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The Full Head Tingle

At the end of the Eighties, I became the manager of a small shop that sold books and comics. Finally off the dole, living in a room that was six feet by seven feet, black dustbin sacks taped to the window to keep the light out, I sat down the day after I got the job and wrote a letter to Savoy Books.

Savoy were and are a publisher based in Manchester, in the north of England, a couple of hundred miles away. In those days of no money, it seemed an ocean away, especially since I was struggling through a long-distance relationship with a girl who lived not far from Manchester. She had rich parents, and would come down to live with me for a few weeks at a time, but I could never get any further out than London, thirty-odd miles down the train line. Savoy were a march and a generation away from me. Publishers Dave Britton and Michael Butterworth emerged in the late Sixties/early Seventies, on the tail end of the New Worlds/”new wave” sf movement. They actually published an issue of the groundbreaking New Worlds magazine, before putting old and obscure Michael Moorcock work into print, as well as an early graphic novel, Moorcock’s ELRIC adapted into sequential art by Jim Cawthorn in raw Celtic style. They grew a list of selected reprints, an eclectic and vital catalogue; the Sixties TV criticism of fantasist and commentator Harlan Ellison, the newspaper columns of Jack Trevor Story, the gothabilly art of Cramps album illustrator Kris Guidio. And, apocalyptically, Dave Britton’s transgressive novel LORD HORROR. Which got them prosecuted on obscenity charges, slammed through the system by James Anderton, Manchester’s notoriously Christian Chief Constable. Anderton was a creature that could only have existed in the slightly surreal atmosphere of Thatcher Britain; repressively conservative, of dubious competence, and given to worrying statements about hearing God’s voice while Manchester filled up with guns and pushers. LORD HORROR was strong drink, to be sure: a hallucinated vision of Lord Haw-Haw, the English traitor who broadcast Nazi propaganda into Britain during World War 2. It was difficult, horrifying work, the Nazi atrocities made superreal with the tools of DeSade and Bataille, very much an extension of the “New Worlds school” and its intent to use fantasy as a way to present the real world in a new light for our consideration. Britton is neither a self-hating Jew nor a childish monster. He is clearly haunted by the pre-1945 world.

And they sent him to prison.

And I sent my letter, because I wanted to sell Savoy books.

The Savoy PR guy was a brilliant man called Martin Flitcroft. Within a week, he sent me ordering details — inside a huge fucking box filled with one copy of everything Savoy had in print. I had no idea they were making records, and especially not with the mental Sixties rock’n’roll star PJ Proby. Piles of stuff by Kris Guidio, lurching between the drawing board and the hospital, his artistic recordings of a time just past when everyone in London, in his words, were “dressed like tattooed undertakers.” His stuff, as anyone who saw one of his Cramps covers will tell you, radiated a kind of weird junked-up heroic ideal. Pen and needle, he was living in his own graphic novel world, no difference between him nodding out in front of “a nurse with an ass DeSade would have died for” and his credo of “let’s make our heroes wear black,” his private reimagining of a toxic intake of crappy old comic books.

Comics had a grip on Savoy still. In the box was the beginning of a serialised LORD HORROR graphic novel, written by Britton and illustrated by Guidio.

I don’t see Britton as a drug-fiend, but it reads like what you’d get if Grant Morrison liked smack. The serial is something of a prequel to the novel, illustrating how Horror left Britain for Germany. It’s saner, more considered than the book. Horror is never quite sympathetic — he can’t be — but the graphic novel reveals him as a smaller man, trapped between monsters bigger than himself. Britain is a sick place, and in his naivete he expects strong Germany to be somehow cleaner. By the penultimate episode, Horror, broadcasting from a concentration camp, has plainly gone quite mad.

Before that, though, we have met Horror’s extended family and circle of class traitors. In the former camp is a gloriously nuts portrayal of James Joyce, killing policemen at night with switchblades and fighting clockwork assassins sent by Churchill: “To fuck Horror!” In the latter is Unity Mitford, one of the English aristocracy who supported Hitler, cast here as one of Horror’s lovers — Britton’s tool to expose Britain as a sinkhole of hatred and stupidity. Stuck in Germany, his poison dreams dashed, he turns on contented Unity in a graveyard, excoriating her and upper-class England for their beautiful emptiness, their happiness at being ruled by the unbalanced and the monsters, their wilful blindness. She stares at him, his last intimate, her assumed fellow-traveller: “Leave now, or by Christ I’ll show you why they call me Horror.”

The final piece — at least, the final piece that I saw — is illustrated by John Coulthart, and is a long, silent consideration of the concentration camp. No-one can argue that this is pro-Nazi, incitement or infantile shit-throwing.

A year later, the bookstore shut down, a victim of circumstance. I became a full-time writer, which meant I was astonishingly poor. I fell out of touch with most people. I split up with the girl up north. When I got a phone again, I called Martin Flitcroft. But Martin Flitcroft was dead.

The pressure on Savoy from the police was constant. People said Martin felt it more than most. He felt things hard. Wanted to feel things hard. Put a drink in him and he’d talk about “Wagnerian soul music” and feeling “the full head tingle.”

He walked out in front of an oncoming train in the dead of night. Turned his back on it. Balled his fists and threw his head back. The train driver never had a chance.

The full head tingle.

Savoy publishing got patchy. Court fees, imprisonments, distribution troubles. I wanted to order them in the first place because they just weren’t penetrating bookstores or comics stores. Some comics kept trickling out, mostly the inferior comedy HORROR spin-off, MENG AND ECKER. They seemed never to sell that well, but it gave Kris Guidio something to do; in Martin’s words, he had “a hungry arm”, and that costs money, and he was their friend. I don’t honestly know if he’s still alive. It’d be funny if he’d finally outlived Johnny Thunders.

Savoy have a website, but I haven’t kept up with it. Go and look. It’s the secret history of comics publishing in Britain. It’s important. They were important. And, ten years down the line, I still miss my friend.

(Written 2002.)

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Published in brainjuice