Notes from the underground: The history of the cult British radical magazine Black Dwarf, part 1

By Douglas Gill, who was there.

The offices of the Black Dwarf occupied the top floor of a house in Soho. Like the other houses in this street and in surrounding streets, the ground floor had been turned to some commercial use — a coffee bar or shop perhaps — and the remaining floors had then become offices. Before being appointed editor, I had scarcely visited the place, and knew little of the hopes and aspirations of those in charge; even so, the process of appointment to the editorship was informal, peremptory perhaps. The job had not been advertised, but, the previous editor having suddenly resigned, the Editorial Committee then cast around for someone else to take their place.

So it was that one day in early 1969, Bob Rowthorn tapped me on the shoulder. I was sitting in the Reading Room of the British Museum. Would I walk with him to Soho, and talk to the editorial committee about the job of editing the Dwarf?

In the event, some members of that committee were already known to me. Rowthorn and Sheila Rowbotham I had known for many years, and there were others there with whom I was acquainted — Tariq Ali and Fred Halliday, for instance. I did not know John Hoyland; and there may have been more present, whose names I now forget. And it was here, for the first time, that I met the person who was the key to the entire venture: the publisher, Clive Goodwin.

Apart from the publisher and the editorial committee, there was no-one else to meet. The Dwarf had no journalists, sub-editors, production people, and the like. (There was a business manager and a circulation manager, but they were ciphers.) And this might seem surprising. After all, the paper had started publishing in mid-1968, in tabloid newspaper format; it proclaimed that it was published every fortnight. So, for one person to produce a paper of this scope — to act, that is, as an editor, sub-editor, reporter, and production manager — was well-nigh impossible. To me, a would-be academic, this was not apparent at the time.

Was this an interview or not? No-one asked me what qualities I brought, and there was no discussion about the duties which might chance to be involved. Even at the time, the lack of structure seemed surprising. Anyway, I took the job and started straight away.

Quite quickly, it became apparent that the Dwarf’s future was unclear. I learned that, at the outset, it had started with a fanfare: well-wishers had got together, an appeal had been launched, and money and resources had quickly been forthcoming. The paper had been launched against a background of long years of campaigning against the war in Vietnam, and in the context of the burgeoning movement termed ‘women’s liberation’; but the touchpaper which had set it off was undoubtedly the events taking place in Paris in May 1968. In London, as across the continent of Europe, people were drawn into politics who had had little interest in such matters in the past. The early editions of the paper, therefore, had given expression to many of their hopes — and to their anger and frustration. The mood amongst students was particularly marked. By February 1969, however, some of that initial impetus was spent. In the case of the Black Dwarf, the mood struck me as sombre. As much as anything, this was related to the problem of finances. Clive Goodwin told us that the paper lacked reserves and that there was no longer a steady inflow of donations.

Looking back, I can discern that the formula on which the paper had been floated, and had initially succeeded. It was one of ‘donations in — papers out’. With a strong cash flow, the paper could be published without paid advertisements and without worrying whether the vendors on street corners were actually returning their takings to head office. However, neither the Editor nor the Committee was briefed on to matters of accounting. I do not think that anyone, other than Goodwin, knew how much money had come in, since the Dwarf’s inception, and no proper track appeared to have been kept as to how it had been spent. And this was not because Goodwin was devious or irresponsible or worse. Rather the reverse. No member of the Editorial Committee had the experience of business or wished to concern themselves with day-to-day accounts. Those things they left to Goodwin. And this was a convenience to everyone concerned. Goodwin was a few years older than everybody else and came from a background wherein he had had to earn his living. He was liked and trusted. Given that he was willing to take charge of the finances, and to become personally liable for the paper’s debts, the Committee was happy with that situation. Its members confined themselves to endless discussions about the paper’s contents and its line, safe in the knowledge that, if the Dwarf should founder, Goodwin would be saddled with its debts.

