David Britton, 1945–2020

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Mister Rock’n’roll, 1969.

David Britton, author, artist and publisher, died on 29th December. I wrote this for the Savoy Books news announcement:

My closest artistic collaborator from 1989 to 1999, and a close friend for longer than this: capricious, determined, fearless, funny, generous and inspirational. No David Britton, no Lord Horror; no Lord Horror, no Reverbstorm. He changed my life.

He’d been increasingly ill for several years so this came as less of a surprise to those of us close to him than to others. Dave and I used to talk at least once a week, and on the last occasion he’d sounded worse than usual. Those talks were episodes in a conversation about art that ran for over 30 years, beginning in the mid-1980s at the counter of the Savoy bookshop in Peter Street, Manchester, continuing in the Savoy offices with co-publisher and collaborator Michael Butterworth, and resuming on the phone; art in all its forms and in any medium, with no attention paid to categories of “high” and “low”.

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Reverbstorm, the Lord Horror comic series that we created throughout the 1990s, was the product of those conversations, and was also produced mostly through conversation, working by instinct without a script. The series, which was compiled into definitive book form in 2012, is testament to a pooled breadth of interest, encompassing/quoting/appropriating/reworking Pointillist, Cubist and Expressionist painting, Modernist poetry, pop songs, Sondheim musicals, Finnegans Wake, Tom Phillips’ Humument, Burne Hogarth’s Tarzan comics, Joel-Peter Witkin’s photographs, voodoo chants, Piranesi, King Kong, Bauhaus graphic design, Hugh Ferriss architecture, and illustration of all kinds, from fairy tales to cosmic horror via Aubrey Beardsley and Harry Clarke; there’s even ballet in the mix if you look closely. Dave always liked the idea of Lord Horror leaping and pirouetting like a dancer. More than anything, Reverbstorm is rock’n’roll, and this is partly what the title refers to: a thundering rhythm.

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Britton art from Weird Fantasy #2, 1971. This is the drawing that caught the attention of William Burroughs when Britton and Butterworth visited Burroughs in New York City in 1979.

The term “rock’n’roll” always requires qualification when considering the Britton oeuvre, he used it with regularity while remaining bitterly aware that the original charge of the words had been degraded by over-use, reduced to a caricature by too many mediocre music acts and lazy journalists. I chided him a couple of times that his use of the term was functionally meaningless, a synonym for “my favourite things”. But the application was always a serious one, a label for any work that he found sufficiently thrilling, wild, original, excessive, anarchic, flamboyant, boundary-breaking or confrontational. Little Richard, Larry Williams, Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley were Dave’s kind of rock’n’roll, as were Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, PJ Proby, Iggy Pop, the Sex Pistols, The Cramps, The White Stripes and the Wu-Tang Clan. No surprise there, but Burne Hogarth was also rock’n’roll, although Hogarth would no doubt have disputed this. Another favourite artist, James Cawthorn, was given the label because Dave had discovered Cawthorn’s work when his teenage rock’n’roll obsession was at its height; two forms of art were permanently bound together, with sword & sorcery recast as the literary equivalent of a delinquent musical idiom. Dave’s other artist collaborator, Kris Guidio, was rock’n’roll for having served time as a peerless portraitist of The Cramps. LaVern Baker was rock’n’roll, as was CL Moore. Aubrey Beardsley was rock’n’roll and Harry Clarke was rock’n’roll; William Burroughs and William Hope Hodgson were rock’n’roll, so were Michael Moorcock and Harlan Ellison. Francis Bacon and Paula Rego were rock’n’roll; Alan Clarke was rock’n’roll and so was David Lynch. The quest for more of this rare commodity was relentless and unceasing. Many of our conversations were little more than enthusiastic discussions of shared favourites, or recommendations to watch/read/listen to something new.

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The first Savoy publication from 1976—Cawthorn adapting Moorcock’s apocalyptic Elric novel—was a declaration of intent: maximum rock’n’roll.

The photo at the head of this post is one that Dave had reused in recent years, one of the few portraits he seemed to like. It first appeared inside his debut publication, Weird Fantasy #1, a genre fanzine that was also enough of an underground publication to receive a passing mention in Oz magazine. The picture is emblematic of the Britton character, dressed in a manner at odds with the north Manchester surroundings he grew up in, and where he was still stuck at the time, a world of back-to-back housing and squalid ginnels. Rock’n’roll in all its forms was the great escape from a world of severely limited horizons and circumscribed lives, where all you could look forward to after a few years of poor education was a job in the local mill or factory. People who dismiss the gaudier forms of entertainment as “escapist” are usually middle class and blessed with comforts and opportunities that reinforce their condescensions; people who never had to consider a life so lacking in promise that a song heard on the radio, a vinyl record, a comic book, a paperback found on a market stall, might be the key to a wider world, an affirmation that there was more than the brick walls of your immediate environment, and there could be even more than this. “Escapist” suggests a hiding away but it also means breaking free. In later years Dave maintained a sporadic correspondence with Alan Moore; they never met but were mutually supportive, thanks in part to a shared background as bright boys from working-class backwaters with no encouragement to try and transform their lives through their escapist enthusiasms. Alan maintained an affection for his background, but Dave seldom spoke of his without a shudder, as though he’d evaded a fate worse than death. One thing he retained from north Manchester was an ebulliently vulgar sense of humour. He agreed with Picasso that good taste is the enemy of creativity.

