Bruce Wilkinson introduces his new book on the 1960s Northern countercultural underground of avant-garde poetry.
Hidden Culture, Forgotten History covers East Lancashire radicalism which sprang from the 1960s ‘little poetry magazines’ of working-class writers and editors Jim Burns, Dave Cunliffe and Tina Morris.
Although the poetry scene’s influence on the beginnings of British counterculture is recorded in the work of Jeff Nuttall, Jonathon Green and Barry Miles there have been few attempts to follow-up this impact, particularly away from the capital. Geraldine Monk’s collection CUSP (Shearsman, 2012), about industrial England’s poetic network hints at this connection but my study explicitly links it with the development of alternative bookshops and newspapers, collectives, communes and activists. This 1960s and 70s underground is placed within a broader, regional history of militancy (Chartism, the Suffragettes and the beginnings of the Labour movement), outlining ties with the more recent rave scene and anti-road building protests. The small press publishing of Morris, Cunliffe and Burns is analysed using Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological approach while the later anti-establishment activity is assessed both through Situationist theory and via more recent ideas about countercultural commodification and its part in neo-liberalism.
Usually consisting of just twenty or thirty pages of experimental verse little poetry magazines are cheaply made by one or two people, avoiding the pressure to turn a profit and enabling editors to take risks when choosing work. Although subscription lists of only two or three hundred people are common, these are often made up of other writers, editors and critics, creating a virtuous loop of influence far greater than would normally be the case with such a small publication. In the early 1960s, exciting new forms of verse appeared on both sides of the Atlantic but these were largely invisible in the UK’s mainstream literary press then controlled by traditionalists. The little poetry magazines were often the first and sometimes the only place you could read this new avant-garde poetry; demand subsequently increasing alongside a rapid expansion in the number of periodicals.
In the US verse was transformed by Charles Olson and Allen Ginsberg freeing its form, content and use of language from previous restrictions; sparking poets at the Black Mountain College, in New York and on the west coast to further develop this freedom, eventually infecting the wider literary canon and other art forms beyond that. Influenced by European art movements, the British avant-garde investigated new forms of verse (sound, text, cut-up) under the term Concrete poetry; Ian Hamilton Finlay and Dom Sylvester Houédard at the forefront of this UK scene which was almost exclusively limited to a network of small presses, readings and a handful of specialist bookshops. The little poetry magazines of the period were by definition countercultural in that they were set up in deliberate opposition to or as an attempt to bypass mainstream publishing houses, the mass media and the traditional poetry system. Although less obviously revolutionary in tone than the later underground press their very creation was a political act, an attempt to bring about change or at the very least to set up a resistance to an establishment which supressed experimentalism.
Jim Burns, Dave Cunliffe and Tina Morris were introduced to the avant-garde by modern jazz and the experimental verse they found in little poetry magazines to which they submitted work from the early 1960s. In 1963 Cunliffe began editing Poetmeat, a quarterly published through his own BB Books small press from Blackburn. Morris contributed to this, quickly becoming co-editor; a romance soon leading to their marriage. From nearby Preston, Burns picked up on their literary activity, submitting his poetry and reviews to their edition and, using their equipment, they helped him bring out his own Move poetry journal. In Little Magazine Profiles (University of Salzburg, 1993) Austrian academic Wolfgang Görtschacher gives both magazines particular credit for their emphasis on American verse and willingness to accept a diverse range of poetry while stressing how Burns was one of the first to contextualise the importance of the publications in his regular Tribune column.
Focused on US writers, the Lancastrians connected with poets from San Francisco, Detroit and New York long before most in Britain were aware of a counterculture then forming in the States. Already politically aware, Burns was active as a trade union steward in the engineering plant where he worked while radical vegans Cunliffe and Morris picketed butchers stalls and abattoirs and smashed up shooting lodges on the moors surrounding Blackburn. All three were thus receptive to the messages of a new liberalism arriving through the American verse they printed, delivering these ideas to a wider UK audience. The BB Books press produced anti-war, ecological and self-sufficiency leaflets and their literary information sheet PM Newsletter gave contact details for communes, collectives and activists, encouraging others to become involved. Their magazines carried many poets who would, only later in the decade, become better-known as the instigators of the US underground. These included lesbian Black Panther and co-founder of the Women’s Revolutionary Council Pat Parker; John Sinclair who managed revolutionary rock group MC5 and helped found the White Panthers; activist and co-editor of the anarchist Black Mask newspaper Dan Georgakas and Julian Beck, co-founder of the radical Living Theatre group.
