Half a century ago, an audience of about 7,000 people turned up at London’s Royal Albert Hall to experience a poetry reading like no other, and on that summer evening in June 1965, the Sixties began. Or at least, the underground, counter-cultural 1960s found its anarchic voice and identity. And guess what, we were there.
It would be great to know the precise demographic of that audience. Many of the key people are now dead — Allen Ginsberg (pictured at the top of this post at a Royal Albert Hall rehearsal), Alexander Trocchi, Gregory Corso (pictured above), Adrian Mitchell and most recently, photographer John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins (pictured below) among them.
Were there others like us, ‘A’ level students who came up on the train, knowing that something exciting was going on, but, the Ms Jones of the suburbs, not quite knowing what it was? Of course we didn’t know. We didn’t realise the significance of the people or the event. It was a matter of chance that we were there at all.
The ‘happening’ took life when Ginsberg read at Better Books, the alternative bookshop in Charing Cross Road. We used to go there sometimes because the people and books were interesting — the owner imported books from City Lights in San Francisco. I parted with seven shillings and sixpence for a copy of Gregory Corso’s Gasoline at Better Books. There was a coffee bar with uneven wobbly tables. We heard there was a typewriter downstairs on which customers were encouraged to type out their poetry, but we were never brave enough to do that. (Barry Miles’ history London Calling describes some seriously bizarre basement events.) Ginsberg was interviewed on BBC TV about the poetry reading and somehow we got tickets to go to the Royal Albert Hall.
The International Poetry Incarnation was the most exhilarating, baffling experience. There was a series of poets on the stage (it never occurred to anyone to comment that they were all male — the liberal Sixties weren’t that great for the sisterhood, believe me) some of whom were audible. Some of the poems were long and indistinct and hard to follow, but it didn’t matter.
There were strange wordless poems, one which was just people sneezing, which I found a bit tedious but laughed because everyone else was, and one which consisted of sounds and noises, rising to a crescendo, which everyone joined in with, clapping and calling out in rhythm.
The performer I remember most vividly, apart from the majestic, bearded Ginsberg, is Adrian Mitchell, the poet and pacifist, whose poem, To Whom It May Concern, with its powerful refrain ‘Tell me lies about Vietnam’ resonates through the 50 years since he read it the event. You can see Mitchell’s performance in a YouTube extract from Peter Whitehead’s film Wholly Communion. It’s strange, I hadn’t remembered him wearing a jacket and tie.
The evening was a glorious mix of visionary incantations, mystical chants, girls dancing, finger cymbals, grunts and groans, swearing, heckling, white-clad people running riot through the audience, who we later found out were schizophrenic patients brought along by maverick psychiatrist R D. Laing. Poets argued with each other, the audience, many of whom were drinking wine and smoking joints, shouted at the poets when they couldn’t hear.
There were flowers everywhere, all over the floor and in the hands of girls who were handed them in the queue, which had run out by the time we arrived.
We arrived too late for the flowers, but it doesn’t matter. We were there.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the event, The International Poetry Reincarnation is taking place in London at The Roundhouse in Camden Town on Saturday, May 30.
Some of those appearing include Michael Horovitz, Patience Agbabi, Francesca Beard, Steven Berkoff, Malika Booker, Eleanor Bron, Pete Brown, John Cooper Clarke, Salena Godden, Adam Horovitz, Libby Houston, Cecilia Knapp, Elvis McGonagall, Kei Miller, Third Man Books and the William Blake Klezmatrix Band featuring Vanessa Vie, Gwyneth Herbert, Annie Whitehead and Peter Lemer. There’s also going to be an afternoon showing of Peter Whitehead’s film of the RAH reading, Wholly Communion.
There is a fictionalised version of The Poetry Incarnation in my novel, Living Doll, which is an account of the Sixties from a female viewpoint. It’s available at Amazon worldwide.