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

Curious Relations

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“It is the function of creative people to perceive relations between thoughts, or things, or forms of expressions that seem utterly different, and to be able to Connect the seemingly Unconnected.” — William Plomer

Regular readers will know that I relish an art mystery, and also enjoy finding pastiches of Aubrey Beardsley’s endlessly influential drawings. The cover of this book by William Plomer and Anthony Butts, a gift from the generous Mr TjZ, manages to combine both fixations in one. Curious Relations was first published in 1947 with the authors concealed behind the pseudonym “William D’Arfey”. The Sphere edition dates from 1968, a year when Beardsley mania was still prevalent in Britain following the landmark retrospective of the artist’s works at the V&A in 1966. The mystery on this occasion is the identity of the cover artist who isn’t credited, although the solution (for once) hasn’t been particularly elusive. After looking through the Sphere covers at ISFDB I guessed that Bill Botten might be responsible since publishers have a tendency to redeploy artists and designers, and Botten’s covers for science fiction novels displayed a bold graphic style. The guess proved correct, thanks to Mr Botten having a website that details his long career as designer, illustrator and art director for Sphere, Jonathan Cape and others. Some of his other covers have a Beardsley-like quality although there don’t seem to be any more direct pastiches.

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Bill Botten cover for My Mother (1972) by Georges Bataille.

As for Curious Relations, this is Plomer and Butts’ account of the upstairs and downstairs world of the d’Arfeys and the Mountfaucons, two invented branches of the Edwardian aristocracy based on Butts’ own family, a confection that looks bizarre and absurd enough for me to enjoy. Where the English upper classes are concerned I prefer to see them skewered by the acid wit of Saki; I only want to hear about Downton Abbey if it’s invaded by Sredni Vashtar and his ravening polecat horde. Biographical notes describe Plomer as homosexual so that’s another plus if this is reflected in the book. The double entendre of the title suggests as much. We’ll see.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Aubrey fakery
Under the Hill by Aubrey Beardsley
Aubrey Beardsley and His World
After Beardsley by Ryan Cho
Aubrey Beardsley’s Keynotes
Antony Little’s echoes of Aubrey
Aubrey in LIFE
Beardsley reviewed
Aubrey Beardsley in The Studio
Ads for The Yellow Book
Beardsley and His Work
Further echoes of Aubrey
A Wilde Night
Echoes of Aubrey
After Beardsley by Chris James
Illustrating Poe #1: Aubrey Beardsley
Beardsley’s Rape of the Lock
The Savoy magazine
Beardsley at the V&A
Merely fanciful or grotesque
Aubrey Beardsley’s musical afterlife
Aubrey by John Selwyn Gilbert
“Weirdsley Daubery”: Beardsley and Punch
Alla Nazimova’s Salomé

Weekend links 545

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Colour wheel from The Natural System of Colours (1766) by Moses Harris.

• The Vatican’s favourite homosexual, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, receives the ludicrously expensive art-book treatment in a huge $22,000 study of the Sistine Chapel frescos. Thanks, but I’ll stick with Taschen’s XXL Tom of Finland collection which cost considerably less and contains larger penises. Related: How Taschen became the world’s most famous erotic publishers.

• “In a metaphorical sense, a book cover is also a frame around the text and a bridge between text and world.” Peter Mendelsund and David J. Alworth on what a book cover can do.

The Night Porter: Nazi porn or daring arthouse eroticism? Ryan Gilbey talks to director Liliana Cavani about a film that’s still more read about (and condemned) than seen.

What is important about reading [Walter] Benjamin’s texts written under the influence of drugs is how you can then read back into all his work much of this same “drug” mind-set; in his university student days, wrangling with Kant’s philosophy at great length, he famously stated, according to Scholem, that “a philosophy that does not include the possibility of soothsaying from coffee grounds and cannot explicate it cannot be a true philosophy.” That was in 1913, and Scholem adds that such an approach must be “recognized as possible from the connection of things.” Scholem recalled seeing on Benjamin’s desk a few years later a copy of Baudelaire’s Les paradis artificiels, and that long before Benjamin took any drugs, he spoke of “the expansion of human experience in hallucinations,” by no means to be confused with “illusions.” Kant, Benjamin said, “motivated an inferior experience.”

Michael Taussig on getting high with Benjamin and Burroughs

• “Utah monolith: Internet sleuths got there, but its origins are still a mystery.” The solution to the mystery—if there is one—will be inferior to the mystery itself.

After Beardsley (1981), a short animated film about Aubrey Beardsley by Chris James, is now available on YouTube in its complete form.

• Mix of the week: The Ivy-Strangled Path Vol. XXIII – An Ivy-Strangled Midwinter by David Colohan.

