London Calling: a review by John Preston

London Calling by Barry Miles: review

The louche, the drunk, the ridiculously avant garde… London Calling by Barry Miles offers an entertaining tour of the capital’s counterculture

John Preston

By John Preston

5:43AM GMT 07 Mar 2010

As a 16-year-old boy at the end of the Fifties, Barry Miles hitchhiked to London with a copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in his pocket and headed straight to Soho where he gazed enthralled at such cultural landmarks as the 2i’s coffee bar. This, thought Miles, ‘was the life I wanted’ – amid the bohos, the maniacs, the innovators and the social transgressors.

His history of London’s counterculture begins a little earlier, at the end of the Second World War when louche artistic types gathered at clubs like the Caves de France in Dean Street, presided over by the barman, Secundo Carnera, the younger brother of Primo Carnera – their mother had decided to number her sons rather than name them. The writer Elaine Dundy described the place as possessing ‘an atmosphere almost solid with failure’. Alternatively, if you were made of particularly resilient stuff, you could go to the nearby Mandrake where licensing laws required anyone wanting a drink to order food as well. A collection of dry – very dry – sandwiches was kept behind the bar for this purpose. Anyone who complained would be told sternly, ‘This is a sandwich for drinking with, not for eating.’ Here you might bump into, or step over, such ‘legendary’ figures as the writers Julian Maclaren-Ross and Nina Hamnett, or the photographer John Deakin – all of them, I suspect, a good deal more attractive in print than they were in person. But then, perhaps this is the appeal of any social history of bohemianism – you can look as much as you like without being breathed over.

What exactly is the counterculture? According to Miles, its exponents are people who ‘make their art their life’ and ‘who want to transform society, and not necessarily from within’. But, mercifully, Miles doesn’t take the counterculture, or himself, too seriously. He wanted, he writes, to make the book as funny as possible, as ‘humour is an often overlooked side of the avant-garde’.

It is indeed – in part because the avant-gardists themselves are often completely lacking in humour or, at least, a sense of absurdity. That, of course, doesn’t stop them from being funny. I particularly liked the story of the ‘non-sexist co-operative’ in the Sixties whose members voted to have mattresses in all the rooms so they could have sex with whom and whenever they chose – this was at the same time as they voted to remove the lavatory door, considering it to be bourgeois.

‘I used to get woken up in the night by young women,’ recalls one of the co-op members. ‘One night I was just too depressed, so I said, “I’m sorry, I’m too depressed”. She went next door and the guy there turned her down, and so did the next one, and she shouted, “You’re all a lot of boring old farts!”’ As Miles’s account moves through the Sixties, he’s increasingly on home turf – he was one of the founding editors of the underground paper International Times. While he never seeks to shove himself into the foreground, Miles none the less contributes intriguing details such as the fact that he lent Allen Ginsberg his tie to wear at the 1965 Poets of the World evening at the Royal Albert Hall – a tie which, he notes glumly, Ginsberg never returned.

Yet while Miles writes wryly and crisply and has an excellently tuned ear for an anecdote, he’s not entirely free of the curse of self-indulgence that claimed so many of his contemporaries. There’s more here on Sixties club life than I suspect anyone who’s not monomaniacal about the subject could want.

That said, it’s worth ploughing through almost any amount of detail to get to the story of Emmett Grogan, who in 1967 was one of the speakers who addressed the deeply unalluringly titled Dialectics of Liberation Congress at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm. Grogan delivered a 10-minute speech all about ‘effecting a real inner transformation’ that was rapturously received by the assembled hippies.

After the applause had died down, Grogan thanked the audience for their generosity, but pointed out that he was not, in fact, the first person to make this speech: it had originally been delivered by Adolf Hitler at the Reichstag in 1937. Whereupon the rapturous audience immediately turned into a baying lynch-mob.

Thereafter, Miles moves onward through Gilbert and George, Derek Jarman, Vivienne Westwood and Leigh Bowery before ending up, bizarrely, at the Groucho Club. Smart, smug and quiveringly self-conscious in its raffishness, the Groucho is surely the antithesis of all the Soho watering-holes that preceded it. But perhaps nothing signals the death of the counterculture quite so aptly. With nothing left to kick against, today’s bohemians have become as insular and predictable as the people whose values they once mocked.

London Calling: A Countercultural History of London since 1945

By Barry Miles

ATLANTIC, £25, 468pp

Available from Telegraph Books 0844 871 1516