Picture the scene: it’s June 1965 and Barry Miles (Fitzrovia resident for over 50 years and Czar of the Counterculture) and his pal John “Hoppy” Hopkins join 7,000 other like-minded souls at The Royal Albert Hall for an international poetry gathering, led by the Americans Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso.

Image of book cover.
A catalogue of every British underground paper that launched in the 1960s.

Miles (for nobody calls him Barry) explains: “As a reading it was not special; as a meeting place for young people – students, musicians, poets, actors, people from the arts, the sciences and education – it was a revelation. There were thousands of us! My friend Hoppy and I looked at each other and nodded, we both had the same idea. These people need a newspaper of their own! There was a constituency there that Fleet Street was simply not covering.”

The idea for International Times (IT), the first European underground newspaper, was born. Co-editors Miles and Hoppy got busy. The company Lovebooks Limited was formed, a used offset litho press was purchased and a proto IT – consisting of facsimiles of Miles’ correspondence with pals on the underground scene in the US, graphics and a comic strip from friends, and a competition with a 20 guinea prize supplied by Paul McCartney – was produced. Around 500 were printed and the next day they took them to the1966 CND Easter Aldermaston March – in a couple of days they had all gone.

Time to get organised. Lots of people offered to help and various luminaries came on board including Jim Haynes, the American proprietor of The Traverse Theatre, who supplied them with their first typewriter, which came from Sonia Orwell and supposedly, had been owned by her husband George.

At a raucous meeting to decide on a name someone shouted “IT”, which could be interpreted as Intergalactic Times, Inscrutable Times, Insane Times, but International Times was settled on. The logo, which was supposed to feature the original It-girl Clara Bow, mistakenly used a picture of Theda Bara in her 1918 silent movie role as Salome, an image that has endured for 50 years.

The paper was launched with a huge, all night party on Saturday, October 15, 1966, held at the then semi derelict Roundhouse in Camden Town (courtesy of playwright Arnold Wesker).

Around 2,000 people attended including Michelangelo Antonioni, Monica Vitti, Paul McCartney and Jane Asher. Pink Floyd and the Soft Machine played from the back of an old wagon with a bed sheet tacked up behind them for what would be for many people, their first lightshow. The first issue included an obituary of André Breton and a poem by Adrian Mitchell.

IT was followed closely by OZ, which was co-edited by Fitzrovia’s Felix Dennis, who, long before he had offices in Cleveland Street, was operating as “H. Bunch Associates”, named after the Robert Crumb cartoon character Honey Bunch Kaminski, from 39 Goodge Street..

Pretty soon there were several other underground publications. The club of choice was UFO (Unlimited Freak Out) co-founded by Hoppy, which was also in Fitzrovia in an Irish dancehall called the Blarney Club in the basement of 32 Tottenham Court Road, under the Gala Berkeley Cinema.

The underground press changed the cultural landscape of Britain forever, openly condoning recreational drugs, homosexuality and sexual freedom. “What is extraordinary is how threatened the establishment felt by the underground press and the hippy movement. In no way were we going to smash the state, I mean there were only a few hundred of us anyway but they took it extremely seriously,” says Miles.

I personally remember as a schoolboy, it was a badge of honour to have a copy of IT ostentatiously sticking out of one’s school bag. We really did feel that this was a new psychedelic age in gloomy post war Britain.

As Miles explains: “It’s curious that when people look back 50 years to the youth movement of the sixties, they don’t mention the underground papers and they were the main way that the ideas got transmitted. … I don’t think it’s a conspiracy, it’s just that we never think where do these ideas come from and how do they get transmitted?”

Miles has solved this by collaborating with curator and art dealer James Birch to create an exhibition and a book that bring together for the first time every single iconic cover from International Times, Oz, Friends, Friendz, Gandalf’s Garden, Black Dwarf and Ink, along with comic books, original ads, graphics, posters and flyers. Much of the material is still controversial 50 years on.

The British Underground Press of the Sixties, by Barry Miles, will be published on 5 October 2017 and is only available from britishundergroundpress.com and is accompanied by an exhibition at A22 Gallery, 22 Laystall Street, Clerkenwell from 28 September to 4 November 2017, Thursday to Saturday, 12 – 6pm. Last admission 45 minutes before closing. (free entry). Counterculture in Fitzrovia – Past and Present. Barry Miles and Hannah Watson in conversation, 6.30pm Wednesday 25 October 2017, Fitzrovia Chapel, 2 Pearson Square, London W1T 3BF (£6).