David Britton and Michael Butterworth on William S. BurroughsTags: Burroughs Correspondence, David Britton, Interview, Michael Butterworth, Savoy Books, William Burroughs
David Britton and Michael Butterworth are the founders of Savoy Books. To call Savoy a publishing house is rather like calling Charles Manson a criminal — it’s correct but it fails to account for so much more. A frequent contributor to New Worlds magazine, Butterworth established himself at a young age as an important figure in the “New Wave” of science fiction that also included J.G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, and others. Britton became notorious for his first novel, Lord Horror, which earned him a distinction that even Burroughs failed to acquire: it became the first literary work banned in Britain since Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn and thus landed Britton in jail. While Burroughs had been in jail a number of times, it was never because of his writing.
In 1979 Savoy Books was prepared to publish a uniform edition of works by Burroughs when it was subject to a series of police raids that temporarily forced it into bankruptcy. The project was scuttled, but Britton and Butterworth never lost their tremendous admiration for Burroughs. A few days after his death in 1997, the two gave an interview to Sarajane Inkster describing their visit to the Bunker, Burroughs’ abode on New York’s down-and-out Bowery. Now they expand on that interview to commemorate the 2008 publication of Horror Panegyric. A collaboration between Savoy Books and Supervert, creator of RealityStudio, Horror Panegyric features an enthusiastic analysis of the Lord Horror novels, excerpts from the hard-to-find books themselves, and a timeline of Lord Horror productions including books, comics, and CDs. The hardcover book may be purchased from Amazon, and the text is also available in its entirety at supervert.com.
Meeting William Burroughs
An interview with David Britton and Michael Butterworth at the Savoy Offices, 12th August 1997, ten days after Burroughs’ death. Conducted by Sarajane Inkster and originally published on Savoy’s web site.
On 23 May, 1979, Michael Butterworth and David Britton of the Manchester publishers Savoy Books took the opportunity to visit William Burroughs. They met him at The Bunker, his home on the Bowery, New York, before he moved to live in Kansas. The publishers were staying in Manhattan, en-route to the American Booksellers Association Trade Exhibition in Los Angeles. Michael Butterworth’s note book records the visit briefly with the barest facts:
NOON — William Burroughs, 222 The Bowery, between Prince St. and Spring St., on The Bowery. (Google Map) Call first by phone before knocking. We to make offer to his London Agent for Cities of the Red Night and arrangements to discuss The Job and Dutch Schultz. [Verbatim text from Michael Butterworth’s 1979 American Notebook.]
Ostensibly their intention was to discuss with Burroughs a Savoy line of his work. However, although the meeting went well, the venture was ill-fated.
As of writing, the company has recently emerged from 20 years of persecution by the Manchester police and city authorities. Unknown to them in 1979 — the time of their visit to the Bunker — they were soon to be dealt a body blow. Returning to England, after successfully contracting to publish the paperback edition of Cities of the Red Night, Savoy was hit by the first of three big raids. (Two other raids, in 1989 and 1990, concerned the publication of their novel Lord Horror and various graphic works.) Led by “God’s Cop” Police Chief Constable James Anderton, this raid was a co-ordinated simultaneous swoop on their main retail and publishing premises, and almost achieved the intention of shutting down their company. It was the culmination of many smaller raids. In total, hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of stock were seized and not returned, including Savoy-published titles by Samuel Delany, Charles Platt, and Jack Trevor Story. At the same time, an unrelated action by the Times Mirror Organisation in America dealt a body blow to the publishing house New American Library. This had a knock-on effect on Savoy’s distributor-publishers, New English Library, who went into liquidation. Savoy was forced into temporary bankruptcy in 1981, and in 1982 David Britton was jailed — the first of two jail sentences connected with his publishing which he had to endure. Savoy lost Cities to another publisher.
Butterworth and Britton’s other agenda worked out well — they met one of their literary heroes, one of the great people of the 20th Century.
