Giles Bristow was part Utopian and part cool businessman and these ingredients were reflected in his bookshop. The shop made a good start and big plans were made to make it into a commercial front for an arts workshop behind the scenes.
Giles was a medical student at Edinburgh University, a former boutique owner and a salesman. Before deciding to come to Norwich he carried out a thorough research of university cities. The shop stocked virtually no hard cover books. Giles and his one full-time assistant and buyer Tim Sillence believed that hardbacks were wildly overpriced and that there was little desire for a book lasting over 20 years.
Because of space shortage (10,000 copies limit in 1968), Giles put an emphasis on non-fiction. "You can get most fiction at the other bookshops. I would like to have a copy of every paperback which is unavailable anywhere else in town."
A glimpse at the shelves and you got the point: Japanese Landscape Gardening, The Philosphy of the Upanishads (concepts and ideas of Hinduism), Beginning Chinese, Sun Chief - the Autobiography of a Hopi Indian, a volume of Arabic poetry - in Arabic which starts at the back. There was also the Bible, Shakespeare, Winnie the Pooh and thousands of conventional titles. Bristow's catered for set books, for esoteric taste, it was all-embracing and very hip.
Bristow's brought titles to Norwich for the first time free from the chore of special ordering. Alone it offered a wide range of City Lights books - the books of the American avante garde. There was poetry by the Fulcrum Press and when they put up the sign "Tibetan Book of the Dead now in" all 12 copies went in a week.
The awareness of the place could be gauged by the magazines on sale. International Times, Oz, Private Eye, Freedom Press (anarchists paper), Challege (young Communists) and the Los Angeles Free Press. Interestingly, Giles said "We stock no facist magazines because we know of none." Another piece of evidence to emerge from the idealism of Bristow's was the first Norch magazine. Although not printed on the premises subsequent issues and the initial Cyclops were. The shop's press also turned out the William Burroughs / Miss Marple mash up the eightfifteen murders. Tim said that it was only through Norch that new and untried poets could publish their work.
Beyond publishing, the future relied on cash. Giles tied up £10,000 in the shop and had his home above it. More money was needed to extend the shop and start the arts workshop. The shop used to be a butcher's and at the back was a former slaughterhouse where Giles opened a gallery and workshop. He claimed that he didn't want to organise people - merely to provide the facilities for exhibitions, experimental drama, painting, pottery making, poetry reading and talk-ins. He said "It will be a kind of happening. In spite of their popular image there's no reason why a happening should be disruptive. If it works a creative atmosphere will develop and people will be able to come alone or in groups and do what they like." This was Giles' Utopia in a slaughterhouse.
Police raided the shop in December 1972 taking away six publications that they thought breached the Obscene Publications Act. Nine months later Giles stood before magistrates to speak out against censorship and defend the rights of booksellers to earn a living.
An appeal campaign was started by academics and students at the UEA but the fund didn't reach its target. Worn out by the case and upset by the break up with his partner Claudia, Giles surrendered; the fine was paid and he sold up.
Although grateful for the support Giles seemed to resent being seen as a symbol. "I am not going to subsidise everybody else's highly expensive piece of theatre," he said.
Dogged and determined, with a fierce intellect, he went on to study law at the UEA, gaining his degree despite mental health problems which were to recur throughout his life. He used his legal knowledge to help himself and others, once resorting to the law in a dispute with Eastern Gas over a £7 bill. He won his case and was particularly gratified to win costs for the replacement of his trademark flip-flop sandals, worn out in his pursuit of justice.
On a wall in his dishevelled Gladstone St home where he lived and died was a cutting written by Frank Colby, which read: "I have found some of the best reasons I ever had for remaining at the bottom simply by looking at the men at the top."
