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Interview
Michael Butterworth
iiii Residency

Hannah Nussbaum

15.03.2019

Archive image of working proof cover of a now out-of-print Savoy book titled 'I am Still the Greatest Says Johnny Angelo'.

A bulky paper trail evidences Michael Butterworth’s role in the history of Manchester’s counterculture (and all of its constituent boo-hoo-hiss hijinx, tragicomic abjectitude and picaresque suffering). His archive is a golden goose and seminal source of underground doggerel, jots, plans, rare rags, chapbooks, and hilarious drawings from Northern England’s late twentieth century avant-garde literary scene, and his records chart Manchester’s evolution from a swinging sixties party-gone-south into a post-punk future.

Born and raised in Manchester at the tail end of World War 2, Butterworth witnessed sixties psychedelic libertarianism from afar–from the crumbly vestibules of Manchester and from under the puritanical New Age thumb of his father, who sent him to a vegetarian co-educational progressive boarding school founded by theosophists. Finding himself somewhat on the margins of hip late-sixties London happenings, his entrance into UK counterculture came through the backdoor of science fiction. Butterworth’s consumption of sci-fi pulps from the fifties led him into an adolescent obsession with the weird and the gothic, taking cues from Edgar Allen Poe, Ray Bradbury, H.P Lovecraft and William Hope Hodgson. This led him to stranger still fantasy writing: Michael Moorcock’s “tales of the albino swordsman ‘Elric’; Brian W. Aldiss’ stopped‐world novel Hot House; John Christopher’s The Death of Grass; Wyndham’s The Chrysalids and The Midwich Cuckoos; Mordecai Roshwald’s Level Seven; Ballard’s The Drowned World and The Crystal World; Walter J Miller Jnr’s A Canticle for Leibowitz.”

In other words, Butterworth became acquainted with the terrain of British New Wave sci-fi, which was primarily associated with British SF magazine New Worlds. Under Michael Moorcock’s editorship from ’64 onwards, New Worlds printed experimental writing mired in tech paranoia and suspicion of contemporary political currents. New Worlds writers were united by the social collapse of late sixties utopianism, by a shared commitment to a project of estranging and critiquing reality, and by a style swerving between theory and fiction in such a way as to disrupt authorized versions of reality itself.

Butterworth bridged the gap of fandom in 1967 when he published his first New Worlds story, the first of many text experiments circling around ideas of isolation and anxiety, alternating dense pulp storytelling with sheared down “good writing”. By 1971, he had begun conceiving and commissioning his own new-wave SF and literary projects, and come 1976, he founded the iconoclastic Savoy books with his publishing partner David Britton.

So what we have is a history of two chapters, three if you consider the interstitial post-New Worlds pre-Savoy phase. In considering these discrete sections, there emerges a picture of genres and cycles interacting: specifically, underground sci-fi beginning to interact with punk and post punk culture in Manchester. Naturally the lovechild is cyberpunk, which in many ways, Butterworth and his peers sculpted. With all of these swirling pieces in mind, I spoke to Butterworth about the genre assemblages in his work, and where they spring from.

An illustration done by Savoy co-founder David Britton, in his usual register of fantastical weirdness cut with horror

¶ Your work obviously has a strong connection to new wave science fiction and fantasy – can you talk a bit about how Savoy was influenced by this?

‘Savoy Books is a legacy of the 1960s New Wave of Science Fiction. So is cyberpunk (William Gibson) and Alan Moore (Watchmen, et cetera). We have in turn influenced movements like new weird and steampunk, and possibly (☺) the still very obscure fledgling genre of new wave swords and sorcery.

By ‘New Wave’ I mean the period that was at its peak between 1967-1970, contemporary with both pop art and second-wave conceptual art, and was best expressed by the large format newsstand editions of New Worlds (about 30 editions in total), which combined graphic art, contemporary art, fiction, non-fiction, poetry and reviews. Colin Greenland documented the literary side of the movement critically in his book, The Atrocity Exhibition (1983, Routledge), but its equally important visual side had to wait until David Brittain (no relation to David Britton!) came to cover it in Eduardo Paolozzi at New Worlds (Savoy Books, 2013). Michael Moorcock and JG Ballard conceived and called for the ‘new writing’ that was dubbed ‘New Wave’, and Moorcock became its voice (as the editor of New Worlds) for a decade from 1964 to sometime in the mid-70s.

Tales of the far future and bug-eyed monsters were suddenly passé. The future had already arrived, Ballard declared – writers should look to the present (or at least the near future) for inspiration, and explore inner space rather than outer. As a result of this edict, the New Wave was highly political. ‘The present’ for many of the contributors meant Vietnam, the Cold War, the sexual revolution, women’s and gay liberation, Black Power, experimentalism of all kinds, the media landscape, censorship battles, alternative societies, communes, the Holocaust, atomic war, dropping out, alternative education, free (no cost to user) schools, taking drugs, and so on.