I asked them for their memories of that meeting.
David Britton: My memories of William Burroughs at that date are mixed up today with the images you see of him on film. You know — “Did I really meet him, or was it the dream celluloid Burroughs who sat opposite drinking tea?” However, I do remember thinking that the Bunker was definitely an extension of Burroughs’ personality. Burroughs added ambience to the place, which was an old gymnasium — the sort you would see depicted in gangster films set in the Brooklyn of the ’30s, where Pat O’Brien plays the honest priest, and all his young punks are working up a sweat in the gym — Huntz Hall, Leo Gorcey, etc. You could just see Burroughs as the Daddy, The Bowery Daddy, and the Dead-End Kids as his private street gang. Even their name sounds like one of his creations.
There was a flight of long stairs up to the Bunker which was a long room with a couple of side-rooms and a kitchen. I remember the “john” — a partitioned-off area with a row of old-fashioned tiled urinals, which had the sort of sleazy sex connotations you would expect of Burroughs’ living quarters.
Michael Butterworth: The Bunker was in a run-down low-rise area of stores, bars and light industry, very like Ancoats in Manchester, only busier. On the ground floor was what seems in my memory to be a used furniture store selling tall cabinets and cupboards, or wardrobes. It had open iron security gates, and was the general entrance to the building. I can’t remember how we got upstairs, or who met us to show us up. It may have been Burroughs. Possibly we walked up after calling on a door entry system. I remember Burroughs brewing us tea. During the meeting there was the sound of typing coming from a small side-room — probably his companion, James Grauerholz, who was also his secretary and manager. It was Grauerholz who — with Allen Ginsberg — did so much to help gain establishment respectability for Burroughs. It would figure, because at this time Victor Bockris was being allowed to make introductions between Burroughs and celebrities like Susan Sontag, Lou Reed, Nicolas Roeg, Andy Warhol, and Tennessee Williams. [Bockris was the author of With William Burroughs, A Report From the Bunker, 1981, Seaver Books, New York.]
Inkster: How did you arrange your meeting with Burroughs?
Butterworth: We phoned Burroughs before we called round to see him. We told him that we were interested in doing the UK paperback edition of Cities of the Red Night, which he was still working on. At first he wondered why we wanted to see him rather than his London agent. I said we would do this, but we would still like to meet him as we were in New York and could show him our titles, and explain to him what type of company we were. On reflection, he probably realised that we were looking for a slender reason to meet him, and he very kindly allowed us his time. Yet we were seriously interested in publishing Cities, which we thought was his best novel since The Naked Lunch. We also told him that we seriously intended to make available new paperback editions of harder-to-get works like The Job and The Last Words of Dutch Schultz. We were planning for these to be in uniform editions, if we could, and this seemed to please him. When we got back home we contracted with John Calder, his UK hardback publisher, to do the paperback edition of Cities. This was to have been the first title in what we saw as a Burroughs line, which could establish Savoy as a major publishing company.
Britton: We offered what was for us a high advance of £10,000, and were surprised when it was accepted. For someone of Burroughs’ calibre, it was a low figure. It made us wonder what other publishers had offered, what they thought he was worth. He never did earn a vast amount of money, despite what people think. When he was in England he was reported as saying that he was earning what the average plumber would earn.
Inkster: How much time did you spend with him?
Britton: It’s hard to recall how long we were with him. (Records show no more than about 2 hours). We’d brought with us a selection of our titles. I can remember discussing The Savoy Book with him. This is a collection of fiction and graphics which we’d just put out. It had such writers as M John Harrison, who worked for us at the time, and Harlan Ellison. We’d published Harlan’s book, The Glass Teat, and were going to see him next, to discuss further titles with him at his home in Sherman Oaks, Los Angeles. Our good friend Heathcote Williams was in there… and artists such as Jim Leon, who had illustrated for Oz magazine. It was a showcase collection for Savoy. We would also probably have left with him titles like Charles Platt’s The Gas, Delany’s Tides of Lust, Michael Moorcock’s The Golden Barge, Jack Trevor Story’s Screwrape Lettuce, and Henry Treece’s Celtic tetralogy. We discussed Harry Clarke, the Irish artist, who Burroughs knew of. Clarke illustrated Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination — which suggests that we also talked about Poe. At the time we were contemplating doing a book of Clarke’s colour and stained glass work…
Inkster: Was there any sense of the atmosphere at the Bunker being “contrived” in any way?
