Tony Godwin in front of Better Books 1966. Photo: Simos Tspanidis, reprinted from Better Books/Better Bookz: Art, Anarchy, Apostasy, Counter-culture and the New Avant-garde.
It might seem ambitious to attempt to glean too much information about a place from a shabby old black and white photograph. Our gaze might well pass over the image of this dilapidated-looking bookshop without a second glance. But if we take a closer look, a number of arresting details stand out. Our attention may be piqued by the simple, yet playful, white inscription of Better Bookz emblazoned on the storefront. More likely, however, we notice the three well-dressed men; 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 odd jumble of haphazardly arranged books and publications, Better Books was an avant-garde hotspot integral to countercultural and underground happenings in London during the late 1950’s and 60’s.
By day, the space was a bookshop; by night, the shelves were rolled aside, and a performance space would emerge from between the volumes. The shop’s name was as ambitious as its aims and frequenters, most of whom consisted of poets, intellectuals, beats, activists and anarchists associated with the new Avant Garde. This ‘bomb culture’ generation were unified by a collective distrust of pre-established ideas of culture; enshrined in the term “avant-garde” itself is a desire to find new ways of responding to old ideas and regimes — in this case, to the Cold War agenda, and to the lamentably “UN-changing and uptight artistic Derriere Garde”. Unlike the modern, technologically infused London, where, according to counter-cultural savant extraordinaire Barry Miles, who managed Better Booksfrom 1965, “bohemia has been globalised”, the London we see here is a cityscape where the avant-garde is not just a “state of mind”, but a fully-ripened reality. Godwin’s bookshop, a “sanctuary” and “voice” for the London counterculture, was at the heart of this reality.
Whether Godwin’s stock was in fact “better” is doubtful; many volumes were actually permanently damaged from being forced onto poorly-designed shelves or being perused and coffee-stained on the unevenly-surfaced tables in the shop’s café. But what we can be certain of is that Godwin’s stock was offbeat — it’s obvious attraction to the shop’s limited audience. Better Books carried material that could be purchased nowhere else in the country, such as mimeograph publications containing only experimental, underground work, wildly imaginative magazines and banned paperbacks. Miles recalls regularly shipping boxes of fifty copies of Henry Miller’s Sexus into the UK, selling half in the shop for ten shillings and taking the rest to the “dirty book shop” nearby, and selling them to the owner for five times as much.
The shop’s stock hardly catered to popular taste, and nor was it meant to: Better Books was designed by Tony Godwin specifically to attract the avant-garde. The black-painted walls functioned as a repellent for ninety-nine percent of potential customers and acted as an irresistible lure for the remaining one percent of hippies, bohemians and political rebels who became the shop’s regulars. It was a place where the growing population of “unconventional” figures, the “colourful characters of the time” could exchange censored material under the radar. The regular occupants of Better Books were genuine specimens of bohemian London, reincarnating the spirit of Jack Kerouac’s: “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, in both senses of the word. Not only are they emblazoned onto our cultural memory, but they did burn 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, whilst two men appeared to operate on a pregnant woman dragged from the audience. John Latham, who burnt, shredded and painted books as part of his arts mission, held a Book Plumbing event in the shop in which multiple “skoobs”, man-sized towers of spiralling books coated with gunpowder, were ignited. It was in Better Books that Gustav Metzger, the father of Auto Destructive art, first exhibited his earliest experiment with liquid crystals, which he developed into those psychedelic light displays used in concerts by Pink Floyd, Cream, The Move, Soft Machine and The Who. In a rather poignant real-life example of “Auto Destruction”, a fire of “dubious origin” in the shop’s basement in 1964 created room for a new exhibition and performance space, transformed from redundancy by artist, poet, jazz trumpeter and anarchist Jeff Nuttall. His sTigma exhibition launched Better Books as a vital organ operating at the centre of the London underground scene. This is fitting, as Nuttall himself embodies the qualities inherent to this generation of radicals who wished to spark change in a stagnating society: “definitions applied to art piss me off. I paint poems, sing sculptures, draw novels”.
