Bill Butler - North Laine History

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Bill Butler

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.
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.

By Jackie Fuller

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