictional realities.”

So ripping a yarn indeed, that a producer sold it to 20th Century Fox on the premise alone, before a word had been written. Moore’s black humour is unlikely to survive the transition to celluloid, so do not expect to see Connery playing Quatermain as an ineffectual junkie, nor the Invisible Man living it up as the “Holy Spirit” to a dormitory full of miraculously pregnant young girls. And as always with Moore, there are layers within layers to which a film cannot begin to do justice.

While the question “where do your ideas come from?” gets short shrift from most authors, to Moore it is “the only question worth asking.” Six years ago he was toying with the notion of “Idea Space”, a literal pool of shared concepts into which a correctly attuned artist could dip. Now he is beginning to map it.

“This planet has a physical geography with which we have already familiarised ourselves. But since the dawn of the first stories, there is a fictional geography, where the gods and demons live. We have created this big imaginary planet that is a counterpart to our own; and in some cases these places are more familiar to us than the real ones.”

Moore is intrigued by the notion that stories, and past events, can leave a physical trace. His insanely ambitious 1996 novel, Voice of the Fire, was contained geographically within a ten-mile radius of Northampton, with each chapter set in a different century, from Stone Age to present, and each written in a style suited to the time. It so happened that the final chapter featured a dog trotting about with a decapitated head in its jaws; eerily, soon after he wrote that passage, this actually occurred near by. At the time he wondered whether he had intuited the future event, or somehow willed it into existence (coincidence does not seem an option). What does he believe now? “Probably both. Ultimately I couldn’t say. I don’t think time is as we see it, and that means cause and effect are different from the way we see it.”

Moore can discourse at length on the convergence of modern scientific beliefs and ancient intuitions. In the end, he believes, magic is simply the creation of something out of nothing: be it rabbits from a hat, a plot idea from a blank sheet of paper — or the universe from a quantum vacuum. But it is also about individuality: he has no desire to convert anyone else to so “manifestly preposterous” a practice as worshipping a snake god. As an anarchist, a political persuasion that he stresses is simply about taking personal responsibility, he equates organised religion with fascism — both involve abandoning your personal responsibility to the group.

Add to this his penchant for getting together with other like-minded souls to perform magical music and rituals — to some critical acclaim, in the case of his channelling of Blake at the Tate Britain last year — and you have not just one of the most singular creative minds around, but also a close candidate for Britain’s most embarrassing dad.

“Only as much as they embarrass me,” he quips when asked what his daughters make of it all. “No, we get on great, I’m immensely proud of them. Leah, who’s 24, has just started some comic writing. Amber, who’s 21, just finished her computer studies degree and is now working as a bouncer in Hull.”

So she must have inherited the imposing paternal stature? “That, and lots of piercings and tattoos. And some entirely gratuitous spiral white contact lenses. I have no tattoos of my own, but unlike Ozzy Osbourne, have no problem with my daughters getting them.”

He may dress like a roadie discovered during a rock band’s tour of the Himalayan snowline, but Moore is a softie really: considerate, soft-spoken, preternaturally articulate. Not one’s stereotype of a practitioner of the Arcane Arts. “I’m with Austin Osman Spare,” says Moore. “When people asked him if he was a black or a white magician, he replied: ‘Magic is colourful’. There is a Satanism in which heavy metal bands looked for darkness, for cheap notoriety. My involvement with the occult is not about darkness, but about illumination. “I don’t sacrifice many goats,” adds Moore, wryly. “As a vegetarian, that would feel kind of wrong.”

Moore is exploring some of these themes in a comic series called Promethea, and hopes soon to expand on them in book form — without the drawings, that is. Comics, it transpires, are only his second-favourite art form: literature is his first love, current reads being Donna Tartt, Tom Spanbauer, Michel Chabon and his friend Iain Sinclair. The cinema does not even make his top five.

“Literature is the highest possible technology,” he enthuses. “It’s virtual reality right there: 26 letters rearranged in certain forms which, when decoded by the average human mind, can recreate a complete wraparound 3-D environment.” Sadly, however, it does not pay the rent. Voice of the Fire earned him just £15,000 for five years’ work. Comics are a little more lucrative, especially with the movie deals thrown in (“The Invisible Man doll is the piece of merchandising we’re really going to make a profit with,” he deadpans).