This activity wasn’t going unnoticed. Jim Burns had his mail returned, stamped ‘undesirable’ by the US State Department while Cunliffe became convinced that their correspondence was being opened and telephone tapped. The Blackburn couple stood out, often receiving uninvited visits from beatnik or proto-hippie subscribers in a town where short hair and the traditional suit and tie were still very much the norm. In the summer of 1965 their house was twice raided by the police; Cunliffe charged under Obscene Publications legislation for putting out the boundary-pushing, sex-themed Golden Convolvulus, and facing a possible lengthy prison sentence. Pleading ‘not guilty’ but refused legal aid, his case quickly became a cause célèbre, politicians (including Michael Foot MP) and literary figures seeing it as an attack on freedom of speech and an attempt to set a legal precedent away from the limelight of London with fundraisers organised on both sides of the Atlantic and a poster campaign paid for by Housmans bookshop.
In December Granada TV and several national newspapers descended on the town, reporting the trial’s proceedings. After three days the jury found Cunliffe not guilty on the obscenity charge but guilty of posting lewd pamphlets which left him with a £50 fine and £500 legal costs, then a considerable sum which effectively put an end to Poetmeat and suspended BB Books. In his Tribune report at the time, Ray Gosling questioned why Golden Convolvulus had not merely been referred to local magistrates who regularly deal with obscene material; the Nottingham writer suggesting that the affair was part of a wider anti-liberal conspiracy.
In Offensive Literature (Junction, 1982), John Sutherland proposes that it was the first of the political trials of the 1960s (which later included the OZ action), brought more because of the editors’ lifestyles than any great offence caused by the book’s contents. Morris was subsequently sacked from her Blackburn Library job due to the publicity and they both suffered police harassment for some time afterwards. However, if the prosecution was an attempt by the authorities to halt subversive activity, the widespread coverage the trial gained had the opposite effect. For the first time other writers, bohemians and radicals became aware that they were not alone. Outside the court they swapped addresses and sold each other copies of their publications and, although at this point small in number, later in the decade their influence would begin to be felt, particularly within Blackburn.
Inside of Amamus bookshop
One of those inspired was Oxford University drop-out Ian Ross who set-up an alternative bookshop which he named Amamus (Latin for ‘we love’). It sold a mixture of political tracts, literary works and hippie posters downstairs while a room above doubled as a performance space for poetry, music and theatre and an office for a number of radical groups. The shop was the base for much of the town’s growing underground activity and Dave Cunliffe was often there, at the centre of things. From Amamus Blackburn Women’s Group gave free contraception and abortion advice; a gay-rights advisory service opened and Cunliffe and Ross published the Blackburn Barker alternative newspaper. Peter Good sold his prankster magazine Anarchism Lancastrium from the outlet; a Transport Action Group organised against the building of the M65 motorway; a soup kitchen for the destitute was arranged; benefits and legal advice were given and Blackburn Against Racism formed in response to the election of two neo-fascist National Party councillors. Those utilising Amamus also coordinated communes and collectives organising building, woodworking and market vegetable cooperatives.
Tina Morris and Dave Cunliffe
Although by the 1970s the marriage of Morris and Cunliffe had ended, they worked together on various projects including a ‘potlatch’ meeting arranged through Peace News magazine and designed to bring together the disparate elements of the counterculture. Burns’ poetry became well-known, featuring on TV and in the national press but he also contributed to the newspaper of the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World and read widely at political benefits. Cunliffe was connected to the Windsor Free Festival and, despite Lancashire’s notoriously bad weather, several festivals were organised locally, though strangely it was Jeremy Beadle who arranged the first in the region; Bickershaw attracting around 60,000 people despite the predictably monsoon-like conditions. In August 1976 North Country Fair took place near Chorley, organised by several people connected with the Blackburn underground. Although enjoyed by a few hundred revellers, perhaps its biggest cultural contribution was by inspiring a group of Rochdale friends to start their own event in Greater Manchester’s Deeply Vale.
The book goes on to develop how the influence of this activism spread and continued through the next couple of decades and is still felt through some of the above instigators’ involvement in local pressure groups and community associations. Beyond that it is the story of how three working-class autodidacts wrote poetry, edited magazines and reviewed verse to a renowned level, publishing important poets for the first time and helping to bring new US experimental verse and revolutionary ideals to the UK. It seems particularly important that Tina Morris not only defeated class barriers but also patriarchal dominance in a period when women often struggled to gain an equal voice. Although the connection between poetry and the beginnings of the 1960s counterculture in London is well-documented, my research emphasises how this influence also occurred in non-metropolitan areas, away from the traditional big city purveyors of culture and highlights how the avant-garde has a broader impact than is immediately obvious.
Hidden Culture, Forgotten History: A Northern Poetic Underground and its Countercultural Impact is available at pennilesspress.co.uk