Britton: No — not at all. It was very definitely a home, first and foremost. The place was very clean, and pleasing to the eye, with no sense of the dereliction of the streets outside. It was open-plan and so from where we were sat we could see across the room to the kitchen area, where he made us tea. Burroughs dealt with everything, and he knew his way about. We saw no one else. He was the perfect host.
Butterworth: There were no windows. It was where Burroughs lived, slept and worked — like a bunker. But it was strange because you were actually upstairs, on the first floor. We sat on one side of a longish table, with him facing us, constantly smoking thin cigarettes. He was very polite and well dressed in a light suit. He looked and behaved exactly as you would expect from his public profile, but his formality broke and he became genuinely interested when he came across one of Dave’s illustrations. The picture, from The Savoy Book, was called “A Fortnight on Calvary: Don’t Put Me Down Like All the Other Fish.” It has a weird alien landscape, in which are two figures. The main figure was Count Sublime Hubris, one of the characters who later appeared in Lord Horror, imperiously tall, black, and dressed in finery, like Little Richard, but with an exposed cunt. The other was also black, but winged, small and naked, and fierce, with a very large hard-on, sucking on a tube which has been fed into the Count’s vagina. It made Burroughs chuckle, and he asked who had drawn it.
Inkster: Were you nervous about meeting someone who was obviously so important to you?
Britton: Yes, it was nerve-wracking, and easier that we had been a pair visiting him.
Inkster: How much did this meeting with Burroughs mean to you?
Butterworth: It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I can’t tell you how much it meant to me. As a writer he had had an altering effect on me — after coming across his work I was not the same person. He opened my mind to possibility more than any others except other greats like Rabelais, or Lautréamont or Bosch. He was by far the most important person I have met or probably will ever meet. I regret that we took no pictures, but that was what everyone else was doing, which was not the Savoy style. Savoy was a calling card that allowed us to legitimately meet people we admired, like Burroughs, Gerald Scarfe or Burne Hogarth. At the time, that was enough.
Britton: There was something magical about meeting him. I thought of him as a sorcerous “Tinkerbell” — and some of his inspiring talent might just dust off. Mr Burroughs was Chaos Magick incarnate and, like the best oneiric spells, your memories of what was said and done are fractured. Just the “distant wonderland” of it all stays with me. It was a very important moment in our lives.
Inkster: Can you think of anyone else to compare him with?
Britton: Ironically, despite his anti-drug stance, Frank Zappa comes immediately to mind. Particularly the early Zappa, who had a similarly cynical turn of mind and cold intelligence. It goes without saying that Burroughs was the greater, original artist. Andrea Dworkin has his passion, though her obsessions are elsewhere. It’s difficult to think of Burroughs having any peers. To me, he never seemed to quite fit with the Beats, nor with later contemporaries like Vidal, Mailer, Bellow or Updike. They were writing about the present, but Burroughs was “leaking in” the future for us: which will be alien. His mindset was genuinely alien, his mental umbilical chord was cut off from the rest of humanity, and he could articulate that discord within himself with the most powerful of visions. Burroughs had opened himself up, fallen into hell and climbed back out again. There are no other living writers capable of sustaining such visions. He was a mutant product of those strange decades, the ’30s-’50s. They gave him a primitive quality denied to later generations of writers — who are urban, literate in computers and technology, but lacking his connections with the fleshy and sinister.
