By Mike Holliday

"Is this not the meanderings of a dirty and diseased mind?" ... that was the question which prosecuting counsel Michael Worsley posed in Court for BBC Radio producer George MacBeth in 1968. The subject of their discussion was a booklet written by J. G. Ballard and published by the Unicorn Bookshop, Brighton, titled Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan. MacBeth's view was almost as surprising as Worsley's - he told the Court that if the work became available for broadcasting, he would like to use it.

The Unicorn Bookshop edition of Ballard's

Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan

This surreal discussion took place at the trial of Bill Butler, proprietor of the Unicorn Bookshop, on charges of possessing obscene articles for commercial publication. However bizarre or absurd the proceedings in Brighton Magistrates Court might appear some 40 years later, they had an only too serious effect on Butler, who found himself having to pay fines plus legal costs in the order of £50,000 in today's money. In a letter written two years later, he asked a correspondent to forgive his temper, explaining that his memory had, to all useful purposes, stopped at the date of the police raid on his bookshop, and that “I am, after all this, paranoid”.

As I looked through the records of the trial, a sense of depression settled on me ... Butler seemed like a fly in a spider's web, fighting the prosecution because he felt he could not do otherwise, yet fearing that at bottom the cause was a hopeless one. Having started out with the intention of investigating Ballard's involvement with an obscenity trial, I became more interested in how it was that Bill Butler, a 33 year-old American poet, bookshop owner, and sometime publisher, became involved in this drama.

A relaxed-looking Bill Butler (from New Worlds #185)

The law on obscenity in the UK centered on the notion that an article - a book, magazine, or photograph - had to have a tendency to deprave and corrupt those who were likely to view it. The 1959 Obscene Publications Act had provided a defence if it could be shown that publication was in the public interest - for example, because of the article's literary value. There followed a series of Court cases - sometimes great theatre, sometimes personal tragedy, and sometimes unpleasant listening - as the implications of the law were fought over in a society whose beliefs and tastes were rapidly changing.

The first test was theatre - sufficiently so for BBC television to commission and broadcast a drama about the trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover some 45 years later. Prosecuting Counsel shot himself in the foot at the outset when he told the jurors: "Ask yourselves the question, would you approve of your young sons, young daughters - because girls can read as well as boys - reading this book? Is it a book you would have lying around in your own house? Is it even a book that you would wish your wife or your servants to read?" - the jurors reportedly smiled at such a bizarrely out-of-touch view of the world. Numerous defence witnesses were wheeled in to testify to the virtues of one of Lawrence's lesser novels and its four-letter descriptions of adultery, although they all ignored the passage where the Lady is sodomised ... the prosecution had either not read or not understood that scene, since they ignored it also. At the end of the trial, the jury found the publishers, Penguin Books, not guilty.

Mervyn Griffith Jones, QC, Prosecuting Counsel in the Lady Chatterley trial, as portrayed in a Private Eye spoof

A series of other cases followed, less amusing, and often more discouraging for those who wanted to see a more open society. One of the lesser-known cases indicated the way things might go: Cain's Book, a novel by the Glaswegian writer Alexander Trocchi, was prosecuted in Sheffield in 1964, and the police justified seizing the book on the grounds that it "seems to advocate the use of drugs in schools so that children should have a clearer conception of art. That in our submission is corrupting." This extension of the notion of obscenity beyond the sexual was confirmed during an unsuccessful appeal by the publishers, when Lord Chief Justice Parker ruled that "there was no reason whatever to confine depravity and obscenity to sex". John Sutherland later commented that:

[this decision] marked a new phase of obscenity-hunting in which the primary target would not be the work's text (for instance its incidence of four-letter words) but the lifestyle it advocated, or that was associated with its author or even its readership. If it was risking ‘obscenity’ to be a junkie and a beat, it was also soon going to be similarly risky to be a hippy.

The truth of this judgment is only too apparent in the Unicorn Bookshop prosecution.

