This is a highly personal account of the growth of the artistic and political Counterculture centred mostly on Soho, Camden, the West End and The King’s Road, a literary cavalcade of painters, writers, poets and subversives spanning the last sixty-odd years. It is an overview with a sociological agenda but it is also an autobiographical work by an author who played a small part in some of the events he records. The introduction tells of the sixteen-year-old Barry Miles’s first Kerouac-inspired hitch-hiking trip from his home in the Cotswolds via the south coast to London and how he fell in love with the Bohemian life. The remembrance of those times is the heart of this narrative.
The story begins in Soho and Fitzrovia, a name coined by the highly unconventional publisher Tambimuttu for the Bohemian enclave and imaginative space just north of Oxford Street. It tells of dark dives, the hangouts of wasted talents and colourful failures, of hideaways from the greyness of the bombed-out streets of craters and smashed houses, shelters from regimented morals and austerity economics. Bars, clubs, restaurants, in various states of disreputability and decaying old-world glamour, the stairways and alleyways, form the topography of a little milieu hidden from the narrow concerns of the general populace but open to any wide-eyed seeker who wanted to cop out of the daily drudgery and conformity of respectable citizenship and live madly for the haphazard benisons of the creative life. This is the world of Bacon, Freud and Auerbach, who fed off its dark and damaged energies, warping their sensibilities to its magical vibrations. It is where gloriously, chaotically boozy losers pissed away their time and talent in rages, jealousies, viciousness and impotent hopelessness in the face of their inevitable decline. Drugs and murder and jazz and sex and, above all, talk talk talk, slurred soliloquies and sozzled holdings of court, were the vortices of creative vibrations that spun outwards into the wider culture.
We tour the Soho coffee bars and witness the rise of Lonnie Donegan and Tommy Steele, get a hint of gangsterism in the background and are left to consider that the scene gave us Sir Cliff Richard. It is difficult perhaps for the contemporary reader to get a real feel for the stir that these pale imitators of Elvis and Gene Vincent caused just before lapsing beyond rescue into blandness.
The chapters on events and people in the 60s and 70s are the strongest parts of the book, given a vividness and depth of coverage born out of Miles’s close personal connection with the scene. Things begin with the hidden influence of the Beats: Ginsberg, Burroughs and Gysin sending out insidious messages destabilising the codes of power and hegemony, their influence spreading via such figures as the hipster poet Michael Horovitz, the avant garde film-maker Anthony Balchin and even Lennon and McCartney, who were exploring the strange worlds created by underground artists, writers and musicians and bringing the news to the Beatlemaniac millions around the world. Signal events like the International Poetry Incarnation at the Albert Hall and the 14 Hour Technicolour Dream at Alexandra Palace are described with an engaging concern for the historical record tempered with nostalgia. The opening of Indica, the London Free School, The Arts Lab, Pink Floyd at The Roundhouse and UFO, International Times and its tribulations at the hands of a corrupt and grudge-driven Obscene Publications Squad, the ludicrous and shameful spectacle of the Establishment’s stupidity exemplified in the Oz trial, all feature in depth, and their importance in bringing the Counterculture to public awareness and feeding its growth is argued for cogently. The role of bookshops and art galleries in disseminating radical aesthetics and political dissent is also dealt with: the curators from the ranks of the disaffected posh, the beatniks, the hippies and commies, Camden’s magnificent Compendium Books, the affluent and unconventional patrons, experimentalists, Gustav Metzger, shit-flingers and howlers and Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, all thrown into the maelstrom of paradigm-busting fun and frenzy. Then the next generation comes, centred on Derek Jarman, first as a painter then set-designer and film-maker, and The Alternative Miss World; then Gilbert and George, oddballs even in the freewheeling context of St. Martin’s, and the one truly interesting aspect of Blitz – the antics of the Neo-Naturists, a performance art group that included a young Grayson Perry.
A few names from the world of fiction writing inevitably come up, and Miles writes compellingly of Moorcock and Ballard’s involvement with New Worlds, of how they had seen the backwards looking irrelevance of the worn out English middle class novel with its restricted world-view that filtered out what was really going on. There were several meetings between Ballard, Burroughs and Bacon during these decades, but it’s never been really clear how much they may have affected each other, if at all, and Miles unfortunately cannot add to the sum of knowledge on this point. A shared sensibility is of course evident in their work and their statements. Each man was already well along his own particular conceptual path by then, so perhaps there was less scope for mutual influence. Alexander Trocchi appears as a kind of éminence grise, emanating failed pamphlets, doomed projects and malevolent vibes as he shot up in his dusty bookshop.
The book loses its energy a little towards the end, the Afterword concentrating on the YBAs (hardly countercultural; on the contrary Hirst, Emin, et al, were an embodiment of the post-Thatcher ethos of the Major and Blair eras) and entertaining accounts of the coked-up shenanigans of The Groucho Club’s more famous members. Leigh Bowery is rightly covered in detail and his influence is given due consideration, but the New Romantics were no more than a hedonistic dance club culture that had rather more in common with Thatcherite values than with the joyfully Dadaistic shock tactics of Bowery’s unique performances. The tabloids may have been outraged and fascinated by Boy George as an avatar of gender-bending danger to the nation’s youth (and George was admittedly valuable in promoting Queerness in the dark era of Maggie and her cabinet of vegetables), but Bowery’s work was driven by the spirit of outrage, deliberately subversive, a campaign of aggression against gender conformity. As always, the culture is generated and circulated by impassioned outsiders motivated by beauty, by the rage to live authentically: the eccentrics and rebels and showmen who would rather dwell in the margins, both in terms of influence and economics, than pursue the celebrity and riches with which the mainstream rewards the copyists and fame-grabbers who water down the avant-garde and appropriate the bits that are easily digestible and therefore saleable in the culture market.
I would have liked more emphasis on political movements. Stop the City, the London Feminist Network, the regular Crass gigs at The White Lion in Putney that spawned the anarcho-punk movement, the London Autonomists/Class War, Bash the Rich, the Brixton riots, The Sisterwrite Bookshop, Silver Moon, The Women’s Press, are all overlooked. These are significant lacunae. And surely he could have mentioned The Freedom Press/Bookshop, which still publishes anarchist and libertarian literature to this day. There is some coverage of the gay scene but nothing about the rise of the capital’s growing fetish/bdsm club scene in the 90s, which was deemed sufficiently transgressive by right-thinking coppers to justify raids on The Torture Garden and other venues.
This is a symptom of what is both a strength and a weakness of this book. Miles is an energetic and opinionated writer who documents the era mostly from the perspective of someone who was a part of it and knew the key figures and was at the main events. This gives his narrative a great depth of historical detail and interest, and there are affectingly rendered moments of excitement and emotional crisis that he lived through as a witness and participant. But this means that where he writes of matters in which he was not involved, though his research is excellent and he tells those stories with skill and knowledge, his view is necessarily limited. He treats of the birth of Punk well enough, but there’s really nothing that couldn’t be found in the definitive text on that era, Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming, and his round-up of the current state of cultural affairs is decently argued but pretty cursory. To be fair to Miles, he declares in his introduction that there are vast areas of this immensely complicated subject that are beyond his purview and that he therefore decided it would be wiser to leave such work to those better qualified. The result is a highly readable book on a fascinating part of British history: part memoir, replete with anecdote, opinion and personal perspective, part scholarly tome, highlighting themes of the affects on the Counterculture of redevelopment, cheap property prices and immigration, complete with bibliography. A lively and important work of social commentary.