Butterworth: I can’t compare him with anyone except, strangely, considering what Dave has just said, in a small way to Don Van Vliet — Captain Beefheart — with his ability to draw so directly on experience to make art. Burroughs’ work is so different to what went before. No one today has his idiosyncratic genius. He has had such a diverse effect — on literature, music, films, and electronic culture. Whatever detractors say of him — that he is misguided, lightweight, or whatever — will only serve to confound all the more, as his influence is seen to continue to grow, particularly now that he is dead. He is a hybrid genius, a great poet of the technological age, and a great satirist… and to some a spiritual leader.
His best poetic writing, especially his depiction of things gone, in broken, fragmented images — a yearning for the absolute, and at the same time an intense sadness or grief for man’s inability to attain ‘something’ lost — produces an acute nagging pain inside me. It is like the worst love sickness, a terrible ache in the stomach, a feeling of fragility. I sense his loss, his fear. I pick it up off him like a worrying parent does off a child. Of course, if his writing did just this, that would not make it great. What makes it great is the way he is able to use this peculiarly intense emotion to describe reality, unbearable beauty and awfulness of the universe, of distant galaxies as well as the human life processes.
Inkster: And now that he is dead?
Butterworth: His death — his final editor — only intensifies everything he has written. What he has recorded between 1914 and 1997 is truly awe-inspiring, and has had an effect on the way we perceive things and how we communicate these things ourselves — his is a way of seeing humanity in all its pain and humour that cannot be reversed.
A great deal of my writing which I most identify with is not written out of any sort of objection at all, it’s more poetic messages, the still sad music of humanity, simply poetic statements. If I make a little bit of fun of Control with Dr Schafer, the Lobotomy Kid, they say, “This dark pacifist who’s paranoid, who’s motivated completely by rejection of technology.” This is a bunch of crap. [From an interview with Victor Bockris.]
To me, death was something that Burroughs always seemed to face head on.
Butterworth: Burroughs wrote a novel as long ago as 1970 called Ah Pook is Here, which is about him trying to come to terms with his death. "Ritual and knowing the right words," he says with dry humour, is no solution to the problem. Death can come on the unprepared suddenly, like a "forced landing, or in many cases a parachute jump ". Far better, he writes, to know your landing site — where and how you are going to die — in advance. Cultivate a mindset of "alert passivity and focussed attention". When he finally came in to land on the far shore across the sea of his life, I hope he landed exactly where he planned, give or take a few yards.
More about William Burroughs
Email interview with David Britton and Michael Butterworth, 2008
RealityStudio: Michael, you published with the seminal New Wave magazine of the late 1960s, New Worlds. Did Burroughs have an influence on you and the other writers working at New Worlds?
Butterworth: The general atmosphere of New Worlds was imbued with Burroughs. Burroughs was living in London in the 1960s, of course. Not only did Michael Moorcock promote him in the magazine, JG Ballard also did. Michael was one of the main supporting contributors to the ‘Ugh!’ correspondence in the Times Literary Supplement, and on his travels made a habit of bringing Maurice Girodias titles into the UK before they were available here. He and Charles Platt promoted authors like myself (Michael wrote about me in an introduction that I “sprang full-grown from the head of William Burroughs!”). He even wrote an experimental science fiction novel called The Deep Fix, with a character called Seward. Then there were the New Worlds parties, at least two of which were attended by Burroughs. These could be “star”-studded events. At a celebrated one Mike introduced William to Arthur C Clarke, and apparently they got on well.
It was a very heady time. New Worlds is hardly ever mentioned in books on the UK 60s’ scene, not even in surveys by Miles (whose Indica Books was just around the corner from the NW offices), but to a small group of people it is the most influential magazine of the last 50 years. To me, one of the younger writers, thoroughly corrupted by cut-ups and unable to read linear prose, and used to having work rejected, the magazine seemed to be tailor-made to fit, and appeared just at the right moment. When it finished, many of us were left directionless, a condition compounded by the disillusion felt by the ending of the 60s.
