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Censorship and the Experimental Small Press of Manchester

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A Savoyard’s First Brush with Censorship is the title of a short film made by Clara Casian in 2014, and is now also the provisional working title of a feature length artist’s documentary that is currently the subject of a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter. The initial short film was part of a commission by The Exhibition Centre for the Life and Use of Books, designed to offer contemporary responses to a series of experimental small press magazines, which were published and edited by Michael Butterworth in Manchester in the early 1970s. Clara Casian was one of five artists and collectives from around the UK invited to respond in sound and film to one of seven publications, and was drawn to Corridor 2, for the way in which it was deemed obscene, seeming to anticipate the later struggles of Savoy Books, a publishing house co-founded by Michael Butterworth with David Britton in 1976. This series of films were first screened as part of Butterworth: the Use and Abuse of Books at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation.

As the second part of their pilot programme, The Exhibition Centre for the Life and Use of Books had developed an exhibition and series of talks and screenings around the work of Butterworth, a prolific writer, editor and publisher with an important, varied and sometimes controversial output. In Casian’s film it was this controversy that she was drawn to and chose to scrutinize; “Corridor 2, published in 1971, felt the first signs of censorship. Startled by provocative cover art by Bob Jenkins, and a short piece of writing by Paul Buck the Moss Side Press, Compendium bookshop and Rough Trade Records refused to print, stock and distribute the publication. I was particularly interested in the legislation behind what was regarded as obscene and its obscure boundaries, and how later, censorship provoked Savoy Books’ activities, attracting much needed notoriety at the expense of their enterprise.”

Casian became engaged in an intense period of research towards the commission, discovering an extensive body of material related to publishing and censorship in Manchester and the wider UK, she collected interviews and audio recordings from Mike Don of Mole Express and Paul Smith from Manchester ‘institution’ Paramount Books, along with Scottish and Northern’s E. J. Morten and Didsbury Village Bookshop. subsequently uncovering a web of connections linking particular figures, independent North West bookshop owners and radical or alternative publishers that had been affected by battles with censors and the police in the 1970’s up to the 1990’s, like Savoy Books.

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Casian’s research, which had begun with the refusals to publish Butterworth’s Corridor 2, has now expanded beyond one person’s publishing career. The culture of censorship and police raids on bookshops during the latter quarter of the last century, Casian found, could be linked to political and social threads that were tightly woven into a Mancunian history of defiant and controversial publishing, recalling that; “I researched earlier publishers that were prosecuted for their ‘obscene’ publications, leading back to the Chartist Movement of the 1830’s and 40’s, and Abel Heywood, Manchester mayor from 1877 and patron of Portico Library. Heywood had started out as a publisher producing penny novels and distributing The Poor Man’s Guardian, a newspaper published in London by Henry Hetherington (1792 – 1849). He refused to pay the stamp duty taxation, and his publications were often seized by the authorities, being regarded obscene and ‘blasphemous’.The Abel Heywood company, later on Abel Heywood & Son, went on to become a major wholesaler, stocking Savoy ‘s publications amongst many others.”

However, the compelling histories that Casian has traced through her extensive research are only one side of this project. Based at Rogue Studios in Manchester, Casian has a practice encompassing film, drawing and collaboration, working with a variety of media including performance, moving image, sound and light. She often works on durational projects that employ seriality and repetition, developing gradually through an accumulation of events and objects, and has utilised this sensibility in her explorations of Northern British publishing and censorship. William Borrough’s emerged as an important influence during Casian’s early research, and she has sought to develop a film-making technique reminiscent of his ‘Cut-Up’ approach, “looking into using sound and image structurally, breaking away from an illustrative and descriptive approach.” Casian describes how she was inspired by the way text and illustration were used in the Corridor magazines, “shaping a ‘New Wave’ of Science Fiction as a visual language in itself as well as a literary one”.

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The way that influences are drawn from and combined in the work of Butterworth and his mileu is dynamic and exciting, pointing to the esoteric and unknown whilst simulatenously utilising familiar imagery from pop culture; “unclassifiable formats, anthologies of text featuring neglected literary classics and unlikely combinations from classic horror writing meet Aubrey Beardsley illustrations mixed up with pulp magazines through to speculative fiction and hipster surrealism”. The wealth and range of material and narratives uncovered by Casian through her initial research called for further exploration, and as such The Exhibition Centre for the Life and Use of Books are now seeking to support her in extending the initial short into a feature length artist’s documentary, utilising the techniques described above to create a film which will explore and represent these histories both in content and form.

Finally, there is a necessary urgency to this project, given that, as Casian relates “few proper records remain outside of the recollections of a few key players, who are still active and alive, which is why it is so important to bring this material together now.”


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Lauren Velvick is a a writer and occasional curator and artist living in Salford, writing about contemporary art, amongst other things. She is also the editor of Corridor8 Online.

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