It might seem reasonable to ask, why, in this account of a leading left-wing publication, do I choose to focus, at the outset, on its financial situation? But the answer is straightforward. The paper had been started with great enthusiasm, in the weeks which followed the events in Paris in 1968: money and volunteers poured in. It was akin to what happens in the aftermath of some national disaster, such as had occurred at Aberfan in 1966. The public was much moved; and reached into their pockets. But, unlike donations to that charity, which had to be administered by responsible trustees, and which were held on trust for projects to be carried out in ensuing years, monies accruing to the Dwarf were used up straight away. Used up, for instance, at the printers, on extravagant print runs on letter-press machines. So, not only was there no thought for the future, in terms of storing up some cash, but little effort appeared to have been made to build a distribution system which rested on anything more substantial than street-corner sales by volunteers.

The headlong rush to publish, as witnessed at the Dwarf, meant that no-one with experience of newspaper editing or management had ever been recruited. Ali was a political campaigner and a pamphleteer, and I was from the fringes of academia. Still, even had professionals been taken on, they would have found it hard to work with the Editorial Committee. Its members, who met weekly, believed that they should supervise what was being published, should debate the merits of this article or that, suggest layout, paper size etc.; a process entirely appropriate for compiling, say, a manifesto, but not compatible with the job of bringing out a newspaper every fortnight of the year. And, as was bound to be the case, members of the Committee had widely different views; so a debate on content was bound to be unending.

The lack of funds, and the conflicting lines of responsibility, led to problems as soon as I took over. The Dwarf had not been keeping to its two-week schedule of publication. And this was not only because the Committee took time to deliberate on the contents of the paper, but also because, at this stage in its life, that content was proving hard to generate. The fires of enthusiasm had dimmed and the staff were not on hand to generate the column inches willy-nilly. Still, once sufficient material had actually been gathered and agreed on, there was no graphic designer immediately available, nor a production manager to see the paper through the press. Graphic designers had been found, when needed, in the past. But they had come and gone. I needed one at once. Goodwin knew of someone who would help. But he was a professional, with clients on his books: and, when I met him, he told me that had could only do this voluntary service at a time which suited him. Given the exigencies of fortnightly production, I took on a designer who turned up at the door. His name was Mike Daley. More of him later, but suffice it to say that neither Goodwin nor the Committee liked the work which he produced.

Again, the question of content was always likely to cause clashes. There were differences of view, between members of the Editorial Committee, as to what should be published, and as to what line a given article should take. That was only natural. What was not compatible with newspaper production, or so it seemed to me, was that each member of that Committee should assume that any article which he or she brought forward should automatically be printed and that its layout, illustrations, and the rest, should be decided by its author and their friends. Again, if the finished article had not been handed in by the promised time, what was the Editor to do? And what was to be done if Daley thought that the suggested layout clashed with the format which he himself had introduced?

Quite apart from the unworkable lines of responsibility with which the paper was beset, I quickly found that insufficient material was arriving, with which to fill its pages. Accordingly, when a young journalist named Neil Lyndon came knocking on the door and said that he could work more or less full-time, I took him on at once. Goodwin did not trust him, and he was not widely liked by the rest of the Committee. Such views were otiose, I felt.

The seeds were being sown for future clashes. In pursuing the principal goal, as I saw it, of bringing out the paper every fortnight, I had hired Daley and Lyndon without properly consulting the Committee. But the word ‘hired’ might not be quite correct. Only four members of staff were paid. Goodwin handed me a ten-pound note on Friday of each week; he did the same for the Secretary to the Editorial Committee; he may well have paid the Business and Circulation managers as well. There were no expenses. Neither Daley nor Lyndon, I think, were ever paid a penny.

After a couple of months as editor, and having produced editions of the Dwarf every fortnight, the tensions in the office became too great to carry on. I wrote to Goodwin, offering my resignation with immediate effect. My continuation as editor, I wrote, could not continue unless I was given more freedom from day-to-day interference by the Editorial Committee, and unless I had the power to sack the Secretary herself. (The incumbent did not enjoy my confidence.)

Goodwin replied in courteous terms. He personally regretted my decision to resign, he wrote.

In due course, a new editor was found, and the Black Dwarf carried on. Before long, however, differences of opinion within the Editorial Committee had become unsustainable. One group split away and formed a rival paper. Within a year or two, both papers had collapsed.

