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Calling time on London’s counterculture

London Calling is a riotous recollection of Soho and the West End during a period when London was less sanitised, less regulated and a lot more liberated.

Neil Davenport

Topics Books

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Barely a week goes by without some attempt by UK officialdom to drain the life and soul out of London. One week, a local council shuts down nightclubs in hipster haven Shoreditch on ‘residential safety’ grounds. The next week, new music license regulations force yet more venues around the city to close. Along with rising rents and a toughening economic climate, such regulations make it impossible for establishments like Luminaire, the popular music venue in Kilburn, north-west London, to stay open. Indeed, the iconic 100 Club on Oxford Street has only managed to survive thanks to the patronage of wealthy rock stars like Paul McCartney.

But that’s not all. Across London, controlled drinking zones were created after the introduction of the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001. It allows local authorities to enforce alcohol-free zones where they believe public drinking creates a nuisance. In 2008, Westminster Council clamped down on Chinese restaurants whose traditional gas ovens, used to cook popular dishes like crispy Peking duck, did not comply with health-and-safety rules. Last autumn, Hackney Council ordered a shop owner to paint over his rather beautiful mural of a giant rabbit for ‘environmental’ reasons. There’s now even a rumour circulating that the late-night bars on Hanway Street in Soho, popularly referred to as the ‘Spanish bars’, are to be closed down. The list goes on.

Many Londoners have reacted with horror to all this – and with good reason. The Spanish bars, for instance, are some of the few remaining late-night drinking dens in the West End, a reminder of an altogether less sanitised, less regulated and more exciting London. The atmosphere is debauched and the bars are always heaving with revellers stamping their approval to Northern Soul belters, mod-garage ripsnorters and perspiring disco classics. Yes, the toilets stink and the carpets would keep archaeologists busy for months but that’s all part of the charm.

It’s this demise of West End bohemia that publisher and author Barry Miles traces in London Calling: A Countercultural History of London since 1945. It’s an exhaustive account of all the artists, poets, musicians, hustlers, club owners and publishers who made Soho their own over the past 60-odd years. A renowned counter-cultural figure himself, Miles set up International Times and was an NME journalist in the 1960s and 1970s. He has lived to tell the frontline story of London’s infamous bohemian enclave.

The journey leading up to Soho’s demise is gripping stuff. Starting with the Fitzrovia set, which included writer Julian McLaren-Ross and poet Dylan Thomas, Miles plunges us into the boozy whirl of gin and pop lunches at the Fitzroy Tavern, debates at the Wheatsheaf and late-night slanging matches at the French pub. Miles is clearly a gifted raconteur whose slightly gossipy observations still rise above standard cut-and-paste history fare. He genuinely cares about the people and the geography he is covering. The finest chapters are ‘The Long Forties’ and ‘Sohoitis’, where Miles’ skilful anecdote-telling brings to life the struggles of assorted writers and artists. But it’s not just Lucian Freud or Colin Wilson that animate his narrative. Soho’s bit-part players, whether French prostitutes, book-shop owners, barfly lushes, café-dwellers or shop workers, are as tightly woven into the fabric of the Soho story as famous persons like Malcolm McClaren and Boy George.

Miles avoids the pop-elite snobbery towards straight society (in both senses of the word) and believes Soho was open to anybody willing to be open minded. Miles doesn’t use his solidarity with Soho gays and lesbians (as well as post-war immigrants) to take the moral high ground against the allegedly narrow-minded masses. Instead, his book is a reminder of what genuine toleration is about. As the artist George Melly explained, Soho’s password was simply ‘tolerance’.

In the 1950s Soho was a refuge from the claustrophobic conformity of post-war society for people of all classes. Many of the young Soho dwellers at the time had no fear of living in rancid bedsits or, in the case of Colin Wilson, on Hampstead Heath. Today, by contrast, many young people choose to live at home with the folks rather than sleeping rough. Miles shows how a genuine culture of freedom fosters fearless self-reliance, albeit one sustained by an informal network of people offering support and solidarity. Established artists even held open houses so that waifs and strays could pop in for nutritional and intellectual sustenance.

