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Savoy Books 
A Serious Life

DM Mitchell


2004

246mm x 174mm

Hard covers

First publication

424pp

ISBN 0 86130 114 5

A Serious Life

 

 

Winner of the International Horror Guild Award for Outstanding Achievement (best nonfiction title), 2004

The main voices in A Serious Life belong to David M Mitchell—his evaluation of the books, records and comics produced by Savoy Books over the last thirty years—and the company's founders, David Britton and Michael Butterworth, publishers of the eclectic, the maverick and the marginalised. Here they give their first ever extended interviews concerning the company's history, and state their aims and intentions from Savoy's inception in the early 1970s to the present day, most notably a disdain for anything occupying the middle ground and an insistent advocacy for the merging of High and Low culture.

Topics featured include their personal creations Lord Horror and Meng & Ecker, the 20-year confrontation of the company with the Greater Manchester Police Force, and the involvement of Index on Censorship and Geoffrey Robertson QC in the same, culminating in the defence of their works at the Royal Courts of Justice in 1996.

A Serious Life is an ironic title. It is a friendly book, and an informal read, to be dipped into at leisure by readers. It is hoped it will amuse as much as it will inform, entertain, irritate and confound.

This not-so-secret life of Savoy is designed by John Coulthart.

Assuredly our least commercial book, this illustrated, deluxe limited edition is a comprehensive history of Savoy. A chronicle of 30 years as publishing and creative entity and a compendium of our publishing and recording experiences, associations and liaisons with luminaries such as:

  • Gerald Scarfe
  • Jack Trevor Story
  • Burne Hogarth
  • Henry Treece
  • Joy Division/New Order
  • Colin Wilson
  • Captain Beefheart
  • Heathcote Williams
  • Michael Moorcock
  • William Burroughs
  • M John Harrison
  • John Coulthart
  • Fenella Fielding
  • PJ Proby
  • The Cramps
  • Jessie Matthews
  • Nik Cohn
  • Bernard Manning
  • David Bowie
  • BPI Bootleg Record Busts
  • Strangeways Prison
  • Morrissey
  • Geoffrey Robertson QC
  • Kris Guidio
  • JG Ballard
  • Kingsize Taylor
  • James Cawthorn
  • Harlan Ellison
  • Colin Greenland
  • Mike Harding
  • Ken Reid
  • Langdon Jones
  • Jim Leon
  • Samuel Delany
  • Charles Platt
  • Angela Carter
  • Chief Constable James Anderton

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Reviews

"Beautifully designed by John Coulthart, A Serious Life is the story of Manchester-based publisher Savoy Books. A vanity project, then, but who else is going to publish the biographical histories of radical, maverick independents? If a job's worth doing, it's worth doing yourself, and Savoy have done lovely job on this, from the shiny silver jacket to the illustrations and photographs. Savoy are David Britton and Michael Butterworth, latterly joined by Coulthart. Their activities since the '70s have included running bookshops that were regularly raided by Chief Constable James Anderton's Greater Manchester Police, publishing books and comics, even releasing records. They have never feared controversy, Britton having served two terms in Strangeways for falling foul of the Obscene Publications Act. His first experience of prison inspired Lord Horror, the notorious novel that attracted charges of anti-Semitism (strongly denied) and was subsequently banned, leading to the author-publisher's second spell behind bars. Lacking either a contents list or an index, the book comes together through interviews with Britton and Butterworth, text by Mitchell and extensive reference to authors, musicians and other figures associated with Savoy over the years, including Michael Moorcock, Joy Division, William Burroughs, Nik Cohn and Angela Carter. Given the current state of the book trade in this country, it's hard to imagine Savoy continuing to be very active in publishing. But if James Anderton couldn't stop Britton and Butterworth, it's hard to imagine the increasingly commercial mandate of Waterstone's, Borders et al standing in their way."

NICHOLAS ROYLE, Time Out

 

"It was the esteemed Headpress contributor and cider wizard Martin Jones who urged me to purchase a copy of A Serious Life declaring it to be "the best £20 I've ever spent." How glad I am to have heeded his sage counsel, as this is clearly an important work, worthy of the cover price and the lavish attention to production values. For starters, it's a hefty tome and in its steely dustcover resembles a polished breezeblock and could inflict just as much damage if dropped on someone's head. However, it's the damage done inside the skull that makes this work significant. Just a cursory flick through the copious illustrations gives the eager reader a heady thrill of anticipation for what lies ahead—everything from Baudelaire to John Willie, Little Richard to Hogarth's Tarzan—a swirling maelstrom of influences to invigorate the jaded mind and an indication of just how broad a field Savoy draw their inspiration from.