The Calder 1963 edition of Alexander Trocchi's Cain's Book, the subject of an obscenity trial the following year

Bill Butler had managed Better Books on the Charing Cross Road in London, before moving to Brighton and then opening the Unicorn Bookshop during 1967. The shop specialized in poetry and American authors; in fact, many of its ongoing sales were by mail order to American universities. In late-1967, Butler returned to the U.S. for a short visit, leaving the shop in the hands of a young man who was then arrested for possession of drugs, convicted, and sent to a young offenders detention centre. According to Butler, "apparently he had had a container for the hashish and some scissors for the cutting of the hashish in the shop. Subsequently my shop was broken into and the meters pilfered. When the police came to enquire about this they seemed more interested in the sales of hashish than in the meters."

The Unicorn Bookshop, circa 1972 (from Frendz #28)

According to the police, someone then complained to them about a publication they had seen in Butler's shop, Cuddon's Cosmopolitan Review, an anarchist magazine containing a play by Tuli Kupferberg entitled "Fucknam". A plain-clothes officer visited the shop on 15th January 1968, and purchased copies of Cuddon's and the underground magazine Oz. The following day, a full raid was mounted and the police took away over 3,000 items (mostly copies of Oz), representing more than 70 different titles. The items seized included several issues of the U.S. literary magazine Evergreen Review, as well as books by Burroughs and Ginsberg. Also taken were three copies of Ballard's Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan, which had been found inside an addressed and sealed envelope.

Oz #4, poster and front cover ... 3000 copies of the  underground magazine were seized by the police from Unicorn Bookshop, but the charges were dropped

Charges of possessing obscene articles "for publication for gain" were brought, but eventually the Director of Public Prosecutions dropped charges against half the items. Butler speculated that the DPP could not afford to drop the charges against all of the original 76 publications, since “he might have faced a suit from me for malicious prosecution. Thorny problem.” The remaining items that featured in the subsequent trial included issues of Evergreen Review and Kulchur, Cuddon's Cosmopolitan Review, books of poetry by Herbert Huncke and John Giorno, and Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan.

Butler decided to plead "not guilty" to the charges, regardless of having been three times refused legal aid by the magistrates even though he appeared to qualify on financial grounds. Between the raid and the trial, the drugs connection continued to rear its head:

A member of Brighton’s police force has visited the shop since the raid and among other things discussed the problem of drugs in the shop and users of narcotics frequenting the shop. It was suggested that I cooperate with the police by revealing names of people I suspected of using narcotics. … A barrister has advised me that in his view the police probably have it in for me. It has been suggested that the shop might be better off in London.

The trial took place in August, 1968. Since the raid, the entire world seemed to have been in turmoil ... the Tet offensive had taken place in Vietnam; agitation and strikes had almost brought down the French government; an anti-War demonstration in London's Grosvenor Square ended in violence; President Lyndon Johnson had announced he would not seek re-election; Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated; and the British politician Enoch Powell made his infamous "rivers of blood" speech. The day after the trial opened, the U.S.S.R. invaded Czechoslovakia; before it had finished, a week later, police had clashed with anti-war demonstrators outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and France had exploded its first Hydrogen bomb.

The Summer of '68 ... (publication of J. G. Ballard's Love and Napalm: Export USA in the student magazine Circuit, June 1968)

Rather more prosaically, the charges against Butler were being considered by the three magistrates - a retired Labour Exchange manager, an auctioneer's wife, and a car salesman and garage proprietor. The defense called a number of "expert witnesses" to provide evidence as the literary value of the condemned items, among them George MacBeth, a poet who also worked as a producer for the BBC and had conducted a radio interview with Ballard the previous year. MacBeth cogently described Ballard's concerns in Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan:

... here he is concerned with American politics and society and the ways in which, as he sees it, the feelings of sexual desire and love can only be aroused by violence and violent stimuli. He believes American society is sick and he is criticising the sickness in this work. ... America is a most highly developed society where advertising is crucial and so is the projection of images. ... This [piece] shows how human feelings of sex and love can be manipulated by violence. [It] shows the connection between the different kinds of violence, for example car crashes, Vietnam and racial violence.

