Academic journal article Framework

Whitehead's London: Pop and the Ascendant Celebrity

Academic journal article Framework

Whitehead's London: Pop and the Ascendant Celebrity

Article excerpt

London offers the best and the worst in the world.

Michelangelo Antonioni

Swinging London: the psychedelic gibbet. A colour- supplement commission dressed up as a movie. Photographers shooting photographers.

Iain Sinclair

The most infl uential written document in the export of London circa 1966 is Piri Halasz's controversial article "You Can Walk across It in the Grass," the April 15 cover story of Time magazine. A tribute to the movers and shakers perceived to be responsible for bringing Britain to the forefront of contemporary pop u lar culture, it dwelled heavily on the icons, lingo, and attitudes that have since become recognizable cliché. In the words of Shawn Levy, the article "was part social analysis, part cultural exposé, part travelogue."1 The tone is carefree throughout, with substantial sections written as imagined sequences for an unmade Richard Lester fi lm. Halasz's praise of new fashions, glamorous coteries and personal happiness through consumption spoke directly to the young, but this vision of London had its detractors. Historian Dominic Sandbrook suggests that Time's largely conservative, generally middle- aged readership hated the article, with one respondent claiming that the "turned- on young men and women will burn out as quickly as a light bulb of British manufacture."2 Halasz's view of the city and its vibrant young residents was so glowing that it could scarcely be outdone by an offi - cial tourist bureau. "In this century, every de cade has had its city," she begins, "and in a de cade dominated by youth, London has burst into bloom. It swings; it is the scene."3 She continues:

This spring, as never before in modern times, London is switched on. Ancient elegance and new opulence are all tangled up in a dazzling blur of op and pop. The city is alive with birds (girls) and beatles [sic], buzzing with minicars and tellystars, pulsing with half a dozen separate veins of excitement. The guards now change at Buckingham Palace to a Lennon and McCartney tune, and Prince Charles is fi rmly in the longhair set. . . . In a once sedate world of faded splendor, everything new, uninhibited and kinky is blooming at the top of London life.4

The language itself is indicative of the degree to which youth outside of the United Kingdom, including Halasz, had already assimilated the habitus of London's creative elite. Halasz, who would later write a guidebook called A Swinger's Guide to London (1967), had pitched her article directly to American tourists-Time's sixteen million readers, despite their generational misgivings, potentially had the affl uence, spending power, and curiosity to make the city a favored destination.5 Though the London of the immediate postwar era had thrived on cultural imports- American music, movies, and books- the terms were reported to have been reversed. London was importing tourists and expatriate transplants, while simultaneously "exporting its plays, its fi lms, its fads, its styles, its people."6

Peter Whitehead's fi lm Tonite Let's All Make Love in London (UK, 1967) contains a shot of the cover of this fabled issue of Time. Whitehead's fi lm was in production in the immediate aftermath of this article and features some of the same key personnel.7 In the documentary In the Beginning Was the Image: Conversations with Peter Whitehead (Paul Cronin, UK, 2006), Whitehead explains his creative standpoint as having been borne out of an attempt to come to terms with the great shibboleths of 1960s American cultural imperialism. His early fi lms, even Tonite Let's All Make Love in London, are about a transnational fl ow of ideas- youthful ideas relating to truth, personal freedom, artistic integrity- in which the United States is a key participant. Unlike Halasz and other apologists for London's sudden "swinging" label, Whitehead does not seek American approval. Even though Halasz's article and Whitehead's fi lm both interrogate the cultural fabric of the city, Whitehead's view is far more critical than Halasz's. …

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