The leader of the underground’s cerebral cell talks to James Campbell
Never believe the old saw, “If you can remember the Sixties, you weren’t really there”. Barry Miles remembers the 60s in vivid detail, down to the dress with “zebra stripes” that George Martin’s wife wore at a dinner party given by Paul McCartney and Jane Asher in 1967, and he certainly was there. Indeed, the saying might be made more accurate by adjustment: “If you don’t remember Miles in the 60s, you weren’t really there.”
Miles – not even his wife calls him “Barry” – was the proprietor of London’s first alternative bookshop (Indica), co-founder of the original underground newspaper (International Times), archivist of bohemia, biographer of Paul McCartney, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, and organiser of happenings all over. He was the leader of the underground’s cerebral cell. Through his door, according to Jonathon Green’s history of the period, All Dressed Up, “everyone who was going to be anyone passed, or claimed to have passed”, some of them seeking refuge from the psychedelic desert.
“I think of the 60s now as a supermarket of ideas. We were looking for new, valid ways to live. Some people took a lot of drugs, others abstained from everything, including coffee. There were chaste Christian communes, and others where there were no doors on the bedrooms and monogamy was banned. Everything was up in the air. We were just trying to make sense of it and not be conditioned by the ‘British Way of Life’.”
Over the past 20 years, Miles has devoted himself to documenting the fab, the fantastic and – just a little bit – the falsity of the period. He seems to have been in favour of everything, with the exception of spiking people’s drinks with LSD: “a very bad idea.” His memoir In the Sixties(2002) sets out the philosophy of the revolution, while recording its absurdities with a Pepysian eye. He has written much about the influence of British rock’n’roll and fashion on youth culture worldwide, and has now produced London Calling, in which he approaches the capital much like an archaeologist, sifting through deposits of counterculture. Miles digs past the Young British Artists (YBA) phenomenon to reveal traces of punk. Further down are relics of the Beatnik era, then a stratum of the Angry Young Men, another of boozy literati in Fitzrovia.
The dead centre of London for artists, patrons and hangers-on has always been Soho, “the cosmopolitan centre of London”, as Miles refers to it in London Calling, “its character formed by successive waves of refugees”. It was to Soho in the postwar years “that people came to get away from Britain for a few hours”. You could, and still can, visit an Italian cafe, a French church and a Chinese restaurant in the space of an hour. From this cocktail evolved the “Swinging London” of the 60s, “the London of dreams”.
The London that Miles dreamed of as a grammar-school boy in the Gloucestershire town of Cirencester was not swinging but static. His parents were working-class folk who knew their place and counselled their arty son on the perils of getting above himself. “My mother used to say: ‘You’re flying too high, my boy.’ Both my parents had been servants in a big country house in Gloucestershire, which had a moat around it and a drawbridge. All my relatives were in service. It was the rural proletariat.” He offers his genial laugh. “That’s why I love cities so much!”
For 45 years, Miles has lived in the same building in Fitzrovia, north of Oxford Street, a stone’s throw from Soho to the south and BBC Broadcasting House to the west. Originally, he occupied a flat on an upper floor with his first wife, Sue Crane; he now lives with the travel writer Rosemary Bailey and their teenage son in the basement. The walls of the narrow hallway are covered with paintings, including several by William Burroughs, made during Burroughs’s London phase, when Miles took on archival duties and compiled a bibliography of his work; he has also edited a variorum edition of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. Surrounding the pictures are photographs of Miles with Ginsberg, the cartoonist Robert Crumb and others. He is an exemplary case of social mobility – not upwards via the pursuit of money or status, but into the classless orbit of art. “As soon as I took my art A-level, at 16, I went off to become a painter. There was no further thought than that . . . You went to art school to learn how to do art. Then I saw a programme on television about the Beat generation. It was quite critical, but I thought it was wonderful. There was Ginsberg reading Howl and Lawrence Ferlinghetti with the Golden Gate Bridge behind him. It seemed to me that was the model to go for.”