Old, ‘classic’ SF suited the status quo – it was conservative, optimistic, fun even. New SF was political, pessimistic and dangerous. It was damning and critical of the conservative mores of the time, and if you’re looking for a literary art influence on punk I think its fair to say it jumped its own generation and inspired the punks directly. Anything that appeared in New Worlds was both radical and agit-prop, simply by virtue of its inclusion, for instance of: Thomas M Disch’s novel Camp Concentration (serialised in the journal and set during an alternate war projected from the Vietnam War; Kafka-esque), Pamela Zoline’s short story The Heat Death of the Universe (moving account of a mental breakdown of a woman in her kitchen, exploring women’s multiple roles as housewife, mother, et cetera expected of her by male society), Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition stories (‘condensed novels’ set in the then relatively unidentified media landscape; the book these ‘novels’ eventually became contained the story ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Regan’. Regan was then Governor of California, and it resulted in the Doubleday edition of the book having to be pulped after the complaints of an irate Republican senator), Norman Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron ( ‘tell it like it is’ satire on television media that resulted in questions being asked in the Houses of Commons because of its strong language; part-way through its serialisation in New Worlds the journal was dropped by its main distributor, WH Smiths – a massive blow), Langdon Jones’ The Eye of the Lens (dark non-sequential fantasy influenced by Mervyn Peake), John Sladek’s Masterson and the Clerks (outlandish and very funny satire on big business), Michael Moorcock’s A Cure for Cancer (the second Jerry Cornelius novel and also a satire on the Vietnam war), and my own ‘postatomic’ pieces set in post-nuclear landscapes'.

From the Savoy archive, compiled in 1977, an out-of-print Captain Beefheart compendium of rare clippings. Savoy was in many ways a project of committed fandom, and they were certainly fans of beefheart and his maverick pulp rock, which activated the genuine sonic weirdness being chased by post-punk bands in the early 80s (Beefheart was post-punk before his time)

¶ Savoy was involved with Manchester's underground punk and post-punk scene – what exactly was the nature of the connection between punk/post-punk music and new-wave sci fi at the time? Maybe just a certain energy?

‘As I have implied, punk was in a sense a late bedmate of the New Wave; the rough nephew so to speak. The two movements had common cause – SF, experimentation, ‘no future’ (the Sex Pistols), urban dystopias, drugs, inner space, anti-war/Facism and so on; in America too, where the New Wave of SF manifested as Dangerous Visions, two anthologies under Harlan Ellison’s aegis. (Dangerous Visions ran contemporary with New Worlds but was solely fiction; no visual element.)

The connection was due to, as you say, “a certain energy”, but it was also physically tangible – in London, for instance, there was Michael Moorcock’s involvement with the punk scene, particularly with the proto-punk band Hawkwind. His Jerry Cornelius novella, The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle, was a pisstake of the Sex Pistols that was first distributed in punk DIY format.

In Manchester there were my own meetings with post-punk Joy Division, which I document these in my book The Blue Monday Diaries.

Joy Division’s Ian Curtis and Stephen Morris (the band later became New Order after Ian’s suicide) were heavily influenced by the New Wave. Along with the rest of ‘punk’ Manchester – the Buzzcocks, Factory Records and so on – they were avid patrons of our bookshops.

The Savoy shops were started in the early seventies, and catered solely to youth culture, which is what perturbed Chief Inspector James Anderton so much; later in the decade, loud punk music was always to be heard blasting out into the street from the bookshop entrances. They were stocked full of American imports (SF and comics), horror books and comics, fantastic fiction, drug manuals, radical literary fiction, underground and bootleg records, tattoo books. It was a moment in time before the arrival of chain stores like Waterstone’s and HMV, who eventually took away the market from us. Savoy’s shops became New Wave-punk interfaces. The two fed off each other, and were a large part of where Lord Horror (and music Manchester, for that matter) was born'.

¶ What are your general thoughts on extreme satire and avant-garde shock tactics?

'I love absurdist shock. Both David and I do. Our absurdist hero is Alfred Jarry, who also inspired Ballard (ref ‘The Assassination Of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered As A Downhill Motor Race’ borrowed from Jarry’s 'The Crucifixion Considered As An Uphill Bicycle Race'). I also rate Rabelais, with his satirical giants Gargantua and Pantagruel attacking the institutional religion of his time, and of course Swift’s satires on the human condition'.

¶ There seems to be a stylistic tradition of decadent and baroque literature informing language in the Lord Horror series – is this a correct lineage to pick up on?

'The author David Mitchell (DM Mitchell, not journalist and author David Mitchell) links us with Decadents. He cites such figures of the movement such as Leutreamont, particularly his classic work Maldoror, which is violent and surreal, and Bataille and De Sade and others. But actually our ‘decadent’ influences come from the fin de siècle, the original bedrock of Savoy: Harry Clarke, Aubrey Beardsley, Oscar Wilde, The Savoy magazine and Leonard Smithers, The Savoy’s publisher: this particularly British decadent group had a maverick buccaneering foppish spirit that attracted us.

