Tag Archives: Sohemian Society

Sohemian Society: lateral thinking and how to steal a book in 1960s London

Last night, I went to one of the Sohemian Society’s increasingly prestigious and increasingly jam-packed meetings.

It was a talk by Barry Miles, there to plug his book In The Sixties. I remember him for his column in hippy newspaper International Times. Not a man who should be forgotten.

I blogged about him (also at the Sohemian Society) back in 2011.

The Sohemian Society billed last night’s event thus:


At the beginning of the sixties Barry Miles was at art school in Cheltenham; at the end he was running the Beatles’ Zapple label and living in New York’s legendary Chelsea Hotel. This is the story of what happened in between.

In the Sixties is a memoir by one of the key figures of the British counterculture. A friend of Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, Miles helped to organise the 1965 Albert Hall poetry reading. He co-founded and ran the Indica Bookshop, the command centre for the London underground scene, and he published Europe’s first underground newspaper, International Times (IT), from Indica’s basement.

Miles’s partners in Indica were John Dunbar, then married to Marianne Faithfull, and Peter Asher (brother of Jane Asher). Through Asher, Miles became closely involved with the Beatles, particularly Paul McCartney, and In the Sixties is full of intimate glimpses of the Beatles at work and play. Other musicians who appear  include the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Leonard Cohen and Frank Zappa. This is the real story of the 1960s, from the inside.


The old Foyles building at 111-119 Charing Cross Road, London (Photograph by Tarquin Binary)

One of Miles’ more inconsequential yet fascinating memories was of Foyles Bookshop in London and an enterprising person he knew.

The old Foyles building in Charing Cross Road was a labyrinthine collection of books, arranged not logically by subject but confusingly by publisher and there was a Byzantine system of buying a book (if you could find it) involving two, possibly three, separate members of staff in different locations, so punters were meandering all over the place, books in hand, with no check on what, where or why.

In addition to the bizarrely arranged publisher sections, there was a Second Hand Books section and a Rare Books section.

If you were enterprising, as Miles’ acquaintance was, you could pick up several books from the Second Hand section and take them to the Rare Books section and sell Foyles’ own books back to them, all without leaving the shop.

It is lateral thinking and enterprising amorality like this that built us an Empire and makes me proud to be British.

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The paedophile sculptor and the image on the front of BBC Broadcasting House

(L-R) Edward Taylor, John Lloyd, Richard Edis, Jon Glover last night

(L-R) Edward Taylor, John Lloyd, Richard Edis, Jon Glover

Last night, the highly-esteemed Sohemian Society held a celebration of British radio comedy, featuring producers John Lloyd (The News Quiz, Spitting Image, Have I Got News For You, Q.I.), Edward Taylor (Does The Team Think, The Navy Lark, The Men From The Ministry) and Richard Edis (Brain of Britain, My Music).

They had many interesting anecdotes about the production of comedy programmes, which I won’t steal from them, but one presumably widely-known story which I myself had never heard was told by performer Jon Glover about John Reith, the dour, Scottish, first Director General of the BBC.

Jon Glover told the assembled throng:

Eric Gill’s carving of Prospero and naked, child-like Ariel on front of Broadcasting House, London (Photo by David Castor)

Eric Gill’s carving of Prospero and naked, child-like Ariel on front of Broadcasting House, London (Photo by David Castor)

“Lord Reith wasn’t that keen on comedy, but there was a sort of anarchy going on in the building of Broadcasting House in that, if you look at the facade of old Broadcasting House you’ll see some Eric Gill sculptures on the front.

“Eric Gill not only slept with his children but sculpted directly onto the Portland stone outside Broadcasting House in mid-winter, wearing a smock and no knickers and BBC secretaries were commanded not to look up as they went into the building.

“And he did a very famous statue of Prospero and Ariel and he gave Ariel an extremely large ‘protuberance’ and Lord Reith is reported to have one night tried to climb the scaffolding and chip away at it.”

I find the story almost impossible to believe – the vision of John Reith climbing up his own scaffolding to chip away at a work of art he presumably commissioned. But it is a good story – and bizarrely satisfyingly neat in the idea (given recent stories) that a paedophile carved above the main entrance to the BBC’s headquarters a man holding the naked figure of a child.

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