The freedom to choose your own style of living has been the main theme of Miles’s pilgrimage. “We wanted the church and state to have no part in personal relations,” he writes in In the Sixties, having reminded readers of the rigidity of social mores in previous decades. “And once we had got rid of them, then would come the great experiment of deciding how to live.”
Among other experiments in living, he has stayed at Ginsberg’s communal farm in upstate New York, intended as a drying-out haven for Beat casualties, and in a medieval monastery in the French Pyrenees, which offered the opportunity to indulge his “alternative” passion for romanesque architecture. He and Rosemary bought the crumbling structure in 1988 and set about trying to restore it. The smell of cows lingered in the living room, and tractors were stationed in the chapel beneath a fresco. Six people could stand comfortably in the fireplace.
“It was really my interest in architecture that made me think I could spend time there,” he says, before admitting he was mistaken. Bailey’s charming book about the adventure, Life as a Postcard, portrays Miles as (in his words) “the curmudgeon in the corner”. The pristine sky, the mountains “newly iced with snow”, the peach-tree orchard induced in her a state of daily rapture, but brought him close to a psychotic state. “I began to understand why depressed people get up later and later. I just couldn’t see the point. There was far more happening in Dean Street in one evening than there was in the entire valley in a month. The YBAs were just taking off in London. I didn’t want to be missing all the art openings.” His idea of a walk in the country, Bailey says, is to take the tube to the end of the line.
Miles never looked like a beatnik. In photographs, surrounded by icons of long hair and cool demeanour, he is the ingenuously grinning one with side-parting and thick-framed spectacles. There is an entrepreneurial side to him, which used to draw the unjust epithet “hip capitalist”, but it’s more accurate to see him as the essential bookish representative of the underground.
“Even when I was a kid, I kept all my books in pristine condition. When I switched from children’s books to the grown-up kind, I sold all my children’s books to Cirencester public library. It was the only time they had ever bought from a child. The books were all in their dustwrappers. It’s almost embarrassing.” He has continued his bookselling operation, working with Maggs Bros of Berkeley Square to build or sell archives, usually to university libraries.
After accepting that he wouldn’t make it as a painter, he got a job at Better Books in New Compton Street. This was the first shop in Britain where it was possible to buy City Lights publications and peculiar magazines with titles such as the Marihuana Review and Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts. Owned by the publisher Tony Godwin, Better Books was “as much a cultural centre as a bookshop”. Godwin kept a typewriter in the basement, “so that anyone who came in who felt like writing a poem could go downstairs and type it out”. All the book stock was kept down there, however, and Alexander Trocchi, the drug-addicted author of Young Adam and Cain’s Book, would “go down and stuff as many books as he could into his clothes, which he would then sell for money for junk”.
Miles’s memoirs are full of juxtapositions that appear to reflect his own personality. On one page the reader comes across a note to the effect that in 1966, “London hosted the Destruction in Art Symposium, organised by Gustav Metzger. I was one of the 12-man honorary committee . . .” On the next, there is there is the uncool complaint that: “it was the habit of helping themselves to all the food in the refrigerator that most irritated English people about visiting Americans”. (Allen Ginsberg’s occasional girlfriend Barbara was the worst offender.)
Better Books was the forerunner to Miles’s own shop, probably his most ambitious venture. Indica Books and Gallery was situated in Mason’s Yard, a Mayfair cul-de-sac, on almost the precise spot now occupied by White Cube, temple of the Young British Artists. Indica was a co-venture with John Dunbar – then married to the teenage Marianne Faithfull – who opened the art gallery in the basement. The third partner was Peter Asher, one half of the singing duo Peter and Gordon, and brother of Jane, who was going out with Paul McCartney. Peter and Gordon had just had a No 1 hit with the McCartney song “World without Love”. A limited company was formed called MAD: Miles, Asher, Dunbar.
