By Arjuna Keshvani-Ham
It might seem ambitious to attempt to glean too much information about a place from a shabby old black and white photograph of a bookshop. Perhaps the words ‘BETTER BOOKZ’, emblazoned on the storefront, pique our attention. More likely we notice the three welldressed men standing beneath it. Something across the street seems to have caught their eye, though what makes them look so jovial will probably have to be left to the imagination.
The group’s central figure is Tony Godwin, with his ‘radical ideas, colourful neckties and brash competitive spirit’, who opened the little shop at 92–94 Charing Cross Road in the autumn of 1947. Here we see him standing next to his good friend Alan Aldridge, best known now for his psychedelic illustrations and graphics immortalised on the album covers of The Beatles and The Who. As unassuming as the storefront may appear, with its jumble of haphazardly arranged books and publications, ‘Better Books’ was an avantgarde hotspot integral to countercultural and underground happenings in London during the late 1950s and 60s. By day it was a bookshop. By night the shelves were rolled aside and a performance space emerged. The shop’s name was as ambitious as its customers, most of whom were poets, intellectuals, beats, activists, and anarchists associated with the new Avant-Garde.
This ‘bomb culture’ generation (as Jeff Nuttal called it) were unified by their collective distrust mainstream of culture, and their desire to find new ways of responding to old ideas and regimes - in this case, to the Cold War agenda. Unlike the modern infused London, where Barry Miles argues ‘bohemia has been globalised’, the London we see in the black and white photo is one where the avant-garde is not just a ‘state of mind’, but a fully-ripened reality. And Godwin’s bookshop was at its heart.
Whether Godwin’s stock was in fact ‘better’ is doubtful. Many volumes were actually permanently damaged from being forced onto poorly-designed shelves, or from being perused and stained with coffee in the shop’s café. But what we can be certain of is that Godwin’s stock was unusual, and had an obvious attraction to the shop’s limited audience. Better Books carried material that could be purchased nowhere else in the country: banned paperbacks, and mimeograph publications of experimental writing. Barry Miles recalls regularly shipping boxes of fifty copies of Sexus into the UK, selling half in the shop for ten shillings, then taking the rest to the dirty book shop nearby and selling them for five times as much.
Better Books didn’t cater to popular taste, didn’t want to. Godwin designed the shop specifically to attract the avant-garde. Its black-painted walls functioned as a repellent for ninety-nine percent of potential customers, but ther were an irresistible lure for the remaining one percent of hippies, bohemians and political rebels who became the shop’s regular clientelle. It was a place where the growing population of unconventional figures could exchange censored material under the radar. The customers at Better Books were the genuine specimens of bohemian London, lifted straight out of Kerouac: ‘the mad ones … the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.’ And no doubt about it, these people burned. They burned things, and Better Books was where they did it. In one basement ‘happening’, the audience watched artist Bruce Lacey careering round the room with a smoke gun, while two men appeared to operate on a pregnant woman they had dragged from the audience. John Latham, who burnt, shredded and painted books as part of his practise, held a ‘book plumbing’ event in the shop in which multiple ‘skoobs’ – spiralling towers made of books coated with gunpowder – were ignited. It was in Better Books that Gustav Metzger, the father of Auto Destructive art, first exhibited his earliest experiments with liquid crystals. These would go on to become the psychedelic light displays used in concerts by bands like Cream, The Move and The Who.
In a rather poignant real-life example of ‘Auto Destruction’, a fire gutted the shop’s basement in 1964. But artist, poet and musician Jeff Nuttal saw this as an opportunity to create a new exhibition and performance space. His sTigma exhibition launched Better Books as a vital organ operating at the centre of the London underground scene. Nuttal was one of those radicals who wished to challenge a stagnant cultural world ‘definitions applied to art piss me off. I paint poems, sing sculptures, draw novels’.
