Life in Cosmopolitan London
Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London
Judith R. Walkowitz
Yale University Press 414pp £25
With the possible exception of the East End no other part of London has spawned as many books as Soho. Over the last 150 years there have been numerous memoirs, novels and historical surveys of the area, many of them contributing to its enduringly strong associations with crime, bohemianism and the sex industry.
Previous generations also tended to draw attention to what was once its distinctively cosmopolitan flavour. Ever since the 17th century, when Huguenot refugees settled there, Soho has been the home and workplace of successive waves of immigrants: Italians, Germans, Russians, Jews, Maltese and others. As recently as the 1950s it possessed an uncommonly foreign ambience, fostered by delicatessens, their windows piled with unfamiliar items such as French bread and salami; by newsagents displaying continental magazines and newspapers; and by restaurants leaking exotic, garlic-infused aromas.
This long-gone ambience provides the theme for the American social historian Judith R. Walkowitz’s Nights Out. There is something very refreshing about her approach, her refusal to produce just another compilation of well-worn anecdotes about this much-mythologised area. Focusing on the period between the late 19th century and the end of the Second World War, she examines the nuances of cosmopolitan life in Soho with sensitivity, scrupulousness and amazing diligence. By drawing on a vast range of sources, her book offers an impressively original portrait of the area.
Among the highlights is a long chapter about the rise of Italian restaurants during the 1920s and 1930s. Walkowitz tells this story through the experiences of two politically divergent Soho Italians. One of these is the anarchist Emidio Recchioni, who used his King Bomba provisions shop to bankroll two assassination attempts against Mussolini. The other is Peppino Leoni, who rose from being an impoverished immigrant to becoming head waiter at the Savoy Hotel and eventually the owner of Quo Vadis, a restaurant on Dean Street where he pioneered a hybrid style of Franco-Italian cuisine. Like many of his compatriots he ended up joining the Fascio, the émigré wing of Italian fascism, his membership leading to a protracted spell of internment during the Second World War.
Nights Out is at its best when dealing with the interwar period, other aspects of which are scrutinised in two subsequent chapters. First, there’s a fascinating section largely devoted to so-called schleppers – Jewish touts who prowled the streets in search of customers to smooth-talk into local shops. Then there’s a similarly engaging chapter about how Soho’s young working-class Jews spent their limited spare-time. Rather than frequent the cafés and nightclubs with which the area was synonymous, they headed for the Astoria Ballroom and the nearby Lyons Corner House, located on the district’s north-eastern fringe. Both are depicted with an eye for telling details, none more so than the code used by Corner House waitresses (or Nippies’ as they were known) for a thrifty customer unlikely to provide them with the tips they required to supplement their meagre salaries: ‘egg mayonnaise’, the cheapest item on the menu, according to Walkowitz.
Yet Nights Out does have its weaknesses – defects that should have been rectified by its editor. Alongside the inevitable factual errors, which I know from experience always slip through, there is a lot of unnecessary repetition. Worse still, Walkowitz’s usually clear prose has been allowed to suffer periodic lapses into a form of jargon-laden academic English, which can be unintelligible to outsiders. Fortunately these stylistic abominations aren’t frequent enough to undermine an otherwise admirable and much-needed book. My next stroll across Soho is certain to be haunted by the ghosts of all the people and places that Walkowitz so lovingly evokes.
Paul Willetts has written three books of non-fiction, all of which have a Soho theme. The most recent of these is Members Only: The Life and Times of Paul Raymond (Serpent’s Tail, 2011).
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