Reviewed: Baron’s Court, All Change by Terry Taylor (New London Editions, 2012)

As Stewart Home emphasises in his introduction, Baron’s Court, All Change is something of a lost cut classic. Precisely how it came to disappear from the face of the planet for some forty-odd years is rather difficult to explain, but disappear it did. After its initial publication in 1961 and republication four years later, this first-hand account of the hippest cats on the drug-fuelled London Jazz scene at its most swinging, which drew a readership at the time and has obvious and broad appeal since as a historical work, fell not only out of print but out of memory.

Taylor’s first-person narrative has a conversational quality to it, and while he’s not big on detailed description, with some of the writing appearing rather hurried and a shade rough in the editing, these are actually endearing qualities and he draws vivid, earthy pen-sketches of 1950s suburban life in just a few simple lines.

His teenage frustration with suburban tedium and conformity still resonates now, and while some of the writing has a hurried, pulpy quality and many of the characters are little more than sketched pen-portraits, Taylor’s narrator is multi-faceted and displays a surprising degree of emotional depth. This is one of the book’s real strength, as the narrator portrays life as an insider but also an outsider in different social circles, and reveals the dichotomy between family ties and friendship in what could reasonably be called a ‘coming of age’ tale with a real warmth.

Some of the lingo is as priceless as it is necessarily dated, and so many of the cats are digging the scene, wigged by all the charge they’re smoking and the swinging tunes that if it had been written thirty years later it would seem parodic. But at the same time, the overall narrative style is remarkably contemporary and is striking in just how fresh it seems, and Taylor’s turn of phrase is credible and naturalistic in a colloquial way (for example, after an argument with his mother, the narrator immediately feels guilty, and writes ‘I felt like a right cunt’).

The insight Baron’s Court gives into the drug culture of the period is also illuminating, and while most of the characters are strictly hash smokers (the book could almost as readily have been called Baron’s Court, All Charge), LSD does receive a mention (the first in a work of literature) and heroin also features prominently.

‘Junkies fascinated me from the start and I found out all I could about them… His thing isn’t a kick, it’s a way of life,’ recounts the narrator around halfway through, at the same time echoing Burroughs’ line ‘Junk is not, like alcohol or weed, a means to increased enjoyment of life. Junk is not a kick. It is a way of life.’ I can’t help but wonder how much information would have been available about junkies at the time, and would contend it’s not unreasonable to assume that Taylor had read Burroughs’ debut novel Junkie, published in 1953 in the US with a first UK edition, published by Digit Books of London in 1957. The text may not have been widely known, but hipsters have, as Baron’s Court reminds us, always been two steps ahead of the trend.

At a couple of hundred pages in length, Baron’s Court is a quick and straightforward read, and without doubt this is one of its great achievements. Whereas so many other books on drugs and drug culture are dry and unappetising and judgemental or otherwise agenda-driven, Taylor’s novel is vibrant, lively and above all entertaining.

 

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