Nutall’s sTigma was an environmental installation which functioned like a theatre. It aimed for a fullon, even violent confrontation with the viewer. Happenings like sTigma were events entrenched in and representative of their moment in history. Artist Bruce Lacey compmented: ‘It was a time, the Vietnam war… when people were complacent, Macmillan was in power and saying ‘you never had it so good’… We wanted to horrify and shock people out of their complacency’. Nuttall was fighting to undermine art as ‘soporific drug’: he wanted it to ‘shock the participant-viewer’ into an awareness of the ‘stigma or moral stain he or she carries as a complicit participant in creating and supporting a bomb culture’.
And indeed the experience of sTigma was nauseating. The audience was forced to traverse a one-way labyrinth, progressing through the increasingly disturbing spaces of a ‘living room’, a ‘love space’, a ‘horror space’ and a ‘birthing space’. After pushing through Latham’s ‘NonRevolve Valve,’ 1965, which formed a one-way gate made of telephone directories and economist magazines, the audience proceeded through a dark narrow passage lined with polyethylene, designed to hinder easy passage. Nuttall’s ‘Living Room’
space exhibited vestiges of past sexual encounters, pictures of ‘sausage fat’ people, soiled underwear, used condoms and images of deformed Hiroshima victims. Finally, the audience encountered Criton Tomazos’ ‘birthing womb’, constructed from truck-tire inner tubes filled with feathers. These formed a narrow tunnel, from which one emerged face-to-face with something that looked like a mutilated foetus nailed to the wall. Beat poet Michael Horovitz defined this philosophy as ‘holding the mirror up to nature to know thine enemy’. But it was not a philosophy embraced by the entire artistic community. In his little apartment in Kensington, Horovitz recalls memories of a German artist slaughtering sheep on stage: ‘I was sorry for the sheep… It seemed a perverse way of coping with racism and Nazism, to emulate the violence. Anything that bordered on preaching an eye for an eye struck me as blindingly obvious to move away from, otherwise you get a whole lot of blind people’.
Places like Better Books, indeed, the avant-garde scene in general, did not ‘spring into being, readyformed, at the end of the war’. They were formed by a handful of radical figures based in Fitzrovia and Soho. Fitzrovia, the area stretching from Fitzroy Square to Soho, was itself named by a ‘central character of wartime literary London’, the Sri Lankan intellectual ‘Tambi’. He was the editor of Poetry London, and once lost the only copy of a new Dylan Thomas poem, only to subsequently find it in the chamber pot underneath his bed. He introduced British audiences to the likes of Nabokov and Henry Miller, who were next to unknown at the time, and referred to the pub crawls he engaged in around Fitzroy Square as ‘Fitz-roving’. The area, at the time, had no proper name; Fitz-roving quickly became ‘Fitzrovia’ (the area now contains Britain’s highest concentration of advertising agencies). This was the world into which Better Books was born, and London itself was slap-bang in the centre of the transatlantic route stretching between post-war Europe and New York, a key location along the ‘burgeoning bohemian artistic-intellectual trade route.’
Allen Ginsberg came to Better Books in 1965. Ginsberg had been deported from Prague to London after the secret police stole and read his personal diary, which, in the words of the authorities ‘characterises his anti-communist leanings.’ This was a polite understatement on the part of the Czechs: ‘This regime is … so incredibly stupid its tragic,’ Ginsberg wrote bluntly. Ginsberg arrived in London and quickly became Better Books’ ‘resident Beat.’ Ginsberg was keen to read some fresh work composed on the flight back from Prague, so Barry Miles organised an impromptu reading at the shop. Despite limited advertising, the crowd overflowed onto the street. Andy Warhol, Gerard Malanga and Edie Sedgewick sat in the front row; and Donovan gave an impromptu performance of ‘Cocaine’ to whet the audience’s appetites.
Ginsberg’s Better Books reading was the spark that ignited a fire. Soon after the event, Miles, Ginsberg and a group of others, including American poet Dan Richter, were gathered in the shop’s café. It dawned on the group that there had never been a major Beat reading in London. Lawrence Ferlinghetti was due to be in London, and Barbara Rubin, Ginsberg’s ‘occasional girlfriend’, who ‘seemed to have followed him to London’ interjected: ‘what’s the biggest venue in town?’, to which Miles’s wife Sue replied ‘The Royal Albert Hall’. ‘Within minutes’, writes Miles in London Calling, ‘Barbara had booked the hall for ten days time’. This chain of impromptu events led to one of the most significant literary events of the
decade, the International Poetry Incarnation at the Royal Albert Hall.
