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Keywords: Popular culture, criticism, cult

Title: Sieg Heil Iconographers

Author: Jon Farmer

Publisher: Savoy Books

ISBN: 0861301161

 

This beautifully produced oversize paperback is the third in a series of Savoy biographies, or 'manifestoes', following Robert Meadley's 'A Tea Dance at Savoy' and DM Mitchell's 'A Serious Life'. Given that Savoy's output these days is hardly prolific, such an evident fascination with their own output might seem at best narcissistic and at worst redundant, but the lavish presentation and sheer chutzpah of the writing bring this close to the crowning glory the author seems to be aiming for.

Part of Savoy's appeal is the company's resistance to neat pigeonholing, the irritant bibliophiles' arcane medley of fantasy fiction, Nazi fashion, children's comics and full-bore rock'n'roll perversely refreshing in an age of increasing specialisation and aggressive mediocrity. Savoy's wayward eclecticism means that the Meadley, Mitchell and Farmer books don't overlap as much as you'd expect, each author providing his own idiosyncratic take on the company's origins, output and obsessions, and while Farmer shares the rambling tone common to all three books, his bold, opinionated prose, enlivened by occasional flashes of brilliance, makes this the pick of the bunch. You may not agree with what Farmer writes, but his approach is so ballsy that the book is never less than entertaining, even with the absurd enthusiasm informing references to 'eager jig gash' and the following paean to Fenella Fielding: 'I would crawl ten thousand miles over ground glass because of that voice, just to wank in her shadow.'

Offensiveness has always been key to Savoy's strategy, of course, even offensiveness at a schoolboy level (what else to make of the title of the recent collection of Kris Guidio cartoons, 'Fuck off and Die'?), and this is where I think Farmer steers a little wide of the mark, twisting himself into all kinds of awkward shapes trying to defend the Lord Horror books and justify the company's support for or interest in a host of unacceptable icons, from Bernard Manning to Nicholas van Hoogstraten via Ian Brady. As John Waters once pointed out, if it's the liberals who'll come to see your films, it's the liberals you need to attack, and it's this attitude that drives Savoy's insistence on speaking the unspeakable. Lord Horror doesn't seem to me to be 'about' the Holocaust, any more than it's 'about' William Joyce: it's about confrontation, and works partly because it is indefensible, although it's too extreme and florid to be taken entirely seriously, its collision of mechanised slaughter, 50s British children's fiction and rock'n'roll mayhem as close as anything else to the definitive Savoy statement. In a similar vein, while Farmer berates Savoy's critics for focussing too closely on the purported racism of the Lord Horror books (perhaps their least interesting quality), he too shows a reluctance to engage critically with the broader scope of Savoy's output, his unquestioning reverence almost aligning itself with the critical vacuum Savoy has always battled against.

But these are small quibbles set against such an entertaining read, infectiously enthusiastic enough to leave me unexpectedly wanting to re-read Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E Howard. It's also perhaps the most beautifully designed Savoy production to date (no mean feat considering designer John Coulthart's characteristically high standards), the bounty of Lash Larue western posters and James Cawthorn fantasy illustrations rarely bearing any relation to the text but providing yet another version of the Savoy story to run alongside Farmer's celebration. The author intimates at the end of the book that this is Savoy's swan song, but the death knell may be a little premature (thankfully), as a collected Reverbstorm is planned for future release: hopefully with Farmer's volume Savoy will receive the attention it deserves and return to the fray with a freshly sharpened razor.

Review © James Marriott. Site © London Book Review 2006. Published October 30 2006