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“Driven by Anger”: An Interview with Michael Butterworth (the Savoy interviews, part 1)Author: Mike Holliday • Nov 5th, 2009 •
Michael Butterworth in the Savoy office, 1998 (photo by Ben Blackall).
Interview by Mike Holliday.
This is the first of a proposed 3-interview series. Parts 2 and 3, featuring David Britton and John Coulthart, will discuss Savoy’s musical, spoken word and visual/comics/graphics output. To coincide with this series, please enter the Savoy Books Microfiction competition! Win super-rare Savoy books, comic books and CDs by writing a short story of 100 words or less on ‘Savoyesque’ or ‘Ballardian’ themes. Details here.
Savoy Books, which bills itself as “England’s only truly alternative and autotelic publishing company”, was started by David Britton and Michael Butterworth in 1976. For more than 30 years, Savoy have published books based on the sole criterion of admiration for the content or the author, and their roster includes many writers who appeared alongside Ballard in the heady days of New Worlds magazine — Michael Moorcock, Harlan Ellison, Charles Platt, Samuel R. Delany, Langdon Jones, and M. John Harrison.
By 1980, Savoy were publishing almost 20 titles a year and would surely have been a good match as a publisher of Ballard, but alas it was not to be. Savoy had the bad luck to be based in Manchester, whose Chief Constable — ‘God’s Cop’, James Anderton — had the looks of a biblical prophet and was prone to righteous denunciation of what he saw as good, old fashioned sin. Helping to fund Savoy’s publishing were a string of bookshops, and these quickly became a target for Manchester’s Vice Squad, suffering more than fifty raids over a period of 20 years, during which time David Britton served two sentences in Strangeways prison for selling obscene publications. By 1981 the combined effect of the police raids and the collapse of a distribution agreement had forced Savoy’s publishing business into liquidation, just as they were planning a U.K. paperback edition of William Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night.
LEFT: David Britton.
Whilst Ballard was being embraced by the mainstream following Empire of the Sun, Savoy were moving in the opposite direction, becoming near-untouchable mavericks of the publishing world. By 1984, Britton and Butterworth had entered what they termed their ‘moral ambiguity’ phase, and Savoy had transmuted into a rather different creature, concentrating for the next ten years or so on records — many featuring vocals by P. J. Proby — and comics rather than books, although there was, of course, Lord Horror (1989), written by Britton with assistance from Butterworth, an extreme and deliberately distasteful novel about fascism and those aspects of the twentieth century that contributed to it. Lord Horror was the last novel to be successfully prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Acts as likely to corrupt and deprave those who read it (the decision was finally overturned on appeal). In addition, over the years Savoy have re-published the likes of A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay, Henry Treece’s Celtic fantasy novels, Ken Reid’s ‘Fudge and Speck’ cartoons from the Manchester Evening News and Maurice Richardson’s compendium of light-hearted surrealist tales The Exploits of Engelbrecht (one of Ballard’s favourite books)
The links between Savoy and Ballard are not immediately obvious, but run deep. In this interview, Michael Butterworth discusses Savoy’s adventures in book publishing, starting with the late 1960s, when both he and Ballard wrote for New Worlds. Later interviews will look at Savoy’s musical and spoken word recordings, and at their visual/comics/graphics output, especially the work of the illustrators Kris Guidio and John Coulthart, who joined forces with Britton and Butterworth during the 1980s.
J.G. Ballard, 1974. Photo from Corridor magazine (#5), published and edited by Michael Butterworth.
MIKE HOLLIDAY: Michael, several of your own short stories appeared in New Worlds between 1966 and 1970: to what extent did Ballard influence you at that early stage?
MICHAEL BUTTERWORTH: It’s more a question of how he didn’t influence me! Coming across his work for the first time in the mid-60’s, I remember thinking, ‘He’s saying what I didn’t know I wanted to say!’ I read ‘The Voices of Time’, and ‘Mr F is Mr F’ and other stories, which led me to discovering The Wind From Nowhere and The Drowned World, and later his ‘fractured’ narratives: ‘You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe’ and ‘The Terminal Beach’. These stories crossed the blood-brain barrier. They seemed to step right inside me, to be totally relevant to my experiences as an individual and what I was striving after as a writer. Between Ballard and Burroughs, and Moorcock (his Elric short stories), and small amounts of Borges, I was ‘catered’ for, and looking back it did lessen the imperative to find a vehicle of my own, perhaps inducing a kind of complacency.
The things in Ballard’s work with which I identify are the ‘psychological landscapes’ – the deserted swimming pools and lagoons – and the outgrowths of time in The Crystal World. But what makes him compelling is the fact that despite the cataclysms, people are still able to lead recognisable lives. His stories mirrored my own obsession with post-atomic fantasy landscapes, in which the narrator is freed from the humdrum world. The backdrop of nearly all my New Worlds stories, mostly written when I was seventeen or eighteen at a time when you went to sleep at night wondering whether you would wake up to World War Three, were concerned with just this kind of survival and the resulting creative possibilities. They were written very coolly, very detachedly, very sardonically – saying, well if this is what you, mankind want to do with the world, then this is how it will be.
As a writer I was strongly attracted to what I call ‘simplified emotional landscapes’, end-scenarios where there is the opportunity for clarity of feeling and thought and picaresque happenings; or, as in Ballard’s stories, where you can just sit and stare into the setting sun above a flooded basin, becoming increasingly internalised. Reading Ballard and Burroughs, and entering into these landscapes myself, was a way of freeing the mind of complexity.
I first heard about Burroughs’ cut-ups about the same time as Ballard’s ‘fragmented’ stories began appearing. Cut-up became terribly exciting for me: it was a new way of ‘breaking out’, a way of actually embracing complexity instead of fleeing it. There seemed to be a correlation with the emergence of South American concrete poetry, which I had also just discovered. As Jim pointed out, writing was now beginning to catch up with art. A post-Duchamp New Wave of conceptual art was happening in the late 60’s and early 70’s … and probably we were all running off the same energies and currents. But there was little conscious interaction between all these practices, and looking back the New Wave of SF could have had more of an influence on the mainstream at that point. Ballard’s advertisements and crashed car exhibition at the ICA in the late 60s pointed to it.