At this point prosecuting counsel asked "Is this not the meanderings of a dirty and diseased mind?" "Certainly not," replied MacBeth, "and it's obvious to any man of goodwill who reads it."

But the value to Bill Butler's defence of two days of deliberation about contemporary culture and literary merit was debatable. Even defending counsel appeared baffled by some of the discussion, commenting at the start of his concluding speech that "it may be that some of us did not fully understand all that the expert witnesses were talking about, indeed I myself occasionally found it very difficult to understand." In contrast, the prosecution's approach was simple and direct - they called no witnesses beyond the police who carried out the raid, and relied on the magistrates' judgement as to whether the books and magazines were obscene:

I rely on your examination of the works themselves to rebut the defence of public good. It is obvious that these books are obscene and it would not be in the public good for them to be published. I rely on this Court knowing a dirty book when they see one ...

The prosecution's strategy played on the problem at the heart of the 1959 Act. Expert witnesses could testify in Court as to a publication's literary merit, but not as to whether it was obscene or tended to corrupt - that was the essence of the case and therefore a matter for magistrates or jurors. But how can publication be "in the public interest" if what is published tends to deprave and corrupt? The two major prosecution failures in obscenity trials following the 1959 Act were Lady Chatterley's Lover and Inside Linda Lovelace: both were acquitals by a jury, and both were of books where the jurors stood some chance of understanding what they read, allowing them to conclude that the books were not likely to corrupt and deprave. (Even that may be overstating matters, since five of the jurors in the Lady Chatterley trial apparently had difficulty in reading the oath, let alone the book.)

In other cases, jurors and magistrates tended to react badly to being lectured at by expert witnesses about books they found difficult to understand. A remarkable case was that of the Yorkshire bookseller and publisher, Arthur Dobson, who intended to publish My Secret Life, a pseudonymous autobiographical account of a Victorian middle-class gentleman's prodigious sexual career (1,200 women, described in 4,200 pages), which was first published for the author's own amusement in an edition of six copies in 1888. Eighty years later, Arthur Dobson had got as far as typesetting the first two volumes before the police intervened. His subsequent trial at Leeds Assizes in 1969 appeared to be going well for the defence: the judge seemed not ill-disposed, cogent expert witnesses argued for the book's value as a rare first-hand account of life in the Victorian underworld, and the witnesses dealt well with the prosecution's attempt to display them as unworldly or inconsistent - on one occasion prosecuting counsel asked of a quiet-mannered academic: "Is this not the vilest thing you have ever read?", only to receive the reply "You don't mean that question literally, do you?", followed by "Have you never heard of the concentration camps of the Third Reich?"

But all this was to no avail. When the jurors were sent to read the two printed volumes of My Secret Life, most looked only at the first few pages. It was subsequently reported that only two of the jurors were in the habit of reading books, and they had given up very quickly on the 19th century language in front of them. The expert witnesses who had impressed everybody else seemed to have little effect on the jury: Arthur Dobson was convicted and sentenced to a heavy fine, plus two years in prison (reduced to one year on appeal).

Banned in '69: My Secret Life by 'Walter'

At Bill Butler's trial in August 1968, counsel had little difficulty in turning the expert witnesses to the prosecution's advantage. He extracted from one witness, Mrs Anne Graham-Bell, the opinion that adults are not likely to be corrupted,  thereby enabling him to portray her as an innocent who "is not to know the evil to which these sort of things lead", unlike the magistrates, who, he suggested, had rather more experience of the corruptibility of adults than did the defence witnesses. Not unexpectedly, the magistrates found all charges proven.