sTigma was an environmental installation which functioned like a theatre. It aimed at a full-on, even violent confrontation with the viewer. Happenings like sTigma were events entrenched in and representative of their moment in history. “It was a time, the Vietnam war”, comments artist Bruce Lacey, “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 a “soporific drug”; art should no longer give comfort but shock the audience member 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, participants in the interactive “experience” could hardly have called it a pleasurable one. The one-way labyrinth forced the audience to traverse the increasingly disturbing spaces of a living room, a love space, a horror space and a birthing space. Like Artaud’s “theatre of cruelty”, which breaks from tradition by disregarding the passive audience, the experience “wakes us up”, evoking the “agitation of a life that has become unnecessary”.
The experience was nauseating. After pushing through Latham’s Non-Revolve Valve, 1965, which formed a one-way gate made of telephone directories and stacks of The Economist , the audience traversed a dark narrow passage lined with polyethylene, designed to hinder easy passage through destabilisation. Nuttall’s “Living Room” space comprised vestiges of past sexual encounters, pictures of ‘sausage fat’ people, soiled underwear, used condoms and images of deformed Hiroshima victims. Eventually, one encountered Criton Tomazos’ “birthing womb”, constructed from truck tyre inner tubes filled with feathers. These formed a narrow tunnel, through which one emerged face-to-face with something akin to a mutilated foetus nailed to the wall. However, this philosophy of “holding the mirror up to nature to know thine enemy”, in the words of beat poet Michael Horovitz, was not one that impressed the entire artistic community. In his little apartment in Notting Hill, Horovitz recalls memories of a German performer slaughteringsheep on stage: “I was sorry for the sheep… To emulate the violence seemed a perverse way of coping with racism and Nazism. 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 – as witness the further pretend-legalised bestiality of Realpolitik atrocities around the globe today”.
Nonetheless, such movements as Metzger’s Auto Destructive art were fundamental, both to contemporary art and to inciting social change at the time. They continue to do so today. From the flocks of young students who swarm Metzger’s Liquid Crystal Environment in the Tate Modern, it is undisputable that the relevance of such works has not diminished. The art of the sixties may be more relevant now than ever before.
Michael Horovitz chanting mantras with Allen Ginsberg at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, then in Dover Street, Mayfair, W1, at the end of a spirited reading by Ginsberg, a few evenings before A G headlined the First International Poetry Incarnation at Royal Albert Hall on 11 June 1965
© Peter Whitehead, 1965
But let us rewind a little. Such places as Better Books, and the underground scene in London in general, did not “spring into being, ready-formed, at the end of the war”. It was due to just a few radical figures hanging out in Fitzrovia (which now contains Britain’s highest concentration of advertising agencies) as well as Soho, that London’s underground evolved. Fitzrovia, the area stretching from Fitzroy Square to Soho, was itself named by one of the “central character[s] of wartime literary London”, namely Sri Lankan Tambimutu (affectionately nick-named ‘Tambi’). He was the editor of the Poetry London magazine, and once lost the only copy of one of Dylan Thomas’ new poems, only to have it found later 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”. Since the area had no proper name at the time, Fitz-roving quite naturally begat “Fitzrovia”. So here we have a better idea of the world into which Better Books was born. London 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”.
The emerging scene is likely what attracted Allen Ginsberg to Better Books in May 1965. Ginsberg had been deported from Prague to London after the [Soviet-ised] secret police stole and read his personal diary, which “characterises his anti-communist leanings.” This was either a polite understatement on the part of the Czechs, or else an abominable mistranslation. One hundred thousand Czech students had elected him ‘King of the May’ festival. “This regime is…so incredibly stupid it’s tragic”, Ginsberg wrote bluntly. He arrived in London and quickly became Better Books’ “resident Beat”. Miles organised an impromptu reading at the shop; Ginsberg was keen to read some fresh work composed on the flight back from Prague. In spite of the limited advertising of the event, the audience overflowed onto the street. Andy Warhol, Gerard Malanga and Edie Sedgewick occupied the front row, and Donovan gave an impromptu performance of Jesse Fuller’s ‘Cocaine’ to whet the audience’s appetites. Ginsberg’s reading was “the first healing wind on a very parched collective mind”.