Letter from Ballard (1967), discussing the editing of Butterworth’s stories (click to enlarge).
I believe there was collaboration with Ballard whilst you were writing your ‘Concentrate’ stories. How did that come about?
I was Ambit’s Manchester and Salford distributor for quite a few years until I got fed up tramping round, and I knew Jim was the Prose Editor, and I sent some pieces to him. Through appearing in New Worlds I’d met him at least once, at one of the New Worlds parties, where he had urged me just to be ‘more prolific’. He responded very positively to my work. A correspondence began, and he took the time to edit some of the longer pieces I had sent him. He was generally very kind to me, showing how Burroughs ‘subbed down’ his work from much longer pieces. He went through my manuscripts with a pen, underlining the sentences he thought ‘worked’. No one of his competence had taken this time with me before, and we ended up with half a dozen pieces. Martin Bax, the editor of Ambit, didn’t like them enough to publish them, and they ended up appearing in New Worlds instead, in three parts.
By the early 1970s, both yourself and David Britton were publishing amateur or semi-professional magazines under a variety of titles — Corridor, Weird Fantasy, Crucified Toad, and so on. To what extent were you aiming to fill the gap left by the demise of New Worlds as a large-format magazine in 1970? Presumably it was a strong influence at this stage — you had written for the magazine, and several of the first books that Savoy published were by authors who had appeared in its pages – Charles Platt’s The Gas, Langdon Jones’ The Eye of the Lens, Delany’s Tides of Lust, and several titles by Michael Moorcock.
We weren’t consciously trying to fill a gap — some of the contributors were the same because I knew many of the New Worlds writers and artists. Rather, we were inspired by New Worlds, and had started the zines when it was still in its prime — I published Concentrate in 1968, and David published Weird Fantasy in 1969. Concentrate was distributed inside New Worlds and Ambit, as a give away. All things Moorcock were in our blood. I first encountered his work in Science Fantasy magazine in the early 1960s, but it was through Charles Platt (who I met at school) that I was introduced to him. David was a reader from even earlier, from Michael’s own amateur press days, and had met him to speak to at early science fiction conventions.
ABOVE: The first (and only) issue of Michael Butterworth’s magazine Concentrate (1968).
The second issue of David Britton’s ‘Weird Fantasy’ (1971).
What was it that brought yourself and David together as book publishers? Or did you start the bookshops before going into publishing?
The publishing came first. Then, around 1972 David started the House on the Borderland bookshop in Manchester. This was down a back street in central Manchester, and happened to be close to where I worked as a copywriter. I became in the habit of spending my lunch breaks in the shop, although we didn’t know each other personally until our printer, the printer-publisher John Muir, introduced us. When David moved to a busier location in 1974, changing the name of the shop to Orbit Books, turnover increased and more serious publishing became a possibility. For the fourth issue of Corridor, in 1972, I had got hold of an original Jerry Cornelius story from Michael Moorcock, ‘The Swastika Set-Up’, which David illustrated. David published #4 of his magazine and then became the Art Editor of Corridor. By Corridor #7, in 1976, we had become co-publishers. Around the same time, David published an oversized graphic work, Stormbringer. Adapted by James Cawthorn from Moorcock’s story, this was the first Savoy book, and led to us doing The Jewel in the Skull, the first UK graphic novel, in 1978.
Poster (1972) for David Britton’s first shop, House on the Borderland.
So we became full partners around 1976/77. David had the Stormbringer title under his belt, a very productive cash-generator in the form of a bookshop, and he had the beginnings of a publishing ideology worked out. I had a name, and knew Michael Moorcock and the New Worlds writers. As a single parent, having started a career as a freelance writer so I could work from home, I also had some experience of the mainstream publishing world, and had made a few business connections. From the outset we were both of one mind; we wanted to publish books, and wanted to see how far we could go.
The bookshops were a lot more than just books and magazines, weren’t they? You also stocked records, tapes, and videos, especially hard-to-find material. How did running the shops influence the way you went about the publishing business?
To pay for Savoy, the bookshop had to be expanded, and as Savoy grew, we opened more of them, until we had a string of bookshops across the North West of England, selling comics, science fiction, horror, rock books, back issues, rare books, adult mags, bootleg records and all the perennially cult works and authors like A Clockwork Orange, the Illuminatus trilogy, the NEL Richard Allen Skinhead books, and so on. David operated a ‘part-exchange’ policy as well as selling new titles, so across the counter came a very wide mixture of things. Seeing all this material gave us ideas, of course, especially in the way we packaged our books, but the shops’ main purpose was to provide for Savoy financially, which they did right up until the final one closed around 2005 in Leeds. They also acted as shop windows for our titles and for authors we admired.
Basement Books in Manchester, one of the shops which helped fund Savoy’s publishing.
What lessons had you taken from Savoy’s difficulties of the early 80s? And what drove the two of you to keep going?
Savoy went into liquidation in 1981. I was bankrupted the same year. David was jailed in 1982. With those events, the first phase of Savoy was over. After a period spent packaging books for other publishers, in the year of Orwell’s Big Brother we published Savoy Dreams, which unconsciously signposted the way forwards for us. Looking back, it is a watershed book, half catalogue, half anthology, that provided a résumé of what we had achieved and, at the same time, by reprinting Kris Guidio’s comic strips of the Cramps and introducing P J Proby, we sounded our intentions for the future. This was also the book that contained the last stand-alone piece of fiction I published.
The second Savoy anthology, Savoy Dreams (1984), which included a selection of the letters which Michael Moorcock wrote to J G Ballard from Los Angeles (later published as Letters from Hollywood), with the drug references left in.