The Black Dwarf: Reflections

Of those gathered in that upstairs room on the day I was appointed, only one, in my view, eventually emerged from the eventual debacle with his/her credit unimpaired. That person was Clive Goodwin. He had been with the Black Dwarf from its inception; it was his contacts in the world of film, the theatre, and the like, who had supplied a good part of its early funds; and, when things turned sticky, it was he who guaranteed the paper’s debts. He was unassuming and courteous throughout. In one of my first editorial decisions, I removed from the pages of the paper his name and that of the members of the Editorial Committee (and of the Editor). From now on, the Dwarf was not to be the vehicle of vanity or self-promotion. Goodwin alone, I recall, was not unhappy with this move.

Goodwin’s one weakness was, perhaps, to allow the editorial committee to steer the direction of the paper, without obliging them to share some part of the risk.

The Dwarf, however, occupied a modest niche in the great edifice of alternative or underground publications which began life at this time. And, like the plaster statuettes in a myriad of other niches, it declined and disappeared. Only two of the publications from this underground, whether in London or elsewhere, survived for more than a dozen years. The first was Time Out, a weekly which continues publication to this day; the second was L’Idiot International, in Paris, which carried on, intermittently, until 1994. Of Time Out, in this context, there is not much to be said. A listings magazine, it gave space to products and events which, in 1968, were off the beaten track. In essence, though, it was the vehicle of new trends in consumerism. But L’Idiot International was different. As Simone de Beauvoir wrote, it represented no more than views of its creator, Jean-Edern Hallier. His views were quixotic and his methods tended to divide. But L’Idiot remained the bane of the authorities and of the highly-placed: so much so that President Mitterand ordered his secret police to track its founder night and day. Eventually, the paper was destroyed, and Hallier pauperised, by an avalanche of fines.

Hallier was made of sterner stuff than anyone whom the London underground produced. He put his fortune, his friends, the fortunes of his friends, and eventually, it might be said, his life, on the line, in pursuit of his fantastical ideas. L’Idiot is dead; but the respected left-wing daily, Libération, was founded by men and women whom Hallier had brought together, but who could bear no longer the tergiversations of their chief.

A number of biographies of Jean-Edern Hallier have appeared in recent years. One compares him with Lord Byron; and the parallel, if exaggerated, is not by any means absurd.

The Dwarf: What I Took Away

In the course of two months, in the spring of 1969, I had made acquaintance with a number of new people. Mike Daley had arrived from Hornsey College of Art, I think, where he taught graphic design. He had been caught up in the clashes arising at that college between the management and students: which clashes formed one of the salient manifestations of student unrest in England during 1968. At some point, either during those two months or perhaps a little later, I was introduced to his wife Janet. I believe that Mike had met her whilst working at the college. Mike seemed keen to bring in Janet as a writer, and, though I found her uncongenial in temperament, I eventually agreed.

Neil Lyndon arrived at the Dwarf with something of a reputation. At Cambridge, he had started and produced a student newspaper, ‘The Shilling Paper’. A person of such energy was a rare find for the Dwarf.

Whilst working for the Dwarf, or perhaps a little later, I also met Nigel Fountain. Self-effacing and laconic, Fountain was a born newspaper person, who went on to spend a lifetime in the trade.

Idiot International

With a colleague, V.S. Anand, I made a trip to Paris in the summer of that year. We were introduced to Jean-Edern Hallier. Hallier was full of energy, both constructive and destructive, and was spearheading the publication of a new monthly. It was to be called L’Idiot International. Would we simultaneously publish an English-language edition, he asked? Hallier was supplied with ample funds, and he offered to supply one thousand pounds a month if we would go ahead.

To this project, we immediately signed up. Hallier had a team of journalists working for him in Paris; the English edition would draw on such material as the French-produced, and supplement it with whatever material we were able to provide.

I set about recruiting; and we had drawn on the talents of Mike Daley, Janet Daley, Neil Lyndon, Nigel Fountain, and Alexander Cockburn, amongst others, before the venture eventually collapsed.

[To be continued]

Douglas Gill

25 September 2020

Writer, editor and internet arguer.

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