The International Poetry Incarnation was immortalised in Peter Whitehead’s documentary Wholly Communion. In the film, we see a white sun flashing out from behind a silhouetted statue, and hear the hymn-like sound of Ginsber reading from his 1963 poem ‘The Change’: ‘visible father / making my body visible / thru my eyes!’ The event had sold out, to the surprise of everyone. In his opening speech, Alexander Trocchi admitted ‘I am about as surprised to see you here as you are to see us.’ Trocchi remained unfazed by the unexpectedly massive audience – probably because he was on twenty grams of heroin and seven of cocaine a day. Fourteen poets participated – ‘many of whom had never read anywhere larger than the upstairs room of a pub.’ The lineup included William Burroughs, Pete Brown, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsburg, Harry Fainlight, Gregory Corso, Adrian Mitchell and Michael Horovitz. ‘It physically brought together seven to eight thousand people’ replied Horovitz, when I asked sceptically how great the impact of the reading actually was. ‘It was as though a monochrome black and white image had gone technicolour.’
But the event disappointed and even ‘disgusted’ Ginsberg, who blamed the presence of ‘too many bad poets. Too many goofs who didn’t trust their own poetry’. Horovitz tells a different story: ‘Allen and some of the others resented that so many British and other non-U.S. poets came and joined the Albert Hall incarnation, but they weren’t aware of how much of our own oral verse had been growing. In fact we had done quite a bit more than most of the Yanks in terms of … sewing the seeds of the great musical revolutions to come. So they were sort of jealous that we were so popular’. The night ended with Ginsberg standing and reading his own poems in a drunken stupor. Horovitz recalls Ginsberg’s rage at British poet George Macbeth, ‘who admittedly was very facetious’, which resulted in him tearing off his clothes ‘so people could see the naked reality of human-kind’. The performance was disorganised, amateurish and imperfect. But for the London youth it was a ‘catalyst’; the 1960’s countercultural generation could now recognise themselves ‘as bearing a shared, if yet indeterminate identity through which they would create their future’. It was the birth of the London underground, and set off a chain of similar events. Miles started an underground newspaper almost immediately afterwards, the International Times; the international ‘Destruction in Art’ symposium (DIAS) followed. The Beat poets garnered a wider readership - and notoriety - through recordings and publications that sprung from the international bonds forged at Better Books and the Poetry Incarnation.
Fighting my way down the Charing Cross Road in 2018, I wonder what has become of Bohemia? Where are these figures now, who haunt the degrading analogue stills of the Whitehead documentaries, mementos of a time which seems immeasurably far in the past? Where are their modern-day equivalents? According to Barry Miles, the avant-garde is now behind us; the age of the mass-image is upon us: ‘With the coming of the internet, underground publication has effectively disappeared. There can be no avantgarde unless there is a time delay before the public knows what you are doing.’
But for Miles, the bohemian species is not an extinct one. ‘London today is like a palimpsest, with pockets of different counter-cultural groups scattered across the city’ he writes in his recent essay ‘Going underground: the secret life of London’. The London counter-culture no longer stands as a unified body, clustered together in a dingy bookshop; it is all around us. True, ‘bohemia’ may be harder to find, but it never was a geographical location. As long as originality of vision survives, bohemia must survive. Michael Horovitz sums up its enduring spirit: ‘For all the countless Bohemians who bullshat much of their lives away (and often of their loved ones’ lives away) now lie dead and largely forgotten … Vive la Boheme!’
ARJUNA KESHVANI-HAM reads English and German at Worcester. She doesn’t think she’s very good at either of them but struggles to make choices and usually does so on a whim.
Art by Zoe Harris-Wallis