“London Has Burst into Bloom”: On John Davis’s “Waterloo Sunrise: London from the Sixties to Thatcher”

By Geoff NicholsonApril 11, 2022

“London Has Burst into Bloom”: On John Davis’s “Waterloo Sunrise: London from the Sixties to Thatcher”

Waterloo Sunrise: London from the Sixties to Thatcher by John Davis

THE TITLE OF John Davis’s new book, Waterloo Sunrise, is a bit of a head-scratcher and a piece of misdirection. It seems to be riffing on or alluding to the Kinks’ 1967 song “Waterloo Sunset,” which is itself a strange little number (I’ve had it as a looping earworm ever since I started reading this book). As even American readers will know, Waterloo is a major London station, underground and overground, on the south side of the River Thames, used by both commuters and long-distance travelers. It is also a geographical area of London named, of course, after the battle at which the Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon in 1815. The “narrator” of the Kinks’ song looks out of his window every day and concludes “but I don’t need a friend, as long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset I am in paradise.”

Looking friendlessly out of the window and seeing the sun go down seems a sad and melancholy version of paradise, and the song’s composer, Ray Davies (now Sir Raymond Douglas Davies CBE), has said it has its roots in his own teenage years when he was in St Thomas’s Hospital, beside the Thames at Waterloo, and each day the nurses would wheel him out onto a balcony so he could gaze at the river. Davies has also said that the song was originally called “Liverpool Sunset,” but he decided that, thanks to the Beatles and others, there were already more than enough songs about Liverpool. “Waterloo Sunset” is elegiac, diffuse, and enigmatic without seeming vague, which is no doubt part of its success. Is the sun setting on the British Empire (on which it supposedly never set) or on 1960s hopes and aspirations — already curdling by ’67 — and does this mood capture Davies’s own personal sense of loss, his memory of being a 13-year-old boy in hospital?

Well, I don’t know, and John Davis is not about to enlighten us on these matters. This isn’t that kind of book. Davis is a very serious, though generally not solemn, Oxford historian. You won’t find any reference to the Kinks in Waterloo Sunrise and only some rather lofty references to most popular music and culture, although Davis does go to town with fashion. The Beatles get a few mentions, but these are loftier still: for example, “Beatlemania was in itself an adolescent cult, but the Beatles were instrumental in developing musical modes which — in many hands — had an extraordinary appeal to teenagers and young adults.” We’re not exactly in Lester Bangs territory, are we?

The book’s subtitle, “London from the Sixties to Thatcher,” may also lead to further head-scratching. From a decade to a person — it’s a strange construction, isn’t it? It could perhaps have been “From Harold Macmillan to Margaret Thatcher,” given that Macmillan was prime minister when the ’60s started (he’d first become an MP in 1924). And Margaret Thatcher was prime minister when the ’70s ended, but only just: she took office in 1979, and she stays offstage for most of this book. So, the subtitle might simply have been “London in the Sixties and Seventies.” Why wasn’t it? I’m guessing it’s because “the Sixties” and “Thatcher” are still buzzwords that draw readers’ attention. The ’70s not so much.

The publisher’s press release says that the book is “a kaleidoscopic history,” and yes, okay, the ’60s may (possibly) have been all multicolored paisley and tie-dye, but the London I knew in the ’70s, in fact the whole of England, was a good deal grayer and browner than any kaleidoscope. Which might make you ask what exactly was rising in the period covered? Davis’s answer, unless I’m reading his book completely wrong, is that the rising sun is Thatcher herself and the ideology of Thatcherism. This is not a popular opinion. Now, some 20 years after her death, you can go on Amazon and buy a T-shirt that reads, “I still hate Margaret Thatcher.”

History inevitably does not fall into neat temporal slices. The cultural phenomenon that we lazily call the ’60s didn’t start on Jan 1, 1960, as one of the book’s chapters — “Containing Racism? The London Experience, 1957–1968” — acknowledges. The corollary, and it’s a point Davis makes forcibly and well, is that many of the things that are currently thought of as Thatcherite — cutbacks in local government spending, the sale of council houses — were a feature some time before Margaret Thatcher became prime minister. For instance, there’s some fascinating information in the book about the extent to which the drivers of London’s black cabs — bolshy, independent, knowledgeable, ferociously working class — were also deeply conservative. They didn’t know they were Thatcherites, but that’s what they became.

