I spent a lot of my adolescence combing through the haphazard piles of stock in my hometown’s excellent second-hand bookstore, Scrivener’s. A former Victorian shop and boarding house with five floors of books on every conceivable subject, Scrivener’s has been a reliable source of cheap and eclectic finds, as well as a consistent employer for a long line of friends (the owner, interviewed in the above article, is a really nice guy.) It was in the attic of this bookstore that my partner unearthed Alternative England and Wales, written by the activist and self-styled psychonaut Nicholas Saunders.
Alternative England and Wales is an encyclopaedia and directory of alternative counterculture spanning just about anything you might care to think of – squatting, gardening, electrical repairs, liberation networks, religion, hitchhiking, cooperative political structures, immigration, higher education, and a whole host of other intellectual, practical, and spiritual pursuits. Its aim was to bring together activists, organisers, and like-minded people to “give access to information which isn’t readily available elsewhere.” Saunders himself was a prominent figure in alternative circles, having already produced a series of “surprisingly successful” pamphlets under the title Alternative London, which many people have credited as a valuable source of information about counterculture activity
Saunders began working on this book immediately after the completion of the fourth Alternative London, having decided that a country-wide resource was sorely needed. It was a mammoth project that involved extensive research, months of living and travelling in a customized “old Ford Transit van,” and a significant amount of work from his network of friends and acquaintances.
The book was conceptualized as a project with publishing company Wildwood House but became a self-publishing venture after Saunders overstretched the budget – he was unable to agree with Wildwood about the proposed cost of the book, resorting to a DIY approach of typewritten text without photographs, which were “then amateur printed and bound.” This was no small task and largely achieved through Saunders’ own social circle – a friend typeset the entire book, while another produced the entire index, and another produced the illustrations. Simply checking and accurately inputting the large number of phone numbers in the book took “about 100 hours,” and the team was “constantly updating the information by pasting new type over the old and cutting out illustrations.” Saunders reports that the layout and content changes continued until the very last minute.
In the introductory section, Saunders notes several areas that have been favoured by hippies that I found unexpected, such as the town of Colne (Lancashire), Bingley (Yorkshire), and Stoke-on-Trent (Staffordshire). Hebden Bridge, a small Yorkshire town that is well-known for its large population of people with alternative lifestyles, is actually described as “the only place in the Pennines where freaks are disliked locally.” There are a few places that are more predictable in their abundance of alternative activity and are still well-known for it today, such as rural Wales, Brighton, Devon and Manchester. Others, such as Glastonbury (“a small, dull town… one of the last places left that is hostile to freaks”), Doncaster (“prides itself on being a ‘clean’ city – means dead”), and Scunthorpe (“like a bad joke on a modern city – dismal”), failed to impress Saunders, though there are upsides to these dreary locations – “I’ve noticed that the more boring a city, the bigger and better the Woolworths.”
The section on telecommunications is mostly a list of ways to hack phone and fax services for free or a lower cost. Saunders gives a brief introduction to “phone phreaking” which “enables you to make calls all over the world for nothing” by rerouting the call through freephone or testing services. Another method is a “mute” which prevents the person from calling you from being charged. According to Saunders, “the full instructions [to make a mute] are in a booklet which is made to look like the STD code book…. But I don’t know where it’s available from so please don’t ask.”
In the section titled ‘The Left,’ Saunders recounts the many anti-oppressive and pro-liberation groups that exist around England and Wales, including “Men Against Sexism/Men’s Liberation Groups,” which are “less active than the women’s movements which they tend to support rather than having separate objectives.” Other groups relevant to my own spheres of interest are “Librarians for Social Change: a group of library workers who are pressuring for libraries to accept more radical publications,” and “Country Women,” which is “a loose-knit organisation aiming to put women living in the country in touch with each other… a forum for exchange of ideas, skills and experience in county life and for breaking with traditional sex roles.” Most of the endeavours that Saunders lists have their own headquarters or regular office space, something that can be extremely difficult for activists to come by in the current housing market – many people regard the 1970’s as a prosperous time for activists due to the general availability of space and lower living costs.
It was initially the drugs section of this book that caught my attention – a self-described “old hippy,” Saunders was highly interested in the disinhibiting and creative effects of LSD and Ecstasy/MDMA and wrote extensively on the topic. He was disappointed that “both the press and users like to dramatise the subject – adding to the mystique but also keeping up the fear based on ignorance of what it’s all about.” His drugs section gives a dispassionate overview of what each commonly encountered drug does, how to safely take it, and how to deal with negative side effects or attend to someone suffering from an overdose. Information on the government policies of the time largely reflect the situation today – “Britain is now lagging well behind [compared to the US and Canada] – sentences here are higher, the public are still ignorant about cannabis and the press continues to lump all drugs together.”
The book also offers a plentiful supply of practical advice for everyday life – there are guides on setting up free schools, effective vegetarian cooking, advice on picking up the dole, home maintenance, and many others. I particularly liked the section on printing and publishing, which lists all of the most commonly used printing/distribution methods, as well as directory information for every alternative and community printing press available. Again, the healthy environment for such projects at the time is obvious – in the section listing alternative bookstores, Liverpool has four (Atticus Bookshop, News from Nowhere, Red Books, Progressive Books and October Books) but News from Nowhere is now the only one, though there remains a very present countercultural scene in the city.
A long list of potential casual work includes some ‘jobs’ that seem a little eccentric now, such as “Undergraduate Tours” – a scheme that employed undergraduate students with cars to drive tourists around and that might get you some good tips “if you grovel.” Saunders also suggests modelling, although he says that “if you’re glamorous, don’t try modelling…. But if you look odd, you’re made: a really fat jolly woman can earn £10-£12 an hour and get more work than the dollies.” Another option is to make an amateur porn film and distribute it through the “Film Makers Co-Op – no sound or quality necessary as they accept all films and you can write your own entry in their catalogue. A friend of a friend does well at this – uses pretentious titles like ‘Perpetual motion of the hysterical penis.’” In general, the book’s advice is fairly liberal and non-judgmental when it comes to sex work of all kinds, though the language is clearly outdated.
Alternative England and Wales is a fantastic resource of information, but it is only the tip of the iceberg of Saunders’ expansive knowledge of alternative culture. Before his untimely death in a car crash in 1998, Saunders had not only published multiple resource guides and informational texts in the form of his Alternative and Ecstasy series, but had also founded and maintained Neal’s Yard in Covent Garden with the opening of a Whole Food warehouse. His parents were relatively wealthy and Saunders funnelled the money that he gave them back into his community, setting up alternative housing projects and creating hundreds of jobs and homes for the people around him. Though it is now largely inactive, you can view the memorial website set up in his honour here.