Yale, £25, 414pp. £22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London, By Judith R Walkowitz

 

More even than the 1890s, with their maiden tributes and Wildean exposés, the 1920s was the great age of the press sensation: of swallowed castaways regurgitated by beached whales; shingled hair; impersonation parties; motorised treasure-hunts through the Mayfair dawn. Several factors combined to kick this golden age of yellow journalism into gear, from aggressive press barons of the Northcliffe-Beaverbrook school to that all-purpose post-war fascination with youth, modernity and brightness. Whatever the cause, the consequence was more or less the same: the arrival beneath the public gaze of a motley gang of "personalities", whose lifestyles and occupations would previously have been enough to keep them out of almost any newspaper north of the Police Gazette.

Consider the career of Mrs Kate Meyrick (1875-1933), inter-war London's "night club queen" and, in the opinion of the Bow Street magistrate who first committed her to jail, "a lady of good appearance and charming manners" who "conducted her various clubs with more decorum than many, but also with a fine contempt for the law."

A genteel Irishwoman, with an absconding medical husband, Mrs Meyrick arrived in the capital in 1919 with a few pounds and a family to support. She began in a small way, with a commission to organise "tea dances" at Dalton's in Leicester Square, but it was the foundation of the "43", three years later in a damp basement in Gerrard Street, that catapulted her to the topmost rung of tabloid notoriety.

There were other Meyrick concerns far more glamorous than this dingy subterranean speakeasy: the Silver Slipper in Regent Street, for example, with its polished glass floor, onto which a score of policemen burst on Christmas night 1927 just as the Cossack Dance was starting up. But as Judith R Walkowitz points out in this entertaining study of early 20th-century Soho, it was the 43 that made its proprietor's name. Bright young fiction of the kind peddled by Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell is seeded with ironic referencings (see the episode in Brideshead Revisted that takes place in Ma Mayfill's haunt in Sink Street). The target of police raids, a potent symbol of the battle fought between the after-hours trade and the puritanical Home Secretary William Joynson-Hicks, the 43 sustained Mrs Meyrick through a parabolic trajectory that included the amassing of a half-million pound fortune, a brace of aristocratic sons-in-law and a penurious decline.

How Mrs Meyrick and others like her got away with their numerous transgressions is one of Walkowitz's abiding themes. The combination of a vigilant police force and a local authority than meant business could have broken up Twenties Soho – louche, raffish and polyglot, where the prostitute and the West End first-nighter wandered bras dessous, bras dessous – in a week. That such an alliance never declared itself is a mark of buttoned-up and supposedly "repressive" England's habit of indulging the occasional urban space – a word of which Walkowitz is unusually fond – where licentiousness and aberrant behaviour were allowed, if not to flourish, then deviously to subsist. As she notes, the Windmill Theatre with its innocuous tableaux and stationary nudes was regarded by the licensing authorities both as a safety valve for base male lusts and a more sanitised version of Continental excess.

Walkowitz's seven densely-packed chapters take in such West One staples as Edwardian-era morality campaigns against Leicester Square theatres, the rise of the Italian restaurant, and the "shady night club". The cosmopolitanism she is at pains to define is mostly a matter of hybrids, of different cultures, or sometimes only approximations, brought together to create an ingenious patterning. The cuisine offered by the celebrated Italian restaurant Quo Vadis was a matter of French dishes trading under Italian names, with Poulet à la Princesse re-emerging onto the plate as Pollo alla Principessa. The staff of the first black night-clubs, where the Bright Young People flocked for a taste of the Harlem Renaissance, were shipped in from Cardiff.

The protests stirred up by the "indecent performances" of the Empire Theatre were, as Walkowitz shows, rarely clear-cut. Their champion, Mrs Laura Chant, lampooned by Punch as the prudish "Mrs Prowlina Pry", was a highly complex character: an anti-Imperial feminist, keen on female physical culture, not averse to a comic song, but distressed by the throng of prostitutes parading in the dress circle. Mrs Chant's appearances before London County Council's licensing committee exposed some interesting divides. She was supported by the LCC's trades unionists, women's groups, temperance organisations and GB Shaw, and opposed by the theatre unions and the London Trades Council.

Nights Out is nothing like a comprehensive history of early 20th-century Soho. There is very little about the sex trade, other than as an adjunct to Mrs Meyrick's activities, not a great deal about organised crime, and nothing at all about the area's long-term function as a kind of sub-branch of the literary world's ground-down Bohemian end. Walkowitz's forte, on the other hand, is the case study and the Soho recreation that reflects some wider trend. She is particularly astute on the importance of dancing, both as a social activity and a source of female self-definition. Where she stops being informative and becomes unintentionally hilarious, on the other hand, is in her use of jargon.

There were times, in fact, when I wondered whether this ornament of the Johns Hopkins history faculty had not quietly signed up to some secret academic society that obliges its members to bamboozle the general reader with obfuscatory English. A theatre is reconfigured into a "theatrical space". Movement is subtly upgraded to "kinesis". There is talk of the Windmill's "liminal geography" and women "claiming possession of their own erotic gaze". Doubtless, to invoke The Who's classic "Substitute", many of "the simple things you see are all complicated", but there are times when complexity can sometimes look like an act of will.

When Walkowitz manages to overcome the anxieties of the impending peer review and stops writing in academic cipher, the effect is often startlingly good. To go back to Italians in Soho, her account of the area's pro- and anti-Fascist factions (symbolised by Leoni, the Quo Vadis's pro-Mussolini owner, and Recchioni, of the King Bomba provisions shop, who underwrote several failed assassination attempts) is a matter of finely-graded distinctions. What a Soho Italian said in public about Il Duce might be very different from what he thought in private.

Here the trail leads back to fiction, and in particular to Anthony Powell's account of Castano's (formerly Previtali's) restaurant in Greek Street in A Dance to the Music of Time. Its proprietor ("Foppa" rather than his real name of Pietro Castano) plays a nicely ambiguous game, never expressing political opinions but allowing his daughter to wear the fez-like cap of the local Fascist branch. On one occasion, Foppa shows Powell's alter ego Nick Jenkins a newspaper portrait of Mussolini declaiming from the balcony of the Palazzo Venetia (Powell's memoirs confirm that this incident took place). No comment is made, but the combination of silence and the dictator's manifest absurdity is enough. "Merely by varying in no way his habitual expression of tolerant amusement, Foppa had managed to convey his total lack of anything that could possibly be accepted as Fascist enthusiasm."

There were plenty of other Foppas, and Walkowitz gives them their due. She also has a sharp eye for continuity. When in the early 1950s the legendary Jack Isow, late co-owner of the Shim Sham night club, started leasing some of his Walkers Court territory, the premises were eventually turned into the Paul Raymond Revue Bar. Mrs Chant would doubtless have been mortified. On the other hand, Mrs Meyrick's daughters would perfectly have understood.

DJ Taylor's novel of 1930s Soho, 'Secondhand Daylight', is published by Corsair

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine