In “Modern Times” we don’t get any answers to the previous chapter, or even new questions about the things that we already know. One hazard in writing these “reader impressions” of mine for each chapter of Jerusalem is that I’m afraid of becoming repetitive. And the reason for this concern is quite simple: Alan Moore writes repetitively. There is a reoccurring theme that exists throughout the narrative of the novel and it all goes back to Northampton being embodied by, or affecting the people of that land.
In the case of Oatsie however, whose nickname is Sir Francis Drake, and who is actually called Charles Junior, we find an Englishman who wants to leave Northampton and England itself. He is an actor existing around the early twentieth century, right during the time when rumours of World War I were already coming to the fore.
Oatsie is an actor that plays primarily on the vaudeville circuit, but his main role is that of a character he likes to call The Inebriate. Mostly, Oatsie is trying to find his way in the early twentieth century, improving his craft, and his financial chances as an actor. He has had a difficult early life. He and his half-brother Sydney were in and our of workhouses as their mother’s fortunes waxed and waned along with her mental health. For the most part they grew up on the streets of Lambton among vicious street gangs while performing for their lives.
One of Oatsie’s most poignant memories was meeting his father for the last time. They had not been close, but he sees him at a bar and hugs him for the first and only time. Not long afterwards Charles Senior dies from a lifetime of alcohol abuse. Oatsie, for all of his young and affectionately rakish behaviour by the time of the current narrative mourns his parents while being afraid of becoming his father, a failed alcoholic actor, and his mother.
But more than that is the fact for a time he and his acting troupe had actually gone to France. They seemed to be going places. He seemed to be moving on in life: only to have to return to England the small town of Northampton in which he currently finds himself. It is a major, and very relatable step back for him. This twenty year old actor is also dealing with the changes of a new century and attempting to move away from the past, to not get captured by it, so that he can have a chance in the future.
Oatsie is very aware of his lower class beginnings and is constantly dealing with imposter syndrome, of seeming emotionally weak or vulnerable around others, and the insecurity of possibly having a better future taken away from him.
There are some nice intertextual and novel echoes in this chapter as well. At one point, to further hone his role and basically to cause mischief, Oatsie decides to put on his Inebriate persona and stagger towards a horse and waggon in “Phipps livery.” This, of course, hearkens back to the last chapter of Voice of the Fire entitled “Phipps’ Fire Escape.” Pickering Phipps was head of the Phipps Brewery in Bridge Street, Northampton who ultimately became Mayor, Justice of the Peace, and MP of his home as well as the creator of a space of a housing estate called Phippsville. According to Alan Moore, his Phippsville along with four churches – including St. Matthews Church – was his attempt to buy absolution in the afterlife for “selling sin” and making alcoholics of his workers.
While Oatsie’s pretend drunk persona actually startles the driver and waggon away, it is also worth mentioning that Oatsie does take the time to meditate on the nature of Northampton itself. He thinks about how up until the latter part of nineteenth century, the time in which he was born and growing up, people didn’t really leave the parts of the land where they were born. You could see the same person tramping through their familiar route over and again. Even that person’s descendants could be travelling the same path as their ancestor. Organic time and feudalism go hand and hand before the spread of industrial modernity overwriting them. At the same time, however, Oatsie entertains the feeling of there being a map – albeit a larger one with symbols and writing that couldn’t be understood by an ordinary human being – that you can read in Northampton making up itself, and the people in it being a part of it. It’s the idea of having the town engraved in its inhabitants all over again and going back to Voice of the Fire’s “The Cremation Fields” and “Phipps’ Fire Escape.”
Oatsie is already discomforted with the fact that he might be stuck here, his fate already decided like the engraving of the town in the blood of its people, his class always keeping him “in his place,” but it isn’t until he meets May Warren that he is given another lesson. It’s easy to forget who May Warren actually is. We, the reader, have actually met her before: or at the very least made her acquaintance through Alma.
May Warren, born May Vernall, also came from Lambton. She is the granddaughter of Ernest from “A Host of Angles,” the daughter of Snowy and the grandmother of Mick and Alma Warren. She was actually mentioned in “Work in Progress” as a roaming “deathmonger” of Green Street: a terrifying stout old woman who dwelt in the Fish Market and dealt with “laying out” and “preparing” the dead. She is referred to by her family as “mean and ogress-like” and local legends stated she was born in the gutters of Lambeth Walk.