David’s term of imprisonment had been for 21 days, but the real aim of the police raids was books such as Charles Platt’s The Gas, Samuel Delany’s The Tides of Lust and Jack Trevor Story’s Screwrape Lettuce, a satirical story about the police that Jack had written (and David had illustrated) following a terrible ordeal Jack had at the hands of the London police during the Christmas of 1968. The police used ‘back door’ tactics against us, so that while making it plain that it was Savoy material they were concerned about (by seizing it and eventually destroying it after due process of law), they actually prosecuted us for other material we had on sale in the shops, a series of Grove Press ‘readers’ that had long passed their sell-by date, which the police had seized from us on numerous different occasions and returned — but after we had published The Gas they needed to make something stick. These were American books, so could be made to look like clandestine imports. The police were convinced we were major publishers of erotica, that they had stumbled on an international distribution network of pornography.
Savoy erotica: The Gas by Charles Platt (1980).
The main lesson we took from David’s imprisonment was really taken by him. He used the opportunity to rein in and focus down on the people and things that really mattered to him. Before this, I think, the publishing direction had largely been left open, as I attempted to build something he wasn’t really happy with — a mainstream publishing house. We had assembled a raft of writers and genres, ranging from science fiction, historical fiction, erotica — even a Savoy cookery line — to my real interests, Burroughs and Gysin. But these all got lost in the reorganisation. In our insolvency we lost control of our published titles, and the main lesson we learned was to, in future, own the copyright on everything we did, even if it meant creating the books ourselves. We have always regarded ourselves as creative publishers, and the direction we then embarked on saw David’s blossoming as a writer. Being in prison had also helped; in some ways, the experience had done him a favour, as it made him realise he didn’t want to waste more of his life on ‘inconsequences’, as he saw it.
A sickly light, errant and pellucid, thrilled above him. In a drama close to somnia turbula, ganglias of cables and wires, nerve fibres and raunchy buzzing lights radiated down at him from a ceiling, meshed together in a flue. His body felt tropical, infusing him with a chimerical dread.
He woke fitfully, his limbs heavy and somnambulant. He was back in his room. During the long night the hotel’s central heating had switched itself on. The heat was terrific. His head throbbed, full of virulent stuffs and old memories. He thought he could hear the sound of boiling broth close by. Sulphurous fumes filled the room, and a bittersweet almond taste prevailed in his mouth.
He peered from a single drained eye. His room at the Chelsea looked as though the mad hand of a god had transposed it into an everglade sarcophagus. He lay on his side, his head awkwardly positioned on a once-white pillow. Stuck next to him was a single hank of hair that pushed an umber stain into the cotton. He tried to lift his left hand to remove the hair. The hand moved slowly, as though pulling through treacle, then stopped. He raised his head slightly and peered over his naked white shoulders down the length of the bed. Despite an intense light, he could not see clearly. From his chest downwards he appeared to be encased inside a blackish nitrate crust similar to a moth’s chrysalis. Beneath this dark surface he could feel a moist second layer that pressed warmly against his skin, snugly cocooning him.
Futilely, Horror tried to rise up from his bed of excrement. The chrysalis skin broke, and the smell almost made him faint. From his neck he retched a yellow waxen glue. Defeated, he lapsed back in his warm prison.
During the night, monstrously huge poppies, torture-coloured roses and pain-white petunias had grown around him. At his feet, nettles had sprouted from the dark skein. Weeds muffled the metallic clicking of shite flies. Dung beetles scurried everywhere over the crust’s surface.
Neon tubes wrapped in bald flex pushed through the shite and added their burning light to the room. Myriad phalanxes of wasps had taken possession of the upper cornices. They swarmed about the ceiling like dense waves of black hair. For a moment, he thought he was mad, lying with fallen soldiers in the fields of Flanders, Ypres or the Somme.
The bed giggled and sighed. It heaved with an almost sentient life. It let off a series of swaggering farts that echoed ominously round the room in search of an exit.
The lights shook, and a swell of steam rose from the bed. Back it came to him. He remembered packing the enema bags tightly about his body before falling asleep. In the hothouse of the night, they had burst.
Excerpt from David Britton’s novel Lord Horror, published in 1989 by Savoy Books of Manchester, England.
The (somewhat) tongue-in-cheek map of influences leading up to Britton and Butterworth’s Lord Horror (click to enlarge)
Can I move on to Lord Horror, which in a way was a response to the police raids and David’s first spell in prison. This is a novel whose subject matter includes Nazism and racism, yet I was struck by the lack of any explicit moral position within the book. This reminded me of Ballard’s comment that Crash would have been meaningless if he had incorporated some sort of explicit moral justification: the whole point of Crash was to get the reader to consider for themselves tendencies that already exist within the world that we live in, and therefore any moral framework has to be provided by the reader. And in fact Crash appears in the map of influences for Lord Horror.
As soon as you define something, it becomes that thing. We wanted to write something that wasn’t definable, and in a weird way more true. Although, like Crash, Lord Horror is composed in conventional narrative, it is not what it seems; it is an intricate tableau, or rather a series of tableaux, a florescence from a central idea, which we expanded into picaresque forms that really make no overall narrative sense. It was also David’s first novel. He isn’t, any more than I am, a natural storyteller. He would hand me very dense pages of text, together with dislocated dialogue, actually descriptions of ‘pictures’ that he was seeing in his head. I had to open this up, and make it run in sequence. Lord Horror took four years and twelve rewrites on a portable manual typewriter to get it exactly as we wanted it.
The stories I wrote for New Worlds leave the reader to deduce how the post-disaster deserts came about. They are ironic metaphor, in the sense that the first person narrator accepts the devastation as a given, and by being so cool he is actually conveying the opposite of what he really feels. This ‘double distancing’ protects from the horror, but it also enables the reader to interpret what is really being said. In Lord Horror, morally, it’s crucial that what results from the actions of its characters is presented in a similar way, as a given — and on top of this to keep an ironic or sardonic tone. The characters themselves aren’t morally defined, as they are in a work like, say, Maus. Making it clear that Lord Horror is ‘bad’ would have lost the possibility of empathy, and therefore the point of the novel. It would have perpetuated the image of Hitler-as-universal-scapegoat. Of course, it might also have appeased the judges and prevented much angst for David and I.