And perhaps the best summary of Savoy's emphatic stance (to destroy the rigidly-enforced line between 'high' and 'low' culture) is visual—the page where the cover of Conan The Adventurer is laid alongside the Picador edition of The Samuel Beckett Trilogy. Elsewhere there's a cover of Lovebirds magazine ("every girl an English rose") opposite the cover for The Savoy Book, which features W Holman Hunt's 'Lady of Shallot'. Disparate influences, atoms in collision, powerful art via the fusion reactor of 'improper' juxtapositions.

The text that accompanies the fantastic images is made up of Mitchell's own ruminations on Savoy's place within the culture, starting with an erudite consideration of their spiritual precedents (giving special emphasis to DeSade) and leading on to a series of interviews with the main culprits—David Britton, Michael Butterworth, John Coulthart, Kris Guidio—and overviews of some of their more significant releases such as Charles Platt's The Gas, Henry Treece's series of Celtic novels and leading onto a breathless championing of the novels and comics of David Britton, featuring Savoy's most enduring (and notorious) icon, Lord Horror. There's also an appraisal of the majority of Savoy's late eighties/early nineties musical output, mainly featuring a perpetually pissed PJ Proby and, to close, a discussion of the numerous court cases Savoy have been involved with during their 'Savoy Wars' against the Manchester police. It's appropriate that there is no overall thematic structure to the work—Mitchell takes the same approach to the material as Savoy have done to their publishing ventures—he's all over the shop but it all comes together in the end.

He starts strong with a steely appraisal of the woeful state of modern ‘youth culture' and, indeed, the almost entire absence of any genuine and effective 'counter culture' in this country. We now exist in a sanitised wasteland of ugly joy, fogged by ennui, gasping in the chokehold of 'compulsory leisure', with only the occasional fire of inspiration glimpsed through the mists. The coverage of Savoy's inception and early years should be ample inspiration for anyone looking for a cue to do their own thing, to start their own fire. The era of the late sixties and seventies, before Forbidden Planet, before Waterstone's, before Bizarre magazine and 'apocalypse culture', is fondly evoked, highlighting just how significant magazines like Michael Moorcock's New Worlds were at the time, acting as a clarion call to the imaginative youth who felt doomed by their own futures in industrial wastelands up and down the country. Moorcock is revealed as the spiritual Godfather to Savoy, lending a guiding hand and providing solid inspiration for their early ventures in publishing. Savoy emerged from the last genuine period of possibility before the media students started graduating and ruining the situation for all concerned.

There's also entertaining recollections of the Savoy shops that for a brief time in the 1970s acted as cauldrons of prurience in cities across the North of England, selling pulp fiction alongside Picador literature, comics, film magazines, records and the inevitable soft porn, all against a backdrop of obscenely loud music. I have my own enduring memories of Bookchain (now The Savoy Book Emporium) in Leeds and the sense my young mind had of transgressing into the Forbidden Zone as I crossed the threshold of the shop, to be faced with haphazard piles of Creem, Fangoria, Starburst and Warrior, though my eye would always be drawn to the less-than-discreetly curtained area in the far corner where the ‘fun books' were on display. A Serious Life makes much of Men Only being the cash cow that saved Savoy but there was usually much stronger fare festering behind that curtain. We can wonder how much of such spermy contraband has put wind into the sails of the good ship Savoy over the years?

A Serious Life does great service to the Savoy legacy and draws necessary comparisons (some obvious, some not so) with aesthetic equivalents throughout history; a championing of the great and noble tradition of standing against the populist mainstream acquiescence to mediocrity and cretinism. If the motives and intentions of Savoy have been vague to its detractors in the past I wonder what they might make of this book, which is as clear a statement of purpose as you could wish for. It should certainly be obvious that Savoy is not employing 'shock tactics' for the mere sake of it—though there is some value in the 'shock' approach in terms of getting attention amidst a swarming radar screen of annoying signals—and attempting to engage with what is clearly never going to be a wide audience in terms of numbers but is certainly not restricted to black clad miserabilists with bookshelves full of Colin Wilson. The only 'typical' Savoy reader will be someone who is seeking more from their art than what is considered appropriate by the arbiters of taste and interested parties should start with this book and proceed on through the back catalogue. At the very least, the plethora of names dropped, books recommended and obscure artists and writers championed should give you numerous new lines of enquiry. I can't recommend this book highly enough and can only echo the words of the esteemed Jones: it's the best £20 you'll ever spend."

