Discovering the dark side of the sixties

William Shaw, author of the Breen & Tozer crime series, describes the places and events that inspired him to base his books in the sixties.

Posted on June 17, 2015 in Uncategorized
Tags: Historical Crime, crime fiction

When I was in my 20s, I worked in Carnaby Street.

Or “swinging Carnaby Street” as Mark Ellen, the editor of the magazine I was working for at the time used to refer to it,with the kind of jokey irony that acknowledged that these days it wasn’t really swinging at all; it was street of tacky punk souvenirs and bootlegged Jam t-shirts.

Despite the grubbiness of Soho in the 80s, the ghosts of its recent past were still there. After work, you’d find one of the Jimi Hendrix Experience propping up the bar at the White Horse. Francis Bacon was still drinking upstairs at the Colony Room; Private Eye writer Jeffrey Barnard would still be (barely) propping up the bar at the Coach and Horses.

They were reminders of how the city had been the cultural epicentre of the universe in the 60s. and that was a world I wanted to recreate in the Breen and Tozer books. At the end of the sixties, The Beatles still cast the longest shadows over the city, but it was also a time when alternative bookshops, galleries, gigs and “happenings” were surreptitiously transforming the cultural landscape of the city. Small magazines like Oz and Private Eye were challenging the orthodoxy of “The Establishment”. It was a city of idealists and dreamers.

But I have a less starry eyed view of that time now, too. William Gibson once wrote that the future is unevenly distributed; so is the past. The truth was, much of London didn’t swing at all in the 1960s; in reality isolated pockets of grooviness, peopled by the young and hip, blossomed amongst a, duller, much more conservative older city. Much of London regarded these new brash individualists with suspicion. I love to have my prematurely middle-aged hero, Sergeant Cathal Breen, wandering its streets with a mixture of wonderment, suspicion and downright hostility to the coming era.

The pleasure of researching the series has been immense. There’s a huge nostalgia industry now documenting London in the 60s; so it is relatively simple task to find the stories that help me recreate that city, but nothing can beat walking round its streets trying to work out where The Scotch of St James Club actually was, and what it must have felt like to arrive there, or gazing up at apartment buildings in Mount Street trying to work out which flat the gallerist Robert Fraser, who features in A House of Knives, used to live in.

P.S. Only when researching the Breen & Tozer series did I realise that those magazine offices in the 80s I worked in had actually been tailor John Stephen’s workshops. The offices where we once produced Smash Hits had been where the dandy wide-lapelled shirts that clothed the Beatles and the Stones had been made.


Listen to the songs that played a part in the Breen & Tozer series

Pop music, which had been so unifying during the time of Beatlemania, was now beginning to fragment in Breen and Tozer’s London. Ambitious blue collar rock and roll from The Small Faces, The Move and The Who still held its own, but new middle class bands like Pink Floyd were emerging from the universities and taking rock with a kind of seriousness that it had never thought it merited before. Though supergroup Cream were splitting up, they had ushered in the era of earnest solos, nodded at by long-haired fans. While in the North, many young people were looking to the American soul of the industrial cities, groups like Family (who Breen reluctantly goes to see at The Roundhouse in A Book of Scars) and The Incredible String Band were exuding a psychedelically quirky and almost absurd sense of pastoral Englishness. It was a bit like the post-punk era. The revolution had happened, but people were no longer sure which direction to head in. Everything was changing. 

Listen on soundcloud

See what places are mentioned in and inspired scenes in the books

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