April 27, 2021
By Bruce Wilkinson
The poet, publisher and activist Dave Cunliffe passed away aged 80 on Friday 16th April. He made significant contributions to the British Poetry Revival and the development of the 1960s counterculture through his small press output and his tireless anti-racism, environmentalist and anti-war campaigning over several decades. An anarchist who believed in the power of the avant-garde to change society his libertarianism brought him into conflict both with the state and some prevailing norms.
Born in January 1941 in Blackburn Lancashire he moved to London in 1957 where he initially lodged with Lee Harwood who introduced him to the fellow poets Jeff Nuttall, Adrian Mitchell and Mike Horovitz who encouraged him to write and become politically active with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Cunliffe is named in Nuttall’s Bomb Culture (MacGibbon & Kee, 1968) as one of a group of poets at the Peace Café who sparked the British underground and he took part in acts of mass civil disobedience organised by the Committee of 100. Crucially he met the artist and critic Arthur Moyes selling copies of Freedom newspaper at Hyde Park Corner who he later described as his ‘Anarchist Guru’ introducing him to a new political idealism as well as major Bohemian figures which included Augustus John, George Melly and Gustav Metzger. After several arrests Cunliffe returned to his family home to escape prosecution where he started the Screeches press and Poetmeat journal.
Part of an explosion of little magazines facilitated by the availability of cheap new printing technology and catering to the growing demand for experimental verse Poetmeat was initially a ‘Beat’ orientated publication with plain black matching covers. Where Cunliffe’s work diverged from most small press output was in combining poetry with overt politics featuring an anti-racism themed edition with articles about radical pacifism and the Buddhist Anarchism of Gary Snyder. When the poet and CND activist Tina Morris joined as co-editor Poetmeat expanded to include a wider range of verse, articles, photographs and literary criticism. Both vegans, the by now married couple used the press to produce flyers, posters and pamphlets promoting the Global Tapestry animal rights group with which they picketed butchers and smashed-up shooting lodges in the surrounding moorland.
Recent research in Better Books/Better Bookz (Koenig, 2019) connects Cunliffe with the Situationists as a contributor to Alexander Trocchi’s sigma project, a ‘tactical experiment in meta-categorical interaction’ and a revolutionary attempt to outflank the centres of power by creating an international network of countercultural activism. Dave and Tina used Screeches press to do exactly that – they became a global nexus for artists and activists stretching from North, Central and South America to a then imprisoned Nelson Mandela in South Africa and militants in Australia and Asia. Through these channels flowed trans-continental messages of radical idealism which brought about attitudinal changes later in the Sixties and Seventies. Cunliffe believed that art and literature needed to shock readers awake, to force its audience to question their way of life and alert them to the dangers of capitalism which chimes with the central tenets of Guy Debord and the Situationist International. Poetmeat is named by the art historian Andrew Wilson (along with other little magazines and the Sigma Portfolio worksheet) in his essay ‘A Poetics of Dissent: Notes on a Developing Counterculture in London in the Early Sixties’ within Art & the 60s: This was Tomorrow (Tate, 2004) as contributing to the break-down of barriers between different art forms and the consequent shift towards conceptualism.
In 1964 the fellow Lancashire poet Jim Burns penned ‘Blackburn Beats’, a Guardian article about the Screeches editors. Poetmeat #8 titled ‘New British Poetry’ in April 1965 is recognised as the first major attempt to anthologise many of the leading avant-garde poets largely published by the small presses. It featured an article by Burns which placed the importance of the alternative poetry scene within a broader history of verse and a Cunliffe editorial in which he coined the now commonly used term the ‘British Poetry Revival’ as representing this new wave. Horovitz arranged a promotional night for the issue at the Institute of Contemporary Arts at which many of those published read and he included Cunliffe’s verse within Children of Albion (Penguin, 1969) which is now considered the era’s defining poetry collection.
Cunliffe was severely injured in a road traffic accident and he spent several weeks in hospital recovering. During a visit to Blackburn Infirmary Moyse suggested that Screeches publish Golden Convolvulus, a pamphlet he was developing about modern attitudes to sex and censorship to include related poetry and images. In the summer of 1965 Cunliffe dropped-off review copies at the Post Office and the police were called when a postal worker saw the contents. Over the next couple of months their home was raided three times by the authorities and much of their stock removed as evidence. In August Cunliffe pleaded ‘not guilty’ to charges under the Post Office and Obscene Publications Acts. Refused legal aid, offers of support came from both sides of the Atlantic, the case considered an attack on freedom of speech and an attempt to set a legal precedent away from London.
After a three day trial he was found not guilty of obscenity but guilty of contravening the Post Office Act which left Cunliffe with a then substantial fine of £500 and £50 legal costs although it could have been worse as a guilty verdict on the obscenity charge might have led to a lengthy prison sentence. John Sutherland’s Offensive Literature: De-censorship in Britain 1960-1982 (Junction Books, 1982) argues that the prosecution was:
“…the first of the ‘political’ obscenity trials; that is to say, where a magazine [Golden Convolvulus] and its editor…were at risk primarily because of the lifestyle they avowed, rather than for any actual offensiveness to the general public of what was printed.”