The faith in reason and rationality that dominated post war thinking struck me as hopelessly idealistic, like the belief that the German people had been led astray by Hitler and the Nazis. I was sure that the countless atrocities in eastern Europe had taken place because the Germans involved had enjoyed the act of mass murder, just as the Japanese had enjoyed tormenting the Chinese. Reason and rationality failed to explain human behaviour. Human beings were often irrational and dangerous
J. G. Ballard, Miracles of Life (2008).
John Coulthart’s portrayal of the death camps in Hard Core Horror #5. The text panels are deliberately left blank … words are superfluous.
I’d like to mention here Brian Stableford’s suggestion that Lord Horror is actually designed ‘to excite revulsion and anxiety’. In effect, it’s an invitation to the reader to reflect on just what it is in the book that causes those feelings. For example, when I asked myself some months after first reading the novel what it was that I found repulsive about it, the thing I recalled was the use of racist epithets… Which is really rather strange, I mean here we have a book that looks at the reasons behind the deaths of millions in the Nazi concentration camps, a book which contains lengthy descriptions of people being abused, dismembered, murdered in the most foul ways, even eaten, yet what seems to cause me difficulty is the use of certain words. It’s an extreme reductio ad absurdum, but one in which the reader does not sit above what’s going on, nodding and smiling to himself, but actually inside the bloody thing, with all the stress and confusion that’s implied by being part of it. That is similar, it seems to me, to another of Ballard’s comments about Crash: ‘I wanted to write a book where the reader had nowhere to hide.’
In Lord Horror, not only does the reader have nowhere to hide, but also, if he or she perseveres with the book — which Colin Wilson famously wouldn’t — they find that they are at risk of becoming the character, which can be even more discomforting. The protection offered by the third person narrative breaks down in several places, with what seem to be very brief passing racist comments of the author casually inserted, a technique that is more refined in the third novel in the ‘Horror’ sequence, Baptised in the Blood of Millions. In Lord Horror they are so brief that you may at first miss them, or perhaps think they are typos. But it soon becomes apparent that this may be happening deliberately, and readers may find themselves in the uncomfortable dilemma of deciding whether they should continue reading the book, and if so how are they to read it? Is the author a racist, or isn’t he? Should I continue to be amused by his black-humoured jokes, or are his detractors right: is this just poor art, camouflaged by quasi-learning, as the magistrate decisively pronounced of the Hard Core Horror comics? A nihilistic, sadistic ‘playfulness’ operates at every level in the book, even in the narrative conventions. Further, the author seems not to care, to subvert whatever credibility the bravest readers and critics give to him.
Lord Horror broadcasts to the people (from Reverbstorm #6): art by John Coulthart (click to enlarge).
The novel is designed to be morally offensive, and also physically offensive. It is highly visceral, often repellent, as when the dried outer skin of the shit cocoon encasing Horror cracks open. When at work on the book, it was a common experience to feel queasy. With succeeding Lord Horror works, each one aims to out-do the preceding one in grossness. If you read one of David’s later books, Motherfuckers: The Auschwitz of Oz and Baptised in the Blood of Millions, and nod sagely, thinking that a clue may now be found that will dispel the cloud of ambiguity hanging about the author, you will not find it. Every chink has been firmly filled, hasn’t even been allowed to be open in the first place. There seems to be, at every turn, an imperative to escalate the crudity of the violence and racism — to avoid numbing the reader, to find ways of not allowing the writing the dread anathema of becoming safe.
Ballard’s work has always reflected his interest in surrealist art. And in a way, Lord Horror is a surrealist text, possibly more so than anything by Ballard, who’s always been concerned to ‘tell a story’. A penis that grows so large as to encompass the Earth; a person being devoured whole — that isn’t exactly fantasy, it seems to me … it’s surrealism. The same applies to the way in which the book is written, with rapid stylistic changes — from philosophical disquisition to horrific description — and paragraphs of text lifted from elsewhere and put into the mouths of the characters. To me, the book makes more sense considered as a surrealist novel; if it’s read as an alternative-history fantasy, or as a satire, then I think the reader misses much of what is in there.
Writing about Lord Horror in A Serious Life, Dave Mitchell compared the book to Bataille and Lautréamont and de Sade, and he may be right, but we see ourselves as belonging more in the absurdist camp, with nods to surrealism. Before we knew each other, two of our heroes were Alfred Jarry and P J Proby. I was also influenced by satirical writers like Rabelais, where key figures are exaggerated to ludicrous extremes. David’s ‘surrealism’ was more William Hope Hodgson and Frank Randle than the more formal manifestations in Max Ernst or Salvador Dali. Francis Bacon has always been a strong muse for him, and latterly Paula Rego has excited us both. Michael Moorcock threw in Maurice Richardson, while I also brought the sometimes existentialist bizarreness of the Beats. The ‘absurdism’ of ordinary life, and popular culture such as fifties rock’n’roll and Creole patois was another rich source for Lord Horror — you know, ‘Sleepin’ on his mugwump, playing on his Jew’s harp, music crawlin’ into your skin, Daddy in his Zoot suit, mammy playin’ skin flute, sister makes a swine-hair grin, Doin’ that crazy Cajun cakewalk dance!’ What could be more ‘surreal’ than that? The Mugwump character in Lord Horror is from P J Proby, not Burroughs.
David Britton’s first novel, Lord Horror (1989).
