A manual for the study of citizenship
Nicholas Saunders, (sadly killed in a car crash in South Africa last week) was a product of his age. Coming to London, he immersed himself in the cosmopolitan life of the 1960s, and his contribution was at once extraordinary and brilliant.
Dropping out from Imperial College, this ex-Ampleforth pupil wrote Alternative London - a book that captured the age. (The first edition was published in 1970. I still have my third-edition copy from 1972). It was a simple, sensible, and radical guide to living in London - much loved and indeed valued as a lifeline by a generation of 1960s and 1970s kids who arrived starry-eyed and quickly found themselves overwhelmed, if not hopelessly lost, in the city.
Saunders was, from early childhood, blessed with a curious mind. Son of an lse director, he was anxious to find out how things worked, but his rare intelligence was not satisfied by conventional learning situations. Instead, he broke with system and moved into No 65 Edith Grove, SW10 to contemplate, with fascination, the fragmentation of conventional lifestyles that was happening apace in the 1960s.
Where better to conduct such a study than on the fringe of Earls Court at the crossroads with King's Road, and what more obvious setting than a converted flat with a duckpond in the front room, a machine that blew giant bubbles into the road, and a cocoon made from papier-mache as a bedroom?
'Instructions: turn over and start at the other end 'cos this is the back!' This note captured the humorous but pragmatic spirit of his book which, with great sensitivity and rare humility, offered an absolute beginner's guide to city life for the brave and bold, lonely and lost, youngster in a bedsit. The Sunday Times summarised it thus: 'A mass of information not only about flat-finding and job-hunting, but your actual alternative lifestyles, life in communes, the background to food cults, and where to find the most mystical religions.'
And that was it - a guide to rent law, squatting, flat maintenance, bargain centres, aid for drug addiction and single parents, abortion, leisure, fun and food. Everything was assessed in a world of sub-cultures that Saunders uncovered right here in the Big Metropolis. vd was not only explained, clinics were listed and ranked (five stars for those who 'didn't assume people with clap were dirty and immoral'). But don't say you caught it before coming to Britain, he warned foreigners, or 'you may be charged £8'.
His brilliance was that he understood that the cosmopolitan city was not a system.
In the words of Jonathan Raban, author of another wonderful book called Soft City published in 1974: 'We live in cities badly; we have built them up in culpable innocence and now fret helplessly in a synthetic wilderness of our own construction.
'We need - more urgently than architectural utopias - to comprehend the nature of citizenship, to make a serious imaginative assessment of that special relationship between the self and the city; its unique plasticity, its privacy and freedom.'
Saunders gave us a manual for doing just that, to stand on the shelf next to the Garrard record deck - that other essential bit of kit we all loved.