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Nicholas Lezard’s Choice: ‘A Hero for High Times’ by Ian Marchant

  • Published at 05:02 pm September 8th, 2018

It’s one of those books that seems to lift off its own pages: it’s an enactment of the very thing it describes

The subtitle of this book is a mouthful, but essential: “A young reader’s guide to the Beats, Hippies, Heads, Freaks, Punks, Ravers, New Age Fellow Travellers, and Dog-on-a-rope Brew Crew Crusties of the British Isles 1956-1994." Look at the list carefully and you will not only see that pretty much every major grouping of the counter-culture for the last half-century is there, but also that, by implication, that counter-culture is over, or so far removed from contemporary experience that younger readers are going to need a guide to it. 

Well, it’s not so much a guide, more a collection of stories, the vast majority of which have been filtered through the experience of one man: Bob Rowberry, who lives in a clapped-out, immobile but cosy old school bus in a forest in Wales. He lives off-grid, pretty much: he collects his own water, generates his own electricity (not so easy, when using solar panels, in winter, under tree cover, in Wales) and making jewellery to order for a bit of cash. 

The remarkable thing about Bob is that, at various crucial moments of history, he was there. He was the first person to sell RD Laing LSD; Procol Harum took their name from his cat (Bob’s cat, that is); he has had personal encounters with both Helena Bonham Carter and Saddam Hussein, not to mention just about every mover and shaker, behind the scenes and in front of them, of the alternative lifestyle throughout the 1960s and 1970s. There is much here that is contrary both to the spirit and the letter of the law. (He dips out of the scene around the time punk rock takes off; to have been part of it would have been improbable—both because of his age but also because of his musical tastes. But Marchant can pick up the story himself by then.)

Ian Marchant is one of Britain’s most remarkable, but under-recognized, writers. He is a true chronicler of the country: he has written about the railways (Parallel Lines), pubs (The Longest Crawl, in which he goes, basically, on a pub crawl from the most southerly of the British Isles to the most northerly); a book about people who are nocturnal (Something of the Night). You never quite know what he’s going to do next, but what you do know is that it will be fascinating, and beautifully written. Not in a highfalutin‘ way, but with an ease and a precision that underpins his jokey style. Here he is, for instance, talking about the Hungarian-American theorist Edmund Bordeaux Szekely: “Szekely saw himself as a healer, and is regarded as a key figure in the rise of ‘Naturopathy’, a bundle of various healing therapies which include colour therapy, hair analysis and colonic irrigation. If your name is Willow, the chances are that you have been subject to some of Szekely’s ideas, such as when you had a cold, your mum waved crystals over your head or made you look at something red.” In other words: Marchant knows a great deal about this scene, and the people who make it up, while also maintaining a slight but uncondescending distance from its loopier aspects. He is, after all, very much on the side of the Freaks (if we have to put the counter-culture under one umbrella). 

But he starts early on: he gives his readers a grounding in Marxist theory, so that we can grasp the alienation of society that we are trying, or once tried, to escape; he tells us the basics of Thoreau’s teaching (which is highly appropriate, seeing as his book begins and ends in the woods); and he grounds us in Theosophy, the I Ching, the Lebensreform thinkers of nineteenth-century Germany ... and much, much more. 

But the star of the book is, without a doubt, Bob Rowberry, a man who appears to have spent much of his life finding ways to get into trouble. I would say that being the first man to sell Afghan coats in the UK, by going to Afghanistan to buy them, is about as good a way of getting into trouble as I can think of; a list of the times Bob has a gun waved in his face would be a fairly long list. He is one of those people who is fated to live an interesting life, although he seems to have settled down and found peace. 

But his voice is plausible, and compelling; it took Marchant about a year, by his own admission, to stop trying to paraphrase him and simply transcribe his words. A chapter written entirely in Bob’s words reveals him to be an extremely good, and funny narrator, with perfect comic timing and a wonderfully salty vocabulary; by the time it ended, I was almost disappointed to be back in Marchant’s hands again. 

But not that disappointed, really. This, I think, is the book Marchant was born to write: it’s a testament, a collection of tall tales that all turn out to be true; my life touches briefly on some of the people and incidents here and I can vouch for their veracity. It’s one of those books that seems to lift off its own pages: it’s an enactment of the very thing it describes. It places a whole way of life in context, and becomes, defying chronology, part of that context itself. I can put it no plainer than that.

(A Hero for High Times is published by Jonathan Cape, 488pp, £16.99)

Nicholas Lezard is a writer and columnist for the New Statesman in London. He is a judge for the 2018 Goldsmiths Prize for Fiction and his column, Nicholas Lezard's Choice, ran in the Guardian newspaper for twenty years.