And perhaps this statement becomes truer in retrospect; Ginsberg’s Better Books reading was just a spark that ignited a fire. Soon after the event, Miles, Ginsberg and a group of others, including expat 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 and Gregory Corso were about to visit 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”. Such a chain of impromptu events was to lead to one of the most historically significant and best remembered events of the decade, the First International Poetry Incarnation at the Royal Albert Hall.
The First International Poetry Incarnation, with its “grandiose heading”, was immortalised for the world in Peter Whitehead’s documentary Wholly Communion. The wavering lighting which emanates from its opening monochrome image depicts a white sun flashing out from behind a silhouetted statue. We hear the distinct vibrations of Ginsberg’s voice, which emanate hymn-like excerpts from his 1963 poem The Change: “visible father / making my body visible / thru my eyes!” The event had sold out, a shock which Alexander Trocchi commented on in his opening speech: “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 grains of heroin and seven of cocaine a day. Whitehead’s edit then flashes between the international selection of participants – sixteen poets – “many of whom had never read anywhere larger than the upstairs room of a pub”. The line up’s notable members included Christopher Logue, Pete Brown, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, 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 scene, or rather series of actions, had suddenly gone technicolour”.
Controversially, 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…sowing the seeds of the great poetico-musical revolutions to come. So they were somewhat jealous that we were so popular”. The night ended with Allen standing and declaiming his own then recent poetry in slightly drink-fuelled and eloquently turbulent mood swings. Horovitz recalls Ginsberg’s rage at Scottish poet George Macbeth, “who admittedly was very facetious”, which resulted in “Allen savagely excoriating Macbeth at the afterparty in the Roundhouse”. Though disorganised, amateurish and imperfect as some of the performances were, for the London youth of the time it was an explosive “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 instigated a domino effect of underground happenings. Miles started an underground newspaper almost immediately afterwards, the International Times. The international ‘Destruction in Art’ symposium (DIAS) followed at the ICA. The Beat poets were starting to achieve a wider readership and notoriety, through recordings and publications emerging from international connections established at Better Books and the Albert Hall Poetry Incarnation.
Fighting my way down the Charing Cross Road in 2018, I find it difficult to catch even the vestiges of the “swinging” scene of sixties London. What has become of Bohemia? Where are these figures now, who haunt the degrading analogue stills of the Whitehead documentaries, and other mementos of a time which seems immeasurably far in the past? Where are their reincarnations, their modern-day equivalents? According to Barry Miles in his essay “Going underground: the secret life of London”, 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 avant-garde 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”. The London counter-culture no longer stands as a unified body, discoverable by a simple trip down the northern line to a dingy bookshop – it is all around us. It seems to Horovitz that “the particular clothes we dressed up in in the 60’s, and the particular people who became little stars in the galaxy”, were part of a continuum that “goes on reverberating”. True, “bohemia” may be harder to find, but it never was an essentially geographical location. As long as originality of vision survives, bohemia will survive. According to The Guardian’s Elizabeth Wilson, it simply “can no longer afford to advertise itself in the old way”. “As each wave of Bohemia breaks”, writes Horovitz, “a new one rises”. Perhaps we are simply floating in the low-seas, waiting for a new wave to surge and break; perhaps we will be on the crest. “For all the countless Bohemians who bullshat much of their lives away (and often of their loved ones’ lives away as well) who now lie dead and largely forgotten…Vive la Boheme!”
 Bomb Culture is a book written by Jeff Nuttall, published in 1968. Its subject is the London counter-culture. Michael Horovitz in “Jeff Nuttall’s Obituary” published in The Guardian in 2004, writes of Bomb Culture: it “remains a primary source and manifesto for the post-Hiroshima generation”.
 Petr Blazek, The Deportation of the King of May: Allen Ginsberg and the State Security in BIC: Behind the Iron Curtain: Review of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, 1/2014, vol. 3, p. 35