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Bunker TalesAuthor: Simon Sellars • May 23rd, 2008 •
Further to yesterday’s post on Lord Horror, I urge you to follow it up with a reading of this interview with Britton and Butterworth over at Reality Studio. It’s about the Savoy duo’s meeting with Burroughs in 1979 and is in two parts, the first conducted by Sarajane Inkster in 1997 and the second following up that theme — Burroughs/Britton/Butterworth — from March this year with Keith Seward.
It’s full of fabulous detail. Britton and Butterworth’s admiration for the great man is etched into every word:
Butterworth: His best poetic writing, especially his depiction of things gone, in broken, fragmented images — a yearning for the absolute, and at the same time an intense sadness or grief for man’s inability to attain ’something’ lost — produces an acute nagging pain inside me. It is like the worst love sickness, a terrible ache in the stomach, a feeling of fragility. I sense his loss, his fear. I pick it up off him like a worrying parent does off a child. Of course, if his writing did just this, that would not make it great. What makes it great is the way he is able to use this peculiarly intense emotion to describe reality, unbearable beauty and awfulness of the universe, of distant galaxies as well as the human life processes.
Indeed, Burroughs remains an endlessly fascinating character after all this time. I enjoyed the descriptions of his home, aptly dubbed “The Bunker”:
Britton: My memories of William Burroughs at that date are mixed up today with the images you see of him on film. You know — “Did I really meet him, or was it the dream celluloid Burroughs who sat opposite drinking tea?” However, I do remember thinking that the Bunker was definitely an extension of Burroughs’ personality. Burroughs added ambience to the place, which was an old gymnasium — the sort you would see depicted in gangster films set in the Brooklyn of the ’30s, where Pat O’Brien plays the honest priest, and all his young punks are working up a sweat in the gym — Huntz Hall, Leo Gorcey, etc. You could just see Burroughs as the Daddy, The Bowery Daddy, and the Dead-End Kids as his private street gang. Even their name sounds like one of his creations.
There was a flight of long stairs up to the Bunker which was a long room with a couple of side-rooms and a kitchen. I remember the “john” — a partitioned-off area with a row of old-fashioned tiled urinals, which had the sort of sleazy sex connotations you would expect of Burroughs’ living quarters.
Butterworth: There were no windows. It was where Burroughs lived, slept and worked — like a bunker.
I wasn’t aware that Savoy had planned on publishing Burroughs until I read this, missing out on the deal after the cops rained down heavy on them. Savoy has definitely had more than its share of bad times:
Unknown to them in 1979 — the time of their visit to the Bunker — they were soon to be dealt a body blow. Returning to England, after successfully contracting to publish the paperback edition of [Burroughs’] Cities of the Red Night, Savoy was hit by the first of three big raids. (Two other raids, in 1989 and 1990, concerned the publication of their novel Lord Horror and various graphic works.) Led by “God’s Cop” Police Chief Constable James Anderton, this raid was a co-ordinated simultaneous swoop on their main retail and publishing premises, and almost achieved the intention of shutting down their company. It was the culmination of many smaller raids. In total, hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of stock were seized and not returned, including Savoy-published titles by Samuel Delany, Charles Platt, and Jack Trevor Story. At the same time, an unrelated action by the Times Mirror Organisation in America dealt a body blow to the publishing house New American Library. This had a knock-on effect on Savoy’s distributor-publishers, New English Library, who went into liquidation. Savoy was forced into temporary bankruptcy in 1981, and in 1982 David Britton was jailed — the first of two jail sentences connected with his publishing which he had to endure. Savoy lost Cities to another publisher.
It strikes me on reading this passage that the police — via this and further raids on Savoy — rather than suppressing the message of Lord Horror, actually proved its thesis, for these are the actions of a fascist state apparatus by any other name. In fact, I am struck by the number of works that paint England in this light, sort of like Philip K. Dick’s alternate-history classic The Man in the High Castle applied over and over to the British Isles instead of the US: the Allies lost, the Nazis won, they are here in your backyard and you don’t even know it. Let’s see, what have we? It Happened Here; Privilege; A Clockwork Orange; Children of Men; V for Vendetta; and Lord Horror, towering above all.
Aside from that I was heartened by the interview, with Britton and Butterworth, these apparent scourges of the English way of life, admitting to a bad case of nerves upon meeting Burroughs, the Literary Outlaw himself. I know how they feel. When I interviewed Ballard in 2006, although it was over the phone I was sick with worry, chiefly about matching wits with someone of his calibre and falling woefully short of the mark (at the time I put on a bit of bravado and bluster to anyone who asked me about the interview, so it’s only now I can reveal the truth!). I’ve never been one to put artists of any sort on pedestals and I’ve never really had a hero of any kind, unless you count Peter Shilton, Kenny Burns and John Robertson in the 1980 European Cup Final, but Ballard’s work changed my worldview a long time ago. In this respect I can only concur with Butterworth:
Regardless of what you manage to take away intellectually, you get something else off these great people. As Andy Warhol once said, it’s best you DON’T KNOW THEM in any way, because that way they still have an aura to touch you with.
Butterworth also talks of meeting Ballard at a New Worlds party, but he froze:
I went to several of the parties, unfortunately not the ones Burroughs attended. I lived too far away to go to more than a few, and only learned afterwards in agonised constriction that Burroughs had been to the ones I missed. Jimmy Ballard attended some, so it’s very likely he met him there.
My memories (as a 20-year-old) of Ballard are frustrating. I didn’t know what to say to him, even though he was there in front of me at a party and was talking to me and only me. By the time I met Burroughs I was twelve years older and had brought Dave as cover, so got slightly more out of that.
Butterworth also tells the story of how Burroughs was introduced to Arthur C. Clarke by Mike Moorcock, which ended with them getting along famously. I’ve always loved the delicious image of Clarke attending New Worlds parties amidst all these young rebels, and especially so after reading Moorcock’s piece on Clarke in the Guardian earlier this year:
I was a very young journalist of 17 or so when Arthur C. Clarke invited me to celebrate his birthday before he returned to Ceylon, where he had recently settled… A bottle in my pocket, I knocked at the door to be greeted by Fred. “It’s round the corner,” he said. “I’m just off there myself.” He turned a thoughtful eye on the bottle. “I don’t think you’ll need that.”
Promising, I thought. Ego (Arthur’s nickname since youth) has laid everything on… we arrived at a church and one of those featureless halls of the kind where the Scouts held their regular meetings. Sure enough, inside was a group of mostly stunned friends and acquaintances holding what appeared to be teacups, one of which was shoved into my hand as I was greeted by Arthur in that Somerset-American accent that was all his own. “Welcome,” he said. “Got everything you want?”
“Um,” I stammered. “Is there only tea?”
“Of course not!” beamed the mighty intelligence, who had already published the whole concept of satellite communications on which our modern world is based.
“There’s orange juice, too.”
Read the rest of the Britton/Butterworth chat over at Reality Studio. It’s good stuff.
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