Lee Harris is a playwright, poet, publisher and “foot soldier” of the UK’s counter culture. Born in Johannesburg in 1936, Harris was one of the few whites on the African National Congress, opposing segregation during the time of Apartheid, and was involved with the Congress of the People rally in Soweto in 1955.
Harris arrived in the UK in 1956, to study drama, after college, he had a small part in Orson Welles’ film Chimes at Midnight and later worked in theater.
A major turning point for Harris came on the 11 June 1965, when he first heard Allen Ginsberg at the decade defining International Poetry Reading at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
We turned up in our thousands to hear some of the best poets of the Beat Generation. When Allen Ginsberg stood up to read his poems you could feel an electric charge in the air. There he was, like an Old Testament prophet, with his long dark hair and bushy beard, his voice reverberating with emotional intensity. Never before in that hallowed hall had such outrageous and colorful language been heard…..Hearing Allen that first time was a revelatory and illuminating experience.
That event and his presence in London that summer, helped kindle the spark that set the underground movement alight in the mid-sixties.
Harris began to write plays with Buzz Buzz and then wrote the critically acclaimed Love Play, which was performed at the Arts Lab in 1967 - a highly important venue for alternative arts, founded by Jim Haynes, where John Lennon and Yoko Ono exhibited and David Bowie performed. It was during this time Harris became acquainted with William Burroughs, Frank Zappa, Ken Kesey and toured with The Fugs.
Harris wrote for the International Times and in 1972 established the first “head shop” Alchemy in London on the Portobello Road, where he sold “paraphenalia” brought back from India and counter culture books.
“I’d started off in the West End before as an anarchist trader selling psychedelic posters in the late sixties you see because I did not know how to make a living. I ended up in the Portobello Road, making chokers, selling chillums, first because that was the in thing with beads.
I had traded at many festivals so it was natural for me and I started to be a sort of medicine head, with Tiger Balm, Herbs and I believed in cannabis as the ‘healing herb’.
It was here that Harris was famously prosecuted for selling cigarette papers. The shop was a focus for alternative culture, and it was here Harris began publishing underground ‘zines, including Jim Haynes, infamous drug-smuggler Howard Marks, and artist, journalist and activist Caroline Coon.
Part two of ‘Life and Works of Lee Harris’ plus bonus Lee Harris and the Beat Hotel, after the jump…