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

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