So Lord Horror could be seen a ‘surrealist’ novel, but it is a very personal surrealism, I think, with specifically working-class Manchester roots. William Hope Hodgson once rode a bicycle down the steepest steps in Blackburn. David once saw Roy Rogers riding Trigger through cobbled, terraced streets in North Manchester in 1951. These must have seemed like eruptions from a different universe. The ‘alternative history’ theme, as you have correctly seen, is not the book’s main point; for us it’s a purely theatrical device. And the book isn’t intended as satire. It is more Grand Guignol than satirical.
To our initial mystification, Ballard didn’t like Lord Horror. Possibly it had far too much gaudy end-of-the-pier working-class English ‘surrealism’ for him, rather than the purer, more polite surrealism he did like.
Reverbstorm #4. Cover art by John Coulthart (after Burne Hogarth).
What about Ballard’s use of unconventional narrative structure? I’m thinking particularly of The Atrocity Exhibition, and of Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius stories, where iconic personalities and historic events appear, bringing along their own narratives. There’s a lot of that, it seems, in Savoy’s work – especially in the Reverbstorm magazines, with the cultural references incorporated into John Coulthart’s artwork, and dialogue consisting largely of quotations … so that the reader is no longer spoon-fed a narrative but has to do most of what Ballard once referred to as ‘the hard work’.
If ‘fragmentation’, non-linear and cut-up writing are responses to complexity as I have suggested, then Reverbstorm is certainly this. The ‘story’ of Reverbstorm, like the ‘story’ of The Atrocity Exhibition or Naked Lunch or Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, is really its form. It is emblematic of a certain time in the 20th Century and in the mental processes of David, John and I. The use of such forms by Ballard and Burroughs was a way of dealing with personal trauma, but such new chaotic forms in literature and art seemed to suggest that by ‘breaking down reality’, more appropriate new ways of looking at it might be found.
John Coulthart’s artwork from the Reverbstorm magazines, of which Alan Moore wrote: ‘Like Baudelaire, Beardsley and Breughel meeting in a crack house, “Reverbstorm” presents, with diamond focus, a portrait of the incoherent, incandescent rot at the heart of the Twentieth Century. Highly recommended.’ (Click to enlarge.)
But there’s a difference here, isn’t there, to using a ‘cut-up’ technique? How would you characterize that distinction?
In Moorcock’s multiverse, fragmentation occurs during the mixing up of narrative threads, due to the way the threads appear and reappear in space-time from the perspective of an observer. But the results of this apparently random selection are very controlled. I don’t know how Ballard went about achieving non-linearity, but his experiments also seem very controlled. Even Burroughs’ cut-up techniques are controlled because, as Jim showed me, they are edited afterwards, and so they are narratives assembled from cut-ups. Much editorial control and direction is shown in works like Nova Express. Between cut-ups and Ballard’s non-linear experiments, or Moorcock’s multiverse stories, there are big differences in technique in the way material is gathered together, although the outcome can often be the same.
For almost a decade after first reading Burroughs, I could not read linear writing. But I did find that I got very adept at writing in cut-up; I could mimic the ‘unintelligibility’ of random cut-up, and produce text that had randomness to a varying degree. It was this ‘stream of consciousness’-kind of writing I was producing that Ballard helped me to edit, which became the Concentrate pieces.
The final ‘Concentrate’ piece: written by Butterworth, edited by Ballard and published in New Worlds #197 (click to enlarge).
David was originally the artist and yourself the writer, yet it’s Dave’s writings that have appeared in Savoy from Lord Horror onwards. How did that reversal come about?
To write well, you need to be driven by anger or some other strong emotion. What drove me in my earlier days was anger I felt at mankind’s failings, but this voice I’d found was already fading by the time David and I met. David’s anger is different — he has never given it up. He has always been angry per se, at existence. Though he is ultimately optimistic he feels a great frustration at life. His perception has always been of the glass half-empty variety. I am the opposite.
The turning point for me as a writer was Lord Horror. It was a collaborative book, and was to have been published under a joint byline, but at the last moment, I gave David the byline. At the end of my last published piece of fiction, written under my own name (‘A Hurricane in a Nightjar’, Savoy Dreams 1984), I wrote directly from the postatomic deserts to the reader: ‘For the time being, thank you’. I knew my voice had gone, although I hoped it wouldn’t go for good. But though it hasn’t returned, happily it has led me to other things.
The result of the publication of Lord Horror and the associated Hard Core Horror and Meng & Ecker comics was another series of police raids, and the prosecution of Savoy under the Obscene Publications Acts. The charge was justified in Court on the grounds of the anti-Semitism displayed in the publications, a rather strange claim since the racial hatred laws were designed specifically for such purposes but were ignored by the police and prosecutors. There was then yet another prosecution, for non-Savoy material kept in the shops, as a result of which David spent a second period in Strangeways prison. How did Savoy cope with this second ‘crisis’? The changes in the business seem to have been less dramatic than those in the early ’80s…
The second time David was jailed, it was his reward for writing Lord Horror. The book was seized and found to be obscene by the magistrates. I conducted the appeal with Geoffrey Robertson and this resulted in the charge against it being overturned. The local Vice Squad were very bitter about this. Early in the proceedings, two members were caught airing their views about Lord Horror in an ‘undercover’ interview for The Observer, saying there was an urgency to act against Lord Horror because they ‘might be the last generation with a moral viewpoint’ and therefore the last people with the capability to do it. They were officers, guys in their 30s, saying they had a moral sense that might be denied later generations, therefore they had a duty to act now to protect ‘common decency’ on behalf of the public. That was their reason for banning the book. They were hoping for the heaviest penalty. At about the same time as the Observer article we were hauled to the main police headquarters, Stretford House, and grilled separately about our publications, both books and comics. We were told we were racially and morally degenerate. We ran some of this interview in one of the Meng & Ecker comics. Later, we heard that Chief Constable Anderton himself had been listening in to the interview, overseeing it, in fact, in his office above where we had been sitting.
It was quite clear to us that the target was Savoy and not, as the police were continually maintaining, what we were selling in the shops – which was largely mainstream fiction, literary, fantasy, rock books, bootlegs and so on. Only a very small percentage of the shop stock was erotica, and none of this was what was called ‘hard’. But because of the unusual zero tolerance climate being generated in Manchester by police Chief ‘God’s Cop’ James Anderton, they could get away with doing us for it.
