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15 OCTOBER 2002

FROM BOOKFORUM:

Ready, Steady, Go! The Smashing
Rise and Giddy Fall of Swinging London


by Shawn Levy

Doubleday. 341 pages. $24.95.

Reviewed by GEOFF DYER

  If you can remember
the swinging ’60s you weren’t there, right? So does the fact that I can’t
remember them mean that I was there? Or is it because, in 1966, I was only
eight? Actually, now that I think about it, I do have a memory of the ’60s.
In 1967 my dad and I spent a day in London with my aunt’s boyfriend, who
took us for a spin ’round the capital in his car. The passing years have
made this seem an even more astonishing thing to have done: To think there
was a time when a drive in London could be fun rather than an exercise
in stress management! But yes, it did happen, in a white, open-top Rolls-Royce
driven by a self-made millionaire. It doesn’t get much more ’60s than that,
does it? Only slightly. My aunt’s boyfriend made his money from property˜the
leading lights of ’60s London were all in photography, fashion, music,
or movies.


    Shawn
Levy’s energetic account of how London became the capital of cool begins
with profiles of representatives from each of these trades, people like
David Bailey, Vidal Sassoon, Mary Quant, and Terence Stamp. Bailey is the
archetypal ’60s hipster: a working-class East End boy who pulled himself
into a position of wealth and fame by his own camera straps. The model
for the photographer in Antonioni’s trippy Blowup (1966), Bailey personified
the classless, instant meritocracy that was allegedly establishing itself
in Chelsea and Soho. At first, upstarts like Bailey traded on their cockney
origins; by the end of the decade any pop star worth his weight in velvet
had acquired the traditional symbol of the ruling class: a stately home
in the shires.


    It’s
at one of these places, Keith Richards’s Redlands, that the book catches
fire. Until that moment˜February 5, 1967, to be precise˜Levy has traced
the changing styles, haircuts, and fashions that saw Mods come and go;
he’s detailed the rise of hemlines and Carnaby Street and the dawn of the
boutique era; he’s narrated Brian Epstein’s careful plotting of the Beatles’
stratospheric rise . . . He’s done all that, but in a way that feels like
the prose equivalent of a slightly saccharine TV series in which archival
footage of political events serves as a backdrop for hit songs of the day.
And then, in the famous police raid and its aftermath, when Jagger and
Richards were busted for a cocktail of drug-related offenses, Levy finds
the incident through which the whole spectrum of the decade is refracted.
He makes you feel that England is changing as you read.


    The increasing
use of drugs, especially the arrival and spread of LSD, is crucial to the
emergence of this “new” London. Levy is excellent on the way that acid
connected “curiously but comfortably with the Arcadian strain of English
thought,” leading to a weird conflation of psychedelics with “the Arthurian
legend, the works of William Blake, Lewis Carroll, and J.R.R. Tolkien.”
In fact, so convincingly does Levy present this hypothesis that he almost
undermines his premise. In the course of his book, London’s gone from staid
and gray to flash and cool; now suddenly it’s all ethnic, beady, and Eastern.
By 1966, for example, Levy writes that Jagger’s girlfriend Chrissie Shrimpton
(sister of Jean) looked “out of tenor with the hedonic casualness that
had entered the scene with the advent of hallucinogenic drugs.” But this
new sensibility didn’t originate in London; it was imported from America,
specifically San Francisco. As Levy implicitly concedes, in other words,
London, supposedly the birthplace of hip, already relied on input from
elsewhere to maintain the momentum of its cultural dominance.


    At some
fundamental level, however, London remained as resistant to psychedelic
subversion as it did to bombardment by the Luftwaffe. Reading J.M. Coetzee’s
recent Youth, I was struck by the way the London of the early ’60s was
almost indistinguishable from the crumpet-and-bedsit city of the foggy
’50s. Something of that quality lived on into the ’60s and beyond; it has
endured, in fact, through another bout of fashionable revitalization (“Cool
Britannia”) into the twenty-first century. With this in mind, the most
telling anecdote in the book concerns not a drug-dazed Saturday night but
a Sunday afternoon when Dennis Hopper went to David Hockney’s place to
photograph Francis Bacon. Hopper didn’t have any film, so he and Hockney
went out to buy some. They drove all over town but came back and did the
shoot without film because they couldn’t find any. Nowhere was open. That
is changeless, grim, eternal London in a nutshell.

    This
episode also provides a link back to the oppressive Sunday in John Osborne’s
groundbreaking 1956 play, Look Back in Anger. Levy makes a number of little
mistakes in his book˜the club where Bacon and his mates liked to hang out
is the Colony Room, not the Colony Club˜which slightly undermine the reader’s
confidence in him as a guide to the city. When he refers to the hero of
Osborne’s play as Billy Porter, however, the reader just squirms. It’s
a howler that anyone who really knows England simply couldn’t make. Doing
the research, as any cabbie will tell you, doesn’t mean you’ve done the
knowledge.


    That
is not the only occasion when the intervening Atlantic puts a strain on
the book. Levy aspires to an argot appropriate to his subject, but his
attempts to get on friendly terms with an alien idiom sometimes result
in a weird hybrid. My favorite example comes when Levy discusses Ray Davies’s
“Dedicated Follower of Fashion.” The song “reached number four in the charts
in early 1966, and surely some of the people who put it there were the
very sorts out of whom the song was taking the piss.” How quaint, in a
book about the 1960s, to find an author coming out with the sort of English
up with which Winston Churchill claimed he would not put.

Geoff Dyer is the author
of Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence (North Point Press,
1998). His new book, Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, will
be published by Pantheon in January 2003.