RIK RAWLING, Headpress

 

"I recently bought A Serious Life, and since reading it have come away inspired, awed, and ready to tell anyone near me that they must purchase a copy. This is the guidebook through the bleak and gutless times that are the 21st Century. After Mr Coulthart's blinding design and Mr Mitchell's 'are-you-with-us-or-are-you-against-us?' introduction, the reader is plunged into a better world, a world it seems of artistic options; a world born from a decade where philanthropy and instinct made for much more interesting books than today's spineless pups. And like their other publications, A Serious Life represents true value for money in words and pictures.

Savoy's books are true treasures, there to be discovered; not to be glanced at on a lunch-break from the office.

There are many marvellous things I have taken away from A Serious Life, both in graphics and information: Mr Coulthart stepping unknowingly into Beardsley's thin shoes, Mr Butterworth standing over Ken Reid like a parallel universe Willy Wonka, Jim Leon's ART, Langdon Jones' facial replication of 1920s nihilistic poet Harry Crosby, and a photograph of Hope Mirrlees, my kind of woman—fully clothed, enigmatic, curvy... and a lesbian. But one quote from Mr Britton has stuck with me, one that seems to sum up the meaning of creation, not just for Savoy, but for anyone with serious intent:

'We had been enamoured by The Cramps before seeing Kris Guidio's stuff. They are a band with an original sound (how few of these exist...), they are also inspired historians of rock'n'roll. After the Sex Pistols, The Cramps are the only decent rock band in the last twenty-five years. Their best stuff carries real conviction. Live, they're just brilliant and come on like the genuine article. But it's their accurate sense of rock history that really elevates them. They take from the most obscure sources for their songs and recordings, and they mix a number of genres—horror, trash, sleaze—with a great sense of design, style and, of course, rock'n'roll, rockabilly and psycho-garage. It's this breath of the right musical knowledge that they have—which I've never seen in another band—as well as their ability to bring down a convincing hammer on the whole brew.'

Learn from the past. Drag it into the present. Push it and pull it and fuck it over until it makes something you can shove into the jaded faces of those around you. Knowledge. Seeing The Cramps last year in London, they were in utter possession of knowledge, and mastered its force for all to see: Lux on top of a wobbling speaker stack, wine bottle down his PVC trousers, batting the band's logo with one hand whilst the mic is rammed deep into his toothless mouth as he snarls OHMOWMOWMOWMOWMOWMOWMOW!!!

Take from history and learn. Tonight I watched the new release of The Cramps' Napa State DVD and saw a brief glimpse of the curtain tore wide open, a look into a world that might have been, where the lunatics really did take over the asylum... is this the fate that awaits us all?

Life is short/And filled with stuff/Don't know what for/I ain't had enough."

MARTIN JONES

 

"Savoy is one of Britain's most important publishers—or, just possibly, a hoax or a scam pre-dating the Sex Pistols. If there's a Savoy 'line' it's one of transgression, the championing of uncomfortable visionaries, and consequently anything a conventional critic could say about this publishing house and its products is wrong, and anything emanating from the Savoy collective comes with an agenda attached. If this agenda is one of reacting to circumstances—the story here is one of triumphantly creative dealing with adverse circumstances—it's still an agenda. But, unlike most publishers, it's an agenda based upon what the collective (largely Mike Butterworth and Dave Britton, but latterly John Coulthart) wants to, and screw other publishers, critics, the police and the general reading public.

Mitchell works his way through the Savoy oeuvre by means of interviews with various perpetrators, opinion pieces, mini-essays, and even the odd reprinted comment, and through all this Savoy's love-hate relationship with popular culture shines through. His introductory essay comes near to paranoia—"Our natural faculties of seeing and comprehending the world on a natural manner were not lost as part of the process of evolution but were deliberately taken away from us, stolen and suppressed by a ruling and despoiling minority." And this ruling minority consists of the champions of Judaeo-Christian, Descartian, Aristotelian systems over the "ancient visionary Dionysian life current." And Mitchell seems to blame Christianity for the Dark Ages, and lets Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Napoleon and Stalin off the hook because they were "civilisers" as opposed to Western imperialists who were "emotionally crippled thugs". So that's all right.