The 13 issues of Poetmeat published between 1963-1967 are recognised by academics (Prof Robert Sheppard, Wolgang Görtschacher at the University of Salzburg) as making a serious contribution to the distribution of avant-garde verse during that period and it featured the work of Carol Bergé, Larry Eigner, Diane di Prima, Jack Micheline and William Wantling alongside the radicalism of Black Panther Pat Parker, MC5 manager John Sinclair, anarchist Dan Georgakas and environmentalist Robert M Chute. They also connected with artists and small press editors across the States which included Claude Pelieu, d a levy, Kirby Congdon and Douglas Blazek.
After the couple split Morris continued to co-edit what had become BB Books press and the first few issues of their new magazine Global Tapestry Journal which also featured a mix of verse and political diatribe, often tapping-into the new social permissiveness and sexual liberation. Alongside the verse of Charles Plymell, Raquel Jodorowski, Mark Hyatt, David Jaffin, Lyn Lifshin and Larry Eigner came articles by Angela Y Davis, Roger Franklin and Henry Miller interviewing Kenneth Patchen. In editorials Cunliffe demanded ‘Total Revolution’, and began a campaign to fast and give the money saved on food to the Vietcong. Ever the prankster Cunliffe used Global Tapestry Journal to launch his ‘Love and Peace Freak’ party with a manifesto demanding the abolition of the police and parliament and for ‘free sex’.
Whereas Cunliffe spent much of the 1960s building a global network of activists, most of the next decade he devoted to developing and supporting numerous local campaign groups often by using his press to produce newsletters, freesheets and posters on their behalf. Morris and Cunliffe worked with Quakers to form Blackburn Peace Action, an anti-war group which ran a campaign against ‘war toys’ and handed out leaflets urging soldiers to go AWOL at military displays. They also helped to organise a Potlatch event in Tockholes Village Hall, designed to encourage collaboration between different radical groups and individuals. Cunliffe was part of the campaign to prevent the building of the M65 motorway which was initially planned to cross the Pennines going through the centre of Blackburn towards Halifax via the Calder Valley. Much of the material produced to show the environmental damage the road building would cause bears the BB Books typeface, Cunliffe thrown out of the public inquiry the group forced the government to hold for a noisy protest.
Cunliffe found happiness again marrying Rena the landlady of the Infirmary Hotel and one of the best darts players in the town. At Spring Bank Cottage the pair became almost entirely self-sufficient – he developed a sizeable organically grown vegetable patch, an industrial scale home-brew kit and a greenhouse in which he produced quality ‘exotic plants’.
In an attempt to counter the racist publicity from the increasing threat of neo-fascism in the town Cunliffe assisted Ian Ross, the owner of radical bookshop Amamus, to edit the Blackburn Barker alternative newspaper. Although there were only four issues (1973/74) it became a substantial mouthpiece for the broad-left with articles attacking the National Front and the National Party (which gained seats on the town council) as well as featuring reports about corruption and on feminism. Through Amamus Cunliffe met Peter Good and contributed under a variety of pseudonyms to his satirical magazine Anarchism Lancastrium. The duo used the publication to cause mayhem and they were often seen at demonstrations in fancy dress or baiting neo-fascists as the Green Man theatre company. Cunliffe often made the press for carrying-out outrageous publicity stunts which included auctioning off Manchester Town Hall to raise awareness of low nursing pay and a naked poetry reading in a Jacuzzi centre. This kind of activity did not always make Cunliffe popular with fellow activists and he eventually found himself black-balled at some events. The duo were also criticised for articles perceived to be sexist and the Moss Side Press collective finally refused to publish Anarchism Lancastrium.
The increasingly intermittent Global Tapestry Journal maintained a reasonable standard of verse and often featured articles about the Beats. Cunliffe received correspondence from researchers into Beat history and he contributed to Ian McMillan’s BBC Radio 4 programme The Beat Goes On. Cunliffe taught the art of small press publishing through the WEA to classes of young zine editors passing-on the skills he had developed to a new generation of punk and post-punk kids. When the couple became infirm in the last few years they moved to a nearby care home. His substantial archive is now held at the University of Manchester but he left one final surprise in the cottage. When the house clearance men went through the loft they found a Russian-made sub-machine gun. A life-long pacifist, one can only presume that the weapon was hidden on behalf of a comrade or group he was sympathetic towards and perhaps revolutionary material from Stuart Christie’s Cienfuegos Press in his library holds the key to this mystery.
Bruce Wilkinson is the author of Hidden Culture, Forgotten History: A Northern Poetic Underground and its Countercultural Impact published by Peniless Press.