“Paul was our first customer, really, because all the books for the shop were kept at the Asher family home in Wimpole Street, where Paul was staying. He would come in late at night from a gig and browse among the books and just leave me a note saying what he had taken.” McCartney turned out to be “very good at drilling and putting up shelves and filling holes with plaster”. He also designed the wrapping paper for books and made a number of crucial life-saving investments. “It was really his shop,” Dunbar recalls. “Poets, painters, filmmakers, and some very famous people, all mixed in a weird stew, and all affecting each other. Miles was a grafter. He’s always been well organised.”
In 1997, Miles published a biography of McCartney, Many Years from Now, based on hours of taped interviews. It is clear that McCartney, with his spontaneous inventiveness and generous approach to unlikely underground projects, has been a major influence on Miles – one associate, Mick Farren, called Miles “the albino Beatle”. A photograph inIn the Sixties shows him with all four Beatles at the photo session to shoot the sleeve for Sgt Pepper. But he replies modestly to an inquiry about whether McCartney would regard him as having been influential in his own life. “I don’t think he would say a major influence, but he met interesting people through me.
“I would take Ginsberg or Burroughs over to his house. He was very systematic in his exploration of the London scene. One night he would be at the Talk of the Town, then the next night he’d hang out with me and we’d go to hear Luciano Berio or some obscure sound experiments. He had his antennae out.” Peter Asher remembers Miles’s “professorial demeanour. He was interested at being at the cutting edge of literature, music, art. That was the underground.” Not everything about the 60s appealed to Asher. “Malcolm X was one thing, Michael X” – the London-based enforcer and murderer – “was something different. But Miles looked on things positively.”
Just as International Times was “IT”, Indica was “in”. Miles recalls that Paul “brought John Lennon into Indica to buy books”. The song “Tomorrow Never Knows” from Revolver – “Turn off your mind, relax / and float downstream” – is derived from the introduction to Timothy Leary’s book Psychedelic Experience, “which he was just browsing one day”. Indica Gallery hosted Yoko Ono’s first big show, Unfinished Paintings and Objects, which was where she and Lennon met. Yoko was already known for performances such as the one in which she screamed for long periods while tied to a chair with bandages, but the piece that attracted Lennon was a canvas attached to Indica’s ceiling with three tiny letters painted on it, visible only through a magnifying glass. When John climbed up and peered through the glass, he saw that the letters spelled “Yes”.
The key to remembering where you were in the 60s was to keep a journal. In fact, though, Miles did not start his note-taking until about 1970. “Ginsberg was always saying, ‘You must write it all down.’ I spent about a year writing up my journals. It wasn’t that long after, so fortunately I could still remember things in detail. Which Beatles recording sessions was I at? Eventually, they all just merge into one.” A similar sort of danger haunts Miles’s books, which are apt to repeat the same stories. London Calling reruns some of the material from In the Sixties, which in turn borrows from his own biographies of Ginsberg and Burroughs. Most of it can be excused by his persistent desire to give credit to those who were involved in the liberation struggle, and their early recognition that the personal was political: Jim Haynes, Sid Rawle, Alex Trocchi, Caroline Coon of the drug emergency service Release.
As for the avant garde and the peculiar joy of operating in the cultural resistance, the struggles might have been won too comprehensively. On the final page of his new book, Miles writes about Grayson Perry, the transvestite potter, winning the Turner prize in 2003. “In many ways, it showed there was no longer an underground, as such. This proved that there was no longer one society with everyone agreeing how to live . . . The underground had officially come above ground, and consequently no longer existed.”
Sitting in his study-cum-living room, surrounded by a comprehensive Beat library and archive that one day might be sold to a university through Maggs Bros, Miles laments “the commodification of art. It has become so extreme that it’s hard to imagine any radical ideas surviving the process of marketing.” He admits to a degree of despair when considering the younger generation.
“The pressure to be part of the consumer society, to get a job and a pension scheme and a mortgage when you’re only 25, is far greater now than it was in my generation. It’s a tendency that should be fought against.”
Best Comment: “I have fond memories of Indica Bookshop, including the “great Banana Smoke-in” of 1967.”