In his preface, the author says that this book

is not a conventional narrative history. Rather, it consists of sixteen essays on aspects of London in the two decades covered by the book. […] Each of the sixteen essays is free-standing. I recognise that this might make the work appear rather episodic, but I have long had misgivings about attempting a linear history of a city as complex, diverse and multifaceted as London.

All of which is fair enough, but it might be considered a problem that whole books, and plenty of them, have been written on the topics covered by each of those chapters.

Inevitably, depending on personal taste and obsession, the reader is going to find some chapters a good deal more fascinating than others. Davis’s analysis of race relations in London in that period, and the construction at the time of (not completely convincing) narratives of “tolerance,” is excellent. He’s also very good on the role of the police, quoting a source that says, “in the 1950s and 1960s one alienated group, London’s West Indian community, was policed by another alienated group, the Metropolitan Police.” This leads on to his dissection of events around the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival Riot, in which, as I read it, the police decided they’d had enough of low-key, unobtrusive policing and decided to crack a few heads.

I was less gripped by the chapters titled “Strains of Labour in the Inner City” and “The Conservation Consensus,” but to each his own. I also learned more than I ever expected to know about “The Fall of the House of Biba,” a small boutique founded in 1964 by Barbara Hulanicki and her husband Stephen Fitz-Simon that transformed itself into a failed 9,000-square-foot fashion megastore. Davis does, however, confirm the stories told by girls I knew who “liberated” items from Biba that shoplifting may have played a significant part in the enterprise’s commercial failure. In fact, I did once visit Biba (I didn’t steal anything), and I’m forced to confirm the old cliché (most convincingly attributed to the comedian Charlie Fleischer, though not until 1982) that if you remember the ’60s, you weren’t really there. I remember some aspects all too well.

I was alive for all of the ’60s, as a child and then a teenager (as I believe was John Davis: we seem to be more less contemporaries), and chiefly I remember feeling that I was missing out. The ’60s felt like a great party to which I hadn’t been invited. I had the feeling, how accurate I’m not sure, that had I been older, cooler, with better clothes and longer hair, I might have been able to gate-crash the event, but as it was the hosts and gatekeepers could see I didn’t belong. Partly this was because I lived in the provinces, in Sheffield in the North of England. In Sheffield, we did our best: there was an alternative bookstore where you could buy Oz magazine and International Times, and there was a clothes boutique called Lift Up Your Skirt and Fly, but we knew the real action was elsewhere, and that meant London — although to be fair, a lot of Londoners would tell you they felt as though they were missing out too. Chiefly we waited for news, whether in magazines or on TV and radio, and very occasionally from more metropolitan friends who had made it down to the Big Smoke. We relied on secondary sources — as, it must be said, does John Davis.

I didn’t set foot in London until I was 16 years old, in 1969, on a short family vacation, a matter of a few days. There was a Pop Art exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, but I couldn’t persuade any of my family to go in with me. It was easy to believe that I might have arrived just as the party was winding down.

John Davis makes a pretty good case that the whole Swinging London phenomenon was a media creation, largely an American one. Diana Vreeland, editor of the US edition of Vogue, may have been first out of the traps. According to John Crosby, in an April 1965 article titled “The World’s Most Exciting City,” Vreeland said that “London is the most swinging city in the world at the moment” (though I haven’t been able to find out in what context she said this). John Crosby was an American journalist, but the article was published in an English magazine, the Weekend Telegraph. We English needed outsiders to tell us what a good time we were having. Others soon piled on, not least Time magazine, which a year later ran an article by Piri Halasz, another American, containing the line, “In a decade dominated by youth, London has burst into bloom. It swings; it is the scene.” Halasz was 30 at the time she wrote this, the age at which (according to another great ’60s cliché) people could no longer be trusted.

As for when London actually started swinging, David Bailey and Peter Evans have said it “most probably began at precisely 11.30 a.m. on the morning of March 22, 1963 — when John Dennis Profumo, Secretary of State for War, rose in the House of Commons to lie about his association with Christine Keeler.” The lie of course was found out and he resigned. Bailey and Evans continued, “The older generation, holier-than-thou in such matters, was both appalled and titillated. The young reacted with a rich parody of patriotism seen in Union Jack dishcloths, bathmats, tin mugs, tote bags, and the insolent craze for Guardsmen’s scarlet tunics.” This is from Goodbye Baby & Amen: A Saraband for the Sixties (1969), a source Davis doesn’t quote, though David Bailey does get a few mentions in the book.

