London Calling: a review by David Haslam

London Calling: A Countercultural History of London Since 1945 by Barry Miles

David Haslam on a roll call of happenings and stunts that challenged mainstream attitudes
David Haslam
The Guardian, 

The history of anti-establishment activity and artistic endeavour in London since the second world war is contentious and patchily documented. No single volume with an individual perspective can incorporate all there is to say on the subject, but Barry Miles delivers as accessible a survey as you’re likely to find.

His method is anecdotal rather than analytical, giving due weight to events such as the Oz trial and the seminal 1965 poetry reading at the Albert Hall, but always looking for less celebrated moments that capture the flavour of an era; Derek Jarman winning the Alternative Miss World title in 1975 wearing a silver diamante dress accessorised with snorkelling flippers, for example.

Miles is good at describing a character’s contribution to the world of art and ideas, often doing so by placing them in particular locations and explaining how this fits their personal story. He takes us to coffee bars, communes and bookshops, and key sites from the Roundhouse to the Groucho Club, starting at the Colony Room where Francis Bacon hung out, a bit aloof and a bit drunk. “It’s a place where you feel you can lose your inhibitions,” Bacon used to say.

The book’s cast is huge; Brion Gysin, Gilbert and George, the Beatles, Mary Quant, Colin MacInnes, George Melly and JG Ballard make appearances, as do scores of others, many under the influence of alcohol, LSD, alienation, extreme egotism, revolutionary fervour, or a cocktail of several of these. Some of their activities made little impact but are still worth recalling, such as the Exploding Galaxy commune questioning traditional notions of clothing. Its spokesman explained that a surreal attitude to dressing-up was a way to see “one’s own life transformed as part of the life that gives meaning and makes history”; he’d say stuff like that while wearing a cushion as a hat.

The momentum behind all this history is the way London is always calling, drawing people to the city from the suburbs, the regions and the world. Miles describes the impact made by the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Gustav Metzger and Vivienne Westwood, all re-energising what Miles calls the “counterculture”. Unfortunately he doesn’t spend enough time developing an analysis of what he means by “counterculture”, or what it is counter to. And surely the story of how music impresario Larry Parnes turned Tommy Hicks into Tommy Steele and Ron Wycherley into Billy Fury belongs in a history of showbiz rather than a history of the cultural underground.

If you’re looking to define the counterculture throughout the postwar story – not just the 60s-specific forms of counterculture described well in Jonathon Green’s All Dressed Up and elsewhere – then the challenge to mainstream attitudes to sex and sexual relations is crucial. And, indeed,London Calling is brimming with nudity, homosexuality, bondage and – in the case of George Melly – a series of threesomes in various combinations. Throughout, the establishment appears to be exercised more by wayward lifestyles than by leftfield art, but when the two come together there’s always trouble. Of the Sex Pistols, one Tory member of the GLC is quoted as saying “Most of the [punk] groups would be vastly improved by sudden death.”

Barry Miles was co-founder of Indica, a gallery-bookshop which opened in 1965, and of the underground newspaper International Times. In his introduction he admits that London Calling highlights “people I knew, or whose work I am most familiar with” (for example, William Burroughs, the COUM group of performance artists, John Latham and Leigh Bowery), but whether it’s down to a lack of space or lack of personal knowledge, it’s a shame his history omits Jamaican sound systems, Hawkwind and Rough Trade Records; novelist Shena Mackay, Virago and the Women’s Press; Blow Up, Peter Kennard, casuals, skinheads, and anything south of the river. It’s also bizarre that a countercultural history of London doesn’t mention the anti-Vietnam war demo outside the US embassy in Grosvenor Square. Much of the artistic endeavour Miles describes is in some part motivated by a desire for social change, but he is generally reluctant to discuss political activity outside the world of galleries and bookshops.

Even away from the demos and political campaigns, however, the counterculture’s battles with the police loom large. It’s striking how ill-judged the behaviour of the police is throughout the book, especially in their obsession with “obscenity” and “indecency”. They’re vindictive (raiding and wrecking the offices of underground magazines), and scandalously corrupt (Miles covers the whole sorry story of the CID’s “dirty squad” receiving bribes from Soho pornographers).

What’s most important to take from this history, though, is what might be called “the power of the cell”; how a tiny group of disaffected outsiders can create a sensation, or a movement, or even change the world. Important cultural activity invariably begins small-scale, maybe finding a focus in a grotty bar or a club or some barely-selling magazine. Miles describes how the contributors to New Worlds magazine believed that innovative writing was required to deal with the modern world. The editorial board – including Michael Moorcock and JG Ballard – would gather on Thursday evenings at the White Horse in Fetter Lane. Doris Lessing attended one evening, but left unnerved and underwhelmed. She says it wasn’t until later that she realised what she’d witnessed: “In that prosaic room, in that very ordinary pub, was going on the most advanced thinking in this country.”

Dave Haslam’s Not Abba: The Real Story of the 1970s is published by Fourth Estate.