Anderton was a creature that could only have existed in the slightly surreal atmosphere of Thatcher Britain; repressively conservative, of dubious competence, and given to worrying statements about hearing God’s voice while Manchester filled up with guns and pushers. LORD HORROR was strong drink, to be sure: a hallucinated vision of Lord Haw-Haw, the English traitor who broadcast Nazi propaganda into Britain during World War 2. It was difficult, horrifying work, the Nazi atrocities made superreal with the tools of DeSade and Bataille, very much an extension of the “New Worlds school” and its intent to use fantasy as a way to present the real world in a new light for our consideration. Britton is neither a self-hating Jew nor a childish monster. He is clearly haunted by the pre-1945 world.
And they sent him to prison.
‘God’s Cop': Chief Constable James Anderton.
The police prosecuted us for Lord Horror on the grounds of obscenity because that was the decision taken by the local office of the DPP (Director of Publication Prosecutions). Many people thought it strange, but he thought the Crown stood a better chance of prosecuting us that way. The DPP only charged us under Section 3 of the obscenity laws, which allowed Lord Horror to be condemned by the magistrates but did not allow us the option of a jury trial. However, under Section 3, they could only destroy the book — we could not be jailed. The police used the same tactics as in 1981, trumping-up charges on non-Savoy material that was really very tame, and it was these which led to Dave’s second prison sentence. After the experiences of Lady Chatterley and Last Exit to Brooklyn, they knew that if they went after our more literary titles then the attack would backfire on them; as indeed proved to be the case when they went after Lord Horror and we won the appeal.
LEFT: Raided! One of the Savoy shops in the late 80s.
This time David’s imprisonment was for four months, and we coped less well. We were in the middle of an intensive phase of work rather than at a natural turning point as we had been on the previous occasion, and our fighting spirit wasn’t the same. I had managed to make publicity out of the Lord Horror case, but the victory we’d won felt hollow. On the previous occasion there had been genuine surprise by all parties, even by the prosecution, that the judge had thought to jail David — something rarely done — rather than fine him.
Prison terms are automatically reduced by a half; you only do the full term if you misbehave. Although David did not do the full four months, it was still a very long time. One hour is a long time in a place where anything can go wrong, and where few may know if it does. How best to survive, where survival is a moment-to-moment question? There were no changes to Savoy; when David was released we had a gathering of the clans in the local Pig and Porcupine, and then just carried on. If anything, it had the effect of firming our resolve, so possibly the one ‘change’ we made was — never to change!
Our final large court case directly involved Savoy titles — the Meng & Ecker and Hard Core Horror comics that the police seized when they seized the novel. The authorities felt themselves to be on much firmer ground with these, because of the ‘link’, as they saw it, with children. They even returned to conduct a second raid before the outcome of the first was known, and seized thousands more comics. I conducted the defence for this also, and took the case as high as I could. It dragged on for six years, but at its end, in the High Court in London, the local Manchester magistrate who had originally found the comics obscene was vindicated — even though a child has never read them and never will.
You’ve spoken out in previous interviews about the politically correct mindset of both left and right — and Savoy has suffered from both versions, rejected by Compendium Books and by Rough Trade Records at the same time as it was being raided again and again by the Manchester Police. Ballard labeled the growth of this type of reaction in the 1980s ‘the New Puritanism’. How do you see the position in 2009 — is there more timidity, more unthinking rejection, than there was 20 or 30 years ago?
We haven’t had a police raid in ten years — after twenty-five years of constant raids. On the last raid, in 1999, the police personally admitted that their game with us was over. Their concerns about Lord Horror and the Meng & Ecker comics had been eclipsed by the Internet and world events. Until Lord Horror, it was popularly believed that the successful Last Exit to Brooklyn appeal in 1968 was the final nail in the coffin of police repression of serious books, but it wasn’t. When the magistrate’s charge of obscenity against Lord Horror was overturned in the High Court in 1992, that genuinely was the end, in the UK.
You don’t see the same kind of heavy-handed repression happening here now. Rather than laws dealing with reading matter, there are laws restricting movement and access, something Iain Sinclair is documenting. There is also less inclination on the part of writers to go over the same ground. ‘Taboo’ books may not be progressive or relevant any more.
In his history of Savoy, A Serious Life, D. M. Mitchell suggests that the police raids and obscenity trials have directed attention away from your wider achievements, such as the publication of The Exploits of Engelbrecht, A Voyage to Arcturus, Henry Treece‘s Celtic Tetralogy, and the work of Ken Reid and of Langdon Jones. To what extent do you think this is true, and if so, are you bothered by it?
The court cases diverted attention away from our early intentions as publishers and writers, and I think they still colour public perception. I think the police raids stopped us in our tracks at a pivotal moment, and for me it was a great frustration. In 1981, when we went in liquidation, we were poised to become mainstream publishers. Up until this time I was still convinced that we could do so, but in the end our uncompromising, eclectic natures and the politically incorrect nature of the bookshops, meant we couldn’t. After the ‘Savoy Wars’, as we termed the skirmishes during the 80s, we found ourselves stuck in ‘a weird place, like one of those soldiers lost in a forest and still fighting the war after it’s over’, to quote Keith Seward).
Certain critics can’t get past the subject matter, or they don’t see the work as being part of a literary tradition. We’ve been defined at a very simple level as transgressors who got into trouble with the law — it’s much easier to understand us this way — or one-offs who shouldn’t be paid serious attention. In our earlier bookshop days, we were cast as pornographers and bootleggers who had fallen foul of the law. This can work for us, of course, and means we are at least assured of a lasting profile of a kind. We have a cultural trademark, like P J Proby’s split trousers or Fenella Fielding’s husky voice.
John Coulthart’s portrayal of the 20th-century city in Reverbstorm #6.
