In 1968, a prosecution began in Brighton, England against a poet named Bill Butler. His crime: publishing poetry and literature. In a stunning turn of events, the poet was found guilty, destroyed, and later died from his injuries.
This isn’t a framework for a dystopian screenplay. It’s one tragedy in a string of tragedies, obscenities committed in the name of stamping out obscenity. It’s an old story and a current one. Weaponized censorship is as old as ancient Rome and as modern as today’s 24-hour news cycle.
Before I talk about my subject, the armchair historian in me insists that we go back in time for some context, a place to plant our feet before our heads explode.
In the year 8 AD, a Roman poet named Ovid was exiled to Tomis, a city we now call Constanţa in Romania. There, alone and broken, he died. To this day, scholars are split on the actual reason for his exile, though it is known that the emperor Augustus Caesar claimed the banishment was for the obscenity contained in his erotic poem Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love).
Ovid was most famous for his epic poem The Metamorphoses, a 15-book masterpiece of early western literature. The kind of thing that young PhD candidates vigorously dissect in order to discern a new context that will win them the doctorate they have chased their entire lives. With almost 12,000 lines, there’s plenty to vigorously dissect.
Don’t go thinking The Metamorphoses is some kind of impenetrable mess. Among its many themes and myths is that of Pygmalion, a story about a sculptor who spurns women then falls in love with his own sculpture. Blessed by the gods, his sculpture comes to life. They fall in love and have a child named Paphos.
There’s plenty of pathos to plumb here. The misogyny is not only era-appropriate, but has been re-imagined in modern times as My Fair Lady, a musical in which our “sculptor” Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) carefully sculpts the rough-around-the-edges Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) from a Cockney flower girl into a fine lady of standing.
This shitty film beat Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove to win the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director in 1964. Let that sink in for a minute. Imagine the chasm of time between Ovid and Rex Harrison, wherein women were clay to be molded by men in order to have any value.
Contrast with Dr. Strangelove, a film which lampoons the worst impulses of the worst people, those who would happily engage in nuclear annihilation to assuage their petty fears about their own personal inadequacies. It’s an indictment of the worst kind of obscenity.
This obliviousness is the reason that Ovid was banished and Bill Butler destroyed.
Let’s traipse through the centuries of persecuted writers…
Daniel Defoe (left) (1660-1731) was persecuted repeatedly for sedition. He dared to pen pamphlets and books that championed the rights of workers and criticized the domination of the Church of England. For this he was publicly pilloried and repeatedly imprisoned. I leave it to you, dear reader, to determine whether dim-witted, inbred Queen Anne (right) or the brilliant Defoe was the real problem in England at that time.
The Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) was a French libertine with a penchant for prostitutes and debauchery. He wrote extensively on these subjects, and his works remain touchstones of human sexuality studies. The word “sadism” springs from the man himself. But in 18th century France, he had exceeded his reach. It was one thing for a wealthy nobleman to fuck everyone within reach. It was quite another to write about it.
Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) was a Russian writer who thought it would be a good idea to circulate screeds that were critical of the crushing serfdom and mindless religiosity of Tsarist Russia. Strangely, the Tsar, who was supposedly a supremely powerful man, was so fragile that he could not possibly survive such writings. Dostoevsky was shackled in a frozen gulag for years and years.
Irish playwright Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was a sharp wordsmith and a flamboyant homosexual who skirted the edges of public notoriety. One of his boyfriends was a fellow named Lord Alfred Douglas, whose father was the strict and mirthless Marquess of Queensbury. The old man didn’t like his son gallivanting around with the likes of Wilde, so he libeled Wilde as a “posing sodomite”. This incensed Wilde, who filed suit. But Victorian England being what it was, the tables were turned on Wilde and he was imprisoned for “sodomy” and “gross indecency”. Having harmed no one, Wilde spent two years in a miserable cell.
One would think that the modernity of the 20th century would put an end to such persecutions, but it didn’t.
Which brings us back to William Huxford Butler. Born in Spokane, Washington in 1934, Butler moved to London, England in the 1960’s. A bookish young man with an insatiable appetite for poetry and transgressive literature, he happily leapt into the waves of the 60’s cultural revolution and worked in a city bookstore.
In 1965 he pulled up stakes and moved to Brighton, England, where he opened the much-beloved Unicorn Bookshop at No 50 Gloucester Road. He painted the building in wild hippie colors and set about enlightening Brightonians with a vast stock of novels, essays, poetry, photographs, magazines, and pamphlets. There was nothing too weird, too sexually explicit, or too striking for Bill to carry.
Passionate about free speech and alternative viewpoints, the tall, boisterous Butler became a much-admired personality in Brighton, popular with both hippies and academics who visited him for rare tracts or publishing services. If you were an aging beatnik or a flowering hippie, the Unicorn Bookshop was a one-stop shop for all your anti-establishment needs.
In 1968, Butler’s Unicorn Press published J.G. Ballard’s hilarious pamphlet Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan. Written in the style of a scientific white paper, it discussed in agonizing detail the limits of the study subjects desire to engage in various sex acts with the conservative governor of California.
“Patients were provided with assembly kit photographs of sexual partners during intercourse. In each case Reagan’s face was super imposed upon the original partner. Vaginal intercourse with “Reagan” proved uniformly disappointing, producing orgasm in 2% of subjects. Axillary, buccal, navel, aural and orbital modes produced proximal erections. The preferred mode of entry overwhelmingly proved to be the rectal. After a preliminary course in anatomy it was found that caecum and transverse colon also provided excellent sites for excitation. In an extreme 12 percent of cases, the simulated anus of post-colostomy surgery generated spontaneous orgasm in 98 percent of penetrations. Multiple-track cine-films were constructed of ‘Reagan’ in intercourse during (a) campaign speeches, (b) rear-end auto-collisions with one- and three-year-old model changes, (c) with rear-exhaust assemblies, (d) with Vietnamese child-atrocity victims.”
