London Calling, By Barry Miles

A hazy trip through the London underground
Click to follow

The first task facing anyone who sits down to write "A Countercultural History of London Since 1945" is to work out what he means by countercultural. Is it just another word for bohemian, or a blanket term to describe any self-consciously left-field artistic activity? In his introduction, Barry Miles mentions London's "creative life... more particularly its bohemian, beatnik, hippy and countercultural life", but that, too, begs more questions than it answers. The ever-reliable adjective "transgressive" pops up every so often, yet this is a book which places Kingsley Amis alongside Genesis P Orridge, and prompts the thought that any net capable of tangling up Lucky Jim and COUM Transmissions in a single mesh is so vast as to be scarcely worth the flinging.

In one of his chapters on the 1960s – there are a great many, by the way – Miles quotes the highbrow monthly Encounter's opinion that swinging London bore witness to "a thorough-going revolt by a section of young people against the habits, manners, standards, morals, politics, taste, taboos and lifestyle of their elders". This seems closer to the kind of thing Miles is keen on, but the dream of a genuine rebellion is constantly neutered by the fatal tendency of youth movements to turn, as Thom Gunn put it in his poem about Elvis Presley, "revolt into a style". One generation's embittered outsiders are usually the next's establishment darlings, as the careers of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud (both heavily featured here) demonstrate in spades.

Perhaps in the end, Miles is really only interested in the "underground" – an elastic term itself, but marginally less inexact than some of the others brought out here. (The chapter about the "Angry Young Men", consequently, is the reddest of red herrings: you might even wonder what Amis, a university lecturer then living in Swansea, had to do with London at all.) London Calling's main point of focus, then, is the Soho zanies, starting with the literary and art-world impresarios of the late 1940s and going on, by way of 1960s "happenings", the International Times and the London Free School, to the equally high-publicity world of Grayson Perry and Leigh Bowery. The Allen Ginsberg-orchestrated Albert Hall poetry bash of 1965 is reprised in exhaustive detail, and there is some choice reportage from the stage of the UFO club, whose temporary MC, Miss Suzy Creamcheese, once announced: "Some of you are uncool, and we may be getting busted tonight ... We don't want the fuzz to close UFO down, so, like, if you're uncool, will you please go out, and come back when you're cool."

Through a haze of dope fumes, augmented by the rustle of kaftans, familiar figures ebb and weave: John "Hoppy" Hopkins, all-purpose happening-facilitator; Jeff Nuttall, author of Bomb Culture; the Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren. At times, the feeling that one has read a great deal of this before is uncomfortably strong. The best bits, inevitably, derive from Miles's status as one of the scene-swellers of the day, and his friendship with Paul McCartney, who patronised his Indica bookshop. The worst bits are the rambling tours d'horizon of particular aspects of the Soho beat, where analysis is sacrificed for punishing minutiae. A chapter called "Up from the Underground", for example, starts off with an account of fashionable 1960s niteries such as the Scotch of St James and the Bag O'Nails, pauses for some remarks on gay clubs, whizzes forwards to something called the World Psychedelic Centre and ends up with some remarks on the arrival of LSD, and the acid-zapped decline of Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett.

Jam-packed with eye-catching cast-offs from the Age of Aquarius, and a fair old sprinkling of aged radical cliché, Miles's hectic narrative rather peters to a close as he reaches the 1990s and 2000s, where he can note only the fatal habit of those determined to fight the Biz to be swallowed up by it, and suggest that the new countercultural epicentre is the East End rather than W1. Boho details abound – I was particularly struck by the 1940s nightclub proprietress known to her intimates as "Sod", who would sleep off her hangovers while being squirted by jets of diarrhoea from her flatmate's Australian fruit-bat – together with an implausibly upbeat view of the counterculture's attractions. Early on in the proceedings a club called Jimmy's on Frith Street is represented as a bolt hole for those "seeking escape from the grim realities of postwar Britain". On this evidence, Soho was pretty grim too.