For any young foreigner with literary leanings, the place to hang out was Shakespeare and Company, a rackety second-hand bookshop run by George Whitman, a small, unkempt American with a straggly goatee beard and few teeth. It was how Paris should be, we thought. Upstairs, making tea on a grime-encrusted gas-ring, would be George's house-mother of the moment, usually a plain, sweet American with a slightly tragic past. There were beds in the two book-lined rooms where "young writers" could, in return for work, stay the night and be eaten by the most vicious bedbugs in the city. Photographs of Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti and Corso hung on the walls, and, occasionally, earnest poetry readings would be held. It was all pretty fake; the young writers were as near to being Henry Miller or William Burroughs as George's shop was to Sylvia Beach's original Shakespeare and Company of the Twenties.
One would-be Ernest Hemingway I remember with particular pain. Slightly older and more travelled than we were, he was said to be working on a novel, was widely perceived to be a real writer and was invariably to be found in the company of several admirers. One night, this man - almost certain to have been called Tex - delighted me by asking me to join his group for dinner at a local restaurant. I was less flattered when, having wolfed down their food, my fellow diners did a runner, leaving me with a large bill to pay.
I returned to the bookshop. Tex was nowhere to be found, but his typewriter was there. I considered heaving it into the Seine but, in the end, hid it on top of a cupboard. Then, unwisely, I sat down to wait for him. When he returned, my suggestion that, if he wanted his typewriter back, he should repay me was not well received. He leapt across the room, grabbed me by my hair and whirled me round the room for about five minutes. This tactic, which is a lot less girly and more effective than is generally believed, convinced me quite soon that I cared less for my 100 francs than I had previously thought. Tex got his typewriter back. We haven't stayed in touch.
I find myself thinking of Tex quite often these days. A hippy control freak and counterculture bully who used the spirit of the age for his own ends, he's there when Ken Kesey puts on a nostalgia show at the Barbican, when Hunter S Thompson humiliates some luckless journalist or when Dennis Hopper appears on the cinema screen. His vibe hung over this week's oddest TV documentary, in which Iain Sinclair and Chris Petit explored, in a weird, dislocated fashion, the life and high times of a sinister Sixties figure, Peter Whitehead.
It was all there: the crazy theories, the whiff of paedophilia and misogyny, the cruelty and the exploitation of others. From what one could gather from the doped-up narrative, Whitehead ended up stealing falcon eggs to sell to Arabs and weaving a seedy, self-important story about incest and spying.
For every self-mythologising prat who actually achieved something (a novel, a film, a poem, but rarely much more), there were hundreds of frauds like Tex. Their brains pickled in narcotics, they had a sort of fake articulacy which allowed them to float through life on a sea of pretentiousness and paranoia, spouting crazed theories which they plucked, without any intellectual coherence, from Reich, Krishnamurti, Chomsky, Crowley or the I Ching. Because they seemed to represent freedom from the suburban values which we held in such contempt, the idiocies they spouted were rarely challenged. Utterly self-serving, they used the hippy ethic to scrounge off others and bully girls into bed with them as the brief, early innocence of the mid-Sixties gave way to a creepy, voyeuristic sadism that made victims of the young and gullible.
At the time, I envied them their freedom, the way they let the good times roll whatever the price. Now it's clear that they were smug, beaming would- be fascists whose political commitment was incomparably less interesting or genuine than that of modern protesters, including even the benighted idiots who release mink into the wild in the name of animal rights.
A couple of years ago I visited George Whitman, still holding court and drinking disgusting tea at Shakespeare and Company. Tex, he told me, was caught drug-smuggling and is in a Thailand gaol. I wonder if he ever wrote that novel.Reuse content