A Hero for High Times

Ian Marchant

(Jonathan Cape, £16.99)

Review by Teddy Jamieson

If you were asked to sum up the story of the British counterculture in one individual who would you choose? A Beatle possibly (George would be good for the spiritual dimension of course and Paul or John would clearly work; Ringo maybe not so much), a wannabe revolutionary (a member of the Angry Brigade, say), a hipster LSD-prescribing psychiatrist (RD Laing springs to mind), or what about your full-on spiritualist guide (someone like Tuesday Lobsang Rampa, a Tibetan lama who turned out to be occupying the body of a plumber from Devon)?

I suspect that Bob Rowberry wouldn’t make your final list. And yet it is Rowberry, a 75-year-old who lives in an old school bus parked in a wood in Wales (the tyres have fallen off so he’s not going anywhere soon), who has been chosen by Ian Marchant to use as the prism through which to tell the story of the radical current in British post-war public life, a current that courses through the Beats to the crusties, via hippies, freaks, punks, ravers and new age travellers. Or from 1956 to 1994 if you want to be chronological about it.

Marchant, himself something of a countercultural fellow traveller (though more in theory than practice, he is happy to admit), has decided that the generation of his grandchildren needs a history of the hippies, heads, freaks, punks and ravers and their “failed, imperfect, valiant revolt against the long slow death of the human soul” because, as far as he can see, the world is still broken and needs mending.

Hence this entry-level primer on radical thinking and action, from pop and pop art to hippy spiritualism and hippy capitalism.

To do this he uses Rowberry’s biography as an anchor post. Rowberry qualifies because he was part of the story from the start. Born in 1942, he was knocking about Soho in the 1950s reciting Alan Ginsberg’s Howl to anyone who would listen. He was present on the second CND march in 1959 (mostly to steal what he could from his fellow marchers, Rowberry admits), then hanging out with posh girls in the Swinging Sixties, bunking off to Afghanistan on the hippy trail at the end of that decade and even turning up at

the Newbury road protest camp in

1994 where he chatted with the eco-warriors and got chased by the police.

Plus, it appears that he knew everybody. He was the first person to sell LSD to Laing, he says, owned the cat that the band Procol Harum were named after, met Saddam Hussain and had run-ins with the IRA. (I’ll not tell you what he did with Long John Baldry and Diana Dors because this is a family paper, but you only need to read to page four to find out.) He shared a flat with Gus Dudgeon (Elton John’s producer and “the bloke who produced Space Oddity”) and was a bodyguard for Ronna Ricardo, aka Miss Whiplash, the Scottish dominatrix who was one of the prostitutes wrapped up in the Profumo affair.

He stole jewellery from Joni Mitchell (as you may have gathered, Bob was criminal-minded), once kipped down in a house owned by Jacob Rees-Mogg’s great uncle and nearly sent the future bass player of Courtney Love’s band Hole through the windscreen of a car. In short, he’s lived a life. In Marchant’s book that life is an organising principle. Unfortunately, that turns out to be both a pleasure and a problem. The pleasure is simple. Bob is great company. He’s a fine raconteur with plenty of juicy stories to tell. But that is also the problem. His first-person accounts are so seductive that there is a temptation to jump ahead every time Marchant pipes up.

The author has decided to embed Bob’s story inside his own cat’s cradle of context. Marchant outlines the theories and ideas that animated the counterculture, Bob shows how they worked in practice. It is a workable enough structure but one that runs into some issues the further story progresses. Because, when Bob eventually drops out he also drops out of the wider story the book is trying to tell. As a result, Marchant is left to do all the heavy lifting when it comes to punk and rave culture.

And to be honest, I wonder if Bob’s story isn’t in some ways an entertaining distraction. Bob seems happy with his life and I’m not sure contentment is Marchant’s goal here.

Because, ultimately, A Hero for High Times is a lament for lost hope and a lost radicalism amid the conservatism of the contemporary world. Of course, the counterculture has never been short of historians, stretching back to Jeff Nuttall and George Melly, who were recording it as it happened back in the 1960s.

As a guide for young readers Marchant’s book is essentially a primer and comes trailing an extensive reading list. But it stands on its own for readers young and old because of the author’s eye for piquant detail. My favourite might be the story of John Wolfenden, who, while overseeing a committee investigating the laws surrounding homosexuality and prostitution in 1954, didn’t want to embarrass his female stenographers, and so substituted the name of biscuit manufacturers Huntley and Palmers for the words homosexuality and prostitution respectively.

Marchant also has the benefit of hindsight. Women, he points out, got a very raw deal in the counterculture. With the invention of the Pill they were required not to be uptight about sex, to still make the dinner and look after the babies and probably be written out of the story.

At one point he cites another countercultural history, Nigel Fountain’s Underground, in which Sue Miles is referred to as the wife of International Times co-founder Barry Miles. Sue, of course, was also co-founder of IT, as well as a co-proprietor of the Indica Gallery, where John met Yoko. As former NME journalist Charles Shaar Murray once suggested, “Feminism was not so much an outgrowth of the hippie movement as a reaction against it”.

Still, for all its failings, Marchant believes in the counterculture’s desire to change the world and by the end he is issuing a clarion call for his grandchildren to pick up the tattered banner of radicalism. A lament has changed into a call to arms.

In that sense you could argue that A Hero for High Times is actually a number of books all bound between one cover. It’s like a house conversion where various buildings have been lashed together but the dovetailing isn’t quite right and the decor clashes.

No matter, though, because in the end the resulting construction is full of interesting corners. And the people who live in it might be maddening, wrongheaded and worse, but they are never less than interesting.