One reason for his tremendous work rate is so that he can be in a position to semi-retire in a year, and write only what pleases him. He will be 50 years old. In the meantime, he continues to get some of his incredible ideas from the snake god Glycon, and some from a couple of other gods, such as Mercury, who he speaks to at times. He is not remotely fussed about whether anyone else buys into this as reality, reality being overrated anyway, but this is his take on reality, and it produces results. And can you offer a more sensible explanation for that flash of inspiration that seems to come from nowhere?

This interview first appeared in The Times in November 2002. For more on Moore’s movies, click here.

Ten Things We Learned From Alan Moore Last Week

2 Dec
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Alan Moore at the Prince Charles cinema last week

In the 25 years since I first interviewed him, Alan Moore has progressed from indifference to Hollywood to outright hostility. He used to entertain bewildered execs to a coffee or pizza at his Northampton local before politely sending them back to LA. He was happy to meet Terry Gilliam to give him his advice on how he would adapt Watchmen. [His advice, distilled: “I wouldn’t.”]

He was relatively sanguine about the adaptation of From Hell starring Johnny Depp, but The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen tipped him over the edge. Not only was it, to use the technical film term, a heap of steaming ordure, it landed Moore in court for ten hours of testimony on a plagiarism charge. The alleged plagiarism concerned elements in the film script that were absent from the graphic novel, and the case was settled out of court, but Moore was scarred by the experience. He insisted on removing his name from subsequent films such as V for Vendetta and Watchmen, and donated all payments to his artist co-creators.

So it’s quite a turnaround to see him associated with not just one, but two film projects.

The first is a graphic novelisation of Fashion Beast, a screenplay commissioned from Moore by Malcolm McLaren in the ‘80s. The second is a series of interlinked short films, the first two of which were shown last week at a Q&A session at London’s Prince Charles cinema. I’ll talk about the films in a subsequent post, but first, let’s hear from the man himself.

Resplendent in a purple velvet jacket, as articulate as ever and twice as funny, Alan Moore talked about immortality, magic and pornography… and sang us a song about “Alan Moore, Hitler and God”. So here are the ten things we learned from Alan Moore:

Image1. He’s written a new 24-page Bojeffries Saga set under Gordon Brown’s government, out in February.The Bojeffries Saga was always special to me, it was actually about something really close to my heart, which is how extraordinary working-class life is. Or mine, anyway. You see these factories with strange names and blue shavings that smell funny and do things like light filliping, and you think, what is that? Is that a thing? And even the people working there don’t seem to know. [NB: Moore himself once worked in a slaughterhouse.] The streets where I live are much stranger than anything I could write.”

2. It’s all about place. “These days I think it’s all about place. The writers I like best are focusing on where they are. Even HP Lovecraft, who I’m very involved with at the moment – I’m walled in by his books like in The Cask of Amontillado –  was obsessed by place, trying to express the New England he saw around him.”

3. Why adults like comics. “I know there were these newspaper articles in the ‘80s saying ‘Bam! Sock! Pow! Comics have grown up!’ No they didn’t. They met the emotional age of the people, coming the other way. We are not designed to take complexity like the world is now; I can understand why people want to retreat from it to the things they enjoyed as children, in simpler times. But it’s not good for culture. Also I just hate to see people having a good time!” [laughter]

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Doc Manhattan in Watchmen: precursor to Alan Moore’s current theories on immortality

4. We are all immortal. “I’m on the last three pages of my novel, Jerusalem, and then I have the epilogue to write. It’s really, really, big, somewhere over half a million words, bigger than the Bible and I hope more socially useful. But the main reason you should have a look at it is that it completely solves the minor problem of death. You’re welcome.

“When I turned 50, I could no longer kid myself I’m a third of the way through my life, so I started thinking about this. And simply put, it’s the idea that we are living in a universe of at least four dimensions. You have a block universe, a solid chunk of space-time, in which everybody’s lives are imbedded forever. There’s a lively quote from Einstein I’ve only recently come across, where he’s consoling the widow of a fellow physician. Einstein said, ‘Death isn’t a big problem to us scientists. We understand the persistent illusion of transience.’ Which is lovely, isn’t it.”

