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Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London by Judith R. Walkowitz (review)
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In 1907 the popular writer Arthur Ransome published his study, Bohemia in London (London, 1907), which, as Walkowitz notes in Nights Out, portrayed Soho as an exotic "haven of bohemian sociability" (33). Part autobiographical reminiscence, part topographical guide for aspiring bohemians, Ransome's study was an early addition to an entire genre of twentieth-century writing that romanticized Soho as both picturesque and risqué; an alluring district of excitement and danger; a nocturnal playground; and a center of sex, crime, culinary exoticism, political intrigue, ethnic diversity, and social mixing—in short, a transgressive, cosmopolitan space and a site for new forms of cultural tourism. A decade or so later, Virginia Woolf was drawn to Soho's "queer people" and "exotic trades" (2), contributing herself to an increasingly recognizable image of this pocket of London's West End that was cemented between the wars and flourished long afterward in numerous works. Walkowitz skillfully dissects these many representations of Soho as a "colourful" part of inner London. At the same time, she ironically contributes to them, offering her own version of voyeuristic tourism, once again rendering Soho exotic and other.

Nights Out is organized in a loosely chronological manner, each chapter devoted to a particular aspect of Soho's culture that Walkowitz deciphers with immense insight—theatrical entertainments, night clubbing, shopping, dancing, dining, and to some extent sex—disclosing who offered those experiences and what they meant to those who enjoyed them. She draws from a prodigious amount of research and employs various methodologies that permit her to address Soho's uniqueness. This study is thick description at its best, a careful unpacking of the minutiae of quotidian life. Walkowitz deciphers her diverse collection of materials masterfully—from the menu of an interwar Italian eatery to a visual representation of the commercial logic of Soho's Berwick Street market or the bodily practices of an "exotic" dancer.

To good effect, Walkowitz also engages with the practices of urban geography, tracing how Soho became a distinct economic and socio-cultural entity after John Nash's redevelopment of Regent Street during the 1820s and the subsequent construction of both Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue. Her ability to decipher spatial evidence also emerges in her analysis of the movement of waitresses and distinct groups of customers (artists, queers, Jews, and out-of-towners) in the Lyons' Corner Houses, the palatial eateries that served as Soho's boundary markers. In her superb chapter on the Italian restaurant, Walkowitz turns to the politics of the 1930s, focusing on the various rivalries between the supporters and critics of Benito Mussolini in the context of immigration, ethnicity, and the food business of Soho.

Walkowitz might well have subtitled her book, Vignettes of Soho Life. Her choice of Life in Cosmopolitan London, however, is illustrative of her efforts to make the theme of cosmopolitanism run through and unify her book. Between the 1890s and the 1940s, she argues, Soho became a cosmopolitan showcase, ethnically, socially, and sexually diverse, a center of culinary innovation, affordable high fashion that confused class distinction, and risqué night life. As the book's dust jacket notes, Walkowitz "draws on a vast and unusual range of sources to stitch together a rich patchwork quilt of vivid stories and unforgettable characters, revealing how Soho became a showcase for a new cosmopolitan identity." She certainly has vivid stories to tell and unforgettable characters to present. Yet the book's enormous range makes it difficult for cosmopolitanism to serve adequately as a container for the many social, economic, and cultural practices that Walkowitz chooses to investigate. Ultimately, the book's strength is that it is as unruly and polyglot as Soho itself, its author's methodological breadth a good match for Soho's protean character.

Footnotes

1. See, for example, Stanley Jackson, An Indiscrete Guide to Soho (London, 1946); Judith Summers, Soho: A History of London's Most Colourful Neighbourhood (London, 1989).

Copyright © 2013 Massachusetts Institute of Technology and The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Inc.
Project MUSE® - View Citation
Chris Waters. "Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London by Judith R. Walkowitz (review)." Journal of Interdisciplinary History 44.1 (2013): 120-122. Project MUSE. Web...


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