"A DIRTY AND DISEASED MIND":
THE UNICORN BOOKSHOP OBSCENITY TRIAL
"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 -
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-
The law on obscenity in the UK centered on the notion that an article -
The first test was theatre -
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-
[this decision] marked a new phase of obscenity-
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-
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-
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-
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 -
... 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 -
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 -
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-
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-
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-
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-
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-
Mike Holliday, April 2009