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David Britton’s first novel wasn’t one he considered his best but it remains the most notorious thanks to the conscientious literary assessments of the Greater Manchester police.

I’ll miss Dave’s infectious humour, just as I’ll miss the conversations that so often provoked it, the quest for better art, some new kind of kick, more rock’n’roll. I’ll miss being able to show him something I know he’ll enjoy. He always liked quotations so I’ll end this with a lengthy one from Walter Pater, the aesthetic theorist whose ideas energised the Decadents and the founders of The Savoy, the magazine from which Savoy Books took its name. It summarises Dave’s attitude to life even if he’d never discuss things in such a grandiloquent manner:

…we are all condamnes, as Victor Hugo says: we are all under sentence of death but with a sort of indefinite reprieve—les hommes sont tous condamnes a mort avec des sursis indefinis: we have an interval, and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passions, the wisest, at least among “the children of this world,” in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time. Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which come naturally to many of us. Only be sure it is passion—that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of this wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for art’s sake, has most; for art comes to you professing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.

Previously on { feuilleton }
James Cawthorn: The Man and His Art
A Reverbstorm jukebox
Reverbstorm: an introduction and preview

Weekend links 339

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Untitled (2011) by Roger Hiorns. Photograph by Kate Green.

• “Most surprising and troubling of all is the status of a series of new paintings, also depicting naked male bodies. The figures look archaic, painted using latex and molten and folded plastic. They have sex with each other and with themselves. Extra penises float about, and fill any otherwise unoccupied orifice. There’s a lot of rogering going on, anal and oral, the figures consumed entirely by the act.” Adrian Searle reviews Roger Hiorns’ latest show at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham.

• “At the heart of magical belief is the belief in your own free will, in your ability to make changes and influence the world. It wasn’t accepting your circumstances, it was working to understand and directly change them.” Jessa Crispin on the women of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

Addison Nugent on William Hope Hodgson: “The Forgotten Bodybuilding, Shark-Fighting Sailor who Invented Cosmic Horror (and annoyed Houdini)”. I’d quibble with the “forgotten”—Hodgson is sometimes overlooked but not exactly unknown—but the appraisal is welcome.

• More end-of-year lists: The Quietus posts its Albums of the Year, Bandcamp does the same, while Adrian Curry at MUBI announces his favourite film posters of the year.

Callum James has devised The Quite Difficult Book Quiz for those who’d like a challenge (and a donation to charity) over Christmas.

• “A profoundly poetic anomaly”: Kenan Malik on the Tantric paintings that pre-empt Modernist abstraction.

Patricia M’s Flickr albums contain a wealth of antique graphic design, advertising art and undigitised letterforms.

• “Cronky, shonky, soggy, knackered”: Simon Reynolds on ten years of Moon Wiring Club.

Michael LePointe on the delightful mysteries of The Voynich Manuscript.

Veloelectroindustrial: Wandering the wastelands of former industry.

• Mix of the week: Secret Thirteen Mix 202 by JG Biberkopf.

• “Was Edmund Wilson jealous of Lolita?” asks Alex Beam.

• “Research finds MP3s drain your music of emotion.

Richard H. Kirk‘s favourite albums.

Pavel Banka‘s surreal abstractions.

Dennis Cooper‘s Alan Clarke Day.

Cosmic Surfin’ (1978) by Yellow Magic Orchestra | Cosmic Meditation (1991) by Moondog | Cosmic Call (2006) by The Evpatoria Report

Animation Magazine: The Brothers Quay

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Interviews with the Brothers Quay have been quite plentiful in recent years—some may be found on their DVD releases—but for the Quay enthusiast some are more notable than others. This half hour programme for French TV stood out for me for taking place inside the London studio where many of the Quays’ short films have been made. The interview was conducted in 2002, and one of the brothers mentions that they may be leaving the premises soon; one of their exhibition catalogues has a recent photo of the studio so we can assume this wasn’t the case.

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Since this was made for an animation series the discussion is mainly about the brothers’ animation techniques. There’s also some barbed comment later on about the conservative state of British television. The UK’s Channel 4 was a great champion of animation in its early days, and the channel’s budget for short films helped finance many of the early films by the Quays and their producer Keith Griffiths. This was at a time when there were only four TV channels to choose from; today we have numerous satellite channels but no room on any of them for unusual or experimental fare. Similar sentiments are voiced on the BFI’s recent collection of Alan Clarke films. Just as there’s no room for the Quays in the current climate, there’s no room either for the single dramas that directors like Clarke were making in the 1970s and 1980s.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, a film by the Brothers Quay
More Brothers Quay scarcities
Eurydice…She, So Beloved, a film by the Brothers Quay
Inventorium of Traces, a film by the Brothers Quay
Maska: Stanislaw Lem and the Brothers Quay
Stille Nacht V: Dog Door
Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets
Brothers Quay scarcities
Crossed destinies revisited
Crossed destinies: when the Quays met Calvino
The Brothers Quay on DVD

Penda reborn

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Penda’s Fen is one of the most important British television dramas of the 1970s, and would increasingly be recognised as such if the licensing problems which have dogged an official DVD release could be resolved.

