Bill and 'The Unicorn'

Photo:The former Unicorn Bookshop in Gloucester Road

The former Unicorn Bookshop in Gloucester Road

Photo:Bill Butler c.1972

Bill Butler c.1972

Photo:Bill Butler in later years

Bill Butler in later years

Alternative bookshop once at No 50 Gloucester Road

By Jackie Fuller, North Laine resident

Does anyone remember Bill Butler, who ran the Unicorn Bookshop at No 50 Gloucester Road (on the corner with Frederick Street) from 1960 to 1970? After he closed the shop, Bill moved to South Wales and then later died of a suspected drugs overdose (October 1977), but whether this was suicide or accidental is unclear.

Alternative lifestyle

Bill was very much part of the alternative lifestyle set in Brighton at that time. One of his own books, which he published himself under the pen name of Hassan Sabbah, was called Leaves of Grass: the Hash Cookbook.

Who he was

Bill’s full name was William Huxford Butler. He was an American beat poet and occultist. He was very tall (over 6 feet). He lived in Over Street, very near to his shop.

A specialist bookshop

The Unicorn Bookshop used to specialise in modern poetry, stocking the work of Ginsberg and similar American and British poets. Graham Greene, who visited the shop, wrote: "Unicorn is one of the most interesting bookshops in Great Britain."

Exterior was painted in psychedelic colours

The whole of the exterior of the Unicorn Bookshop was painted by John Upton in psychedelic colours (so this happened even in the 60s and is not a new idea!). It was very striking to look at as you came down from the top of Gloucester Road. There was also a painting of a unicorn on a board which swung over the entrance to the shop.

British obscenity laws were a muddle

In the 1960s the British obscenity laws were a bit of a muddle and sadly Bill became their victim. The Brighton Police raided his shop in 1968 and several copies of Evergreen Review and some volumes of poetry were seized. Bill was prosecuted and fined. He appealed against the sentence and lost, leaving himself with massive legal costs which, being poor, he could pay only in small instalments.

There is more detail about this here.

A travesty of justice?

The case was thought by many to be a travesty of justice because Butler did not in fact stock pornography, although he did stock books by Henry Miller and similar authors. In order to help meet his legal expenses, many poets - such as George Macbeth, Elaine Feinstein, Thom Gunn, Alan Ginsberg, Michael Hamburger, Lee Harwood, Christopher Logue, Jeff Nuttall, Tom Pickard, Tom Raworth and many others - contributed freely to For Bill Butler, a volume of poetry published by Wallrich Books in 1970, and the proceeds were given to the fund set up to help Butler.

He wrote modern poetry

Bill Butler was a catalyst for poetry, just as Ezra Pound was, and it flourished in Brighton while he was here. His own poetry was in the modern style of unrhymed unequal lines and he defended this kind of writing in the pages of Book Collecting & Library Monthly.

Comments from people who worked there

There are quite a few comments about the Unicorn Bookshop on the My Brighton & Hove website, by people who once worked there or remember it well.

Add your own memories

Please add your own memories of the Unicorn Bookshop and Bill Butler below.

 

[Previously published in the North Laine Runner, No 210, May/June 2011]

This page was added on 10/06/2011.
Comments/reviews:

I remember Bill Butler well. He was eccentric, outspoken and slightly scary. The cliché 'larger than life' might have been coined for him. He was also a good and necessary human who did much to advance the cause of poetry and intellectual freedom. I loved the Unicorn Bookshop and have often wondered what became of Bill. I'm very saddened to hear that he took his own life.

By Lou Glandfield
On 14/07/2011

Jackie, I don't know whether you've seen my article from a few years ago about the Unicorn Bookshop and the 1968 obscenity trial. It's available at http://www.holli.co.uk/unicorn/text.htm (also at http://www.ballardian.com/fulfillment-nihilism-gray-ballard), and includes a couple of photos of Bill.

By Mike Holliday
On 03/03/2012

Sorry ... that second reference above should be to http://www.ballardian.com/a-dirty-and-diseased-mind-the-unicorn-bookshop-trial

By Mike Holliday
On 04/03/2012

Richard Butler here, Bill's younger brother...oddly enough alive and well here in small gold town in AZ [Arizona], USA. Stanton to be exact. Visited Bill in mid 60s there in shop and his home (I was 18 and a surprise visit)...which ended me in jail briefly at the airport.

Bill comes from family of 5 kids, 2 of us still alive. Brother John in MN [Minnesota] and me. Bill was the best of the lot for sure for me and our relationship was that. He too visited me here in the States late 70s in my MT [Montana] cabin.

