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Anecdotes Tell Dramatic Story
of British Underground Press


Underground--The London Alternative Press, 1966-74
Nigel Fountain
Comedia/ Routledge Publishers, London, 217 pages, 1988. Not yet available in Canada.

Reviewed by Ron Verzuh

John Lennon wrote out a cheque for one thousand pounds sterling to be paid to It. He'd noticed that the London underground paper, aka International Times, had not been coming in the mail. He thought his subscription had run out, and he missed not getting the first of the raunchy tabloids that made up the British underground press of the 1960s.

The money might have been enough to revive It, says Nigel Fountain in a new book called Underground, but the Beatle's generous cheque came too late. The dream of a vast co-operative empire of newspapers to serve the British counterculture was already over. And Lennon, stoned much of the time on heroin, was edging closer to his own tragic death in 1976.

Lennon and Yoko Ono had been at the founding of It in 1966, described with great colour and flair by Fountain, and he had remained a strong supporter. He had read the undergrounds and given them money. But most of all he gave them confidence, told them they were doing something right for the world, granted them interviews when other rock stars shunned them.

Dave Bush, who founded Toronto's 1960s underground paper, Harbinger, recalls being shocked and then very pleased when Lennon granted him a telephone interview before a local concert. And the editors of Montreal's Logos were also treated with respect when the couple held their famous "Give peace a chance' 'sleep-in.

By contrast to Lennon's quiet encouragement, Rolling Stone Mick Jagger made a public spectacle of bankrolling a London edition of the more commercial Rolling Stone magazine, writes Fountain. But when the huge ego of the rock star clashed with that of RS owner Jann Wenner, the project quickly foundered. Its failure meant the underground papers would enjoy windfall revenues from the music advertising RS would have attracted.

But the monopoly didn't last long. Instead, Time Out, a politico-cultural paper slowly rose to the top of the heap, as the more radical counterculture papers went into speedy decline.

Long before that, however, the satirical magazine Private Eye began introducing Britain to some of what the underground press had in store for it. Started in late 1961, it had borrowed from Le Canard Enchaine, the French satirical daily, in its efforts to annoy the establishment. But the undergrounds would give Britons something they had never seen before.

It came first, growing out of a gallery/ bookstore whose opening in 1966 Lennon and Ono had attended. Paul McCartney had aslo helped start Indica Gallery. But it was Barry Miles and a group of friends around the bookstore who set the process in motion. By late 1966, they were ready to compete with Private Eye as the other half of London's alternative press.

Fountain's book documents It's founding with the excitement of someone who was there. He does the same with Oz (born of an earlier Australian paper) and Black Dwarf, the other major underground paper of the time. We also get insightful glimpses of the short, intense lives of papers like Red Mole, Idiot International, Friends, Ink, and 7 Days.

Most interesting are Fountains' descriptions of crucial events such as the arrest in Northern Ireland of the whole editorial staff of Friends and the ensuing debate on how to cover Britains' Vietnam, the battle for economic survival, and the constant struggle over sexism.

At Black Dwarf, for example, Sheila Rowbotham cultivated her radical feminist rage before moving on to write her famous book Women, Resistance and Revolution. Martha Rowe, who founded the excellent feminist paper Spare Rib, also saw her feminism grow partly out of her experience as an Oz staffer. And Germaine Greer used Oz to test ideas that would later resurface in The Female Eunach. She too cut her ties over sexism and a major disagreement on the role of Oz. Fountain tells of her bitter departure after the editors ran a nude photo of her on the cover, instead of using a group photo with her in it, as agreed.

Like the power struggles at It and the feminist arguments at Black Dwarf, the trail of Oz, with John (Rumpole of the Bailey) Mortimer as counsel, also provides a unique thread for this detailed book on the underground. Fountain lets the story unfold slowly as he injects the sweet and sour details of London countercultural life.

References to the European counterculture add a world of perspective to what has sometimes been treated as an American phenomenom. Of course, the American underground scene plays a role as well, but Fountain gives us a closer look than we've had before at the underground in Germany, the Netherlands and France. When he does turn to the United States, we get a genuine British view partly through the experiences of British expatriates like John Wilcock and Alexander Cockburn.

Wilcock had migrated to the United States in the 1950s and been fascinated by the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, the novels of Jack Kerouac and the beat scene in New York. He soon joined the newly founded Village Voice as news editor, then left years later to work on the East Village Other, one of the first underground papers. His Other Scenes column was to become a mainstay of many underground editorial pages.

Cockburn, now the quintessential alternative journalist in the U.S., honed his skills as an acerbic social critic in the British underground and above ground press. He, too, worked for the Village Voice, writing media criticism until he had a falling out with the weekly owned by Australian media baron Rupert Murdoch. He now contributes a column to The Nation. (His father, Claud Cockburn, helped inspire the new breed of papers by publishing The Week, a kind of British I.F. Stone's Weekly, in the 1930s.)

Sadly, Fountain fails to even mention what was happening in Canada at the time. The omission is a great disappointment, especially given the international prominence of paper's like Vancouver's Georgia Straight or Montreal's Logos. There were some key links to be made, but Fountain missed them and his book is poorer for it.

Still, Underground is a frank look back at what made the British underground press tick. Unpredictable, sometimes unbearably silly, and almost always irreverent, these papers slapped the British stiff upper lip until it was blue. But somewhere along the line they lost their craziness.

Fountain uses the search for that moment to add some dramatic tension to a book that could easily lapse into boring insider political debates or obscure philosophical arguments. In a further effort to avoid the kind of political writing that too often appeared in the underground papers themselves, he fills us to overflowing with tales of zany incidents and bizarre anecdotes. The mix makes a solid contribution to the study of an era we seem more inclined to dismiss than analyze.

Ron Verzuh is an Ottawa writer who specializes is alternative media.

This article originally appeared in Sources, 22nd Edition, Winter 1988.


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