In 1967, when I was 13, it was rumoured that a classmate's older brother had published a book. This was remarkable in itself – people like us didn't write books – but this book was not just any book, it was a scandalous novel, packed with bad language, drugs, sex, and, you know, everything. So much so, in fact, that he had it published under a pseudonym, Chrys Paul Fletcher. Now, despite the constant traffic at school in books with "good bits" – well-thumbed paperbacks like The Dirty Dozen or Catch-22 that fell conveniently open at the relevant passages – I don't think I ever actually saw a copy of this legendary text, entitled Cry for a Shadow*, until, browsing in a chaotic second-hand bookshop on Bristol's Christmas Steps in 1978, I chanced upon a pristine hardback copy, which must have been waiting there for most of the intervening decade, priced as it was at its pre-decimal used valuation of 2 shillings and sixpence.
Although not exactly one of the great novels, I have held on to it, as one of those curiosities that has a purely personal, symbolic value: Ken's brother's famously naughty book. As far as I know, he published nothing else; at least, not under that name. However, as the book did go into Panther paperback and saw publication in the USA, others must surely have read it at the time. In fact, it's a classic picaresque "beatnik" narrative, British-style, but really rather behind the fast-moving curve of fashion for '67. From the dust jacket:
Chris Plater on stage with his mouth-organ and guitar ... Chris on Brighton beach with Spud and Lorraine ... Standing in Trafalgar Square in his parka and jeans ... Walking, insane, through the streets of Soho ... Standing against the winds on the rocks of Cramond Island...
Cry for a Shadow is the story of Chris Plater, a successful folk singer, and the figures around him – Lorraine, his girl friend, and Spud, Pete, and Napoleon, Carol in Edinburgh who is to have his baby, Bardino with his red and blazing eyes. It is the story of the creeping insanity which Chris Plater feels infringing upon his mind as he plunges deeper in his despairing search for the end of the rainbow.
In this vividly realistic picture of the mod/rocker generation the author gives a frightening insight into their almost total lack of standards, or ambitions, or responsibility and above all into their sense of apartness, futility and despair.
Ah, takes you back, doesn't it? Especially, that almost total lack of standards, or ambitions! I mean, who hasn't walked, insane, through the streets of Soho? Or forgotten yet again where on earth you've dropped your end of that rainbow? I saw the best minds of my generation, etc. Well, you had to make your own bohemia in those days, largely out of junk, cast-offs, and imagination. The "generation gap" was very real, though, and uncrossable: leaving home to live a chancer's life in squalid corners of post-War Britain was a sanity-saving measure for many. I think few 17-year-olds today could imagine yearning for a life in a cold, damp bed-sit with no kitchen or toilet, but such places were where an existentialist hepcat could afford finally to be free of parental oppression. For good or ill, "dirt-cheap" was still a meaningful expression in the 1960s.
This book came to mind this week as I'm reading Mike Heron's recently-published account of the founding of The Incredible String Band, You Know What You Could Be, and his tales of the bohemian Edinburgh folk scene in the early-to-mid 60s are, in many ways, remarkably similar. At least, as far as they go. I had thought the double authorship of Mike Heron and poet Andrew Greig was just an honest, upfront acknowledgement of an "as told to" autobiographical arrangement, but it turns out Heron has contributed only the first 100 pages of a 350 page book, and breaks off the story just as the "real" ISB story gets going, which is disappointing. It's as if "The Hedgehog Song" were the summation of their contribution to music. Perhaps he's embarrassed by the, um, subsequent lapse into Scientology. He does write well, though, and gives a vivid telling of the days when Heron, Robin Williamson, Bert Jansch, John Martyn, Davey Graham and many other luminaries of the folk scene were just guys hanging around Edinburgh's folk clubs, learning to live off nothing in order to play guitar and write songs. The rest of the book is Greig's, who is a similar age to me, and thus less of a pioneer than a first-generation fan and a follower. His contribution is excellent, however: perhaps the best evocation of a late-60s adolescence in a small town I've read.
But both books also made me think about the vagaries of "fame". Never their greatest fan, I did nonetheless own and knew every note and fey whimper on those first Incredible String Band albums (although I confess this was largely because I was reduced to helpless hilarity by their very Scottish, Ivor Cutler-ish barbed whimsy), and as influences go the band was pretty seminal. They were famous, notorious, infamous, even. Even Led Zeppelin have acknowledged the impact of The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter on their own first album (it's an obvious but often unremarked fact that Led Zep have a distinctly folkie side to their repertoire). And yet my daughter, who is a music fan of taste and discrimination, with access to all the rich resources of the Web, has never even heard of them. It seems psychedelic folk has been written out of the story of popular music: obscured by prog, and scribbled over by punk.
I suppose it is a little embarrassing, as a chapter in our national musical story, especially seen from the outside, and without herbal or chemical enhancement. Perhaps the name best exemplifying this fame-amnesia is that of another folkie Scot, Donovan Leitch. Despite his chart successes in the '60s, Donovan seems to have become one of the nearly men of popular music. For a time, though, he was everywhere and knew everyone, teaching the Beatles in India how to play guitar crosspick style, a fixture at festivals, and commanding the services of the likes of Jimmy Page and bassist Danny Thompson (please don't say "Who?") as session-men on his records. His name, along with that of Bob Dylan, is threaded through both Cry for a Shadow and You Know What You Could Be, not as the Dylan-lite imitator he was accused of being (I can't be the only one who remembers when a certain style of denim peaked cap was known in Britain as a Donovan hat, and not a Dylan hat), nor as the twee chart-topping songster he became, but as a trailblazer of the beatnik-folkie lifestyle, hitchhiking and sleeping rough around Britain and Europe; a name to be conjured with. In Cry for a Shadow, in a derelict WW2 bunker on Cramond Island in the Firth of Forth, our hero finds "Donovan slept here" chalked on a wall, and this is not meant as a joke.
Mind you, despite the appalling ignorance of the current younger generation, there are now plenty of books for them to read up on the subject, ranging from memoirs (the one by Donovan's chum Gypsy Dave Mills looks interesting) to surveys like Rob Young's Electric Eden. Although it is disconcerting to find the stuff of your youth becoming history, written about by enthusiasts who weren't even born at the time. And embarrassing, too, when laid bare in its utter triviality in comparison to, say, previous generations' struggles with poverty and deprivation, not to mention two world wars. But, hey, that's peace and prosperity for you: deadly dull unless you can spice it up a bit by, well, looking for a bit of poverty and deprivation action to call your own.
* I'm aware this is the title of the obscure, first-ever Beatles recording, a Shadows-esque instrumental, but this would not have been common knowledge in those days. Why "Fletcher" chose it is not clear (maybe there's an older, common source?), but music – especially Dylan's Mr. Tambourine Man – is a thread through the book.