London Calling: a Countercultural History of London Since 1945

London has always been a destination for dreamers, and in the past 15 years its literature has also become starry-eyed. Peter Ackroyd's London: the Biography (2000) convinced the masses that the city's muck and murk was full of grubby virtue rather than vice. Iain Sinclair's non-fiction, such as London Orbital (2002), also gained popularity, while compendiums and peculiars, bubbling with love for the city's hidden corners, have sold thousands of copies.

Barry Miles, the author of books about Jack Kerouac and Frank Zappa, as well as his own memoir of the swinging decade, In the Sixties, is
perfectly placed to keep this vein of London literature alive. This is the man who founded Indica Books and Gallery, where Yoko Ono met John Lennon, and who organised the 14-Hour Technicolor Dream at Alexandra Palace, featuring performances by Pink Floyd. He has added much to the magic of the capital.

He was, like so many London romantics, brought up outside it. As a child in Cirencester, he would dream that "the trees and the fields would be blocked out with houses", just like the city he had visited in the early 1940s, full of "red Tube trains running across the rooftops". London Calling maps a city fed and fuelled by outsiders. Miles reminds us how its spirit is driven by people fleeing oppressed countries as well as boring counties - how Greek Street was named after refugees from Ottoman rule, and how émigrés from revolutionary France formed Soho's network of restaurants, cafés and pubs. "It was to Soho that people came to get away from Britain for a few hours," he writes in the introduction, capturing London's heavenly cos­mopolitanism in a simple phrase.

From here, Miles takes us back to the city's "bomb-shattered streets" and explains how postwar counterculture made its way through the wreckage. This is also, unfortunately, where the book starts to lumber. London Calling, he explains, is about "people who make their art their life", but it is a tough task to weave together the stories of these wayward characters. It doesn't help when a life lived in the counterculture often appears to be a euphemism for a life lived in the boozer. Tales about the dank drinking circles led by the likes of Dylan Thomas (who leaves his only copy of Under Milk Wood in the pub) and club owners such as Muriel Belcher of the Colony Room are funny but very familiar, as is the cast list of Mick
Jagger, Derek Jarman and Gilbert and George. Despite Miles's neat grasp of humour, their stories cascade and fade quickly. It makes the book feel exhausting, rather than exhaustive.

Nevertheless, certain people stand out. Very often, these are lost stars that you sense Miles wants to preserve. Tambimuttu is a great example, a glamorous editor from what was then known as Ceylon, who published Nabokov and Henry Miller in his influential Poetry London magazine and offered work to strangers without having read a word of their writing. Then there is the pop art pioneer Pauline Boty, dead of cancer at 28, and a whole chapter for Leigh Bowery, who would "give birth" to his bandmate Nicola on stage with their group, Minty.

Miles is equally sharp when he unravels the myths of counterculture. Pointedly, he quotes Diana Athill on how rife sex and drugs were in London before even the First World War, and how only the press made it seem new in the 1960s. He also reveals how artists would cynically boost their profiles - Vivienne Westwood slapping a girl at a Sex Pistols gig because she was bored, and the writer Colin Wilson sleeping on Hampstead Heath to cement his reputation as an early Angry Young Man.

But the shadow that hangs over this book is that of Miles himself, who in fits and starts is a Miserable Old Man. The book finishes in a perplexing rush, its afterword dealing with a 25-year period from the mid-1980s house music boom to "dumbed-down" date, which suggests that the counterculture stopped when he was in his mid-forties. He also argues that a true underground cannot exist in a world of
instant culture, but does not mention influential clubs such as the threatened Foundry, in Shoreditch. Nor does he notice that underground newspapers and zines still exist.

This lets down a book that can be genuinely inspiring. Next time, Miles would do well to look beyond his purple youth and realise that London's heart still beats.

This article first appeared in the 29 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Hold on tight!