Atlantic £25 (468pp) £22.50 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

London Calling: A Countercultural History of London Since 1945, By Barry Miles

It's said that if you remember the Sixties, you weren't actually there – a saying variously attributed to Grace Slick and Paul Kantner, both of Jefferson Airplane, and Dr Timothy Leary, so-called "Galileo of consciousness". Barry Miles was there throughout: present at the recording of the Beatles' "A Day in the Life", the climactic track of Sgt Pepper, and at the live recording of "All You Need is Love", which marked the first global television link.

Perhaps, like Bill Clinton, he didn't inhale, though that seems unlikely. Anyway, in those heady days it would have been impossible not to, even without a joint of one's own. Yet Miles remembers, as his latest exhaustive (sometimes exhausting) chronicle demonstrates.

In fact, he has always claimed that it was he and his then wife who introduced Paul McCartney to dope, serving him hash brownies from The Alice B Toklas Cookbook at his Hanson Street home in 1965, though it seems unlikely that any of the Beatles would have waited that long to get high: their Hamburg days were no tea party. Be that as it may, one suspects that Miles took care to remain earthbound, conscious that he was a witness to history.

Like so many of the musicians he would befriend, Miles was a product of art school, the Gloucestershire College of Art. Somewhere on the road from Cirencester to London (a journey which took in Oxford and Edinburgh) he morphed into a journalist, for he seems always to have been a natural observer of a scene of which he was simultaneously a part. What's extraordinary is that this provincial teenager, who still speaks with a Gloucestershire burr, came to occupy a role centre-stage in London's counterculture, co-founding an alternative bookshop and an underground newspaper, co-organising the celebrated 1965 Albert Hall Poetry Reading and managing Zapple Records, Apple's spoken word/avant garde label.

Zelig-like, Miles was at every Sixties "happening" and has produced numerous books, some of them cut-and-paste jobs, others serious historical biographies on figures such as Kerouac, Ginsberg, Zappa and, of course, McCartney. There was also a memoir, In the Sixties, and there's a sense in which London Calling is also one, for it is in its coverage of the 1960s that the book comes into its own.

The title is evocative. It recalls not only the Clash but also the first words broadcast "on crackling crystal sets across the nation" on 14 November 1922, when what would become the BBC went on air, the opening of Ed Murrow's war-time broadcasts to the US and the call sign of World Service. As a student, paperback of On the Road stuffed in his pocket, Miles hitch-hiked to London as often as possible, hanging out at the 2i's, discovering nirvana in Soho.

Since 1963, he has rarely left. In those days, the effects of the Luftwaffe's nightly raids remained all too evident, bomb-damaged buildings providing shelter for the more audacious squatters until the property speculators arrived. Sheep grazed on Hampstead Heath, Hyde Park had a piggery.

But already, in the French House – where De Gaulle supposedly wrote his call to arms, and where Brendan Behan, Dylan Thomas, Francis Bacon and Daniel Farson propped up the bar – "the faces of the clientele were deathly pale, they wore shades and looked like artistic gangsters". Soho, said George Melly, was "perhaps the only area in London where the rules didn't apply. It was a Bohemian no-go area, tolerance its password, where bad behaviour was cherished." Miles, just up from the Shires, fitted right in.

Many of the bohos he encountered had been behaving badly around town for a couple of decades. There was Tambimuttu, "a literary hustler of exceptional ability" who wore shoulder-length hair even in the Forties and who "filed" the verse under consideration for his magazine, Poetry London, in the chamber pot beneath his bed. As early as the 1920s, Augustus John and Tommy Earp had made the Fitzroy Tavern on Charlotte Street a hub for artists, while Julian Maclaren Ross held court down the road at the Wheatsheaf, "the BBC bohemia" (Hugh MacDiarmid, WH Auden, Robert Graves, Laurence Durrell and Muriel Spark) at the George on Great Portland Street.

Then there were the clubs - the Mandrake, the Colony and the Gargoyle, the Groucho of its day, where "the clientele were rude and argumentative" and where "the ladies' lavatories had full-height mahogany doors, ideal protection for an intimate moment". Same-sex assignations could take place safely within its Dean Street walls. Restaurants such as the Barcelona on Beak Street and Jimmy's on Frith – run by refugees from various European horrors who eked out rations and imports to serve food that was unbelievably exotic in post-war Britain – were also a magnet. The Angry Young Men found a home at David Archer's Bookshop and Better Books, though while John Braine went stir crazy in his own "room at the top", John Osborne held meetings on the deck of his houseboat.