[Note: I’m sure I told Moore about this Einstein quote when discussing Voice Of The Fire some years ago; it’s something my mathematician brother told me way back when, though he relayed it to me as, “Your wife is still alive, but in the past”. I also don’t think what Moore said at the Prince Charles fully explains his thinking – he told me before that it’s to do with perception: time is constant and immutable, it’s only our perception of it that makes it seem linear. His line of thinking seems to me presaged way back in Watchmen by Doc Manhattan, who breaks that linearity and can perceive all time at once.]

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Glycon: illustration by Alan Moore, 1994

5. Why he started worshipping a snake-god called Glycon. “The standard approach to consciousness is that it doesn’t exist because science cannot explain it. It’s annoying for scientists to have everything in the universe worked out apart from the very phenomenon they are using to explain these things! Science cannot approach this, so art is a better tool. And then why limit yourself to the sterile and barren perception of consciousness that science can formulate?

“Magic is a different approach to consciousness: the rituals are ways of organising certain conscious experiences. Gods and entities don’t exist in the same physical way that we do, but by treating those concepts as if they exist, we may be reaching some part of our psyche we have not previously had access to. And if that’s all magic is, it’s still pretty good.

“I felt I’d more or less exhausted what I could do with my work while remaining in the boundaries of strict rationality. If I was to go further, I would have to break through into some new territory, and connect up with some writers I really admired who seemed to be visionaries, constructing a reality more real than the reality around us. William Blake was writing this symbolic material in a totally private language to try to illuminate the world that surrounds him.

“One problem with art at the moment as I see it is there is nothing visionary, nothing magical, nothing of the numinous. I believe art is magic and magic is art. If artists saw themselves as magicians, they might do something with real force and meaning, rather than sorry conceptualist stuff, which is empty.

“Conversely, if some of the magic orders around today regarded what they did as art, there might actually be some point to their existence.”

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Far from getting Alan Moore locked up, Lost Girls got him on The Simpsons.

6. Lost Girls, his pornographic graphic novel featuring Dorothy from Oz, Wendy from Neverland and Alice from Wonderland, had the opposite effect from that intended: it finally made him “respectable” in the national press. “I thought, ‘Why haven’t they hung us? Why are we still at liberty? What are we paying our taxes for?’ Though I didn’t really want to go to prison. I’m kind of the pretty one.”

7. For someone who’s against “culling the disabled”, Moore is not very kind about Gordon Brown’s disability. “There was some sort of petition to get me one, and I said of course I wouldn’t accept an Honour, and definitely not from a bipolar Cyclops. And that was from a Labour government. I certainly couldn’t from this government. It’s old-fashioned of me, but I kind of think culling the disabled is wrong. To accept an award would be condoning the behaviour of the people who gave it to you.”

8. His many comic awards are now in the bin. “My Mum saw that and said, ‘No, you can’t throw them out’, so she took them in briefly; then she gored herself on one and that was that.”

9. Alan Moore wants to star in a kids’ cartoon. “I’ve always said Northampton is the centre of the universe. Hitler’s invasion plan ended with the capture of Northampton. Also God directed his angels there in the eighth century. So I thought we could all be in a kids’ TV cartoon series called The Dream Team. I even wrote the theme song [singing]:

“Alan Moore, Hitler and God,

Though their friendship may seem odd,

One made space-time, one hates Jews,

One wrote some comics that got reasonable reviews.

Though their friendship may seem weird,

One has a moustache, two have a beard,

One’s a Nazi and one made Hell…

And Hitler and God probably did something as well.”

[Someone has now put the sound-file of Moore singing up on YouTube, here.]

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10. Moore actually plays God in his recent short film. See my next blog post for more on that….

Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore, by Lance Parkin, is out now on Aurum Press (£20, or £11 on Amazon). 

For an interview with Alan Moore on books, magic and where ideas come from, click here. For a review of his shorts, plus comments on them from Moore, click here