But what about Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan? The three copies seized by the police had been taken from an envelope addressed to Mrs Graham-Bell, who at the time had been head of public relations for Penguin Books. In her evidence she explained that Bill Butler had told her about this new work by Ballard, and that she had agreed to forward copies to possible interested parties including the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. As was normal practice, she did not expect to be charged for these copies. This gave the prosecution a problem, since the charge involved publication "for gain". It was obvious to everyone that Unicorn would not have given all the remaining copies away for free, and they were even noted as publisher inside the pamphlet, but the only evidence the prosecution could present to the Court were the copies that were supplied free of charge to Mrs Graham-Bell. After all his discussion of this supposedly "evil" publication, prosecuting counsel had to concede at the start of his closing speech that he couldn't prove the offence, and asked that the charges relating to Ballard's work be dropped.

However, in other ways the rules of evidence worked against the defence. They were not allowed to demonstrate that some of the works were widely available throughout the U.K., since the mere fact that a book is available to be bought somewhere is not evidence as to whether or not it is obscene. After Butler had been found guilty, his Counsel was finally able to quote the availability of the works in mitigation before sentencing. One of the issues of Evergreen Review had been included in the charges because it contained an extract from Justine, and defence counsel waved a copy of de Sade's novel around the Court pointing out that it was an unexpurgated edition published in the U.K. which had sold 100,000 copies.

Not that this seemed to have any effect on the magistrates. Butler was ordered to pay fines plus costs of £419, and his own defence costs would come to much more than this. The Chairman of the Magistrates, the delightfully-named Mr Ripper, commented that John Giorno's Poems  - whose contents included Pornographic Poem - was "the most filthy book I have ever had to read".

There was a bizarre ending as Mr Ripper went on to attack the expert witnesses:

May I say how appalled my colleagues and I have been at the filth that has been produced at this Court, and at the fact that responsible people including members of the university faculty have come here to defend it. It is something which is completely indefensible from our point of view. We hope that these remarks will be conveyed to the university authorities.

The end of the trial, reported in Brighton's Evening Argus

This attack later earned Mr Ripper a public rebuke from the journal Justice of the Peace, for criticizing witnesses "not because they have in any way misbehaved, but merely because they have exercised their legal right of expressing opinions which do not coincide with those held by the bench." Ripper was quoted as saying that he had made his comments because he objected as a taxpayer to universities spending their money on trashy publications.  

Advised by his solicitors that there seemed no realistic grounds for appealing the Magistrates' decision, Butler was uncertain how to proceed. Eventually, on 21 November, his solicitors asked the Queens Bench for an order of Mandamus instructing the Magistrates in Brighton to state a case for the consideration of the higher court. This request was refused and Butler was left with a final bill in the order of £3,000. A year later, he wrote to a correspondent that, although he had received numerous offers of help, many remained unfulfilled and he still owed £2,500 to his solicitors, "who are beginning to moan ever so gently off in the distance. Like wolves.”

Bill Butler, circa 1972 (from Frendz #28)

The Unicorn Bookshop stayed open until 1973, when Butler moved to a remote cottage at Nant Gwilw, Wales, intending to concentrate on publishing. He died a few years later, whilst only in his forties, apparently of an accidental drug overdose. It seems fitting to leave the last words to the late William Huxford Butler, speaking during his trial in August 1968:

You regard it as important that we tell the truth in your court, and you put us under oath to do so. When any poet writes or an artist paints, he is under oath to something inside himself to tell the truth and the whole truth. Not to tell just those parts of the truth which are palatable and pleasing but all that is true – the good and the bad parts. Until he does that, he is incomplete as an artist and a poet.


In researching this article I made considerable use of the records of the Unicorn Bookshop kept by the Archives department of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Background on the U.K.'s Obscene Publications Acts came from Offensive Literature: Decensorship in Britain, 1960-1982 by John Sutherland (Junction Books, 1982), and Freedom's Frontier: Censorship in Modern Britain by Donald Thomas (John Murray, 2007).

Mike Holliday, April 2009