The chapter I enjoyed most, perhaps because I was “there” for at least some of it, is titled, “‘Now that Londoners Have Discovered the Delights of the Palate’: Eating Out in 1960s and 1970s London.” On that family trip to London, we ate in a nondescript burger bar. We’d probably have eaten at a McDonald’s given the choice, but McDonald’s didn’t arrive in England until 1974, the first branch opening in Woolwich, a distant part of South London, well off the tourist track. But when I started to be a regular visitor to London in the early ’70s, and then a few years later a resident, it was the restaurants that were a big part of the attraction. Eating out seemed grown-up and exotic. My friends and I went to a great many Indian restaurants, sometimes to Greek Cypriot, occasionally to Chinese. There were certainly plenty of Italian restaurants, but we rarely went to them. I can only guess that pizza and spaghetti didn’t seem exotic enough: my own mother served up localized versions of these things.

It seems I did well to miss the worst aspects of ’60s London cuisine. Davis quotes Quentin Crewe — a great writer, and a man often credited with inventing the restaurant review (at least in England) — complaining in 1968 that “the multiplicity of restaurants makes one feel that instead of there being 1500 little places, London is served by about six enormous restaurants chopped up into small rooms.” At least these sound like sane, modest little joints. A year later, Crewe was railing against London restaurants that overreached themselves in the name of novelty and came up with bizarre dishes, which he characterizes as “mutton and marshmallow, pheasant and gorgonzola, mayonnaise and coffee, haddock and gooseberries. Every wretched place made its already nauseating cooking that much nastier by adding what it fancied was an exotic touch.” Actually, I’d be willing to try pheasant and gorgonzola, but I understand the basic complaint.

There are instructive charts in the eating out chapter that track the comings and goings of restaurants in three London locations: Beauchamp Place, Gerrard Street, and Charlotte Street. Beauchamp Place was posh, Gerrard Street was Chinese, but Charlotte Street was very mixed, from haute cuisine to cheap and cheerful, and I find that I’ve eaten in a surprising number of restaurants along its length. Nevertheless, it was quite a Proustian moment to be reminded of the Natraj, in Charlotte Street, a name I’d completely forgotten, a very honest and reliable Indian restaurant, that was right round the corner from where I lived at the time. I was somewhat surprised to find Davis repeatedly using the term “ethnic” to describe these places, as though a restaurant might somehow not show its ethnos: the bad English restaurants of the time certainly did. I also recall the Great American Disaster in Beauchamp Place as being as good a simulation of American dining culture as I’ve ever seen outside the States: true, it was run by an American.

Davis is a meticulous and exhaustive researcher who has clearly spent masses of time going through old newspapers and local government archives as well as more familiar printed sources. The bibliography runs to 30 densely packed pages; there are 90 pages of notes. The result is that he has ferreted out some wonderful and arcane nuggets of information. Who would have thought that, in 1963, 65 percent of office staff in London were women, and that by the mid-’60s there were half a million secretaries in the city, though I suspect the definition of “secretary” was rather porous. I didn’t know, though others surely did, that the word “gentrification” was coined by Ruth Glass in 1964, and for a while it was rivaled by the term Chelseafication. For that matter, who would have imagined that the first project undertaken in 1971 by the newly established Harrow Council of Social Service was a study of loneliness in the borough?

The chapter on the London sex trade, centered in Soho, is fairly depressing, as was the place itself at the time. It comes as no surprise that, by the mid-’70s, establishments such as the Paradise Sex Gardens and Doc Johnson’s Love Shop had driven out businesses such as Hammett’s the poulterers, Lipton’s bacon merchant, and Madam Cadee’s copper saucepan shop. The great surprise is that businesses like those could have survived for so long.

A book like Waterloo Sunrise obviously can’t be all things to all people. There were certainly times when I wished it was a bit more fun, but no doubt that’s evidence of my light-mindedness. Even so, I know that this is a book I will be using as a research source for many years to come.


Geoff Nicholson’s latest book, The Suburbanist: A Personal Account and Ambivalent Celebration of Life in the Suburbs with Field Notes, was published in November 2021 by Harbour Books.

LARB Contributor

Geoff Nicholson is a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Review of Books. His books include the novels Bleeding London and The Hollywood Dodo. His latest, The Miranda, is published in October.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!