London Calling: the Beatles, The Stones and cooking hash badly
Barry Miles s colourful vignettes of post-war London when he mixed with the likes of Paul McCartney and Marianne Faithfull are a delight. Bridget Galton talks to him. THE old adage that if you can remember the 60s, you weren t there, doesn t apply to Bar
Barry Miles's colourful vignettes of post-war London when he mixed with the likes of Paul McCartney and Marianne Faithfull are a delight. Bridget Galton talks to him.
THE old adage that if you can remember the 60s, you weren't there,
doesn't apply to Barry Miles.
As co-founder of the book shop and gallery where John Lennon met Yoko Ono and former head of Zapple, the Beatles' spoken word label, he was very much there.
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Yet his latest book London Calling: A Countercultural History Of London Since 1945 (Atlantic Books, �25) exhibits lively recall of the swinging 60s' watershed moments.
Miles, who still lives in the Fitzrovia flat where he and Paul McCartney first tried hash fudge, says it's a myth that everyone was pie-eyed on drugs.
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"Swinging London was a small group of people who didn't have access to the same hard drugs that came along in the 70s - that was the real period of heavy sex and drugs. The 60s were charming, na�ve and childlike. Flower children was a good name for us. Hippies were a Fleet Street idea, nowhere near as many people took acid as they supposed."
Miles, who ran underground newspapers and organised
poetry readings, bridles at the suggestion he was a kaftan-toting beardy.
"I wore nice stuff, a sharp pair of trousers from Granny Takes A Trip, there was definitely no beard. I was an old beatnik."
As for that hash fudge: "Penguin published Alice B Toklas' Cookbook and it had a recipe for hashish fudge. My wife made some but got it wrong - you were supposed to cook it.
"There was a lot of that around in the 60s. You had to be careful or you'd be affected for days - a lot of wealthy aristocrats in Chelsea had it served by their butler at a party and had to have their stomachs pumped. Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull ran up and down Cheyne Row for an hour trying to sweat some of it out."
Miles's sketched vignettes, of the bohemians, artists and writers who clustered around Soho after the war, paint a vivid picture of characters like Dylan Thomas and Lucian Freud - and the pubs, clubs, cafes and restaurants where they met.
Pubs were hugely important to these flamboyant outcasts - writer and raconteur Julian Maclaren-Ross structured his day around the stringent 40s opening hours. Publisher Tambimuttu coined the term Fitzrovia for the group who went on roving pub crawls centred around the Fitzroy Tavern. While alcoholic artist Nina Hamnett sat at the bar begging strangers for "any mun deah?" for gin.
The ritual dash across from the Holborn pubs which closed at 10.30pm to those in Marylebone on the other side of Rathbone Place, which stayed open until 11pm is amusingly described, and Miles captures the griminess, desperation and addiction as well as the creativity, hedonism and freedom of postwar bohemia.
By the 50s, jazz clubs such as Ronnie Scott's had sprung up, and The Colony Room in Dean Street, run by Muriel Belcher, who paid Francis Bacon �10 a week to bring his friends in and greeted members with an affectionate "hello cunty", was a sanctuary where gay and avant-garde writers and painters felt free in uptight 50s Britain.
"It was illegal to be gay and people clustered together in the few safe spots," says Miles.
In the 60s, there was Peter Cook's Establishment club (which paid �10 weekly protection money to the Krays) and the Flamingo where speed pills and whiskey stoked the all-night dancing.
Miles, who was born the son of a London cabbie in Camden in 1943 but raised in the countryside, recalls his first overnight visit in 1959 when he dossed in the basement of a Spanish restaurant with a teenage friend.
"I can't imagine what a gawky na�ve country boy from the Cotswolds I was. I had no money and not a clue how to behave. But it was my first evening experience of Soho and it was fantastic."
After attending art college, he worked in Better Books in Charing Cross Road, helped organise the Albert Hall reading with Alan Ginsberg, before co-founding Indica with John Dunbar who was married to Marianne Faithfull (and who "sensibly didn't give us any money").
"It was a very small world. There were a couple of clubs like the Ad Lib that rock and roll people and actors went to but even in 1965, there weren't enough rock stars to maintain a scene."
Dunbar's best friend was Pete Asher, who lived with sister Jane and boyfriend Paul McCartney in the parental home in Wimpole Street.
"There was still childhood writing on the door saying "Jane's Room". Peter had a big L-shaped room in Norwegian pine and Paul had a maid's room with a single iron bed and a brown wardrobe even though he was a millionaire.
"It was a wonderful place. Before we had premises, I put all the books together in the basement and McCartney would come in late from a gig or nightclub and go through the piles of books and leave a note of what he had taken. He was our first customer."
When they moved into Mason's Yard, McCartney helped paint and put up shelves and designed their wrapping paper.
"It was a secret - for weeks he wouldn't let anyone in his room. He had it printed by an art printer who did a beautiful job and pulled up on opening day in his Aston Martin and gave us this thoughtful, practical, wonderful gift."
The cash register was an old Victorian till used by Jane Asher as a child, still containing the till roll she had played shop with.
"We were so na�ve we sent it to the accountants for the first year's accounts and the first half had all these made up groceries from when Jane was eight. The idiots had added it all together - no wonder we went bust."
At Indica, he gave John Lennon Timothy Leary's Psychedelic Experience which influenced the Beatles musically and on November 9 1966, Lennon dropped into the gallery the evening before Yoko Ono's Unfinished Paintings and Drawings exhibition and met the artist. She handed him a card that read "breathe" so he panted at her.
The following year, Miles organised the 14-hour Technicolour Dream concert at Alexandra Palace headlined by Pink Floyd.
It took four years to write the book, which Miles intends as a personal "celebration of London" rather than an academic tome - he focuses almost exclusively on central London and owns up to selecting events he had personal experience of.
"I wanted to create an image, to paint pictures and give people a flavour of the stories that have happened here and what this exciting city was like during those four decades.
"I don't think Soho had a heyday, it just went through phases. I try to present the facts and leave it to academics to say whether any of it was any good.
"It's an encyclopaedic subject. Everything you touch on, the beginnings of British rock and roll, art, gay liberation, performance art, women's lib, modern theatre is huge."
The book covers the punk and New Romantic era before London's underground scene peters out in the Thatcherite 80s.
Miles says globalisation and instant communication means the city will never again be a cultural epicentre.
"It's no longer unique. Artists show in New York or Berlin, by definition there cannot be an avant-garde or an underground if someone can put on a performance event and it can be watched live in Sydney."
But although he accepts bohemian circles included damaged people, spongers and "rampant egos," he believes that lives lived on the edge help push society forward.
"Bohemian lifestyles propose different ways of living. If a society stays static it dies, you have to have a push to help the mainstream follow and, although there is an element of hedonism, it's also a struggle for a starving artist to make a living."
The 60s, for example was a time of freedom and possibility.
"People started to think they could do anything, you could start a paper and write what the hell you liked.
"It was a youthful approach, a time of full employment when you could walk down Charing Cross Road, get a job in a bookshop or clothes shop and save enough to go to Ibiza for the summer. It gave us a kind of freedom, we weren't thinking about the mortgage or buying flats," says Miles who still proudly rents his flat.
"Class and other barriers came down and there was an interesting mix of cultures instead of people remaining in their cliques. The aristocratic posh people mixed with photographers from working class backgrounds and East End barrowboys.
"A lot of us were finally able to have access to the advantages of London.