Fishnet-stocking-filler

<i>The Decadent Traveller</i> by Medlar Lucan and Durian Gray (Dedalus, &pound;9.99, 188pp)
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The Independent Culture

Medlar Lucan and Durian Gray, the Gilbert and George (or should that be Morecambe and Wise?) of decadence, have issued their third manual to dissipated living: part-fiction, part-guide to decaying cities of the world. "Our travels could be described as an inversion of Dante's. Whereas the latter set out in search of spiritual love and enlightenment, we... were only ever seeking out degradation and debauchery."

Medlar Lucan and Durian Gray, the Gilbert and George (or should that be Morecambe and Wise?) of decadence, have issued their third manual to dissipated living: part-fiction, part-guide to decaying cities of the world. "Our travels could be described as an inversion of Dante's. Whereas the latter set out in search of spiritual love and enlightenment, we... were only ever seeking out degradation and debauchery."

Following on from The Decadent Cookbook and The Decadent Gardener ("every garden is a hospital"), they announce their brief with the solemnity of a 21st-century Wilde, a Baudelaire with air miles: "To travel decadently... is more important than to arrive". Duly arriving in Russia, they leave St Petersburg, a city "decadent from birth", built on Peter the Great's carnage and Neronian excesses, to visit the Gatchina Palace in search of its pornographic furniture. They discover it had been looted by the Nazis, probably for the erotomaniacal tastes of Goering. Of all Hitler's stomping little colonels, Goering's decadence was plainest from the fact that, when he committed suicide, it was found that not only his fingernails were painted, but that his toenails were varnished.

After some indescribable adventures in endoscopy in Siberia ("How could you have gone all that distance just to have a television camera stuffed up your arse?" asks Lucan. "That was the whole point," says Gray), the pair pitch up in Naples, a town of Sadean orgies and of Wilde's post-Reading sojourn with the poisonous Bosie. From there they drift to Cairo, chasing Aleister Crowley's ghost as he summons up Satanic deities and following Flaubert down the Nile, "one of the great decadent journeys of history".

Even space is no final frontier. Lucan delights in the unlikely figure of Michael Collins, the Apollo XI astronaut left to orbit the moon as Aldrin and Armstrong gambolled below, seeing poetry in Collins's manual entry on pissing in zero gravity: "Step 4 ('Urinate') has the simplicity of a sketch by Ingres... Cosmic Micturition."

In Tokyo their hotel, the Happy Ranch, is "Albert Speer meets Walt Disney"; in New Orleans, they apply their accustomed principle of seeking anyone "who will entertain and accommodate one in an appropriately... lavish manner," with louche results. Buenos Aires provides evidence of "the tango's liberating effects" on the Duke of Windsor. As a stripling prince, he was inspired by the Latin beat to seize his ukelele and play "Yes We Have No Bananas". It is a surreal scene; but no more so than the notion of the Mir space station as "that living symbol of Decadent Technology".

I'd rather have the 19th-century version: the fantasy voyages and lapidary tortoises of the Comte des Esseintes in Huysmans' A Rebours, travelling the world from his suburban villa in Paris; or a seat beside Beardsley as he took the train from Brighton looking like a clerk from the Prudential, only with a satchel stuffed with drawings of foetuses emerging from women's calves.

Conversely, Lucan and Gray's perfervid prose and sordid scenery, as perfect a fishnet-stocking-filler as it is, could prove a strain on frailer sensibilities travelling on the purple-curtained train to dissipation. The rarefied, Proustian aesthete might prefer a little more art and a little less sex. Still, as Oscar himself said, "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all."

Philip Hoare's Wilde's Last Stand: Decadence, Conspiracy & the First World War is published by Duckworth

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