looking for new ways to live'
The leader of the underground's cerebral cell talks to James Campbell
20 March 2010
Never believe the old saw, "If you can remember the Sixties, you
weren't really there". Barry Miles remembers the 60s in vivid detail,
down to the dress with "zebra stripes" that George Martin's wife wore
at a dinner party given by Paul McCartney and Jane Asher in 1967, and
he certainly was there. Indeed, the saying might be made more
accurate by adjustment: "If you don't remember Miles in the 60s, you
weren't really there."
Miles not even his wife calls him "Barry" was the proprietor of
London's first alternative bookshop (Indica), co-founder of the
original underground newspaper (International Times), archivist of
bohemia, biographer of Paul McCartney, Allen Ginsberg and William
Burroughs, and organiser of happenings all over. He was the leader of
the underground's cerebral cell. Through his door, according to
Jonathon Green's history of the period, All Dressed Up, "everyone who
was going to be anyone passed, or claimed to have passed", some of
them seeking refuge from the psychedelic desert.
"I think of the 60s now as a supermarket of ideas. We were looking
for new, valid ways to live. Some people took a lot of drugs, others
abstained from everything, including coffee. There were chaste
Christian communes, and others where there were no doors on the
bedrooms and monogamy was banned. Everything was up in the air. We
were just trying to make sense of it and not be conditioned by the
'British Way of Life'."
Over the past 20 years, Miles has devoted himself to documenting the
fab, the fantastic and just a little bit the falsity of the
period. He seems to have been in favour of everything, with the
exception of spiking people's drinks with LSD: "a very bad idea." His
memoir In the Sixties (2002) sets out the philosophy of the
revolution, while recording its absurdities with a Pepysian eye. He
has written much about the influence of British rock'n'roll and
fashion on youth culture worldwide, and has now produced London
Calling, in which he approaches the capital much like an
archaeologist, sifting through deposits of counterculture. Miles digs
past the Young British Artists (YBA) phenomenon to reveal traces of
punk. Further down are relics of the Beatnik era, then a stratum of
the Angry Young Men, another of boozy literati in Fitzrovia.
The dead centre of London for artists, patrons and hangers-on has
always been Soho, "the cosmopolitan centre of London", as Miles
refers to it in London Calling, "its character formed by successive
waves of refugees". It was to Soho in the postwar years "that people
came to get away from Britain for a few hours". You could, and still
can, visit an Italian cafe, a French church and a Chinese restaurant
in the space of an hour. From this cocktail evolved the "Swinging
London" of the 60s, "the London of dreams".
The London that Miles dreamed of as a grammar-school boy in the
Gloucestershire town of Cirencester was not swinging but static. His
parents were working-class folk who knew their place and counselled
their arty son on the perils of getting above himself. "My mother
used to say: 'You're flying too high, my boy.' Both my parents had
been servants in a big country house in Gloucestershire, which had a
moat around it and a drawbridge. All my relatives were in service. It
was the rural proletariat." He offers his genial laugh. "That's why I
love cities so much!"
For 45 years, Miles has lived in the same building in Fitzrovia,
north of Oxford Street, a stone's throw from Soho to the south and
BBC Broadcasting House to the west. Originally, he occupied a flat on
an upper floor with his first wife, Sue Crane; he now lives with the
travel writer Rosemary Bailey and their teenage son in the basement.
The walls of the narrow hallway are covered with paintings, including
several by William Burroughs, made during Burroughs's London phase,
when Miles took on archival duties and compiled a bibliography of his
work; he has also edited a variorum edition of Allen Ginsberg's Howl.
Surrounding the pictures are photographs of Miles with Ginsberg, the
cartoonist Robert Crumb and others. He is an exemplary case of social
mobility not upwards via the pursuit of money or status, but into
the classless orbit of art. "As soon as I took my art A-level, at 16,
I went off to become a painter. There was no further thought than
that . . . You went to art school to learn how to do art. Then I saw
a programme on television about the Beat generation. It was quite
critical, but I thought it was wonderful. There was Ginsberg reading
Howl and Lawrence Ferlinghetti with the Golden Gate Bridge behind
him. It seemed to me that was the model to go for."