That was how I ended the section about Penda’s Fen in the David Rudkin essay I wrote last year for Andy Paciorek’s Folk Horror Revival: Field Studies. The book had only been out for a couple of months when the BFI announced that Penda’s Fen would at long last be given a DVD and Blu-ray release, together with a collection of other TV dramas directed by Alan Clarke. A few months later and Penda’s Fen is now on sale, so those of us served by the European DVD region (or those with region-free players) no longer have to point people to a low-grade YouTube recording of the film.

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There’s no need for me to rhapsodise further about Rudkin’s work in general or Penda’s Fen in particular when I’ve already done so in the Folk Horror Revival piece, and in this lengthy post from 2010. The film itself looks the best I’ve ever seen it, slightly desaturated compared to the DVD I made of my own VHS recording (but then the BFI transfer is closer to the film elements) but with a fuller frame than in the TV screening. The one striking difference is in the title sequence which in the 1990 screening had a red cast throughout, something that’s missing from the BFI version. I don’t know why this is but the red cast always made the jump to the titles from a still shot of the Malvern hills more abrupt than it needed to be.

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The extras on this release are minimal, with a short collection of interviewees apparently taken from a longer documentary about Alan Clarke’s work that will be in the Clarke collection out next month. The booklet features a new essay about the film by Sukhdev Sandhu, editor of the excellent Penda’s Fen tribute, The Edge Is Where The Centre Is. The Folk Horror Revival book is listed in the notes at the end of Sukhdev’s piece so I’m hoping this may prompt some of the people encountering Rudkin’s work for the first time to also look at his stage plays and that other sui generis television film, Artemis 81. David Rudkin, who will be 80 this year, was one of the many unique writers shunted out of the TV world by the very “entertainment barons” that Arne the playwright condemns in Penda’s Fen. I’m glad he’s lived to see this overdue reappraisal of his finest work for the medium.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Folk Horror Revival: Field Studies
The Living Grave by David Rudkin
The Edge Is Where The Centre Is
Afore Night Come by David Rudkin
White Lady by David Rudkin
Penda’s Fen by David Rudkin
David Rudkin on Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr

Weekend links 308

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Frank Herbert’s Dune receives a new cover design by Alex Trochut together with other notable works of science fiction and fantasy for a new series from Penguin.

• “…poet, scholar and biographer Sandeep Parmar…has raised the possibility that a long poem by Hope Mirrlees, titled Paris and published by the Hogarth Press in 1919, was a strong influence on The Waste Land.” Alfred Corn on new TS Eliot scholarship.

• “[Evolution‘s] strain of body horror brings to mind an ethereal HP Lovecraft mixed with David Cronenberg.” Rachel Bowles talks to the film’s director, Lucile Hadzihalilovic.

• Library music “is a sonic world of ‘weird beats, odd instrumentations, albums full of dark jazzy interludes or bizarre garage rock.'” Adrian Shaughnessy on innovation in banality.

Italy, which EM Forster called “the beautiful country where they say ‘yes’”, became another resort, especially the island of Capri, where a French poet staged a ceremonial flogging of his teenage Italian lover before the boy departed to do his military service and became the subject of a novel by his compatriot Roger Peyrefitte. In the Egyptian city of Alexandria, Forster observed the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy “standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe”, and the Australian novelist Patrick White met a local man who became his lifelong companion. For decades, the novelists Paul and Jane Bowles presided in Tangier, which Jack Kerouac was to call a “sinister international hive of queens”. William Burroughs arrived in 1954 with a teenage Spaniard named Kiki who, Woods writes, “was, famously, the boy who would blow smoke into his pubic hair and say ‘Abracadabra’ as his hardening cock emerged from the cloud”. Tangier was to figure in Burroughs’s novel Naked Lunch as a phantasmagoric, rubbery walled sex market called the Interzone.

Caleb Crain reviewing Homintern by Gregory Woods

• Beardsley biographer Matthew Sturgis reviews Aubrey Beardsley: A Catalogue Raisonné, a two-volume collection edited by Linda Gertner Zatlin.

• “He was the Bresson of Birkenhead.” Andrew Collins reviews the forthcoming collection of BBC dramas directed by Alan Clarke.

• “The postwar Hollywood western was more content to let strangeness be strange,” says Michael Newton.

• “Bosch’s work has always caused trouble for interpreters and critics,” says Morgan Meis.

Misplaced New York: a project by Anton Repponen and Jon Earle.

Wyrd Daze, Lvl2 Issue 6, is out, and as before is a free download.

Lessons we can learn from Robert Altman’s 3 Women.

• Mix of the week: FACT Mix 548 by Peder Mannerfelt.

Paris 1971 (1971) by Suzanne Ciani | Paris II (1987) by Jon Hassell | Dreaming Of Paris (2013) by Van Dyke Parks