Book cover: Alternative London

Alternative London, by Nicholas Saunders, Nicholas Saunders, 1970, cover by Nicholas Saunders

This psychedelic spiral is the perfect façade for this extraordinary book. Nicholas Saunders (1938-1998) was the man who formalised the alternative society and popularised the term “alternative” for a youthful culture which was dropping out of conventional life at the end of the 1960s.

Saunders was himself resident in a squat he established in Chelsea (where he kept geese in the garden and rabbits on the rooftop) and he published Alternative London on his own, printing – and selling – a remarkable 50,000 copies. This compendium of information embracing legal and DIY advice on squatting, communes, hitchhiking, abortions, where to get cheap food and to how to shoot up hard drugs, became the bible of the underground.

It was that candid, honest and sensible advice on drugs in particular which gave the book its reputation and is best reflected in the cover, a checkerboard whirl twisting and receding into the tiny, slightly awkward-looking title. The graphic style very much captures the op-art fashion of the era, a blend of Bridget Riley and Victor Vasarely with druggy overtones; the kind of pattern that appeared on everything from miniskirts to shop-fronts and became a familiar feature on the capital’s bookshelves.

Saunders himself went on to set up the (still) hippyish Neal’s Yard in Covent Garden at around the time the whole area was threatened with demolition, setting up a hub of caring capitalist businesses which became the model for the fair-trade and eco-businesses that followed two decades later.

In the late 1980s, he began to explore the emerging drug ecstasy and became an enthusiastic proponent, writing the bestselling E for Ecstasy. Saunders’ influence on literary life wasn’t confined to trippyness. He also set up the first desk-top publishing studio in London allowing authors to self-publish using new technology, continuing the legacy of this book.

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