Book Review: London Calling A Countercultural History of London since 1945 – Barry Miles

(Atlantic Books) £25.00

Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams


In 1959, the sixteen year old Barry Miles, with a copy of Kerouac’s On the Road in his pocket, hitchhiked from his home in the Cotswolds along the south coast with London as his “ultimate destination.” For as long as he can remember London had exerted a magnetic pull on Miles; once there he made a beeline for Soho. The previous summer, whilst staying with his cousin in Wembley, they had explored Soho and sat “drinking coffee from glass cups” in the 2i’s coffee bar “staring out at Old Compton Street thinking this was the centre of the world as ‘Dream Lover’ by Bobby Darin played on the juke book.”

Soho and London’s West End are at the heart of London Calling because it has been there, as Miles writes, “that the magnet that draws people to London” is located and from 1945 to the 1990s, the period that the book primarily covers, a key area, with forays to the King’s Road and Notting Hill, for the creative and counter-cultural life of the capital. Miles outlines in his introduction that the  focus of the book is more personal history than encyclopaedic: “I have usually described the people I know, or whose work I am most familiar.” But then since his first visit to the 2i’s, Miles has been very well placed not only as a witness but also as key participant in the counter-culture.

Along the Soho streets that Miles explored on his first visits could still be seen the majority of the bohemian milieu that had been drawn to the area in the 1940s and the newer arrivals that began to gather through the 1950s in the pubs and clubs like the French House, the Colony Room, and Ronnie Scot’s, including Julian Maclaren-Ross, Tambimuttu, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Colin MacInnes, and George Melly. Many of whom Miles would subsequently meet, and all of whom feature in the first part of London Calling along with the founding of the ICA, the Angry Young Men, and Teddy Boys.

In 1963, after four years at Gloucestershire School of Art, and many such trips hitchhiking to the capital, Miles moved to London, and was directly involved with much of what part two of London Calling explores. As the manager of Better Books in the Charing Cross Road he co-organised the Poets of the World/Poets of Our Time event at the Royal Albert Hall in 1965, the idea for which stemmed from a reading Alan Ginsberg gave at the shop and which was a key event in the creation of London’s underground/counter-culture. The following year with John Dunbar, Peter Asher, and support from Paul McCartney (who was the shop’s first customer) he co-founded the Indica Bookshop and Gallery, where subsequently John Lennon met Yoko Ono.  Also in 1966 he co-founded the International Times, Europe’s first underground newspaper, as a fund raiser for which the following year he co-organised the legendary 14 Hour Technicolor Dream which was headlined by Pink Floyd.

Part two also includes Oz magazine, UFO, The Arts Lab and the film Performance. Whilst part three takes in the 1970s and 1980s via Punk, Alternative Miss World, New Romantics and Neo-Naturists, Gilbert and George and Leigh Bowery.

In the introduction Miles writes that he “also wanted to make the book accessible and amusing as humour is an often overlooked side of the avant-garde, so many of the anecdotes are included purely for the sake of levity.” In this he is entirely successful because London Calling is a wonderfully readable book to which the anecdotal, in addition to Miles’ personal experiences, add another wonderful layer to this fascinating and highly engaging book. To parts of the history which might be better known, they also provide fresh insights, to say nothing of wry smiles! “Recently, walking down Great Chapel Street in Soho,” Miles recounts, “I overheard two young men talking, ‘You know,’ one of them said, ‘looking at this you could easily be in Shoreditch.'”

From the 1990s onwards the “vast acreage” of the East End has developed as the artistic neighbourhood of London, though Miles writes, “it is too spread out to have any real centre” and though there is “plenty of transgression, protest, experimentation, and excess […] it’s just not underground anymore.” Since the mid-1980s, and increasingly so in our fully networked age, art and music have gone mainstream, and though “there will always be cutting edge activity, bohemia has been globalized.”

Read Carla Borel’s StillSoho by Barry Miles from issue 2 of Plectrum – The Cultural Pick  READ MORE

For more on the life and writings of Julian Maclaren-Ross:

Watch the Black Spring Press profile on the Plectrum Broadcast Player which includes contributions from his son Alex Maclaren-Ross, writer Cathi Unsworth, and Robert Hastings, the owner of Black Spring Press. CLICK HERE

Plus from issue 1 of Plectrum – The Cultural Pick:
Book Review: Julian Maclaren-Ross Selected Letters edited by Paul Willetts READ MORE
Independent Focus: Black Spring Press & The Revival of Literary Reputations READ MORE


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