Not only was the pamphlet outrageously funny, it also exposed the peeling veneer of stodgy 1950’s moralism. The cultural revolution of the 1960’s embraced civil rights, sexual freedom, environmentalism, and free speech, but there were forces at work to hold back the tide.
While J.G. Ballard went on to become a famous author, the same fate did not fall upon Bill Butler. The Unicorn Bookshop was a big, immovable target and Bill Butler sat behind the register every day. It was inevitable that at some point the loaded gun of reactionary conservatism would swing in his direction.
The gunman in this case was Mervyn Griffith-Jones, an Eton-Cambridge man who served in the Coldstream Guards in WW2 and acted as junior counsel at the Nuremberg Trials. A fierce and humorless prosecutor, Griffith-Jones acted as assistant prosecutor in the murder trial of Ruth Ellis, a troubled woman who gunned down her lover David Blakely after months of physical abuse that had culminated in a miscarriage after he struck her in the belly during a drunken rage. Despite calls for mercy, Griffith-Jones pushed for her execution and she became the last woman hanged to death in the UK. She was 28 years old.
Not content with executing abused women, Griffith-Jones went on to attack every form of “indecency” he could find. In 1960, he led the prosecution of Penguin Books for the publication of D.H. Lawrence’s famous Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Written in 1928, the book describes the desperation of a wealthy woman who engages in an affair with her gardener when her loveless husband returns from war impotent and broken. The book contained some explicit sexual passages (explicit for the time) which helped it become a popular novel whose themes of social class, sexual repression, and aesthetic sensibilities were carried aloft on wings of naughty language.
Re-published as a paperback in 1960 by Penguin Books, the widespread acceptance of this unseemly smut drove Griffith-Jones to distraction. He invoked the UK’s Obscene Publications Act as a weapon against those dastardly pornographers at Penguin Books. During the trial, Griffith-Jones asked the jurors “…when you have read it through, would you approve of your young sons, young daughters – because girls can read as well as boys – reading this book? Is it a book that you would have lying around in your own house? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?”
This equating of Lady Chatterly’s Lover with a dime shop porno centerfold did not go over well with the jurors. They found the condescending argument literally laughable. After a procession of established writers and academics tore apart the prosecution’s case, Penguin Books was acquitted.
But alas for Bill Butler, Mervyn Griffith-Jones was not done yet.
When Griffith-Jones got wind of Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan, his rage would not be tempered despite his smarting loss against Penguin Books. If Lady Chatterly’s Lover was a hopeless cause, surely this outrageous tract will get some traction.
On January 16, 1968, police raided the Unicorn Bookstore at No 50 Gloucester Road, Brighton. They seized thousands of titles, including copies of the counter-culture literary magazine Evergreen Review, poetry by Alan Ginsburg, and books by surrealist William S. Burroughs. And of course the worst offender of them all, Ballard’s Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan.
Now armed with what he thought was unassailable evidence, Griffith-Jones charged Bill Butler with the heinous crime of “possessing obscene articles for publication for gain”. Upon review, the court threw out the vast majority of the seized evidence as it had no pornographic material whatsoever, but dozens of titles were retained as the court could not form a conclusion about them.
Trial started in August 1968. The prosecutor laid out his case before three magistrates. Despite the technicality that he could not prove Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan had actually been sold to the public, he argued that its inclusion of available titles was enough to meet the standard of “publication for gain”.
The defense produced expert witnesses who testified to the literary merit of not only Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan, but all the other seized materials as well. In a twist that should surprise no one, prosecutor Griffith-Jones argued before the judges that the expert witnesses didn’t have the discerning legal wit to separate the literary wheat from the obscene chaff, as such skills were present only in the learned minds of legal experts like the magistrates themselves.
Properly emboldened by the prosecutor’s argument, the magistrates read the explicit materials and found against Bill Butler. His fines and legal fees amounted to £3000, or about USD $60,000 today. That was enough to shutter the Unicorn Bookstore and put Butler into unmanageable debt.
Broken and beaten, Bill Butler left Brighton and sequestered himself in a tiny hamlet in Wales. There, he tried to revive his publishing business and pay off his debts. The bright, bold poet was unable to dig himself free. A few years later he died of a drug overdose, deep in debt, poverty-stricken, forgotten. He was 44 years old.
Bill Butler would have remained just another anonymous casualty of censorious tyrants, but he had a good friend named Michael Moorcock. Moorcock was a prolific writer of science fiction and fantasy. He found in Bill Butler a kindred soul, a fearless defender of all that is weird and untouchable.
Moorcock had formed a lyrical association with the American rock band Blue Öyster Cult. He had written several of the band’s songs, including “Veteran of Psychic Wars”, which was featured in the immensely popular animation film Heavy Metal.
For Blue Öyster Cult’s 1979 album “Mirrors”, Moorcock penned the lyrics to the song The Great Sun Jester. The song was an ode to Bill Butler, a spark of light who was extinguished by dark forces. Sad yet celebratory and reaching to a soaring rock chorus, the song remains a permanent homage to a brilliant poet who was sacrificed on the altar of stupidity.
“And he took the stars in his hands
And as he scattered them he’d shout
‘I’m the joker of the universe!
I’m what it’s all about!’
Now he’s dying in his grief
And the hard men dragged him down
They’ve killed the wild-eyed jester
They’ve killed the fire clown…”
During his trial, Bill Butler left us with one parting shot, and I sincerely hope that others will reflect on it when those nagging, millennia-old forces of censorious tyranny rise again from the misty grave where they belong:
“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.”