In the weather of his features, slow-gathering recollection.
“Jim Ballard showed me how to edit like William Burroughs,” says Michael Butterworth. “In the New Worlds days. He condensed some of my stories to show me how it’s done. He’d go through the manuscript, underline the bits that were well-written, then strike out everything else.”
To the discerning dystopianist, perhaps, making the thing hang together is not the most important bit.
A brew with the Savoy Books man affords a primer on the disappearing art of brass neck. “We had this philosophy of ‘jumping the ether’” he says, referencing another fellow traveler from his publishing days. “Jumping the ether is going a step beyond, over the top.”
As a poet, editor, novelist, short story writer and sometime fugitive from justice, the veteran author and Savoy Books svengali looks back across a career in which innovation and provocation have often gone hand in hand.
A new Complete Poems 1965 – 2020 is on the table before us, taking us back across the years to the start of things. For while Ballard was deploying the ‘Burroughs Method’ for himself in The Atrocity Exhibition – towards acceptance by the literary establishment – the young protégé was set on a more reckless course: challenging the law, playing cat and mouse with the police and above all trying to push back against literature’s ligature envelope.
Scarcely out of his teens when his work became a fixture in the pages of Michael Moorcock’s New Wave SF magazine, he’d come up on a diet of golden age SF, Rabelais and the satirists, Burroughs, the Beats and concrete poetry – most of whom, happily, were now required reading under the new regime.
“The idea was to get rid of rockets and monsters and talk about now.”
“My first story was about the last two men on Earth having sex. I called it ‘Girl’ because that’s what they were doing it for.”
By the mid-Seventies he’d opened a bookstore off Tib St with fellow small press upstart David Britton (Crucified Toad, Weird Fantasy) selling comics, underground magazines, bootleg records and subversive lit – including their own. “We’d seen each other’s stuff on the shelves in Percivals [on St Peter’s Square] and [anarchist press publisher] Mike Don’s stall in the Magic Village. David was punk while I was more avant-garde, so we went well together.”
The enterprise was to grow into a chain of establishments across the North West, in addition to their flagship den of iniquity on Peter Street.
There, they set about making trouble – opinions will differ as to the merit attached – publishing Charles Platt’s noxious satirical novel The Gas (inhibitions-busting vapour is released into the atmosphere of Southern England with horribly un-English consequences); acquiring the rights to Samuel Delany’s infamous trouser-scorcher Tides of Lust (sea captain’s sojourn in the South Seas turns way too salty); and producing their own in-house comic about fascist biff boys Meng & Ecker (you might see what they’ve done there, M’lud).
It was when they started selling top shelf porn to cover their overheads, ironically enough, that they came to the attention of God’s cop.
“James Anderton’s boys would come in with sledge hammers in their hands, seize the stock and sell it themselves. It would be stamped for destruction by the magistrate but then we’d find it all over the city.
“So we’d write the raid into the next Meng & Ecker strip. The police would read it, see themselves, then they’d raid us again in real life.”
Matters came to a head after the duo published a novel called Lord Horror in 1989…a Burroughsian satire-by-torchlight in which Adolf Hitler rocks up at the Midland Hotel (giving rise to the popular urban myth) and Anderton mouths his famous tirade against “gays” with the word “gays” replaced with the word “Jews”.
Author Britton spent a month in Strangeways for his trouble after being prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act.
For Butterworth it meant a year on the run in London.
“I had the shaggy beard…”
He insists the two were engaged in serious contemplation of the subject matter. “The holocaust is something we did. We, the people of the world, and our ways of thinking. Hitler gets in the way of our recognizing that.”
Britton went on to continue his dark series after the ruling was overturned, culminating in the publication, posthumously last year, of his final novel Old Death. He died in 2020.
An encounter with counterculture can seem like an invitation to sniff the gunpowder, try the taboo, think into the twist…is there something here that could shock me out of my thinking?
It’s an instinct the author deprecates when I invite him to choose a poem from the book.
“Poetry runs through all my work,” he says, picking it up.
It’s the mode he began with and to which he’s always returned.
Thumbing the pages…past crazy-looking things with word wheels in them…past poems called Off To The Riots and Sergeant Pepper’s Postatomic Skull and Circularisation of Condensed Conventional Straight-line Word-image Structures (Radial-planographic Condensed Word-image Structures, Rotation About a Point)…he shows me a long piece about nuclear apocalypse called Ghosts, and another about environmental collapse called Until Now. Short syllables flipped like wasted pennies in a poisoned well.
is to witness
before I die,
to see Her rivers
“I have visions that it’s going to happen. They’ve worried me all my life. So I write about it.”
“These longer poems get to the nub of you as a writer?” I say.
“Yes, I think so.”
This club is your club
In the event that Manchester City find themselves toughing it out in the North West Counties League next season, just as United run out beneath a banner reading THANK YOU SHEIK TAMIM BIN HAMAD AL-THANI, let us not be softened by the soap opera or misdirected by our moonstruck attachment to the Premier League nipple.
There may have been a time in the not-too-remote past when the world’s favourite domestic football competition made such a virtue of subscription broadcasting even the hardiest of taproom tankies would have had to admit to keeping half an eye on Super Sundays down the pub. Now that arms have gone limp in the City / Premier League embrace – and the prospect of United ultimately joining them in some military state fantasy league has reared its head – we should at least take some time to consult with the celestial pools panel and ask what’s what?
Domestic football is broken. The numbers don’t add up anymore. The owners of the super-clubs know they are unable to realise the value of their assets while being forced to compete largely within national borders.
Meanwhile, the rest of football struggles to make ends meet.
City’s executives may be sincere in their belief that the Premier League only picked a fight with them because the government’s upcoming white paper looms large over its fiefdom; United may really find the sugar daddy who will enable them to compete with Sheik Mansour.
But without some kind of regulation the Premier League project may go the same way as the Reagan / Thatcher one.
What seemed like a journey to the stars is a race to the bottom.