Fat on the fire

Text by Carl Williams

On Berkeley Square, a few doors down from Annabelle’s, playground of the establishment, is an august townhouse occupied by Maggs Bros. Ltd. (established 1853, by appointment to Her Majesty the Queen, purveyors of rare books and manuscripts). Among the folios and first editions lies London’s richest collection of rare countercultural ephemera. Carl Williams’ fund of Situationist posters, radical leftwing magazines and subcultural printed matter splutters away with amaranthine potency.

“But, as Hegel put it, only when it is dark does the owl of Minerva begin its flight. Only in extinction is the collector comprehended” – Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting”

I can’t predict the future and tell you the coming relevance of the stuff, the printed paper, textiles, opium pipes, photographs, drawings and diaries that I collect and deal in. I can’t even predict the past. I hated the idea of “progress” so much that I didn’t want to just deal in the 1960s and the Beats, just to make everyone feel comfortable, including myself, that I was doing the right thing and aiming to acquire the greats, the founding fathers and mothers of the counterculture. Having said that, I have dealt with a fair few of them: Burroughs’ manuscripts and his Scientology workbooks, Ginsberg-associated materials, British psychedelic posters and a private valuation for Timothy Leary’s archive. Of course, all of these things are potent and rich with the prospect of new perspectives and sensations waiting to be teased out of them by new audiences. Largely, though, those unknowns are known unknowns. Perhaps the owl of Minerva has already flown and dusk has fallen. 

But I relish the challenge of a previously uncatalogued set of drawings for Aleister Crowley’s tarot project, or a trove of handmade posters and placards from an obscure socialist feminist group like Women Against Imperialism. I “wow” like Kate Bush at collections of early photographs of once-forgotten drag queens and place them in catalogues with “out and proud” trannies, those very radical politicos of late 20th-century San Francisco. I guess they are in some pink curtained hall of fame somewhere, but they have barely made a footfall in the rare and antiquarian book trade. Though this same trade, at the venerable and ancient Maggs Bros. Ltd. where I work, has long dealt in homosexuality, flogging the books, manuscripts and photos of Crowley, Oscar Wilde and Radclyffe Hall.

There is nothing that feels more novel and fresh than dealing with the doggerel of an obscure extremist urban guerrilla group from 1970s America, and nothing more amusing than realising that our Early British Department has been dealing in books by rogues, radicals and revolutionaries for nigh on two centuries. The boxes of the countercultural library are endless. I am pleasantly drowning in social and aural movements, radical people and disobedient objects and when I look skywards I see no owls. I find this comforting and know that
I am not yet extinct.
Maggs 1Façade was a decadent Parisian zine started for the hell of it, with no sales targets, that ran between 1976 and 1983, and seems to have been numbered #1-12, then 14. Does debauchery lead to forgetfulness or was it traditional European superstition? Façade was kind of Interview en Seine, somewhere between homage and imitation of Andy Warhol’s publication. There were many and varied contributors, including Jean-Baptiste Mondino and Thierry Ardisson, but in reality, as the title suggests, it was all about the covers.

These include #2, with an elegant, swimsuited Jerry Hall on lurid neon pink (arguably the new colour of punk); #3, the Marlboro Man (that image so beloved of Richard Prince); #4, with Warhol the deus ex machina smeared in lipstick kisses of adoration; #5, Mick Jagger; #6, Dali; #9, Deneuve; and the last, Keith Richards. It’s very rare in big, institutional libraries, but then, I would imagine that many information scientists of a more traditional bent would have sent it to the “left” when it arrived on the library trolley. Maggs 2Left: This press photo of the unmistakeable Angela Davis from 1974 depicts her with two very unlikely benefactors, Mr. and Mrs. Rodger McAfee, outside a California courthouse. The McAfees put a large part of their farm on the line to pay a staggeringly high $330,000 bail to get the American communist, closely associated with the Black Panthers, out of jail. The image came with a stack of other press photos, grouped around the theme of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), that were published in the Los Angeles Examiner. This organ was owned by William Randolph Hearst, whose granddaughter Patty was kidnapped by the SLA and “turned” into “Tania”, a foxy, chic urban guerrilla who was caught on video robbing a bank. Davis had no association with the SLA that I know of; she was a rigorous philosophy student mentored by the great Western Marxist of the Frankfurt School, Herbert Marcuse, he of the “Great Refusal” that is said in some quarters to have inspired the American New Left.