But he's acute, I think, in locating a significant root of the Savoy enterprise in dark Romantic figures like Byron, arousers of mass adulation and accusations of Satanic transgression. De Sade, Lovecraft, and Blake and other names dropped—a tradition only in so far as they have been considered one by self-avowed disciples. Other roots, I suspect, are simply what Butterworth and Britton liked, what they felt they could get away with, and what seemed like a good idea at the time (P.J. Proby reading 'The Waste Land'? It ought to be scarily brilliant and sounds like a wrecked ex-rocker reciting something he doesn't understand at all. Am I searching too deeply?)

So: among the Savoy roster: Michael Moorcock, Charles Platt, Langdon Jones, Harlan Ellison, Samuel R. Delany, Henry Treece, Ken Reid (Fudge the Elf, which is the title of a comic-strip not an instruction), P.J. Proby, William Burroughs, Colin Wilson, David Lindsay, M. John Harrison, Jack Trevor Story, Kris Guidio, Mike Harding.

Find a tradition out of that lot.

It's fascinating how little of the Savoy output I've read. Platt's Gas and Delany's Tides of Lust are among the books I have "set aside for later". Henry Treece's historical novels for children*, which here are effectively championed, are books I have not read since the time I devoured them along with other such books by Rosemary Sutcliffe, Geoffrey Trease, et.al. Jack Trevor Story is a writer I tried during Savoy's championing of what seemed to be an interesting writer, but what not to my taste at the time. Britton's own Lord Horror, despite the trials and prison sentences, remains unfinished. But there are others. David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus is a work of genius. Burroughs is one of the greatest writers of the 20th century even as he is the inspiration for some of the worst. Colin Wilson is a typical Savoy visionary: a writer taken up by the literary establishment and buried by it, so misrepresented that even he seems to have no idea where his strengths are. (And lest that suggest that I know, I'd better say that I haven't 'got' Wilson either, but there is gold in them thar pages.)

In many ways, A Serious Life is a deeply annoying book. It's beautifully produced, with many fine illustrations, and no contents page or index. This makes it a book to be dipped into, rather than the history of an important publisher it also is, but probably won't be used as. It's essential reading for anyone with any sort of interest in the history of imaginative fiction and small-press publishing over the last thirty years. As with anything to do with Savoy, there's far too much on Lord Horror and the firm's feud with the then Chief Constable of Manchester, who deserved what he got but whose obsession with homosexuality and stamping out mild pornography seems to have turned a general satire into a personal fight. It's best when it allows Britton and Butterworth to speak, because here a lot of the background comes forth and we get not just an individually maverick small publishing house but something with deep roots in the culture of late 20th century Britain. Savoy's immediate background may have been in filling the gap after the demise of New Worlds, but the environment was the Manchester of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, the later years of the Underground and seedy Radical bookshops, the emotional wastegrounds documented by Morrissey and "Madchester", the cultures of newspapers and small-press paperback deals which get written out of the literary histories. For the latter, especially, this book is gold.

For those who believe in the sf-alternative bookshops A Serious Life makes amusingly depressing reading. Britton recalls, for instance, how the "House on the Borderland" bookshop in the 1970s—the forerunner of Savoy—almost went bankrupt until they realised that stocking soft-porn for the well-dressed punters from the massage parlour upstairs, who would be "charging up and down these stairs, and they'd pop in our shop, have a nosy round, and then be off, without buying anything" might be a good career move. (Perhaps the massage parlour might have had something to do with the lack of other punters? For some years there was the Savoy-affiliated bookshop in London Road in Liverpool. It was there I bought Brian Aldiss's Trillion Year Spree. I can be that specific, because for the best of my knowledge I bought nothing else there, and the reason—now it can be told!—was because the sf seemed to be a lure towards the porn. Could I have been that easily embarrassed? Whatever, the shop is no longer there.)

But Savoy survives, just, thanks to energy, flair, and sheer bloody-mindedness. There are far too few bloody-minded publishers about. The ability to get up peoples' noses seems to be a dying art, as is a real commitment to breaking down the barriers between 'high' and 'low' art, or destroying mediocrity (as opposed to talking about it on highbrow tv programmes or from within the safety of academic textbooks). Coulthart, in particular, is a brilliant designer and artist, and look, just go back to the roster of Savoy publishees. We need our visionaries, and who more than Savoy have produced them?"

