Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
One of the great things about the Naked Lunch celebration in Paris was wondering whom you might bump into on any given day. At the Beat Hotel ceremony, I had the pleasure of finally meeting Roy Pennington and his brother Jim. Roy and I have been in and out of contact for quite a few years. I bought a small collection of My Own Mags from him on eBay. After I bought the mags, I found out that Roy was the publisher of Burroughs’ Mayfair Academy Series More or Less (1973 as listed in M&M) and the Urgency Press Rip-Off of Time (1972). This led to a correspondence that progressed in fits and starts.
Published in the early 1970s, these bootlegs strike me as precursors to what would become a burgeoning punk zine scene by 1974-1975. Of course, Burroughs was one of the Godfathers of Punk. Many people realize that Burroughs influenced the musicians, like Lou Reed, Blondie, and Television, but I think fewer people are aware that Burroughs was a major influence for the writers who covered punk and the editors who published punk fanzines. That said, these writers and editors were also inspired by the little magazines that featured Burroughs. Take a look at Punk or Search and Destroy. I see a lot of My Own Mag and Fuck You in them. Pennington’s publications, done in a true DIY spirit, provide a bridge from the mimeo scene of the 1960s to the punk zines of the mid-1970s.
Pennington’s two Burroughs publications very much invoke a particular time and place in Great Britain: the area of Brighton and Hove in the early 1970s. These two towns used to be “a haven for bookshops,” and an oasis of alternative culture in Britain. I have described elsewhere how a bookstore can serve as the center of a community and that was the case around Sussex University in Brighton. The two bookstores in question were Bill Butler’s Unicorn Bookshop and John Kieffer and Richard Cupidi’s The Public House Bookshop. Pennington’s publications would not have been possible without both bookstores. I know bits and pieces about these two stores but a thread on Michael Nimmo’s blog A Haven for Bookshops really captures the spirit of the community that surrounded these two bookshops. Pennington’s books come out this heady atmosphere.
In talking to Roy in Paris, I asked him if I could publish a revised version of a letter to another book collector he sent me years ago that detailed the history surrounding the publication of The Mayfair Academy Series More or Less. He agreed and the edited letter is available on RealityStudio. Roy also allowed us to reprint his essay on Burroughs (“Some Disparate Mentionables“) that appeared in the Appendix to The Mayfair Academy Series. The essay captures the youthful enthusiasm that surrounded Burroughs’ work among university students in the 1960s and 1970s. Burroughs’ writing puzzled and astounded readers and thus inspired young admirers to become young publishers. This scenario occurred numerous times from the late 1950s to the present day.
Pennington’s publications are some of the more interesting and appealing A-items of Burroughs’ entire bibliography. The Mayfair Academy Series More or Less and The Urgency Press Rip-Off of Time highlight the fact that given the time and the inclination anybody can become a publisher. This is alternative publishing miles away from the mainstream press. It is rough, it is raw, and it is truly wonderful, inspiring stuff.
Letter from Roy Pennington on Mayfair Academy Series More or Less
Here is the Mayfair Academy Series More or Less; because the original has coloured pages, the photocopy is not perfect. Also enclosed is a photo I took when I visited Burroughs in his flat in London [8 Duke St., St. James] in 1973 after I had done the “book.” This was the only time I had ever met him and we had a long talk. He interviewed me, really, asking “What do you young people want to read these days?” He was at the time doing The Job and not the later more “readable”, “narrative” stuff, e.g. The Dead Roads trilogy. Burroughs also asked, “Why do you say I am an arch-materialist?” I had rambled on about this in the little essay at the end of the Academy Series [republished here at RealityStudio]. But we did not get very far with this: I was petrified and bewildered to be there. I just wish, in retrospect, that I had gone through that rambling essay “Some Disparate Mentionables” with him, word by word. This was after all a by-product of an MA thesis I had just completed at Sussex University on self-referentiality. I think I offered Burroughs compensation for the bootleg, and the offer was declined. I cannot remember much more about the evening as he plied me with scotch.
Anyway, here is some background to the Academy Series:
I had just graduated from University and had some time on my hands (and some speed in my pocket). There was a local bookshop, which also did printing in Sussex called The Unicorn Bookshop, run by Bill Butler. Burroughs’ Ali’s Smile, published by Unicorn Bookshop, proved popular, and Butler encouraged me with my earlier Urgency Press Rip-off publications. My brother Jim of Aloes Press in London (who published The White Subway) also helped. I noticed the Mayfair magazine stuff, and I decided to collect them into one publication. Collecting the articles required going to the British Library and getting all the back copies of Mayfair and photocopying them. This proved a curious episode as I needed my philosophy tutor to provide a letter of introduction so I could access the magazines as they were kept in the restricted-access erotica archive. So I sat there, doing the “academic” research with this pile of skin-mags on the desk surrounded at the other tables by the slightly more erudite researchers.
I then typed the photocopied Burroughs Bulletins onto litho-plates. This explains the limited print run of 650 as the platen wore out. The press was located upstairs at 50 Gloucester Road, the address of Unicorn Bookshop. Mike Hughes, Butler’s partner, operated the machine, but I did the typing on an IBM Golf at a flat in Hove and took the stencils over to Bill in Brighton. After printing, I then collated the piles of pages in my flat with friends and got them stapled and trimmed back at Unicorn Bookshop. The coloured paper was a consequence of what stock Bill Butler had left lying around the store.
The illustrators were a couple of friends who etched (drew) directly onto the plates, plus my filling in spaces with the Mayan glyphs. I cannot remember where I copied the glyphs from other than a reference to Public House (on page 30), which was another bookshop run by Richard Cupidi who had previously worked with Butler and set up a rival bookshop specializing in Native American material. Glyphs were chosen because they are mentioned in some of the Bulletins.
On reflection, I think Richard Mahoney was too stoned to do any illustrations. I got another person to fill his space (p. 87). Personally I was worried about page 87 as it had little relevance to any of the Bulletins, and it represented a woman masturbating in a prison cell. These fears were not unfounded as Butler and Unicorn Press had obscenity issues with the authorities stemming from J.G. Ballard’s Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan. Mahoney’s name remains in the Table of Contents since those off-set plates were completed (deletions are difficult) before he proved unable to complete his illustrations. Caroline did all the others (p. 9, 20, 96, 104). She was an artist / jeweller in the area who was living in the basement. She was annoyed with me when I added bits to her work.
The cover was just a collage of stuff cut out from Mayfair. For example, the photo of Burroughs on the cover was from Mayfair, and I think, was used for each Bulletin. The young man taking his knickers off must have come from another mag. There is not any publication date in the book, but the earliest version I have is from November 1972. Copies were 30p. Cheap, I tried to make up the difference by charging delivery to London, but was told off by Compendium Books.
Back copies of the original Mayfair magazines are actually still available on the used magazine / book market. I looked for them as I thought the Scientology bulletins were worth collecting together as I am not sure they have re-appeared subsequently in his books.
It’s been a pleasure to write this down, as it brings back fond memories of a time when I had the energy to get excited about language and literature and do something. I do not have that energy or excitement any more. It also caused me to re-read my own bit in the Mayfair Academy, which I found excruciatingly embarrassing and naïve in bits, but quite funny elsewhere. Incidentally, the last three lines on p. 103 come from Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s book La Prose du Monde. These lines are the opening sentence of that text, which I studied (and translated from French) for my Master’s degree in Phenomenology of Language. It is also embarrassing to see again how I misspelled Academy. Somewhere in my pile of rubbish, I have the delivery notes for all those who I sent copies to (mainly bookshops), but I cannot find it.