The ‘baroque’ you are noticing may be an extravagant mixture of things. If you add to the fin de siècle the New Wave of SF, Weird Tales (a pulp magazine that first published HP Lovecraft, as influential to Savoy as New Worlds), the two Burroughs (William and Edgar Rice), 50s rock’n’roll, William Hope Hodgson (the English ‘Alfred Jarry’ who wrote The House on the Borderland), David Lindsay who wrote A Voyage to Arcturus, and Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet), the American singer, musician, composer, poet and artist…. you get Savoy Books. All highly original and crazy people and things. Flamboyant and individual. And this feeds the writing. The other thing you have to realise is that there is a lot of collaging of other texts in the novels that gets woven into them, hopefully seamlessly, and endless references, most not all that obvious'.

A Britton illustration which appeared within the Beefheart catalogue. Note Lovecraftian mass of writhing black lines. These sorts of images combined with the weird assemblages making up Savoy's texts (think punk shot with high modernist horror shot with childrens cartoons, popular pulp sci-fic, ect) endow Savoy with a status of being a pioneer in 'new weird' genre fiction and art. Reccomended reading: the weird and the eerie by Mark Fisher, Weird Realism by Graham Harman

¶ Drawing on that, I had a funny thought that Savoy was very fashionable…

'Fashion has been important, though not in a slavish sense. We like larger than life characters, and opulence and weirdness. Two fallen stars, PJ Proby and Fenella Fielding, have had a great deal of influence visually, artistically and temperamentally. It is not generally known for instance that Proby’s ‘split-trousers’, which he repeatedly split on stage, with the result, in the conservative days of the early 60s, that he was banned everywhere, bringing an end to his pop superstardom… inspired Iggy Pop, who copied Proby’s idea, but developed it: he wore the split garments off-stage as street fashion. Over the years this style – ‘ripped jeans’ – became a global fashion trend.

One important link we have with fashion may be with the pop star Anohni, who heard our 12” single ‘Shoot Yer Load’ by Meng & Ecker at a New York electro night in the eighties when it came out, and became a fan of ours. He (as she then was) and a friend would dress up outrageously and dance to our music. They also DJ’d our records at their own club night. Anohni and I met on a UK tour when he was Antony and the Johnsons. He curated the 2012 Meltdown Festival (as Antony Hegarty), and wanted to include the ‘Savoy orchestra’ in the Meltdown line-up, but he didn’t have the budget to get us all there. He would have sung with us and probably acted. We have left it that we will collaborate on a song in the future'.

¶ Can you talk a bit about Savoy being censored?

'The one area where we were generally acknowledged to have an influence was on furthering the cause of freedom of expression. Provincial authorities were wrongly using the Obscene Publications Act, and when we tried to fight back prosecutors were using other laws against – like the Public Interest Immunity law – to stifle our objections. For instance, at our comics trial the prosecution expressed the view to the judge that we were not serious publishers. When our counsel objected, and asked them to say why, they waved this legal ‘magic wand’ at us – Public Interest Immunity. In other words, they didn’t have to say why. It was ‘not in the public interest’. The judge accepted this legal sleight of hand, and accordingly several thousand Lord Horror and Meng & Ecker comics were deemed of no social or literary value, and were found to be obscene. We were not serious publishers, so how could the comics be anything else, ran the ‘logic’.

By publicising the raids and court cases I was at least able to cast a national light on this kind of collusion and abuse of practice that was taking place in Manchester, and probably other areas of the country, at the time.

The raids and court cases were much safer ground for journalists, of course, and they became a way of understanding us. A Savoy cultural voice of sorts began to emerge through magazines like GQ, i-D, Melody Maker, NME and (at the crown court trial of Lord Horror the novel) the national press. We got a small reputation of being freedom mavericks – but not really the ‘kind’ of people they wanted to support. Some of mainstream acknowledgement was snide and ambiguous. The Independent, for instance, when they reported about the Lord Horror trial, left the inverted commas off the word ‘Ant-Semitic’ when they referred in their headline to an “Anti-Semitic Novel’. It was the editors and their publishers who often blocked us from serious discussion. In view of our long career starting in the 60s there were newspaper journalists who wanted to write about our accomplishments, rather than about the court cases, but their editors nearly always prevented such initiatives.

That was then, and now is now. Times have changed and the caution around Savoy isn’t the problem it was. In the 00s and 10s of 2000 a new generation of young artists seems to fearlessly ‘get’ what Lord Horror is about.

In 2014 The Exhibition Centre for the Life and Use of Books, an art collective all in their early twenties, put on an exhibition of the work at The Anthony Burgess Foundation, Manchester, then toured it to Kent State University in Ohio. Kent State was more cautious with its display, but the curators of the Manchester exhibition pulled no punches. This actually shocked me. How could things one of us had gone to prison for be put on the walls of an art gallery without repercussion? But they were. No police came'.

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