When I was in my teens, I used to read the hippie newspaper it (International Times – the title was reduced to the iconic it after The Times threatened to sue, on the somewhat unlikely grounds that people would confuse the hippie International Times with The Times, serious recorder of world events). Later, I wrote a column about movies for a briefly-revived it.
In the earlier issues I read, though, there was a far more prominent column by a guy called only Miles.
He was and is an interesting man. He had created the International Times with that other seminal Swinging London figure John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins.
Miles managed the legendary Better Books shop in London’s New Compton Street and later, with Marianne Faithfull’s husband John Dunbar, he ran the Indica gallery/bookshop where Dunbar introduced John Lennon to Yoko Ono. Still later, Miles ran the Beatles’ Zapple record label and lived in the Chelsea Hotel in New York.
Last night, he was chatting to the Sohemian Society, who shrewdly billed his talk with the line:
If You Can Remember The 60s, You Are Probably Miles
And – though this might be affected by a comparison with my own terrible memory – he does have an extraordinary, fluent memory for names, dates and descriptions of locations… they all tumbled out, recreating the height of the Swinging Sixties, which he reckons really ran from about 1964 to about 1976.
“I always thought punk was really the end of that same period,” he says, “I used to know The Clash quite well, because I used to write for NME, and they told me Well, of course, we grew up in the years of Oz and Kerouac and Burroughs, but we couldn’t tell anybody, because Malcolm McLaren had told everyone to say ‘Who gives a shit?’ It was all ridiculous.
“You see early pictures of Mick Jones and The Clash with hair out to here, it looks like something out of Mott The Hoople who were, of course, his favourite band.
“I always thought that the punks were just hippies with short hair.
“Joe Strummer cast the I Ching to decide whether to join The Clash or not – you can’t get more hippie than that.
“Somebody like John Lydon was probably a bit more authentic and generally more angry and cut off from that underground culture, but most of them were still arts students. I used to know Rat Scabies’ mum. She used to come to the UFO club.
“It was part of the same scene as far as I was concerned. Joe Strummer was only eight years younger than me.”
Miles’ start in trendy London, though, was much earlier, after seeing a TV documentary on the American ‘Beat Poets’ – Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
He became the 21-year-old manager of Better Books, which had links with the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco (run by Ferlinghetti) and the Peace Eye Bookstore in New York’s Lower East Side (run by Ed Sanders of The Fugs).
This ultimately resulted in an astonishing poetry reading – the International Poetry Incarnation – at the Albert Hall in London on 11th June 1965.
At the beginning of 1965, Allen Ginsberg went from the US to Cuba to “check it out” and managed to get himself deported. They could not send him back to the US because there had been no official transport connection between the two countries since the Bay of Pigs/Cuban Missile Crisis problems.
So they deported Ginsberg to Czechoslovakia where eventually, according to Miles, he “fell foul of the secret police. He got so involved with the students there that he was elected the King of May and 100,000 people paraded through the streets and he was wearing a crown and the authorities started to take a very dim view of this, so the secret police managed to get hold of his secret notebook which, unfortunately, had a long description of some insertions of a broom handle. So they put him on the next plane out of town and that was going to London.”
Ed Sanders had given Ginsberg a list of interesting contacts which included Miles at Better Books.
For a time, Ginsberg stayed at Miles’ flat in Fitzrovia which, then, was a ‘beat’ area.
Ginsberg, according to Miles, was “hanging out at all the local beatnik bars around there. In the winter, everybody used to wear long greatcoats with long white scarves – I think that was the symbol of being a proper English beatnik.”
Ginsberg, though widely-travelled, had never encountered the concept of gas meters, where you put a coin in the meter to obtain a power supply.
“One day,” says Miles, “a man from the Gas Board came to empty the money from the meter and had to stand on a chair to get the half-crowns out. I just left him there as usual and went off to do something in the back room. Then, suddenly, I heard him say: I’m finished now, sir. Can I go now, sir? which was odd.
“Normally, he would just go and let himself out. I went back into the room and the man from the Gas Board was on the chair with Allen standing stark naked next to him asking him all these questions about the money going in the meter and how it worked. The man refused to come down from his chair until Allen moved away from him.”
Ginsberg later turned up at an event naked and, according to Miles, John Lennon’s reaction was: “You don’t do that in front of the birds.” Ironically, says Miles: “John himself did it two-and-a-half years later on the album sleeve of Two Virgins, so everybody could see.”
When Ginsberg had first walked into Better Books, Miles had asked him: “Would you like to do a reading?”
“Of course,” came the immediate reply.
At that time, Ginsberg had a policy of not charging for readings – because poetry had to remain “pure”… Look, it was the 1960s.
The reading was unadvertised but the shop was filled for it, with people halfway out into the street.
“Donovan was pressed against the window,” Miles remembers, “and there was Gypsy Dave and Andy Warhol was in the front row – he would never have been outside.”
This Better Books reading was so successful, they decided to have another more ambitious one because they found they could get Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and Corso together in London at the same time.
Ginsberg was almost entirely gay but had an on-off girlfriend, underground film-maker Barbara Rubin
“She was very, very aggressive,” according to Miles, “just like his own mother and poor Allen was quite scared of her.”
Both Barbara and Ginsberg’s mother had mental problems: his mother died in a mental hospital.
“When the idea of having this big Beat Poet reading came up, Barbara asked: What’s the biggest hall in town? and my wife said, Well, the Albert Hall, I suppose. So Barbara phoned the Albert Hall and booked it. Pure American chutzpah. My weekly wage at the time was, I think, £8.16s.8p. The Albert Hall cost £400; an unbelievable amount of money. Plus another £100 for every hour we ran on.
“The booking was in ten days time, but we got quite a lot of publicity in the Sunday Times, the Observer and so on. At that time, Hoppy (John Hopkins, co-founder of it) was a press photographer and handed photos out all around Fleet Street.
“We got so many people turning up, we had to turn people away. I think the Albert Hall holds about 7,000. It was just an unbelievable evening.
“The one flaw in it was that we ended up with 17 people on the bill and an awful lot of them had never read in anything bigger than the upstairs room in a pub. And they were just frozen sometimes with all the lights and 7,000 people looking at them.”
The film-maker Peter Whitehead made a short documentary Wholly Communion, on the 1965 International Poetry Incarnation, which is on YouTube in four parts.
Miles’ books include London Calling: A Countercultural History of London Since 1945.