The freedom to choose your own style of living has been the main
theme of Miles's pilgrimage. "We wanted the church and state to have
no part in personal relations," he writes in In the Sixties, having
reminded readers of the rigidity of social mores in previous decades.
"And once we had got rid of them, then would come the great
experiment of deciding how to live."
Among other experiments in living, he has stayed at Ginsberg's
communal farm in upstate New York, intended as a drying-out haven for
Beat casualties, and in a medieval monastery in the French Pyrenees,
which offered the opportunity to indulge his "alternative" passion
for romanesque architecture. He and Rosemary bought the crumbling
structure in 1988 and set about trying to restore it. The smell of
cows lingered in the living room, and tractors were stationed in the
chapel beneath a fresco. Six people could stand comfortably in the fireplace.
"It was really my interest in architecture that made me think I could
spend time there," he says, before admitting he was mistaken.
Bailey's charming book about the adventure, Life as a Postcard,
portrays Miles as (in his words) "the curmudgeon in the corner". The
pristine sky, the mountains "newly iced with snow", the peach-tree
orchard induced in her a state of daily rapture, but brought him
close to a psychotic state. "I began to understand why depressed
people get up later and later. I just couldn't see the point. There
was far more happening in Dean Street in one evening than there was
in the entire valley in a month. The YBAs were just taking off in
London. I didn't want to be missing all the art openings." His idea
of a walk in the country, Bailey says, is to take the tube to the end
of the line.
Miles never looked like a beatnik. In photographs, surrounded by
icons of long hair and cool demeanour, he is the ingenuously grinning
one with side-parting and thick-framed spectacles. There is an
entrepreneurial side to him, which used to draw the unjust epithet
"hip capitalist", but it's more accurate to see him as the essential
bookish representative of the underground.
"Even when I was a kid, I kept all my books in pristine condition.
When I switched from children's books to the grown-up kind, I sold
all my children's books to Cirencester public library. It was the
only time they had ever bought from a child. The books were all in
their dustwrappers. It's almost embarrassing." He has continued his
bookselling operation, working with Maggs Bros of Berkeley Square to
build or sell archives, usually to university libraries.
After accepting that he wouldn't make it as a painter, he got a job
at Better Books in New Compton Street. This was the first shop in
Britain where it was possible to buy City Lights publications and
peculiar magazines with titles such as the Marihuana Review and Fuck
You: A Magazine of the Arts. Owned by the publisher Tony Godwin,
Better Books was "as much a cultural centre as a bookshop". Godwin
kept a typewriter in the basement, "so that anyone who came in who
felt like writing a poem could go downstairs and type it out". All
the book stock was kept down there, however, and Alexander Trocchi,
the drug-addicted author of Young Adam and Cain's Book, would "go
down and stuff as many books as he could into his clothes, which he
would then sell for money for junk".
Miles's memoirs are full of juxtapositions that appear to reflect his
own personality. On one page the reader comes across a note to the
effect that in 1966, "London hosted the Destruction in Art Symposium,
organised by Gustav Metzger. I was one of the 12-man honorary
committee . . ." On the next, there is there is the uncool complaint
that: "it was the habit of helping themselves to all the food in the
refrigerator that most irritated English people about visiting
Americans". (Allen Ginsberg's occasional girlfriend Barbara was the
Better Books was the forerunner to Miles's own shop, probably his
most ambitious venture. Indica Books and Gallery was situated in
Mason's Yard, a Mayfair cul-de-sac, on almost the precise spot now
occupied by White Cube, temple of the Young British Artists. Indica
was a co-venture with John Dunbar then married to the teenage
Marianne Faithfull who opened the art gallery in the basement. The
third partner was Peter Asher, one half of the singing duo Peter and
Gordon, and brother of Jane, who was going out with Paul McCartney.
