Sawdust Caesar: Omnibus Edition by Howard Baker (HB Publishing)
For those of you fed up with reading yet another 60’s memoir from the once-famous, Howard Baker’s complementary volumes, ‘Sawdust Caesar’ and ‘Enlightenment and the Death of Michael Mouse’, are now available in an omnibus edition from HB Publishing. The author asserts that the first volume is basically a true history, although the names have been changed to protect the guilty.
The casual book-browser may not notice that the stereotypical shot of the scooter-riding mod lad on the cover is superimposed on a landscape of opium poppies and their pickers, the land and sky an angry red. It’s an early hint of what is to come, and a better summation of the two books’ contents is hard to imagine.
I admit I wasn’t immediately taken with the writing style of ‘Sawdust Caesar’, feeling that the wide awake, adolescent, motor mouth ravings were overdone, and his misadventures all a little desperate to shock, but I’m glad to report that persistence pays. So long as you’re willing to tolerate the protagonist’s speed-crazed narrative, near-psychotic self-absorption and sheer contempt for everyone he meets, you may be on the way to appreciating the second volume, if not the first in itself.
This two-book set evocatively traces the frankly sordid life of a dyed-in-the-wool mod, through pilled-up days and nights, serial girl misuse, money hustling and petty crime, and then pulls off something of a coup, in putting our protagonist on the road to spirituality, in an epic journey to Afghanistan. Swapping amphetamines for dope and opium, and his wardrobe of cool street threads for the barest minimum to ensure warmth and decency, our narrator journeys across the poverty-stricken, unfriendly Afghan terrain, encountering druggies and drug barons, drifters and prophets, seekers after spiritual peace and charlatans only too pleased to sell you a simulacrum of it.
It’s a fast-paced, foul-mouthed, self-obsessed narrative that never lets up, but as our narrator turns his attention from his id to ego and to super-ego, the balance of his life undergoes a seismic shift, before being brought back to reality by the mundane world he thought he’d escaped.
Buy Sawdust Caesar now: on Amazon
As a Londoner, Howard Baker is the first to admit that he was fortunate indeed to have not only experienced those amazing years of the Sixties, but indeed to have survived them: from gang warfare to drug abuse and sexual emancipation, the opportunities for disaster were endless. The wise of course saw the period as one to be savoured and many are those who feel somehow blessed to have been part of that particular generation moulded by events now recognised as unique in our cultural history.
After the Sixties Howard jacked it all in and went off to explore the world feeling, like so many others, that life was there to be lived. On his return he found it impossible to re-enter the stuffy confines of conventional life and went to live on a farm in Wales where self-sufficiency was the order of the day. But as is so often the case, fate stepped in and he found himself on the road living among the gypsies with a young family to feed.
Years later and back in the mainstream, the chance to live in rural France arose. Now an organic farmer he lives the idyll which had earlier eluded him.
01. How did you first get started in the world of words and ink?
I was always good at telling stories apparently. Then my English marks, notably from an imaginative essay, helped scrape me through an otherwise unremarkable 11-plus examination.
02. Was it a struggle getting your first book published and out there?
It was long-winded and fraught with chance: the work was originally a screenplay and a close friend managed to get it in front of Stevie Wonder’s agent, but they deemed it too violent for his image. So it came back and was passed on to an editor at X, a large, well-known publishing company, and he read it, thought it a potential best seller as a book, and asked if I could re-write it. But by the time it was finished the guy had moved on. So off it went to another smaller publisher known to another friend and they snapped it up. Despite promotion not being their strong point the first print run sold out and I wrote the sequel which hit the bookshelves the same day that the World Trade Centre was taken down and by the time the dust had settled the world had changed. Timing’s everything.
03. Where did you see the first piece you had written actually in print, how did that feel?
A letter to The Eagle comic when I was a kid. And it made me realise that each of us has a voice in the great communal scheme of things.
04. What was the main core reasons that you started to write seriously?
I read a Hemingway book about his early life struggling as a writer in Paris, sitting in cafes, scribbling notes. And I was hooked.
05. What’s a typical working day like for you as a writer?
Living on a farm doing the self-sufficiency number, I have to be quite methodical, that’s to say, I write when I can. But when I lived in town I wrote nine to five, finding that easier than burning the midnight oil – although I do that if there’s a deadline.
06. What were your childhood experiences that helped to shape your later views and mindset?
What a question! Where does one start? Probably resistance to authority caused by shit schoolteachers.
07. What was it like to be an early Modernist, what were your pointers and outlook?
Dangerous, given the mass of bikers ruling the roost so to speak. But great when up the West End together; the recognition and camaraderie. And the beautiful chicks. Clothes and music were the two prime factors. And clubbing.
08. What was that early sixties period in London like for you as a young man?
Difficult. A mass of mixed emotions, school-leaving, adolescence, and shortage of cash. Parents who didn’t understand the changes going on. ‘64 onwards was better. Late Sixties superb.
09. How did the Media distort what was going on at the Seaside Towns and Resorts?
Some reporters staged scenes to photograph using cheap actors. They paid us for exaggerated stories of an offensive nature, constantly seeking a controversial headline pay-off day. When my first book came out I was approached by a well-known ‘social reporter’ looking for dirt to dig up.
10. What was the discovery of the ‘hippy trail’ and the druggy period like at the time?
The ‘hippy trail’ began with the Beatniks of the early Sixties and was followed by a few enterprising characters who bought clapped-out buses and vans to provide an overland to India service. But the main overland thing started around 1967 just as Flower Power began on a large-scale. It was an unbelievable time, hitching around, meeting others on the road, in cheap doss houses and hotels across Asia. Living on beaches in faraway lands long before mass tourism and politics came along and screwed everything up.
11. What other books do you wish you had written?
I still have a few on hold in my head, but I’d like to have written Hesse’s Siddhartha which is sublime. Or Gibran’s The Prophet; wisdom, beautifully written.
12. How has the internet changed what you do?
It provides a quick basic research tool and helps you get things right. But as a real research facility its benefits are limited, everything being old news as it were. Real research is a belt and braces, hands-on job. You have to get out there and discover stuff for yourself.
13. Do you have any advice for wannabe authors?
Keep a note-book. I’ve thought of so many startlingly amazing things and forgotten them. It’s gut wrenching to think about it. Next thing is actually writing and sticking at it. And remember that the old saying ‘everyone has a book in them’ is actually a load of bollocks as inspirational advice: everyone may have a book in them but actually getting it down on paper’s another thing.
14. What projects are you planning for the future and please feel free to plug your latest book?
Latest work ‘Meeting with Aoratos’ is a departure from the uncomfortable realism of my earlier work and focuses on New Age philosophy and its pitfalls. Another work is a collection of tales relating to the many varied and sometimes bizarre meals I’ve eaten and the circumstances around them; from dining alongside a famous film star to snatching a bite to eat at a roadside eating house with a murderous Pashtun tribesman and a wild dog for company. Other work in progress includes life in Wales as a drug-fuelled freak, and ‘On the Road’ – life with the gypsies; a sort of antidote to Ken Kesey’s vastly over-rated (imho) version.
Buy Sawdust Caesar now: on Amazon