Charlie Huenemann on the Monas Hieroglyphica, Feynman diagrams, and the Voynich Manuscript.

Katy Kelleher on verdigris: the colour of oxidation, statues, and impermanence.

• A trailer for Athanor: The Alchemical Furnace, a documentary about Jan Svankmajer.

All doom and boom: what’s the heaviest music ever made?

• At Strange Flowers: Ludwig the Second first and last.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Krzysztof Kieslowski Day.

Ralph Steadman’s cultural highlights.

• RIP Daria Nicolodi.

Michael Angelo (1967) by The 23rd Turnoff | Nightporter (1980) by Japan | Verdigris (2020) by Roger Eno and Brian Eno

Weekend links 535

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The Wagnerites (1894) by Aubrey Beardsley.

• “Part of my problem with influence is that the concept is too univocal; most of us are impacted by many others during our lifetimes, but often in oblique ways. So many of the most interesting bits of cultural transmission happen nonlinearly, via large groups of people, and in zigzag mutations. Assigning influence can also have the unintentional effect of stripping artists of their own originality and vision.” Geeta Dayal reviewing Wagnerism by Alex Ross.

• “Buñuel stubbornly refused to have any group affiliation whatsoever. Even though critics always tried to categorize him, he never wanted to explain the hidden meanings of any of his films and often denied that there were any.” Matt Hanson on the surreal banality of Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel.

• Next month Soul Jazz release the fourth multi-disc compilation in their Deutsche Elektronische Musik series devoted to German music from the 1970s and 80s. The third collection was the weakest of the lot so I wasn’t expecting another but this one looks like it may be better.

James Balmont chooses the five best films by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who he calls “cinema’s master of horror”. I’ve yet to see any of these so I can’t say whether the label is warranted or not.

• At Wormwoodiana: Mark Valentine in a two-part post here and here charts the emergence of an under-examined sub-genre, the metaphysical thriller.

• Power Spots: 13 artists choose favourite pieces of music by Jon Hassell. A surprising amount of interest in his first album, Vernal Equinox.

• At Spine: George Orwell’s Animal Farm receives new cover designs for its 75th anniversary.

• “Pierre Guyotat’s work is more relevant now than ever,” says Donatien Grau.

• Mix of the week: FACT mix 775 by Sarah Davachi.

May 24th by Matthew Cardinal.

• Ry Cooder with Jon Hassell & Jim Keltner: Video Drive-By (1993) | Goose And Lucky (1993) | Totally Boxed In (1993)

Weekend links 527

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Poster art by Bob Peak.

• Sidney Lumet’s 1977 film of Peter Shaffer’s Equus receives a limited blu-ray release by the BFI in August. Richard Burton’s performance has always received a mixed response (I’ve never been in the anti-Burton camp) but the film is serious and well-made. And, as with The Offence (1973), there’s the thrill of seeing Lumet turn his attention away from his beloved New York City to examine British lives.

• “Astronomer claims to have pinpointed date of Vermeer’s View of Delft.” Yes, but how long did it take Vermeer paint the view? Speaking as someone who used to paint a lot, I’d say two or three days at least. Then there’s that awkward thing known as “artistic licence”…

• “I was taken aback by the antic side of Borges. He was irreverent, funny, insistent on his ways, and brilliantly talkative.” Jay Parini on Jorge Luis Borges, and his experience as the writer’s chauffeur in the Scottish Highlands.

• Strange Islands: Benjamin Welton on a favourite cinematic micro-genre I explored here a few years ago: the mysterious tropical island that’s a home to fearsome beasts and outsized (often deranged) personalities.

Greydogtales on The Sapphire Goddess of Nictzin Dyalhis, the Weird Tales writer with a name like a character from one of his stories.

• “I came for the giant phalluses and stayed for the joy of being a gay person.” Eight artists on the influence of Tom of Finland.

Tamsin Cleary on Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House (1977) which she calls “the world’s most demented haunted house film”. It really is.

The Gone Away, a short film by Sean Reynard for the forthcoming album from Belbury Poly.

Moorcography: the beginnings of an online Michael Moorcock bibliography.

• “Our sound engineer got a death threat”: Andrew Male on Olivia, a lesbian record label.

Bajo el Signo de Libra explores the art of Aubrey Beardsley.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Hans-Jürgen Syberberg Day.

The secret drawings of Great Britain’s UFO Desk.

Wyrd Daze Lvl.4 is here.

The Four Horsemen (1971) by Aphrodite’s Child | All The Pretty Little Horses (2004) by Coil | When The Horses Were Shorn Of Their Hooves (2018) by Dylan Carlson