RealityStudio: You didn’t cross paths with Burroughs at any of these parties?
Butterworth: I went to several of the parties, unfortunately not the ones Burroughs attended. I lived too far away to go to more than a few, and only learned afterwards in agonised constriction that Burroughs had been to the ones I missed. Jimmy Ballard attended some, so it’s very likely he met him there.
My memories (as a 20-year-old) of Ballard are frustrating. I didn’t know what to say to him, even though he was there in front of me at a party and was talking to me and only me. By the time I met Burroughs I was twelve years older and had brought Dave as cover, so got slightly more out of that. Regardless of what you manage to take away intellectually, you get something else off these great people. As Andy Warhol once said, it’s best you DON’T KNOW THEM in any way, because that way they still have an aura to touch you with.
RealityStudio: Jed Birmingham has written extensively of Burroughs’ contributions to Jeff Nuttall’s My Own Mag. Were you aware of Nuttall, his zine, or other small-press ventures?
Butterworth: The small press Burroughs and Burroughs-related pamphlets and books I managed to buy over here were got mainly from a bookshop called Compendium, in North London, and visits there were rationed because of distance (200 miles from Manchester).
That Burroughs regarded the small press magazines as his saviours makes sense of something that happened to me around the same period. I was about 17 or 19 (1964 – 1966), and co-editor of a new college magazine to be called “Top Drawer.” Imagine my surprise when I wrote to Burroughs to get a contribution — and very promptly received one, a kind of permutation! Alas, I dropped out of college, and so far as I know that was the end of the magazine. Youthful stupidity prevented me from keeping a copy of the contribution to run in a later, then unenvisaged, Concentrate or Corridor. (Zines produced by Butterworth — ed.) What an irony for me, then! Burroughs was routinely contributing to Nuttall in Leeds, Nuttall’s home town, where Nuttall was a teacher, only thirty miles away from where I was based, and may have regarded the North as fertile ground. For many years it worried me that he may have wondered what happened to my magazine. Very likely he forgot about it. But somewhere out there, is an unaccounted Burroughs contribution, perhaps lying forgotten in a top drawer….
RealityStudio: As Englishmen, did you find the language of Naked Lunch difficult?
Britton: On its initial reading it gave me no sense of confusion. As a front-row kid of the 1950s, I was well versed in Americana, serials, dime novels, B-movie noir, Faulkner, Hemingway, Mailer, American comics and of course that great universal binding blanket, American (50s) rock’n’roll. And Lash LaRue, the rebel cowboy, a creature from the Place of Dead Roads if ever there was. This cultural exchange, as you know, worked in reverse, when America picked up (a decade later) on The Who, the Beatles and the Stones, all reselling a warped mirror image back to America. Now that smells like teen spirit to me.
John Lennon, for instance, had pretty much the same sensibilities that we had. He supped on Larry Williams and hard-sold songs like “I Am the Walrus” with its children nursery rhyme-like lyrics (“Yellow belly custard, green snot pie, dead dogs’ giblets, green cat’s eye”) which was a song we all sang in the playground. Like much of Lennon’s work, it was taken directly from working class culture, as is Meng & Ecker. Once you’ve got Bo Diddley down your neck, Niggaz With Attitude are no problem. Compton is much like Miles Platting, Manchester.
Willie Burroughs’ take on sexuality was the infusion that threw me, not the language. But when eclectic prose and sex conjoin they conjour a powerful brew. There will never be another book as talismanic as Lunch. The world is now too small a place.
