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The Big Issue Interviews
b y A l l e y F o g g a n d
|The Big Issue (North), July 6th, 1998:
Obscene but not heard...
Until now. Outrage is the stock in trade of maverick Manchester publishers, Savoy, and now they're peddling their wares on the internet. Alley Fogg tries to retain a sense of perspective.
When Michael Winner, rent-a-gob defender of the right to make dreadful movies, tells the nation that your work is exactly the kind of thing that should be banned, when The Independent calls your work "anti-Semitic fantasy", when your friend and business partner has been jailed twice under the Obscene Publications Act, when you've been bankrupted and lost your house, you could be expected to have a few regrets.
Tell that to Mike Butterworth and John Coulthart, respectively writer/publisher and artist of Savoy Books, Manchester's reviled and lauded publishers of novels, comics and records, now celebrating 25 years of outrageousness. Apparently, trouble goes with the territory.
"We have this phrase, 'rock'n'roll writing," says Coulthart. "Although 'maverick' is probably a better term. Everyone that Savoy is involved with, and often the characters themselves, are mavericks, going against the grain in some way or forging a new direction. Being maverick involves not caring about the consequences, you do the stuff first then worry about what people may think later."
Savoy's most celebrated troubles began with the publication in 1992 of David Britton's Lord Horror, a novel and comic book which told the fictionalised adventures of a character based on William Joyce, aka Lord Haw-Haw, who broadcast English language propaganda for the Nazis during World War II. A difficult, heavily philosophical and blackly funny work which jumps across chronology, genres and planes of reality, it attempts to examine the mind set of fascism using heavy satire and lurid, often grossly repellent imagery. Its many admirers drew parallels with Swift, Joyce and Burroughs.
One character from the story attracted predictable attention. 'James Appleton' was a thinly-veiled caricature of 'God's Cop' James Anderton, the former Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police. In one passage, Britton reprinted a speech of Anderton's which had described people with Aids as "wallowing in a cess pit of their own making", and suggested that they should be put in camps. Britton quoted the speech but throughout it replaced the word 'gay' with the word 'Jew'. The constabulary was not amused, and in 1992, Britton was sentenced to three months imprisonment.
It was the final battle of a war that had gone on for 15 years between Savoy and Anderton. Savoy financed their publications with the profits from small bookshops specialising in sci-fi, comics and soft porn. Anderton's moral crusade led to around 70 raids by the vice squad and in 1981, David Britton had been sentenced to four weeks imprisonment for selling seven 'obscene' novels, all of which were freely available in every other city in the country.
"We were pissed off," says Butterworth. "Dave was banged up in a cell before the Strangeways riots with people around him slashing their wrists and burning their beds. At one point they thought the prison would go up and they would die in their cells. I think in some ways it has darkened his vision, trying to make sense of it, and I'm not sure he could have written Lord Horror if that hadn't happened."
Coulthart, who has worked on Meng & Ecker and Reverbstorm underground comics, insists that shocking people for the sake of it is "too easy", and that Savoy's work has a continuing relevance.
"A lot of the stuff that's in Meng & Ecker, for instance, is exactly what's going through the minds of English football supporters in Marseilles right now. Those are ordinary English people, they're not freaks or weirdoes, they're just people that have gone on holiday to see a football match.
"It's the same with the outcry over Gita Sereny's Mary Bell book. When people react against these things they always say 'this evil in our midst is nothing to do with us, we are normal people and those people are monsters'. If they don't say that, what they are saying is that these people who have done terrible things are somehow like us."
After a quarter of a century struggling to find distributors for their work, Savoy have now moved into cyberspace. Their website contains a history of the company's legal battles, sample art work, interviews and, crucially, a mail order shop. The catalogue offers everything from writings by Michael Moorcock to records by '60s crooner turned cult icon PJ Proby.
"It's a big moment for us," says Butterworth. "A new shop window, and a chance to develop a new medium." But is the world any more ready for them in 1998 than it was in 1973? With a wry smile, Butterworth shakes his head. "Maybe when we're dead." •
The Big Issue (Scotland), July 2nd, 1998:
The Big Issue (Scotland), July 2nd, 1998:
PUBLISH AND DAMNED
A catalogue of depravity or a tale of publishing pioneers? Stephen Naysmith on 25 years of Savoynow preparing to launch in cyberspace.
