World in ecstasy

In the Sixties

Barry Miles <em>Jonathan Cape, 336pp, £17.99 </em>

ISBN 0224062409


For those of us who grew up - or failed to - in the 1970s, the previous decade aroused powerful and often conflicting emotions. Although we were born in the 1960s, we were not of the "Sixties". We were glad to be riding into a glorious new future on the paisley shirt-tails of the brave pioneers who had been clever and gifted enough to be born a few years before us. We could not enter the secret garden, but we could, if we wanted, drop a tab or three of acid and try to look through gaps in the wall. Grateful as we were, the smug, exclusive, you-should-have-been-here-last-week-mate approach by fully paid up members of the Sixties club became more and more annoying.As we got older and began to process and trust the evidence of our own eyes, it was a huge relief, only lightly tinged with disappointment, that we realised that the Sixties in Britain had never happened at all. Nothing had changed. The world we were living in, with its rigid structures and dowdiness, owed more to the Edwardian era than the false notions of some freewheeling, space-age society.

Barry Miles admits as much in his new book. At the end of the decade, he gloomily concludes - staring at the House of Lords from the window of his house in Lord North Street - that "social change seemed almost impossible". But as the title suggests, Miles still credits the decade with a greater significance than it may merit. His credentials for the period are impeccable: he ran the Indica bookshop, published the International Times and headed the Beatles spoken-word record label, Zapple. He was at the heart of Swinging London, lived for a while at the Chelsea Hotel, was friends with Paul McCartney, through whom he met most of the musicians and artists of the time. And yet his book is a boring read. The text reads like a collection of Tatler articles. Miles emerges as obsessed with fame, money and class. In true Hello! style, there is not a critical word for any of his famous friends. Outside the "amusing dinner parties" in the "salons" of Chelsea and the West End, where artists and wealthy artistos and their various procurers and hangers-on were doing the depraved things they have always done, nothing much was changing in Britain.

It was a different story in America, according to Nick Bromell in Tomorrow Never Knows. Change there, he argues, was not so much about the anti-war demonstrations and the civil rights movement as the underlying psychopharmacological state of millions of young Americans who had consumed LSD and pulled back the "veil of reality"and looked at the ecstasy and "evil" beyond. Bromell, a historian, looks at the visions and the comedown of this mass high, and examines a society that is "still coping with the consequences of a moment when the instability of the foundations was revealed, and celebrated".

Tomorrow Never Knows is vivid, intense and unpredictable. Reading it is a bit like being on acid yourself, except you don't end up crouched down in a phone box, naked and crying at 2am outside a bus terminal in Wandsworth. Bromell is no drugs apologist. He doesn't reach any new conclusions, but, at least, he asks all the right questions. The socio-economic conditions at the beginning of the Sixties in America were strikingly different from those in Britain. The so-called counterculture emerged out of widespread disillusion with the affluence and boredom of the new, emerging consumer society. In Britain, by contrast, we were more interested in getting what the Americans had than in journeying to "the other side" of it. It wasn't until the end of the Eighties (and 1989, in particular) after our own "economic miracle" that our "Sixties" really took place. By then, I was settling down and baby-rearing, which meant that I bloody well missed out again.

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