There are a few things worth noting before I go on here. I might have mentioned this earlier, through my impressions of the previous chapter but unlike Alan Moore’s previous novel Voice of the Fire, Jerusalem’s chronology isn’t linear. With “ASBOs of Desire” we are now back in 2006, at the same time and similar place to Alma Warren’s art exhibit. The only difference, this time, is that we aren’t dealing with the Warrens or the Vernalls but another character entirely.
ASBOs, or Anti-social behavioural order, were civil orders in the United Kingdom created to prohibit certain persons from returning to particular places, or restrict “disruptive” public behaviour such as swearing, drinking, drug use and similar acts. Usually they weren’t criminal acts in and of themselves, or at least not major actions, but they could be utilized against someone on “basis of evidence.” Presumably, with regards to Marla – the protagonist of this chapter – the ASBO called on her by her by a family that lives in her apartment complex, was done with regards to her prostitution and drug-use.
As someone who doesn’t live, and has never lived, in Britain these orders are strange to me. Anti-social behaviour can cover a large field of actions, and should be considered to be subjective. Moreover, there is something unsettling about someone’s life being monitored by a government due to actions that technically aren’t illegal. It’s made very clear, at least from Marla’s perspective, that the family that reported her is keeping an eye on her and she can’t even bring clients back to her place where she at least has a modicum of safety and control with regards to her sex work.
It’s a difficult subject to discuss as law is also not my background, and there is a loud foreground of anti-sex work sentiment in the world that Marla inhabits at least around the time of 2006, though that hasn’t changed throughout history or even by contemporary standards. There is also the fact that Marla is addicted to smoking crack-cocaine, heroin, or any powerful drug she can get her hands on through her own trade.
At the same time, there are a few of Alan Moore’s ideas working through Marla’s character which are of interest. It seems as though an altered state of consciousness, or insanity, or even existing in a substrata of the lower class gives Alan Moore’s characters in Jerusalem something akin to a sixth sense about their surroundings: about the Burroughs themselves. Mick in the novel’s “Prelude” has two near-death experiences that lead him to running around the Burroughs with a gang of dead children that Marla seems to pick up on later through her own look for work. She sees two sets of feet under a Gate at St. Peter’s Church that turns into only one pair. And there is even one part in her narrative where she seems to meet and interact with an eerie caricature of the poet John Clare, who had his own chapter “The Sun Looks Pale Upon the Wall – AD 1841” in Voice of the Fire and almost a century ago wandered that same place after escaping from an asylum in Essex. She even mentions passing through certain places in the Burroughs, or her friend and former lover Samantha doing the same and experiencing terrible feelings of displacement much in the way that the young man does that Mick meets back in the “Prelude.”
As an interesting aside, Marla comments on the steps seemingly leading to nowhere at St. Peter’s Church. In the London Hollywood interview with Alan Moore conducted by Dominic Wells suggested to me by fellow Sequart writer David Whittaker, Moore actually mentions Philip Dodderidge’s Nonconformist Church with those same steps and he has a brief interchange with a homeless Burroughs resident about it during that same interview: an alcoholic who has also seen some ghosts.
There is also something reminiscent of Voice of the Fire’s chapter “Partners in Knitting – AD 1705” in Marla reminiscing about Samantha. Yet while the supposed witches in “Partners,” while also acting as sex workers burn willingly together and embrace their sexuality and the power behind it (which, in turn, is reminiscent of the “I’ll burn with you” ending to Alan Moore’s LGBTQ prose poem The Mirror of Love), Marla’s memories of her interactions with Samantha are different. There was a power dynamic involved with regards to Samantha and the person who seemed to be their mutual pimp Keith. Many of their sexual encounters were under the influence of drugs and Marla afterwards thinks about how she has a preference towards a certain kind of man.
However, Marla has genuine concern and care for Samantha, especially as the latter was beaten by a client towards near death after soliciting him in his car. The two of them used to live together and talk about Princess Diana, the Jack the Ripper Murders, and even the history of sex work and the Burroughs. Samantha quitting their life and living with her parents really seems to affect Marla badly. She misses her.
This past dynamic ties well into a parallel into another one of Alan Moore’s works From Hell. In Victorian England, the reader gets to see how lower working class women often had to go into sex work in order to survive. There are scenes of them interacting with their fellow women in the profession, living together with them, and living with men – even marrying them – at least partially in order to maintain shelter. Marla herself thinks about her own encounters with sex workers from the 1950s and 60s that live in a certain area in the Burroughs trading stories and information about just how their profession has changed, and remained the same over the years. It also ties into the laws around sex work and ASBOs and just how Marla’s ASBO is just one more factor in making her profession and lifestyle unsafe: how this reflects on long-held attitudes towards women.
It is Marla’s interest in Princess Diana and the Ripper Murders that really get to me. As a child, with a white ethnic heritage from her mother and a black one from her absent father, Marla made art out of Princess Diana – seeing her like many young girls and citizens of Britain – as some idealized form of womanhood and Disney princess. The Ripper Murders are all about the unsolved deaths of sex workers in Victorian London by some unseen murderer, some Destructor lurking in the darkness. Marla, when she tells herself not to solicit a driver in memory of what happened to Samantha and so many of her other fellow sex workers while fighting off the agony of addiction, even ponders about why she’s so transfixed about a subject that deals with the murders of sex working women when she is one: as though she herself is flirting with death.
It’s hard to articulate this subject and the thematic points presented in this chapter. I could talk about how Marla represents a lot of archetypes or stereotypes that Moore uses in his other works. She, like the women in “Partners in Knitting” has something of her own perceived familiar in the form of Ash Moses: a small demon who smells like shit and telling her all the hard truths about herself. When I picture this creature, he reminds me of the Devil from a Punch and Judy puppet show drawn by Dave McKean. She also describes the sensation of drug use, at its height, as something fiery and transcendent – like becoming an angel or God – which echoes the flames of the executed women of “Partners in Knitting.” Marla also sees things others aren’t aware of, and as a female sex worker could represent female sexuality as power that is ritualistically exploited by characters like Sir William Gull in From Hell, or patriarchy, or something disgusting like that.
But there is something really horrible in that moment when Marla comes back from an unsuccessful run at finding a client, realizes that she could convert what she did as an innocent child – making art like she did with Princess Diana’s likeness – only to find it stolen from her. Something in her, perhaps eroded like her missing tooth from all her “sweets” breaks. The whole time she was avoiding soliciting cars, just waiting another day, but she feels the inevitable pull of her addiction to a drug she can’t get anymore, to danger, to death …
Photo Credit: José Antonio Villarrubia
She ends up going outside past an old red house that she knows shouldn’t exist anymore after all the changes in the Burroughs over the years. And then she approaches a car and we, the readers, are left to wonder if her fate is to pursue her profession until she dies of addiction, or if she knows that this might be the violent client, the man, that kills her. Maybe the women in “Partners in Knitting” were different from Marla, but either way – when they live or die – they still seem to burn the same.
I’m not entirely sure what else I can add to this journey, except to say that next time we’re going to see what other restless thoughts in Jerusalem we might find in “Rough Sleepers.”