John Coulthart reckons he could be the most dangerous man in Britain. After all, he says, why else has most of his work been banned or destroyed? But that's the kind of thing that happens when you hook up with Savoythe most shocking publishing house in Britain.
Coulthart's drawings for Savoy have included pictures of people being disembowelledand others of senior police figures being attacked by erect penises. When Greater Manchester police raided Savoy's offices, they said his work was 'shocking and harmful'and it was later judged obscene in court.
John's not the only one who's stood accused. Savoy's founders Michael Butterworth and David Britton have also been on the wrong side of the lawand Britton has even served two jail terms.
Banned, bankrupted and banged up, the history of Savoy isdepending on your point of viewa catalogue of depravity or a tale of publishing pioneers.
And although costly legal battles saw the company fall on hard times, it's bouncing back and celebrating its 25th anniversary in style by launching its very own website And now readers across the world can get instant access to their back catalogue of weirdness.
Their controversial books, comics and records have titles like Reverbstorm, Hard Core Horror and Motherf***ersand now they're all for sale again online.
Savoy was lunched in 1973, when Michael Butterworth met David Britton in Manchester. Both were publishing low budget fanzines, and both wanted to move into paperbacks. They set about republishing neglected texts by controversial authors including Michael Moorcock and Harlan Ellison, and sold bootleg tapes and soft-core porn to help finance the operation. But they were raided by police in 1979 and were ordered to pay £7250 to the British Phonographic Institute.
Police busts became a part of life at Savoy. But it was with the publication of Lord Horror that the company gained real notoriety. The novel, which was also produced as a comic strip, came out in 1989. Set in the aftermath of World War Two, it is loosely based on the life of Lord Haw-Hawwartime traitor William Joyce.
It was instantly denounced as anti-Semitic, and provoked the fury of Greater Manchester Police, who were also viciously satirised. A character called Appleton was alleged to be based on the police chief constable James Anderton, who had ordered many of the raids on Savoy.
When they were tried for obscenity, the Savoy boys argued that the book was not fascist in itself but was portraying fascism. They claimed it would be a cop-out to have a sympathetic character in a story about the holocaust.
But the court heard passages from the book where Lord Horror brutally attacks Jews with razor blades, and glories in slashing people open and disembowelling them. The publications were ruled obscenealthough the High Court in London subsequently overturned the decision, ruling that only the comic strip should be banned.
John Coulthart was the artist who drew Lord Horror. He believes the courts completely misunderstood itand the nature of adult comics. 'I still think it's the best work I've done,' he says. "But the magistrate took a dimmer view." He insists he isn't guilty of trying to corrupt young minds. "I can't begin to recognise the terms these people talk in. What one person is repulsed by, another thinks is fine."
"Most magistrates are middle-aged and middle-class. Of course they're going to look down their noses at a popular medium that includes bad taste and raucous behaviour." Further legal trouble came when another Savoy comic, Meng & Ecker, featured a likeness of the cartoon cat Garfield involved in bizarre sex acts. The owners of the original Garfield suedand Savoy settled for £20,000.
Such a fine would probably finish Savoy now, Coulthart admits. But he's still convinced they're on the up again.
"It's been very difficult," he admits. "When you can't even get stuff on the shelves of shops, it's hard to get people to appraise what you've done. But the Internet will give people a chance to make up their own mind, rather than letting someone in a position of authority make it up for them."
Lord Horror was so good I expected to end up in prison for itand I did!
Founder Michael Butterworth maintains he's no fascistand argues that Lord Horror was a truly groundbreaking work. "It took four years, and it was full of poetic images and irony" he says.
Butterworth will not be drawn on his own politics, but adds: "Portraying fascists doesn't mean you are one. It's ironic that we're the ones being called fascist, given the way we were treated."
Now he hopes the company's output can reach a wider readership through the internetand through Waterstone's, who've agreed to stock Savoy titles in selected branches. "We hope to do a Lord Horror film too!" he says.
Co-founder David Britton served 14 months in Manchester's notorious Strangeways prison after being charged under the obscene publications act. "Lord Horror was so good I expected to go to prison for it," he admits. "But 40 per cent of the people in prison shouldn't be there. A lot are there for minor offences like soft drugs or non-payment of fines."
While he was there a riot took place in an adjacent wing. Inmates set clothing and mattresses on fire, terrifying Britton.
"Strangeways was truly terrible," he recalls. "It just made me bitterand more determined to retaliate." •
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