Book reviews: London In The Sixties | In Wonderland | Nights Out

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Michael Kerrigan reviews the latest literary releases

London in the Sixties

by Rainer Metzger

(Thames & Hudson, £28)

Rating: ****

A German art historian who was in nappies when Christine Keeler was posing nude, Metzger isn’t your usual Sixties survivor by any means, but a certain detachment doesn’t come amiss: weary as we are of the decade’s clichés, it maybe takes an outsider’s perspective to show us what we’ve missed. Mods and miniskirts, Mary Quant, the Kinks, Ken Tynan and Twiggy, Modesty Blaise, the Beatles and Edward Bond … it’s striking to be reminded how much actually went on. Metzger quotes with qualified approval John Lennon’s verdict that the Sixties had been special only in the fact that “we all dressed up” but, as he says, they certainly dressed up to dazzling effect.

In Wonderland

edited by Ilene Susan Fort and Tere Arcq

(Prestel, £40)

Rating: ****

It’s hardly new or unusual for an artistic movement to be the creation of a male clique, but in the case of Surrealism these origins have particular implications. For an artistic movement that set out to free the spirit, Surrealism was paradoxically rule-bound, literalistic in its recording of the subconscious mind. Breton’s boys saw theirs as a quasi-scientific project, but it never appears to have occurred to them that the sexuality their work was saturated in might not be universal; that femininity might be more than a force for psychic turbulence, for primeval desires and fears. Yet there were obvious attractions for women artists – long accustomed to the sense that their real selves lay submerged beneath layers of convention – in an art that promised access to deeper and more authentic feelings.

Nights Out

by Judith R Walkowitz

(Yale, £25)

Rating: ****

To walk into Soho in the late-19th or early-20th century was to venture into Bohemia – a world of bars and restaurants, cafés and clothing stalls, porn-shops and dance revues. The diversity wasn’t just ethnic: lifestyles and sexualities co-existed, by no means always comfortably. Homosexuals and heterosexuals, prostitutes and purity campaigners, gangsters and littérateurs, Fascists and Jews rattled around in this 130 acres of urban space That old Soho didn’t die, suggests Walkowitz in a study that is as thought-provoking in its conclusions as it is colourful in its detail: it just became a paradigm for post-War London as a whole.