But London Calling is no gushing hagiography. With toleration comes judgement – and Miles doesn’t hold back from criticising the excesses, snobbery and lazy indulgences of some Soho bohemians. Nihilistic types are witheringly dismissed throughout the book and the Beatniks’ patronage of Notting Hill’s black community as ‘Negroes rather than equals’ is branded unforgivable. Brit Art hero Damien Hirst and occasional actor Keith Allen, fixtures at The Groucho Club during the 1990s, are unfavourably portrayed as cocaine-fuelled boors. For Miles, Soho was a place to go ‘for the conversation, the ideas, the alcohol and the bonhomie… Soho and its environs were the stage, the various cafes, pubs and clubs were the stage sets and in them, propping up the bar, were the characters, talking and talking.’ Man-children like Hirst and Allen getting their knobs out in The Groucho Club was a sign that Soho’s intellectual life had become rather flaccid.

The book’s sections on punk are slightly rushed and over-familiar (Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming is endlessly quoted). Yet Miles also challenges music-history orthodoxy by daring to suggest that casual racism was rife among punks, and that the Rock Against Racism festival was merely a cosmetic fix. Miles deserves credit for refusing to follow the revisionist line on punk’s supposedly impeccable left-wing credentials.

Oddly enough, though, Miles does have a blind spot for the daft, misanthropic indulgences of COUM Transmissions and industrial band Throbbing Gristle, declaring that they were ‘courageous… in taking on the police and the establishment to break new ground artistically, musically and politically’. In truth, Throbbing Gristle illustrated how easily being ‘outrageous’ and ‘controversial’ slips into wanton degeneracy. Eating used tampons, as Genesis P Orridge did at the notorious ICA festival in 1976, sounds like a Chris Morris-style parody of self-styled cutting-edge artists.

Interestingly, Miles sees the beginning of the end of London bohemianism with the arrival of Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government in the 1980s. This is a pretty astute point, especially when every other pop historian argues that Thatcher singularly galvanised a radical opposition. True, an underground of sorts did flourish during this period, mainly in alternative music, but the established left was in retreat and a genuine artistic underground was stifled. As an old left-wing radical himself, Miles rightly recognises that the demise of radical politics has led to the demise of a vibrant public life and bohemian culture.

Looking at contemporary London, Miles attacks the changes to the education system and its effect on London’s artistic community. ‘The greater commodification of art [was] exacerbated by the disastrous move of amalgamating the art colleges into universities and colleges so that instead of having the freedom to experiment and explore dead-ends, to make mistakes and chop and change, students are now subject to regular assessment and evaluation as if they were studying maths. The aim is now to produce workers for the “arts industries”, a ghastly new hybrid created by arts consultants who know nothing about the actual creation of art.’

Surprisingly, there’s nothing in the book about the impact of the smoking ban or the tighter drinking regulations set up by Westminster Council in Soho. That is probably because Miles believes that the establishment is more liberal now than it was during the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, the New Labour watchwords of ‘social inclusion’ and ‘non-judgementalism’ do give the superficial impression that Soho liberal values are now so commonplace that the area itself has lost its countercultural edge. But in reality, tolerance today has simply come to mean ousting the intolerant. At the same time, the micro-regulation of public life that took root under the previous New Labour government goes much further than the occasional raids on strip joints and sex shops that were also commonplace in Soho in the 1960s.

Although there was a liberalising agenda in the late Sixties, Miles points out that sections of the state, aided and abetted by moral entrepreneurs, still attempted to enforce traditional bourgeois morality in Soho. The response, as London Calling tells it, was to say ‘how dare middle class moralisers tell us how to live our lives’. But with the 1986 AIDS panic, state regulation of people’s lives became less explicitly moral. Instead, Conservative politicians began to talk about a ‘health-and-safety issues’. By justifying regulations in such apparently morality-free language, state intervention became beyond criticism. To challenge it was, it was implied, to put people’s lives at risk.

So while Miles notes that London’s club scene was quickly neutered during the mid-1990s to meet ‘Metropolitan Police standards’, he doesn’t recognise how this was achieved using the state script of health and safety. This same script has also justified the assault on public drinking and smoking. The sanitisation of a once fearless enclave like Soho is the dismal end result.

It’s not entirely doom and gloom, though. As the Manifesto Club, a group campaigning against ‘the hyper-regulation of everyday life’, has shown, there’s growing anger and opposition to officialdom’s sanitisation of the public sphere. The media is also paying increasing attention to the calamitous state of pubs in London and elsewhere. Barry Miles’ appropriately titled London Calling is a welcome addition to the ranks of those who are fighting for freedom and proper toleration.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

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