Peter and Gordon had just had a No 1 hit with the McCartney song
"World without Love". A limited company was formed called MAD: Miles,
"Paul was our first customer, really, because all the books for the
shop were kept at the Asher family home in Wimpole Street, where Paul
was staying. He would come in late at night from a gig and browse
among the books and just leave me a note saying what he had taken."
McCartney turned out to be "very good at drilling and putting up
shelves and filling holes with plaster". He also designed the
wrapping paper for books and made a number of crucial life-saving
investments. "It was really his shop," Dunbar recalls. "Poets,
painters, filmmakers, and some very famous people, all mixed in a
weird stew, and all affecting each other. Miles was a grafter. He's
always been well organised."
In 1997, Miles published a biography of McCartney, Many Years from
Now, based on hours of taped interviews. It is clear that McCartney,
with his spontaneous inventiveness and generous approach to unlikely
underground projects, has been a major influence on Miles one
associate, Mick Farren, called Miles "the albino Beatle". A
photograph in In the Sixties shows him with all four Beatles at the
photo session to shoot the sleeve for Sgt Pepper. But he replies
modestly to an inquiry about whether McCartney would regard him as
having been influential in his own life. "I don't think he would say
a major influence, but he met interesting people through me.
"I would take Ginsberg or Burroughs over to his house. He was very
systematic in his exploration of the London scene. One night he would
be at the Talk of the Town, then the next night he'd hang out with me
and we'd go to hear Luciano Berio or some obscure sound experiments.
He had his antennae out." Peter Asher remembers Miles's "professorial
demeanour. He was interested at being at the cutting edge of
literature, music, art. That was the underground." Not everything
about the 60s appealed to Asher. "Malcolm X was one thing, Michael X"
the London-based enforcer and murderer "was something different.
But Miles looked on things positively."
Just as International Times was "IT", Indica was "in". Miles recalls
that Paul "brought John Lennon into Indica to buy books". The song
"Tomorrow Never Knows" from Revolver "Turn off your mind, relax /
and float downstream" is derived from the introduction to Timothy
Leary's book Psychedelic Experience, "which he was just browsing one
day". Indica Gallery hosted Yoko Ono's first big show, Unfinished
Paintings and Objects, which was where she and Lennon met. Yoko was
already known for performances such as the one in which she screamed
for long periods while tied to a chair with bandages, but the piece
that attracted Lennon was a canvas attached to Indica's ceiling with
three tiny letters painted on it, visible only through a magnifying
glass. When John climbed up and peered through the glass, he saw that
the letters spelled "Yes".
The key to remembering where you were in the 60s was to keep a
journal. In fact, though, Miles did not start his note-taking until
about 1970. "Ginsberg was always saying, 'You must write it all
down.' I spent about a year writing up my journals. It wasn't that
long after, so fortunately I could still remember things in detail.
Which Beatles recording sessions was I at? Eventually, they all just
merge into one." A similar sort of danger haunts Miles's books, which
are apt to repeat the same stories. London Calling reruns some of the
material from In the Sixties, which in turn borrows from his own
biographies of Ginsberg and Burroughs. Most of it can be excused by
his persistent desire to give credit to those who were involved in
the liberation struggle, and their early recognition that the
personal was political: Jim Haynes, Sid Rawle, Alex Trocchi, Caroline
Coon of the drug emergency service Release.
As for the avant garde and the peculiar joy of operating in the
cultural resistance, the struggles might have been won too
comprehensively. On the final page of his new book, Miles writes
about Grayson Perry, the transvestite potter, winning the Turner
prize in 2003. "In many ways, it showed there was no longer an
underground, as such. This proved that there was no longer one
society with everyone agreeing how to live . . . The underground had
officially come above ground, and consequently no longer existed."
Sitting in his study-cum-living room, surrounded by a comprehensive
Beat library and archive that one day might be sold to a university
through Maggs Bros, Miles laments "the commodification of art. It has
become so extreme that it's hard to imagine any radical ideas
surviving the process of marketing." He admits to a degree of despair
when considering the younger generation.
"The pressure to be part of the consumer society, to get a job and a
pension scheme and a mortgage when you're only 25, is far greater now
than it was in my generation. It's a tendency that should be fought against."