For seven years, between 1968 and 1974, Giles Bristow ran a bookshop at 4 Bridewell Alley, that was celebrated for its service and efficiency in ordering and supplying books of every kind. The shop was much more than a book store though - it was also a meeting place for an alternative society of artists, students, poets and heads. Counter-cultural publications and alternative magazines were sold in the small shop and poetry, exhibitions and arts lab groups would meet in the back.
Students and tutors from the newly built University of East Anglia (UEA) and the nearby Art School mixed in an atmosphere of sex, drugs, rock and politics. 1968 was the year of the Prague Spring, Vietnam, Paris protests, Martin Luther King's assassination, nuclear weapon tests and the Rolling Stones. These were heady days where students were talking of revolution.
The shop attracted leading counter-cultural commentator Jeff Nuttall who wrote Bomb Culture whilst living in Norwich. Nuttall's presence and his international connections were to give significant links to the Wild Pigeon Press that was set up at the shop.
The shop was also used as a gallery for contemporary art with exhibitions by local artists Colin Self and Rick Caston. I suspect that it was Hayden Murphy himself who wrote the wonderful Bristowords below:
Words, at the back of Bristow’s, sell no cars, peddle no bromides, respect no properties, seek love, find fun.
Saturday saw thirty seated on convenient concrete, after drink-time before tea-time, for verse speaking and verse listening. Poets, some six or seven, spoke, spouted, swung from roof-beam reading. Poems from gay complexity to pedestrian solemnity fought fug and triumphed.
A double occasion - opening of Wocjieck Beck’s exhibition of paintings and first of regular Saturday afternoon poetry readings. Verse vernissage.
Jeff Nuttall, crate-plinthed, master minded and called, among others, Tim Sillence, Dave Glendining, Michael Marais and John Kiddell, all “Norch” men, and from Dublin word-wealthy Hayden Murphy, editor of admirable “”Broadsheet,” with a sackful of poetry. Bravo!
There were six titles for which Giles Bristow was fined: Search, Young Lust, Climax, Janus, Special Search and Inner City Romance. I have posted photos of most of them below - they were all taken from Amazon.......
A total of 475 copies (worth £648) of these various magazines were seized.
Oly Acola wrote:
"I left Norwich in 1972 so I missed the sad demise of the bookshop. Before 1972 I was a student at Leeds College of Art so I was only in Norwich out of term time.
I was never one of the “movers and shakers” only an enthusiastic observer and occasional participant in various activities. I was a regular in the bookshop and worked there while Giles was away in foreign parts.
Giles and his shop arrived introducing us to contemporary British and American literature, mountains of little press publications and poetry reading facilities in the basement. The range of subject matter in the shop was vast and esoteric; Giles only stocked books that he liked. The shop became a magnet for creative types and wanderers from all over the country. Right people at the right time with Giles always dressed in his red knitted suit and flip-flops providing the facilities. I remember visits from Bill Butler, Hayden Murphy and of course Jeff Nuttall who lived in the same street as I did."
Giles Bristow told the city magistrates he would rather face prison than pay £300 in fines after being found guilty on all six cases under the Obscene Publications Act, and fined £50 on each. "I feel morally not obliged to pay. I am not prepared to pay any part of the fine," he told the court. He was, however, willing to pay costs of £20.
The bench gave him four weeks to pay. Magistrates adjourned their decision in respect of forfeiture of the goods until October 9th. There was outrage in the city from loyal customers and academics at the university and a member of the city council wanted to know who authorised the raid.
Mrs Camina asked: "In view of the fact that at least four of the six magazines which formed the basis for the police prosecutions can be obtained from newsagents throughout Norwich can our representative on the Joint Police Authority allay the suspicion held by many members of the public that Bristow's has been unfairly singled out for prosecution?"
Police represnetative Mr Nicholls replied that the matter was still sub judice in that certain aspects of the case had to be heard by the justices and that the search took place on the authority of a warrant issued by a magistrate and proceedings were taken following the advice of the Director of Public Prosecutions.
