Decadent London, by Antony Clayton

They weren't Wilde about tidying up
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London, said Frank Harris, is like a bedraggled woman you turn from in disgust, only to discover she has undreamed-of depths. The full quote prefaces this trawl through the city's Victorian excesses, and it's certainly appropriate, as London's allure is paradoxically the engine of its repulsiveness. Social inequality is at the root, of course; the slums of Shadwell and the Jago created crowding and vice, while the stifling parlours of Chelsea bred boredom and the desire to philander. It was hardly surprising in a city where artists could wax lyrical about the shroud of smog settling on dingy backstreets, while ordinary workmen died in its miasmic filth.

In London the great outdoors was virtually indoors, and those who could afford indulgences were able to use the services of those who could not. So the Wilde set worked their way through the town's guardsmen and postboys - and might not have been pilloried had they thought to tidy their hotel rooms - while Soho's disorderly houses provided married gentlemen with "a sleeping room for self and lady". Pornography was for the posh, sold through antiquarian book dealers with obscuring titles like The Spreeish Spouter or Flash Cove's Slap-Up Reciter, the newspapers dumbed down into smut and sensationalism, and fears about the nation's binge-drinking culture greatly exercised those in authority. The revelry at the St James's restaurant nightly spread on to the street, where gangs of drunk young men would attempt to barge their way past the bouncers. In 1893 Aubrey Beardsley told his publisher he was going out dressed as a tart and planning a spree, although the slang-usage of the time probably suggests generic debauchery rather than transvestism.

Clayton deals with a London in which desperate socialites hold court in the cigar-fug of the Café Royal, and though one senses the fragility behind the brittle laughter, the problem in exploring the city's seamier side is how to recreate the feverish atmosphere of those times. Here the text is aided by sooty photographs that ground the narrative in time and place, and drawings of hollow-eyed bohemians who look every bit as haunted as the streets they inhabit.

Too much has been written about Wilde, Beardsley and various brothel raids, but one difference between London past and present lies in the quality of those who faced exposure. Prince Albert Victor might have been sighted at the Hundred Guineas club signing in for a night of debauchery under the name of Victoria, but the man in the street didn't care, any more than modern-day teenagers find Paris Hilton less of a role model for being exposed on the internet.

It's the age-old story of London, the wily tart who lifts her skirts for high-born gentlemen, but Clayton has overcome its familiarity partly by piling on so many characters and locations that we can't fail to sense the city's strange unchanging turbulence. Londoners' desire for decorative excess resulted in buildings like the "London Stump", an absurd edifice intended to reach a height of 1,150 feet, but which only managed to reach 150 feet before being demolished to make way for Wembley Stadium. We sought extremes in everything, from the intense quality of our brawling and whoring to the roughness of our entertainment, where dancers aimed their highest kicks at wealthy patrons and prostitutes touted for trade in the music halls.

Londoners, it seems, have always been a bunch of dirty-minded beasts, never more so than when seeking a night out in the "scented whirlwind" of the theatre. The painted women of the stage had an automatic association with sin, and the managers of the Alhambra and the Empire Theatre in Leicester Square happily admitted prostitutes to the promenades so long as they were smartly dressed and "respectable". "The most noticeable characteristic of the audience is the very slight attention it pays to whatever is going on upon the stage," wrote one journalist. As today, attention was fixed upon shiny surfaces and self-indulgence, while always appearing to be bored. The sensual delights of West End nights were brought to a close by a pair of visiting Americans, who unsportingly reported their experience to the National Vigilance Association. In the battle between manners and morals, a compromise was reached that pleased no one; a screen was erected between the Empire audience and the "women of objectionable character", and was promptly torn down by cheering vandals who included the young cadet Winston Churchill, up for a night on the town.

London took its decadent pleasures seriously. The sumptuous Café Monico was patronised by the "better class of foreigner", and remained in business from 1877 right up until the end of the 1950s. Solferino's, Romano's and Kettner's were founded by Europeans who seemed quite content to bring their Frenchified ways with them, providing trysting spots for horny strangers along with champagne and fine dining. Wilde and his renters cropped up in the red velvet salons with the depressing ubiquity of soap stars.

There are some over-familiar stories and repetitions in the text and - inevitably perhaps - there's too much Oscar, but this slippery subject lends itself well to Clayton's slightly chaotic approach, and he's at his best poking about in the lives of peripheral characters. A nice epilogue reveals the price of decadence: most of the book's main players passed away between the ages of 26 and 48. Perhaps it's the cost of living in a city where pleasure is always a business.