Butterworth: Did I find Naked Lunch difficult because of the slang and American 50s’ patois? Yes. I had a father who forbade television and American comics. Unlike Dave I grew up in a more sheltered middle class culture. Also, in terms of books and film I was drawn to sf and horror and westerns, rather than to crime and hard-boiled books. So when I came to read Naked Lunch in my late teens, apart from it lifting my head off I found it perplexing and mysterious in equal measure; its strange words increased its awesome imaginative power. Eg, “I can feel the heat closing in.” Now I had no idea to what “heat” referred. The way Burroughs said it, it seemed like a metaphysical alien radiation of some kind — which of course it was also; the way Burroughs used words, they had multiple meanings. Then words like “lush” and “roll.” I knew they were not being used “correctly.” Encountering them, I didn’t at first question these strange words, but as I read through Naked Lunch I imbued them with “tonal” meanings, much as I had done in my early and mid-teens encountering Poe’s Victorian prose. Eventually, of course, I began to use the slang glossary Calder had helpfully supplied for English readers. Gradually, over the months, after I’d read and seen more, I “wised” up. Knowing what the words mean did not decrease the book in any way.
Language, and what Burroughs did with it, fascinated and shocked me more than the sex. I first read about him in the Times Literary Supplement, after encountering a passing reference about a writer who was cutting-up writing. My initial reaction was that this was a cheap way of proceeding. In fact it outraged me. Dave (a Catholic) was more shocked by the sex. (Around this time he was probably taking Little Richard’s homosexuality on the chin — a revelation which outraged working-class kids who saw the American rockers as heroes; the very last thing they wanted to hear was that he was queer.) One good thing my father DID do for me (but for the wrong reasons) was to send me to an eccentric Quaker English boarding, where, among many other things, I encountered male sex. It was a mixed progressive school, so all kinds of sex was going down, but the girls and boys slept in different wings in the houses. Though I had lived a more limited cultural life, Burroughsian sex, at least, did not come as such a shock. Though the way Burroughs mixed it did. Overall Dave and I are agreed that Burroughs’ mix of graphic sex, literary experimentation and imagination was explosive.
RealityStudio: Cut-ups clearly influenced the “concentrated” writing you (Michael) were doing for New Worlds. Dave, did they also influence the later Lord Horror novels in any way? Much has been said about the transposition of an anti-gay speech into Lord Horror, but there are numerous other passages (especially in Motherfuckers) that seem to imply the technique.
Britton: Lautréamont and the surrealists used a form of cut-up that’s more applicable than Burroughs to the Lord Horror book. Ernst would cobble together illustrations from Victorian art books to gain entry into a mysterious absurd world. That always seemed more useable to me than Burroughs’ method, which as you know influenced people like David Bowie in a more productive way.
My own preference is thieving from a whole range of texts. Am always on the lookout, and collect cheap books with eclectic subject matter — fiction or fact. I will nose out this pirate stuff like a shark turning over a coral reef. Sometimes I lift paragraphs, with slight changes, which you’ve astutely noticed. Not only Motherfuckers, but every Lord Horror spin-off has this weirdness inserted like a deviant germ. A flowering of disease that makes the whole thing shake and shimmy. The ingredients of the soup again. Carefully chosen spices — a bit out of fiction, a bit out of a voodoo book, a cookery book, a botanical book, a bit of Cotton Mather, pieces of some really obscure pulp writing, and so on. The way certain authors write sentences will appeal to me, and I’ll lift them and drop them into the narrative stream. Hopefully I get the “fit” right, but if I don’t I’ll at least get something interesting. Like Topsy, it just keeps on growing.
RealityStudio: Naked Lunch was considered an unpublishable book, and yet Burroughs’ market had been primed by Kerouac and Ginsberg. Savoy’s market may have been primed by your bookstores and by other bits of alt culture, like rock and roll. But otherwise your books seem to have just careened into consciousness.
Butterworth: When you say that Burroughs’ market had been primed by Kerouac and Ginsberg and that our market has been primed by our “bookstores and by other bits of alt culture, like rock and roll”, this is it in a nutshell, and puts the finger on the probably insurmountable difficulties of inventing an entirely new market possessing such a degree of eclecticism — the length of time of the undertaking, the very real likelihood of failure. Once we’re no longer around to plough money, time and energy in, the shebang comes to an undignified and unnoticed stop.