ANDY SAWYER

*Savoy note: Andy Sawyer is confusing Henry Treece's popular children's books such as Legions of the Eagle with his far more impressive adult fiction which includes the titles published by Savoy, The Golden Strangers, The Dark Island, The Great Captains and Red Queen, White Queen.

 

"For the last few years, Savoy (Michael Butterworth, David Britton, John Coulthart), operating out of Manchester, England, has published some of the most beautifully-made books in the world—and not only beautifully-made, but classics. From a reissue of A Voyage to Arcturus to Colin Wilson's The Killer to The Adventures of Engelbrecht, Savoy has made the statement that wherever truly original, truly inspired, and often quite surreal and daft books lurk, Savoy will be there to publish them in stunning editions (designed by John Coulthart).

But the story of Savoy is much more than just these past few books—it extends back into the era of Michael Moorcock's New Worlds magazine, when Savoy published paperbacks of work by Moorcock, Ellison, and others, and had a profound influence on the British publishing scene—not just because of the books they published, but because of their attitude toward those books, and their willingness to push the boundaries of what the English authorities in Manchester would deem acceptable to publish, and what they wouldn't. As a result, many thousands of books were, at various times, seized by the police, and Savoy threatened with going out of business more than once.

Yet they've soldiered on and, although their books no longer reach the broader audience of the 1970s, they've continued to be one of the best independent presses in the world. To my mind, based on the last five or six books I've seen, they are the best independent press in the world—considering the quality of the content, the quality of the design, and the quality of the materials used to make the books.

Their latest project may seem self-serving, but it isn't. A Serious Life, a 400-plus page book compiled by D.M. Mitchell, provides an overview and indepth examination of Savoy's history and its impact on popular culture, including music and comic books. Mitchell's approach is to combine interviews with Savoy's founders with his own commentary on the press in the form of interconnected essays. Some deal with the "theory" behind Savoy. Some deal with particular topics, such as Savoy's relationship to the music scene. Some serve to provide a historical backdrop. All are incisive and fascinating. While it is true that some of the claims made about Savoy's influence may seem extravagant, it really doesn't matter if they're accurate or not—the context in which they're placed is intrinsically interesting. Even if you don't care even a tiny bit about Savoy, you'll still enjoy this book.

Sections on Michael Moorcock and New Worlds are of particular interest, but there isn't a page—all of which include a plethora of well-placed photographs and illustrations—that doesn't provoke thought or further discussion. Blake, Burroughs, and all of your other favorites make appearances.It is the kind of book that's sharp around the edges, but don't worry if you cut yourself on it. It's a pleasurable kind of pain.

What I love about this book is that it portrays Savoy as unrependent, defiant, and still, after all of these years, committed to a subversive, idiosyncratic publishing agenda. Given the constant harrassment Savoy has suffered from the British police over the years, this is an achievement in and of itself. But what I love even more is that the book is an extremely way of saying fuck you to Savoy's enemies.

What better way to do that than with a book so lovingly made that it's likely to survive the Apocalypse?

A Serious Life is likely to top my best-of-the-year list, and I can't think of any other book that you should hurry up and buy right now while there are still some left."

JEFF VANDERMEER

Serious and Constructive

"For thirty years now, the UK publisher Savoy Books, founded by David Britton and Michael Butterworth, has been boldly pursuing a policy of 'transgressive' publishing, issuing books and music of outrageous fecundity and brio, much of it experimental, that invariably gets up the noses of the prudish. The firm's many accomplishments are at last chronicled in a book worthy of its subject: David M Mitchell's A Serious Life. But although this is a 'in-house corporate history' to some extent, it's hardly a puff piece. Mitchell compassionately slags the Savoy stuff he's not particularly fond of, while articulately praising the stuff he finds to be of lasting value. His segments of the text are the potent sinews that bind everything else together. Then come extensive interviews with the founders, full of engaging anecdotes and behind the scenes history, much of it wry and sardonic. Finally, there are reprinted essays and reviews from third-party experts. Savoy has always had a tight connection with the SF world (as explained here, the enterprise arose out of the ashes of Moorcock's New Worlds), and has published work by Platt, Ellison, Ballard, and Delany, among others. This invaluable testament to the courage and vision and persistence of everyone involved reads like a secret history of the field. And of course, under the superb art direction of John Coulthart, this lavishly illustrated and intelligently designed book is pure eye candy as well."

PAUL DI FILIPPO, Asimov's Magazine

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