BILL BUTLER AND THE UNICORN BOOKSHOP
By Terry Adams
Beat Scene Press. 49 pages.
Reviewed by Jim Burns
For anyone born after 2000, and some born even earlier, the personalities and literary events of the 1960s and 1970s may be taking on almost-legendary status. The 1965 Albert Hall reading, the rise of “underground” or “alternative” bookshops, characters like Alexander Trocchi and Jeff Nuttall. Did it all seem as important and liberating at the time as it perhaps does in retrospect? From a personal point of view it did lead to lively and interesting encounters with various writers and brought some provocative books to my attention.
Many of those meetings with both people and publications occurred in bookshops, among them Better Books, Indica, Duck Soup, Compendium, and various locations (I recall three) around London where Bernard Stone operated from. There were Grass Roots and Frontline in Manchester, News from Nowhere in Liverpool, and others in Leeds, Sheffield, and elsewhere. It seemed to me, as I moved around doing poetry readings, that just about every city and town had a small bookshop that was trying to break away from the conventional in terms of the books and magazines they stocked. Some of them didn’t last very long, and I suspect that most were viewed with suspicion by the local police and civic authorities. They attracted students, bohemians, political and personal misfits, and seemed to hint at drugs, sex, radical politics, and social protest, if not outright revolution.
One of those places where the unusual could be found was the Unicorn Bookshop in Brighton. It was opened in June 1967 by Bill Butler and his partner, Mike Hughes. Butler was an American who had settled in Britain. He had published poetry in Beatitude, a mimeographed little magazine in San Francisco. Its seventeen or so issues are collectors’ item now because of its Beat connections, though not all of the work in it was Beat, however that term is interpreted. Terry Adams reprints the Butler poem from Beatitude, and it’s entertaining but conventional. I can recall reviewing a book by Butler in Ambit back in the early Seventies. It was called A Cheyenne Legend and was published by Bernard Stone’s Turret Books. I wasn’t too impressed by it, thinking that perhaps the attempts to represent Cheyenne speech relied too much on images and language derived from Western films. But that’s another story.
It’s not Butler the poet, but Butler the bookseller and publisher, who is the focus of Adams’ informative booklet. Besides running the shop, Butler also brought out some publications, among them works by Jack Kerouac. William Burroughs, J.G.Ballard, W.H. Auden, and Michael Moorcock. Not all of them were “authorised” editions. The Kerouac, for example, came out after Butler had closed the Brighton shop and was living in Wales. It was a bootlegged edition of Old Angel Midnight, a work I admit having little time for. It seemed to me something of an indulgence and only ever likely to appeal to Kerouac enthusiasts and academics.
In ordinary circumstances the Unicorn Bookshop might never have attracted interest from outside its Brighton base with a few links to London as well. But it soon became obvious that the police had noticed that it was something a little different from either the standard bookshops or the back-streets businesses that sold what were commonly called “girlie-mags” with varying levels of nudity on display. The police could understand those. I remember a friend of mine who had spent several years as a policeman in Liverpool telling me that when a porn shop was raided the magazines quickly circulated among his colleagues. And if films were seized they soon became standard fare at the stag parties that policeman held.
It was the unusual nature of much of the stock in shops like Unicorn that the average policeman couldn’t come to terms with. It all smacked of subversion. And anything like it particularly stood out in the provinces. For someone like Dave Cunliffe in Blackburn or Bill Butler in Brighton to publish and/or sell something that might be sexually challenging in its way, but wasn’t recognisable pornography, was to invite attention from the guardians of law and order. It’s necessary to understand how narrow-minded much of British society still was in the 1960s and 1970s. But it should also be acknowledged that prosecuting small presses and little bookshops for stocking so-called pornography was also an easy way of stopping them from operating and stocking left-wing newspapers and magazines.
There were several visits to Unicorn by the police, with all kinds of material being seized, including copies of Evergreen Review and Kulchur, and books by Allen Ginsberg and Herbert Huncke. I’m amused by the reference to Kulchur having attracted the attention of the police. A more-serious publication is difficult to imagine, but it was perhaps the unusual spelling that motivated the police to assume that it must be up to no good. The subsequent court case during which Butler was prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act brought support from various quarters. A lasting example might be the anthology For Bill Butler, edited by Eric Mottram and Larry Wallrich, which had contributions from Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Lee Harwood, Tom Raworth, Tuli Kupferberg, and many more. I was more than happy to let the editors use several of my short prose pieces in this publication. It seemed to me that there was something of a mini-campaign of harassment and suppression taking place across the country, and Unicorn wasn’t the only establishment raided by the police,
It would be incorrect of me to say that I was in total sympathy with everything that took place in the period covered by Adams. I’m talking about the whole so-called “underground” scene. I wasn’t, and a lot of the publications from those years seemed juvenile in their approach to social matters, politics, art, literature, and much else. They were often sexist with regard how they portrayed women and in that respect sometimes not much different to the pornographic publications they might have looked down on.
It also struck me that there were a lot of con-men around the “scene”, all ready to manipulate and rip-off the innocents who believed in the messages about flower power, a summer of love, and other such misleading nonsense. Adams remarks that Butler “had a reputation for the odd bit of ‘ducking and diving’, covered up by his warmth and charm”, and that someone who had been close to him said that he was “often accused of exploiting the talents of his employees and acolytes to further his own ends”. But there appears to be others who recall his generosity and the way he helped them to realise their own potential.
It has always struck me that people like Bill Butler, who opened bookshops, published books, started little magazines, and organised events, and rarely made money out of these activities, never have had the recognition due to them. We celebrate poets and novelists, but little would be known of many of them had it not been for the background work supplied by the editors and booksellers. It’s good that Terry Adams has taken the trouble to research into Bill Butler’s activities. He tells a story of attempts to survive what was, in some ways, a hostile environment. And one in which it was always a struggle to find enough funds to carry on. Along the way Adams pays tribute to numerous other people who worked with Butler in one capacity or another. There are a few surprises, such as the names of three people who, when asked to appear for the defence at one of Butler’s trials, seem to have got cold feet and backed away from the situation. I knew one of them, and had met the other two, and it was disturbing to come across them in this context. One might have expected a more-positive response from them.
Terry Adams has produced a useful, informative account of Bill Butler’s existence and activities. It should be read by anyone interested in what happened in the 1960s and 1970s. There are few, if any, of the kind of bookshops that Unicorn represented still open. Finding publications like the one I’ve reviewed can now be difficult. For the record, Beat Scene Press is at 27 Court Leet, Binley Woods, Coventry, CV3 2JQ. They have a list of other relevant publications, and publish Beat Scene magazine.