Christmas Eve at Brighton took Bill and me to the beach...we waded clothes on...it was chilly. I had $50 left for my whole trip (through Europe and back). We bought coal and rounded up a bum on the way home for that eve to get warm and light a fire and talk. Probably 1966 Christmas.

Our mom was a Lucy (on I love Lucy) kinda lady...Dad a chemist and photographer...as was Grandad McKay.

Not sure where this might go...this thread. Leaving for MX [Mexico] for a couple of months shortly to travel around. Stuff to do out there, fish to fry as Dad would say. Bill's brother Richard Lee Butler living in the world as Bill did. One of my very best friends. If this reaches anyone in a proper way and you have Bill ?questions I have lots of answers.

By Richard Butler
On 15/10/2012

Can anyone put me in touch with Richard Butler?

(Michael Neal, Saint-Yon/France)

By Michael Neal
On 15/02/2013

Michael, we have tried to contact you about your request but the email address attached to your comment is apparently not valid and the message has been bounced back to us. Please add another comment but using a valid email address.

By Jackie Fuller, website editor
On 15/02/2013

I was one of the defence witnesses at Bill's trial - or was the case against the bookshop? The police had removed masses of material, pretty indiscriminately. (I wonder what the warrant said.) I was permitted to go to look at it and take notes. There was much non-controversial stuff (which I wanted to mention) but clearly they'd be looking for what someone might think pornographic. It didn't seem that 'literary value' mattered - though it had in the Lady Chatterley case.

I testified as a literary critic, resisting (despite pressure from the bench) giving an opinion as to whether 'the material' was pornographic. Not my expertise, or competence; a matter for the magistrates. (When I pointed out that one of the magazines had a poem by W H Auden, the clerk asked if that was spelled O-r-d-e-n.) After pronouncing the guilty verdict, the magistrate suggested that Sussex University consider whether I should keep my job there. (A dean - not mine - phoned that night to say it would be considered over his dead body.) Outside the court, Gamini Salgado (later Prof of English at Exeter) felt a policeman was snickering and squared up to him. I interposed my body: I've been embarrassed about that since. Nick Tomalin had come down from London for the verdict (for the Observer?), wanted me to dispute it. I demurred on the grounds that it might be appealed. (I don't think Bill did appeal.) Lila Berg for The Guardian had attended most or all of the trial. Afterwards she came to our house and she later wrote a piece about it. John Shire has a good chapter about all this ("The Filth") in Bookends (Invocations Press, 2011).

By Arnold Goldman
On 19/03/2013

Hi! I had made a book 'Survival Scrapbook Shelter' and Bill recognised it as something special and published it with some success in the UK (1972) and later in the USA. A series followed. I wrote another two: 'Food' and 'Energy'. In 'Shelter' a few of Grandad McKays' photos were used - I think I might still have the prints. I'm not sure these three books would have been published without Bill's vision and gungho spirit. My best memories are talks with Bill about all sorts of stuff in the Unicorn kitchen with very strong tea!

By Stefan Szczelkun
On 18/11/2013

Around 1974-75 I visited the Unicorn bookshop in the North Laine, Brighton, where I was greeted by the celebrated proprietor Bill Butler. He was an impressive figure, very tall, with long blond hair and clad in jeans and a fringed suede waistcoat. A very friendly, helpful guy. I heard that he moved to Wales where he set up a small press and where he later died. I met Bill Burroughs at the Oktober Gallery, London, during the 1990s and during our conversation he expressed fond memories of Bill.

By Paul Roundhill
On 25/01/2015

I still cringe inwardly over Bill's tragic fate. We knew each other well enough for him to leave the bookshop in my care occasionally when he popped out for something to eat if I happened to visit. The fines and legal costs made life so difficult for him that he had to work exceptionally long hours just to stay in business. His open-minded and humorously freethinking attitude towards the contradictions of the human world was a rarity. We playfully argued about anything and everything as we both recognised the need to exercise debate free from arbitrary censorship. He was a rarity and an exemplar in genuine tolerance, while retaining a strong social conscience. That is perhaps the real reason why status worshipers and their willing acolytes treated him badly. His good natured honesty challenged their own self-righteous tendency to act like gods.

I salute your living memory, Bill! The dogmas of Christianity exasperated you so much that you more than once declared to me that you would not display a Christian book for sale in your shop but the truth of the matter is that you too died to save others from the sinful pride of mankind.  I can imagine you grinning ruefully and shaking your head in embarrassment if I could actually say this to you now! But that was part of your honesty, Bill. You never promoted yourself as a saviour.