All along, you’ve published authors whom you admire, especially where their work is otherwise unavailable or unduly neglected. But is there, do you think, some element in common between the authors and artists that Savoy publish or with whom you collaborate? Is there something that links Michael Moorcock and P. J. Proby with Henry Treece and Fenella Fielding?
That ‘element’ is something we’ve tried hard to define in books like A Serious Life. As in anything, it is who and where — who you grow up with, and where you grow up. Being Mancunians, David and I were both exposed to the work of people like Ken Reid, whose 3-panel Fudge and Speck strips appeared nightly in the Manchester Evening News when we were kids. As we got older, we both became aware of Proby, a stricken star who had fallen to earth in the Northern workingmen’s club scene, who became an equally potent conductor for fantasies skewed from the mainstream. Ours has not been the normal ‘expression’ of growing up — our allegiance has been to too many ‘odd’ things for that. Savoy is a stitch of David and I. David’s obsession to preserve youthful influences and to put a different emphasis on the art and culture of his time to the one that has become the consensus; my desire for the radical and new — these link the various, on the surface, disparate Savoy writers, artists and artistes.
A Serious Life: D M Mitchell’s marvelous history of Savoy — the books, the records, the comics, plus interviews with Butterworth, Britton and Coulthart.
Did you have much in the way of dealings with Ballard after starting Savoy? You haven’t published anything by him, unlike Moorcock and other New Worlds writers, though I believe a limited edition of Crash was suggested at some point.
We began by publishing Michael Moorcock, and we just seemed to go along that axis. Plus the fact that Jim wasn’t in need of a publisher, so he didn’t fall into our other category of books at that time: he wasn’t a neglected giant of fantasy, as we saw it, like Henry Treece or Jack Trevor Story. Nor was he in the position of Burroughs, whose ‘lesser’ books like The Job or Dutch Schultz, I thought, were in need of greater exposure, or Brion Gysin, who was in need of documenting as an artist in his own right. David Pringle, and later Vale at Re/Search, were documenting Ballard’s work. And as time went by, our options ran out anyway. When I finally did figure out a way of publishing Burroughs and Gysin, the police raids on Savoy reached a crescendo, and I had to relinquish them.
We were disappointed when Jim turned down the Crash/Fenella Fielding package. Fielding has the allure of Hollywood about her, while having an eccentric English demeanor, and has what we think is the perfect voice for reading Crash. It took us a great deal of effort to get her to do it. At first, she was cautious, because she didn’t want to do anything that she thought might demean women. After protracted discussion, which went on for about a year, she finally took the advice of an ex-BBC director friend, who assured her that it would be OK. She did the reading, but would not read some of the more violent heterosexual sex scenes involving women.
We saw Crash as part of a new Savoy deluxe hardback fantasy reprint series we had started, with new editions of Maurice Richardson’s The Exploits of Engelbrecht (2000) and David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus (2002). We sent Jim the finished reading, together with samples of these books, with a proposal to release it together with a special edition of Crash. But he claimed that he had always disliked ‘book worship’ in any form, and did not subscribe to the ‘industry of limited editions'; he thought books should be mass-produced and disposable. When I asked whether he would mind us releasing just the Fielding reading on its own, he said not, preferring that ‘a book should just be a book’. He was very courteous and kind, asking me not to take this the wrong way, but I did come away with the feeling that the Savoy chemistry was wrong for him and that we had misjudged him once again — he had reacted very similarly to Lord Horror. It sounds silly, but the incident increased my feeling that in some way I had not lived up to his expectation, after he had gone out of his way to encourage my early writing. I had not received such encouragement or understanding off my own father, and when Jimmy passed away it felt like a father had gone.
The Exploits of Engelbrecht, republished by Savoy in 2000, with this commendation on the cover from Ballard: ‘The Exploits of Engelbrecht is English surrealism at its greatest. Witty and fantastical, Maurice Richardson was light years ahead of his time. Unmissable.’
Mike Moorcock has said that one of his ambitions for New Worlds was to cross-fertilize the popular and literary traditions. I take it that’s an aim with which you’d concur?
Yes, but that’s something that was always going to come much more easily to Michael than to us! For a start, as a writer he is a natural storyteller. Audience is very important to him. In his publishing projects he took over existing magazines with ready audiences rather than attempt to start up something from scratch.
His charismatic personality had attracted to New Worlds already-established authors, Ballard, Aldiss, et cetera. When Savoy began, influenced by New Worlds or, more particularly, by Michael’s enthusiasm for certain writers — Jack Trevor Story, M John Harrison, Langdon Jones — these writers readily allowed us to do their books as paperbacks. As we developed, we became a more gaudy, cross-pollinating rock’n’roll publishing/recording outfit, top-and-tailing Ken Reid and T S Eliot, P J Proby and New Order, or joining up like-minded souls, Burne Hogarth and Cawthorn, Fielding and Colette, The Tides of Lust and The Gas. Gradually, we seemed to find an identity. It perhaps helped that we stayed in the North, away from the temptations of the London publishing scene. On the other hand, if we had carried the battle South we might perhaps have succeeded as a legitimate company. Who knows.
To consciously set out to marry the popular with the literate is beside the point, really. Did Dickens set out to do that? He just did it. A basic rule of adventurous writing is to leave in a certain amount of cliché, so you don’t lose the reader. I think that was something Michael Moorcock taught me: you should not take people too far too quickly or you will lose them. But I think if you are a truly great writer — or a great editor or publisher — you will naturally have popular appeal. Once Michael had ‘trained’ his initial SF readership and attracted new readers — each issue contained a reducing amount of traditional SF — New Worlds became a blend of the popular and literary quite naturally. It was second nature to everyone involved: editors, designers, artists and writers. By contrast, the much later Modern Review, say, which had a declared policy of mixing high and low, seemed contrived.
