Ready, Steady, Go! The Smashing Rise and Giddy Fall of Swinging London, by by Shawn Levy. New York: Doubleday. 341 pages. $24.95. BUY NOW

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 propertyˇthe 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 momentˇFebruary 5, 1967, to be preciseˇLevy 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 bookˇthe club where Bacon and his mates liked to hang out is the Colony Room, not the Colony Clubˇwhich 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.