Page Twelve of Jerusalem talks briefly about the Vernall and even some of the Warren family lines and it is easy to forget these details if you are not paying attention. But the person talked about in “A Work in Progress,” May Warren, is very different from the old woman she becomes later in life. She is a young twenty year old red-headed woman carrying her daughter and namesake May. The two of them actually make the acquaintance of Oatsie as he is hanging out on the road.
For lack of a better term, after Oatsie is captivated by the beauty of May and her golden-haired baby, he is utterly terrified of her insight. She knows his real name, who his brother is, the gang he hang out with, and everything. Of course, after stringing him mischievously along with her supposed psychic powers May relents and tells him that she remembers him from Lambeth: hitting home the fact that people up until this century didn’t generally leave far from where they were born.
But then May goes further. She tells him the history of the venue he’s been playing at for most of his life off and on. It turns out that the Palace of Varieties has been many other places over the years and she goes into detail about what each of them were called. This feeling of impermanence of place along with the realization that spaces will long outlive the people in them disorients Oatsie a great deal. It is very similar to how Alan Moore, in “Phipps’ Fire Escape” outlines the layers of Northampton that he researched and travelled to explore the organic nature of Voice of the Fire.
Not long after this, he tells May to take care of her daughter and namesake. Perhaps there is some foreshadowing here. Oatsie takes a great deal of time to think about just how perfect and angelic the young May’s beauty is and how it doesn’t fit this place. He thinks about how it will shine out. We know from page twelve that May herself, the baby’s mother, has many children. Does something happen to the younger May that changes her mother later on?
And while the former may well be a red-herring, there are some concluding thoughts to consider. Oatsie sees May as being content with where she is. A part of him feels sorry for her and her daughter in that they don’t have the resources to rise above their class or station. At the same time, he envies them: in that May herself seems perfectly at home with living where she is and with the life she has, with being a part of Northampton, whereas he is completely afraid of being tied down and brought low again.
But I think the mastery of this chapter is after May and her daughter take their leave. Oatsie goes back to his venue to prepare for his role as The Inebriate. He has only partially begun the process of transformation before finding his dressing room, such as it is. It’s here that you see the irony of Oatsie’s life. He has always been running from 1895, where he was in a workhouse, his mother in the process of losing her faculties, and his father slowly dying of alcoholism. But at the same time, for all he tells himself not to dwell on that past so he can rise beyond it, he always faces it again. He faces it by taking on the role of The Inebriate, with all of his mannerisms and staggering borrowed from what he’d seen of his own father.
The chapter ends with Oatsie finishing up his makeup, stripping away his youth, to parade around not just the caricature of his father and the nineteenth century, but also the spectre of Northampton. This is the heart of “Modern Times.” The irony is that Oatsie uses the past, commodifying it and wearing it to entertain the present in a strange ritual pantomime. There is something of modernity here in selling the past, even one’s personal past, to make something of a future for one’s self. He is, simultaneously, selling himself and his life, but also continuing the tradition of the hobman or shaman Olun from Voice of the Fire’s “Cremation Fields” in etching the past onto himself – the power of the land’s past in the form of a slapstick buffoon – to confront the uncertainty of the future. If slapstick was once a ritual of self-flagellation than The Inebriate is arguably Oatsie’s exorcism of his demons, the nineteenth century, and the patterns of the lower class in England and Northampton.
In a way, Oatsie serves as a fictional shadow and almost a self-parody of what Alan Moore did with Voice of the Fire, and Jerusalem by embodying Northampton. Remember what I said about repetition. “Phipps’ Fire Escape” is coming up a lot in looking at this chapter and Alan Moore even writes something to the effect of having the town carry the weight of his words, whereas here we see Oatsie doing the opposite. Acting and drama are descended from religion and ritual and channeling the past.
I was originally concerned that this might be one chapter that I couldn’t actually say much about. But there was something else that bothered me about it. It had to do with Oatsie himself. Sure enough, I looked up Northampton, Oatsie’s brother Sydney, and Oatsie’s real name Charles. And I even before I did that, I already figured out who Oatsie actually is. I remembered some of the interviews and talk about Jerusalem that Alan Moore had done. He mentions that a few historical personages would have chapters in his book. And Oatsie is one of them: namely, the black and white silent film comedian star Charlie Chaplin.
Talk about playing with shadows.
It’s funny because I only realized it after I finished “Modern Times.” Perhaps in doing so I can relate more to the next chapter of Jerusalem “Blind, But Now I See.”