It's all intriguing stuff, though grappling with so many half-forgotten names and tales of who did what to whom and where, it's hard to hold on to the narrative thread (perhaps a dramatis personae might have been helpful) as Miles describes scenes of drunken debauchery that make the Sixties look tame.

The book gets into stride with the Beats and the Albert Hall readingof 1965. By this time, our hero is working at Better Books, managed by Tony Godwin, later a legend at Penguin. Godwin was friends with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, with whom he would swap City Lights publications for Penguins. That had led to Allen Ginsberg giving a reading at Better Books which led, in those expansive times, to the idea for "a major Beat Generation reading" in "the biggest venue in town".

In less time than it took to light a spliff, the Royal Albert Hall had been booked at a cost of £400, plus £100 an hour over-run time – daunting costs in 1965. The Poets' Cooperative was formed including, besides Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Michael Horowitz, Christopher Logue and Adrian Mitchell, who would read "To Whom It May Concern (Tell Me Lies About Vietnam)" which he had debuted in Trafalgar Square the previous year. They were photographed by John "Hoppy" Hopkins seated around the Albert Memorial for a story that was picked up by all the newspapers – and helped sell 7,000 tickets. For Ginsberg, who got drunk, the event was "a disaster, but for the youth of London it was a catalyst: the birth of the London underground". From it sprang International Times, the UFO Club, the 14-Hour Technicolor Dream at the Roundhouse and much besides.

It also led to the launch of Indica Books and Gallery, following Godwin's sale of Better Books to Hatchards. Miles formed a company, MAD, with John Dunbar, husband of Marianne Faithfull, and Peter Asher, brother of Jane – girlfriend of McCartney. The basement of the Asher family's Wimpole Street home was used for storage.

McCartney would pop down after a gig to choose some bedtime reading. The Beatle helped paint the walls and put up shelves at Indica's first premises, off Duke Street, but it was a few months later, when it had relocated to Southampton Row, that history was made. For it was there, as she was putting the finishing touches to her exhibition Unfinished Paintings and Drawings, that John Lennon met Yoko Ono.

Miles's reputation was secured, his centrality to "the scene" a guarantee of immortality, even as, under Thatcher, "the underground began to fall apart" and he found himself beached, working as an editor for Omnibus Press, producing books that can be seen as the precursor of today's celebrity memoirs. Small wonder, then, that the last 40 years are covered in around 75 pages.

London Calling chronicles a long, strange trip and also serves as a reminder of the constraints against which the 1960s generation kicked. Sir John Simpson, Metropolitan Police Commissioner, raided the V&A's Aubrey Beardsley exhibition, much to the embarrassment of Labour Home Secretary Roy Jenkins. Arts Minister Jennie Lee wrote to him expressing her dismay, while Lord Goodman, Chairman of the Arts Council, complained to Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

According to Miles, it was the raid on IT that "finally set Roy Jenkins against Scotland Yard's 'dirty squad'", not so much because of his concern for the paper but because the simultaneous raid on Indica had led to the seizure of Burroughs's Naked Lunch, a book that already been cleared by the Attorney General – "reckoned to be obscene but to have literary merit". Jenkins was concerned (according to Home Office files) that the officers seemed unaware that Burroughs was "a serious author", long for sale in "reputable bookshops".

Seven years later, there was cause for celebration: "Thank goodness the Obscene Publications Squad has gone," said Justice Mars-Jones, at the end of a police corruption case in 1976. That was not a view shared by Thatcher and Tebbit, who viewed Jenkins's permissive society as the root of all evil.

There was much nonsense of course, but for a brief but intense era now irretrievably past, the Sixties generation did represent a vigorous new start. The kaleidoscope of images endures: the student revolution, the storming of barricades, social liberalisation, the summer of '67, sex, flowers, idealism, a certain universality. The arts have long since been commodified. Advertising agencies and PR companies now dominate Soho and Fitzrovia. The times have indeed changed.

Liz Thomson edited (with David Gutman) 'The Lennon Companion' (Da Capo)

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