By Peter Bromley
On 01/10/2015

I'd like to try and make contact with anybody who has posted here, as I am trying to build a history of Unicorn Books and Bill in particular.Unicorn in my view is an important part of Brighton's social and cultural history. I can be contacted here http://www.pixelsonapage.com/contact

By Barry Pitman
On 03/11/2015

I am trying to contact Barry Pitman who left a comment on 3 11 2015

Michael Neal

Cayeux-sur-Mer

France

By Michael NEAL
On 09/11/2015

I have just arrived at your website through surfing 'Bill Butler'.

I worked with Bill quite a lot during the sixties; he knocked on my door in Bayswater one day around 1965 having been given my address by Barry Miles at Indica.  He was looking for a photographer to work with him on a number of interviews.  Together we did Wm Burroughs, Jonathan Miller, Barry Fantoni, Hugh MacDiarmid, John Hurt and after that my memory fails me.  My partner and I stayed with him and Mike in Brighton in their converted loft.

He had a problem with his snoring . . .

Still have the negs and probably better photographs of Bill than the old one on the book jacket;  Rozemin Keshvani is currently going through my old files and has the negs I took of Bill.

By Graham Keen
On 21/12/2015

Glad to find this after an internet search on Bill. I bought 'Seattle everyone died' in the early 70s, in another great bookshop, Lothlorian in Grassmarket, Edinburgh. It is a small pamphlet in an edition of 225. It has accompanied me through the years. Although I now have a collection into the many thousands of poetry books, it remains a seminal work for me. I also have 'My One Leaf Head', another pamphlet edition 450, 1969. I bought it in Rare and Racy, Sheffield, only a couple of years ago. I love Bill's poetry, although these two fragments are the only pieces I have come across. I reflect on how it is strange that his work has touched my life and stayed with me. It has a powerful and dreamy poetic quality, a certain staccato, almost oblique, resonance sometimes, a very special sense of preciousness, and care in the way his language picks out and handles images. There is something of the lost age of innocence about his work I find. Somehow it puts me in mind of Cid Corman a little. Despite all the thousands of poems I have read in the meantime, his protected enclave of otherworldly beauty stays with me. I love the format also - small press pamphlets made for the love of poetry, not for any type of commercial outcome. Thank you Bill Butler who made a great contribution to the life of poetry.

By Chris
On 03/04/2016

P.S. to add to my previous comment, I have just accessed my copy of "Seattle everybody died" (did I put 'everyone'? sorry). Just to add the publisher's details, listed as 'aloes ab london'. It was first published in "the Brighton Head and Freak mag". "My One Leaf Head" is Unicorn Books I guess, based in the shop, no other details. 

By Chris
On 03/04/2016

"Seattle everybody died" is a wonderful piece.  As was the "Brighton Head and Freak Mag" .. edited by John Upton - the man who did the Unicorn mural.

By Jim Pennington - aloes books
On 27/04/2016

Does anyone know about a Robinson Jeffers broadside called Shine, Perishing Republic Unicorn Bookshop issued?  I would like to know about the artist who did the bordering illustration, Chuck Miller, and how many copies were printed.  Thank you.

By Ted Dunn
On 29/04/2016

I was informed that the broadside I inquired about was not issued by Bill Butler's Unicorn Bookshop but by Jack Shoemaker's Unicorn Bookshop in California.

By Ted Dunn
On 30/04/2016

I joined the bookshop in 1973, shortly before the winding-down and sale of stock to Anthony and Chris of Symposium. Moved with Unicorn to Wales early 74.

Jackie, that pic you've captioned 'later years' is actually earlier - I would guess from around the time Bill was at the SF conservatory. 

By Mark Broad
On 06/06/2016

I'm a theatre maker and writer. I discovered Bill Butler through an archive of letters and diaries I acquired after squatting a flat in Brighton in 2002. They belonged to a woman called Anne Clarke, who had worked at the Unicorn Bookshop with Bill and was good friends with him. Her diaries keep mentioning hanging out at Over Street, which I think is a reference to his house, and she describes crying for him after his death. John Upton, who painted the mural on the bookshop, also painted a huge mural on the side of her sunroof out the front of her flat by the Clocktower. Does anyone remember Anne? She also worked at Infinity Foods. 

By Jolie Booth
On 16/01/2017

just noticed your post about Anne Clarke , unicorn bookshop and John Upton ... i knew anne in 1968's and kept in touch with her ... even up to when she lived in her flat in Farm Yard ... do contact me about this roy.pennington@yahoo.co.uk 

By roy
On 20/02/2017

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