By Cathi Unsworth.
Barry Miles, London Calling: A Countercultural History of London since 1945, Atlantic, 2010
At the age of 16, a copy of On The Road in his pocket, Barry Miles began hitchhiking from the Gloucestershire village where he had been brought up towards the city where he was conceived. It was the summer of 1959 and he knew where to go: Soho and the 2i’s coffee bar on Old Compton Street, where Larry Parnes and Lionel Bart were turning skiffling teenagers into a stable of rock’n’roll stars. He saw a man wearing sunglasses after dark strumming a guitar, his teenage audience sipping java from glass cups. Made friends with some waiters at a Spanish restaurant who let him unroll his sleeping bag in their cellar and dream of what was to come.
“This was the life I wanted,” he recalls. And Miles certainly did follow his muse.
London Calling is a comprehensive history of those places within the city that exert the siren call: the Soho of dandy writers and woozy poets, of rackety drinking clubs and jazz basements. The Ladbroke Grove of radical politics, Pop Art and Performance. The King’s Road fashion youthquake from Mary Quant to McLaren and Westwood. The East End that housed both Throbbing Gristle’s Death Factory and Derek Jarman’s waterside warehouse paradises.
Miles has been a part of many of the scenes he describes with such infectious enthusiasm and critical authority – and his Appendix reading list of London books is worth price of admission alone for its generous sharing of knowledge that lesser journalists might jealously guard for themselves. But his journey is no sentimental traverse along the streets of memory. This psychogeography takes a necessarily meandering course from the Forties to the present, focussing in each chapter on those artists, archivists, beatniks, dandies, dilettantes, hippies, heads, junkies, journalists, pranksters, punks, ranters, ravers, voyeurs and visionaries who channelled their greatest ideas through these walls and streets. Coming from the man who helped launch both the iconic Indica Bookshop and the incendiary International Times, this is not just a celebration of artistic achievement either, but also a history of the hypocritical and often brutal reception these free thinkers have been greeted with by successive governments, the reliably bent Metropolitan Police and a magnate-owned national press who, Miles contends, have never actually been allowed any real freedom of speech at all.
While the author covers many familiar subjects, his gaze frequently falls into the cracks of pop history long forgotten, including shining some long-overdue light on two personal heroines of mine: tragic Pop Artist Pauline Boty and her fight against the ugly architecture inflicted on post-War London; and artist/writer/journalist/activist Caroline Coon, who not only announced the arrival of punk to a then uninterested Melody Maker and went on to provide much of The Clash’s inspiration, but also set up and ran Release, the world’s first 24-hour underground legal aid organisation. Caroline provides one of the book’s most apposite quotes: “Counter culture is a product of the way adults demonize young people. Each generation of young people are a soft target, so young people, in order to protect themselves from the battering they get from the establishment, has to create a counter culture. Each generation is going to be demonized, especially in a culture which hates children as much as British culture does.”
Also, while clearly hitting his personal stride in the Sixties, Miles is often most interesting discussing the provocateurs of the Seventies and Eighties, including his take on Malcolm MacLaren’s adolescently arrested ideas of sexuality and moving chapters on Derek Jarman and Leigh Bowery. Considering that, from Larry Parnes onwards, the driving force behind London’s pop and counter culture has been largely gay, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Miles considers the greatest change in public attitudes he has seen within his lifetime has been those towards homosexuality.
The author’s voyage comes to an end with the death of Bowery and the second term of Thatcher, which is when, he attests: “the underground began to fall apart”. Though he maintains a sense of positivity about subsequent events, such as a Chappist action against Rachel Whiteread’s Embankment in 2006, in which it seemed the ghosts of Forties Fitzrovia had come for revenge on the capitalist notions of the YBAs, there is a sense of melancholy about the book’s conclusion. It is hard to argue that the lack of anything even approaching cheap rents, let alone squats, and the instant access culture of the Internet has pretty much done for a cohesive counterculture in London today. And yet…
And yet Miles stops, halfway down Dean Street, a prickling feeling at the back of his neck. It’s not the glassy eyes of a thousand CCTV cameras making Warholesque movies in a place where the casual photographer may now suddenly be apprehended for taking an innocent photo — as if they were trying to re-enact William Burroughs’ deconditioning attacks of the early Seventies (which would not be a bad idea). Nor is it the rumble of machinery set to demolish the top half of this sacred thoroughfare to make way for the cursed Crossrail project. It’s a sense of what Keith Waterhouse once described to me as: “The spirit of old Soho still lurking, loitering around the corner… Waiting to be arrested.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cathi Unsworth is the author of three pop-cultural crime fiction novels, The Not Knowing, The Singer, Bad Penny Blues, published by Serpent’s Tail. She lives and works in London.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010.