New Worlds was dependent on its editor’s vision and drive, and when he decided to move on it lost its direction. Charles Platt ran it well for a while, but then he also moved on, alas. Just think what could have been achieved had Michael been able to devote his time to keeping New Worlds going as a monthly magazine, acting as a kind of mainstream Counterblast to the various movements and groups that have come and gone since the sixties.
Only one alternate history series confronted Nazism with appropriate originality and passion. Published by the independent Manchester firm Savoy, David Britton’s surreal Lord Horror and its sequels entered the mind of a deranged surviving Hitler whose visions grew increasingly insane… Soon after they appeared, Hard Core Horror and Lord Horror were seized by Manchester’s vice squad. The books were destroyed and their author went to Strangeways, suggesting that successful Nazi alternate histories must take profound psychological, moral and physical risks.
Michael Moorcock, The Daily Telegraph.
What about the future? How much have Savoy got in the locker? There’s a collection of Mike Moorcock’s non-fiction due for publication, I believe. And what about the final issue of the Reverbstorm series — will that actually be published? It’s been ‘forthcoming’ for several years!
There is a lot left in the locker, but whether we produce it or not is a question of what financial resources we have left. Since losing the bookshops we have been forced to raise money in less exciting, more legitimate ways. As a result we are vulnerable to things like economic recessions, and this present one has hit us badly as it has hit others. David and I are both now in our sixties. But while we can, we will keep going. John Coulthart is designing Into the Media Web, the collection of Moorcock non-fiction, at the moment. We hope it will appear in 2010, together with the promised second Savoy edition of Engelbrecht. John is also at work re-mastering the Reverbstorm part-series as a graphic novel. This will contain the long promised final installment. A collection of articles about Savoy is underway, Tales From the Savoy, as is David’s newly completed Lord Horror novel, La Squab: The Black Rose of Auschwitz, which will be illustrated by Kris Guidio. He is also at work on a new novel, more a short coda to the other books, called Invictus Horror. Plus all the work we did with Fielding is still to be released: Fenella Fielding: The Savoy Sessions (a new album of songs, and companion album to P J Proby: The Savoy Sessions), a double album reading from Colette, as well as readings of Four Quartets and La Squab.
Finally, you’ve also been involved, outside of Savoy, with the launch of a new magazine, Corridor8, which revives the title of your early magazines but concentrating on contemporary visual art. How did the new magazine come about, and what are your hopes for it?
It grew out of an interest in conceptual art, and wanting to do a magazine again. I’d begun publishing a small line of print-on-demand books featuring work which didn’t fall into Savoy’s remit, but which I was in the habit of being offered from time to time by people who knew I was a publisher. One of these books was an interview with Colin Wilson by the writer and journalist Brad Spurgeon, about Wilson’s philosophy as an optimist. Another, which arrived anonymously one morning, was a surreal oddity — a full libretto for an imaginary musical about Jackson Pollock written by an artist friend, Roger McKinley. Although his libretto took the conventional form of a book, it worked as a piece of conceptual art, and it was seeing the possibilities of this that got me interested.
When my father died, my partner, Sarajane Inkster, who had once interviewed David and I after Burroughs’s death about our meeting with him in the Bunker in the early 80s, in a mood of mad creativity generously suggested I use part of my inheritance to produce a magazine. Corridor8 derives its name from the small-press magazines I started out doing, and the first issue is dedicated to J.G. Ballard and New Worlds, although I wouldn’t say it is recognisably in the Ballard/New Worlds or even Savoy moulds.
Michael Butterworth’s new magazine, ‘Corridor8′, launched in July 2009.
Corridor8 appears annually — the next issue comes out September 2010 — and the intention is to make its publication an event. The launch this year had a talk by Iain Sinclair, who used Issue 1 as a springboard for a new work set outside the capital, and also an art installation by the arte povera maverick Michelangelo Pistoletto. As subsequent issues appear, I can see the ‘launches’ growing and becoming more like mini-arts festivals. The magazine itself will continue to be North-of-England-based, on a speculative tip with an international outlook and still focusing on contemporary visual art and writing. Issue 1 focuses on art inside Will Alsop’s ‘SuperCity’ — Alsop’s concept of a linear city running raggedly across the neck of England from Liverpool to Hull and beyond. Sinclair’s work in the same issue explores the corridor in two long psychogeographical journeys, East-West by car and then West-East by bus pass, debunking Alsop’s concept. It was also the first time Alsop’s work as a canvas artist was featured in-depth, since when he has announced that he has retired from his architectural practice to devote his time to painting.
There are also interviews with Peter Saville about his new position as Creative Director of Manchester, and with Yorkshire artist and art catalyst Paul Bradley who produced the Pistoletto installation for us, an article by Jon Savage about the Haçienda nightclub, another article about the Danish art group Superflex’s project ‘tenantspin’ — a web-based television venture to empower residents in Liverpool tower blocks threatened with demolition — as well as, all importantly, profiles of eight artists who live and work in the SuperCity region. For Issue 2, we plan to move the geographical focus further north, towards Cumbria, Newcastle, and the Scottish borderlands — it will have a borderland theme — and on artists who work outside the centre. I am hoping one of the artists will be David Hockney, while the main writer for this issue I hope will be Jenny Diski, another favourite writer, who has some thematic similarities with Sinclair.
Thank you, Michael Butterworth.
Don’t forget the Savoy Books Microfiction competition! Win super-rare Savoy books, comic books and CDs by writing a short story of 100 words or less on ‘Savoyesque’ or ‘Ballardian’ themes. Details here.
..:: Previously on Ballardian:
+ James Cawthorn, RIP: 1929-2008
+ Ballardcraft: Ballard/Lovecraft
+ ‘Get Lost': Burroughs on Curtis
+ Bunker Tales
+ Horror Panegyric
+ A Home and a Grave: Mike Holliday on The Unlimited Dream Company
+ Angry Old Men: Michael Moorcock on J.G. Ballard
Newer: Stereoscopic Urbanism: JG Ballard and the Built Environment »