Right: The Vulture Book Volumes I-IV: This archive of a youth, an original punk and bellwether of street style, takes the form of four shop-bought notebooks – Warholian capsule diaries, journals or commonplace books – from 1978. They were created by the teenage Bertie Marshall, as he sculpted himself into the persona “Berlin Bromley”, a “self-created androgen”. Berlin was a writer and performer best known as an alumnus of the Bromley Contingent, a small group of suburban London youths obsessed with image, style and a special kind of fame, who became the core of the King’s Road punk scene, focused around Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s retail outlet SEX. The group’s most famous member was Siouxsie Sioux, of Siouxsie and the Banshees. In an unpublished interview with Jon Savage, Berlin recounted a typical episode in the life of two young provocateurs: “There was this one wine bar where you weren’t hassled too much, so one day me and Siouxsie went in there, and I put on a dog collar and a lead, and went down on all fours, and I was barking and cocking a leg, and we went into this wine bar, and she goes, ‘A bowl for my dog and a vodka and orange.’ And they brought it, too, and everyone was laughing and jeering. It was the most outrageous thing ever.” 
Maggs 3

RAT started in 1966 with a starkly different look from the psychedelic underground papers of the day. It used bold photography and almost punk graphic design. As the subtitle suggests, RAT was a culturally subterranean zine that went through a number of transformations, mirroring the cultural and political changes in 1960s counterculture as a whole. RAT reported on, and was staffed by, the extreme and radical New Left, who weren’t shy of covering Jimi Hendrix or partaking of “utopiate” drugs. Started largely by men and dominated by their “fucking for freedom” mentality, it put nude women on the cover and apparently doubled its circulation. Like the Weather Underground, its name must surely be derived from Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. As the 1970s began, the zine was seized by the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy From Hell (WITCH), a congerie of socialist feminist activists who rechristened it Women’s LibeRATion.

Maggs 4

Left: This symbological photograph is from The Equinox, Aleister Crowley’s astounding occult “scientific” journal that ran to 10 books published sporadically between 1909-14. It comes from a set of the journals owned by Cecil Frederick “C. F.” Russell, a naval hospital attendant in Annapolis, Maryland, who had saved up $100 to buy The Equinox and was also memorising Crowley’s Holy Books. Russell contacted the so-called Great Beast in 1918, when he was writing and publishing pro-German propaganda and cocaine stories for The International magazine. Later, Russell joined him at his Abbey of Thelema, in Cefalù, Sicily in 1920, after he was discharged from naval service for injecting 40 grains of cocaine. Crowley is said, in Richard Kaczynski’s biography Perdurabo, to have thought of Russell as a “husk of 100 per cent American vulgarity” concealing a “Great Adept”, and enrolled him as a Probationer in the Argenteum Astrum (his own religious magical cult). In time, Crowley gave him ether and sandwiched him between himself and his “Scarlet Woman” Leah Hirsig, to induce “scryings and prophecies”. Apparently Russell could not get a “bone on” and the “working ultimately ended on a sour note”. 

Right: Alienation: In capitalist space no one can hear you scream is a very rare broadside/handbill published in San Jose, California, by Collective Inventions circa 1979. It was of course taken from H. R. Giger’s supremely scary extraterrestrial monster, the central protagonist of Ridley Scott’s Alien. It is a beautiful and wry example of late 20th-century street literature from a group of Californian neo-Situationists who took their cues from the ironic anti-advertising work of Guy Debord in Left Bank Paris in the 1950s and ’60s. This potent image was brushed off and reused for anti-WTO propaganda by the Direct Action Network in 1999.