In the Sixties review by Rachel Cooke

In the Sixties

Rachel Cooke

The Observer, 

For Barry Miles, the Sixties began in 1959, when he arrived at art school in Cheltenham. OK, so Marty Wilde and Gracie Fields were still in the charts, and his fellow students dressed like their parents in suits and ties and skirts to the knee but, no matter – it was a beginning, all the same.

He and his pals rented a derelict sweet shop in Stroud and set about living in a decrepit but oddly camp style that fans of Withnail and I may recognise. At Christmas, as the damp froze on the living-room flags and the icicles outside grew as big as saplings, they burned a house beam on the fire. In the oven was a turkey, roasting in an old Fiat hubcap. It was this kind of initiative – wacky, practical, fly-by-night – that was to see Miles, purveyor of literature to the stars, through the next decade.

You may not have heard of Barry Miles – his name, I suspect, resonates only with those of a certain beardy-weirdy age and disposition – but you will know his friends. Paul and Jane, Mick and Marianne, Ginsberg, Bukowski, Timothy Leary – they are all here, crammed on the page with such enthusiasm that, sometimes, the narrative reads like a kind of wide-eyed, spliffed-out Jennifer’s Diary, just so many late nights and velvet flares.

Then again, buried deep within this blur of places, people and pot, are a few anecdotes so comic – and told in so delectably straight a manner – that you might almost be reading a clever spoof. Never mind the Camberwell Carrot; mistaking it for a block of hash, this guy’s mates once smoked a 3,000-year-old mummified Eygptian shrew.

Miles ended the Sixties running the Beatles’ spoken-word record label, Zapple, but he got his feet on the first rung of the counterculture career ladder in 1965, when he landed a job managing the paperback department of Better Books in Charing Cross Road. Better Books was the kind of place where a discerning shopper could load up his or her crochet bag with all manner of boho goodies: underground journals, novels by Henry Miller and books from Ed Sanders’s Fuck You Press, ‘published at a secret location in the Lower East Side’. It was here, among the mimeo magazines and cranky typewriters (installed so visiting writers could get straight to work should the muse call) that Miles met Allen Ginsberg. The shop became the poet’s unofficial HQ in London.

When it was sold to Hatchards, however, Miles set up on his own. His partners in this new venture, Indica, were John Dunbar, then husband of Marianne Faithfull, and Peter Asher, brother of Jane. While premises for Indica were sought, Miles spent a lot of time at the Ashers’ Wimpole Street home where, of course, her boyfriend, Paul McCartney, inhabited the attic.

Peter and Jane’s father, Dr Asher, was an eccentric and the house had an air of decay characteristic of the properties of the English upper-middle classes. A crack ran up a wall, over which Dr Asher had pasted a slip of paper. It read: ‘When this paper tears, the house will fall down.’ Later, Jane donated her childhood till, with which she used to play shop, to Indica. Paul, meanwhile, helped out with the DIY. He was also Indica’s first customer, and the designer of its wrapping paper.

Miles tells the story of Indica – and of his other babies, including an important little journal called IT – with a precision remarkable for one surrounded by dope heads. But the real interest does not lie here, with stock and cash flow. Far more enjoyable are the first meeting of John and Yoko (Lennon arrived in his chauffeur-driven Mini Cooper); the recording of Sergeant Pepper (many Wagon Wheels were consumed); and an encounter with Timothy Leary at home in upstate New York (his veg were all planted in mandala patterns). Leary believed the Beatles were prototype mutants of a new, enlightened human type. The author’s fond descriptions of McCartney make you believe there might have been some truth in this.

And so to Zapple, the Beatles’ experimental label. In 1968, Miles headed for America, portable Nagra tape machine in tow, to record his great idols: Charles Olson, Charles Bukowski and Richard Brautigan. Bukowski, it turned out, was so shy, he could only record his own voice alone, beer in hand. Ginsberg, meanwhile, wanted to record an album of William Blake songs.

Unfortunately, a meeting with Allen Klein, Apple’s business manager, did not go to plan. ‘Assuming I trust you,’ barked the bearded one, ‘how do I know you’re always going to be here as head of Apple? You might go down into Central Park one afternoon and rape a little girl on her way home from school… then you’d go to jail and I’d have to deal with a stranger.’

This is a strange book. A world of giant jellies and 50ft super-spliffs, it is low on analysis (Miles never gets round to telling us which of the underground poets’ work, if any, stands up today) and, occasionally, on facts (one minute, Paul is with Jane, the next he’s living with a bunch of groupies, no questions asked). It ends with Miles, having put Indica into voluntary liquidation, heading for some R&R on Ginsberg’s farm in Cherry Valley.

The author’s coda to the decade is sweetly naive, as though he were a starry-eyed teenager strutting his stuff in Stroud all over again. Out of the underground, he tells us, came Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the right to wear long hair. What he would like now is a Bill of Rights and for us all to be citizens rather than subjects.

But it is impossible to get too annoyed by a man who cares, and Miles plainly does. He seems not to have a cynical bone in his body. His faith in the written word – particularly his belief in the right of the ordinarily disenfranchised to scribble away, be given a platform and hang the consequences – belongs to another time, before Borders began its inexorable march down Charing Cross Road. He begged and borrowed to keep IT on its feet, and was rewarded with a circulation of 40,000.

I have always had an aversion to men who refer to ‘The Floyd’ but, thanks to Miles’s endearing, if pernickety, passion for all manner of poetry and prose, I found I could forgive him even this. Besides, he really was there, man, and that is more than most of us can say.