There was laughter in the council chambers when Mr Nicholls said "Police do not go around looking for this kind of thing. They act on information sent to them or the magistrates." He added: "If it is known where similar magazines are to be found the police should be informed."
Giles was not originally represented but he took on Mr Anthony Hansell (Hansell, Stevenson & C0), who said after the hearing that a second appeal would be lodged against today's decision on forfeiture. The Clerk advised that execution of the magistrates order should be stayed for 21 days or until the decision of any appeal that might be lodged.
Before the magistrates announced their decision to have all the books confiscated and destroyed Mr John Bates, for the prosecution, spoke about the comments the earlier court decision had aroused. "As your worships will no doubt be aware there has been a considerable amount of ill-informed, misinformed and in some cases, it would appear, malicious comment and criticism as a result of decisions of this court on the last occasion." It was not right, continued Mr Bates, that in a number of other bookshops in the city identical works could be bought. Some books "not dissimilar in type had been bought at other shops. The police of course looked at other shops and other books."
His instructions were, he said, that all books of similar type had been withdrawn as a result of representations made by the Newsagents Association. Mr Bates said he felt it right to make these comments because of what had been said since the last hearing.
The Bristow's Obscenity Trial was part of a series of trials which began with the Unicorn Books trial of 1968, the Oz trial of 1971 and the Nasty Tales trial of 1972. It took until 1973 for the Norvician provinces to get our very own counter-cultural court appearance with the Bristow's Obscenity Trial.
"Bristow's Paperbacks is not suggested as the sort of backstreet porn shop which sometimes comes before the courts," said Mr John Bates, prosecuting. "It is a respectable shop, specialising in paperbacks of varying kinds."
But, in describing the books that had been seized from the shop on December 4th, the prosecutor talked on the "sexual perversions" in the books. One of the books contained "letter and experience from readers," he added, and most contained "abnormal sexual relations of various kinds. Inner City Romance is compiled from cover to cover of sex, group sex and hard drugs," Mr Bates added. He said the books were likely to "stimulate an unhealthy interest" in that kind of activity.
Giles spoke to the court of freedom - and the difficulties of booksellers opposed to other shopkeepers, who knew the items they could and could not sell.
"The bookseller seems to be at the mercy of a totally arbitrary system in a world of changing tastes," he told the magistrates.
He felt the aim of the bookseller should be to provide as wide a range of books as possible - "regardless of his own tastes."
The refusal to order certain books and publications was, he added, "totally outside my idea of freedom."
"Out of my entire stock of over £20,000 worth of publications, the police only found six to bring charges on - and they can mostly be bought at newsagents all over Norwich. No complaint has been made by a member of the public to support these charges."
He did not suggest that Bristow had been responsible for any of the misinformed or malicious criticism. But no doubt some of his friends had rushed to his defence without adequate information. Mr Hansell said Bristow had formed no part of the sort of criticim to which Mr Bates had alluded," this had been of a limited nature and the majority of utterances had been on the merit of Mr Bristow's bookshop.
Giles abandoned his appeal against conviction and the £300 fine which was imposed was being paid at Norwich Guildhall this afternoon out of a fund established to finance the appeal. He said "We cannot go on. The money is not there and I am too tired for any other worries." He discussed too that he was trying to sell the business as a going concern. "I have to tie up the business. I am selling up and that cannot be done from gaol," he said.
He said he would not be accompanying two of the organisers of the appeal fund, Dr David King and Dr Eric Homberger, when they paid the fine. Dr King said that the balance from the appeal which had raise £500 would go towards Mr Bristow's legal costs and any left over would be forwarded to the National Council for Civil Liberties. He said he would pay the fine for Mr Bristow with a heavy heart: "I feel very unhappy about paying the fine. It is just about the last thing I wanted to do but in the circumstances there is very little choice.
Giles did eventually sell up to an Essex bookseller with two other shops. The shop had been so successful that it was decided to keep the name "Bristow's."