Some old fruits and a nutcase

Richard Davenport-Hines backs party people against the puritans puritansreports on a very British battle betwen jh jkh k; Wilde's Last Stand: decadence, conspiracy and the First World War by Philip Hoare, Duckworth, pounds 16.95

There are episodes in history which, though ephemeral in themselves, illuminate with almost pictorial vividness the society in which they happened. Philip Hoare has discovered one such episode - a sensational libel action of 1918 - which he has coloured into a bright panorama of early-20th-century British social life. Hoare traces the connections joining the Naughty Nineties to the Jazz Age of the Twenties. He makes a captivating medley of avant-garde art, night-club life, drugs, "negro bands", polymorphous sex, right-wing nutters and the prurience of all who set themselves up as public moralists.

Hoare's central figure is Noel Pemberton-Billing, a restless and belligerent aviation pioneer who was elected to the Commons in 1916 as an independent MP. In one of several superb photographs, Billing is shown campaigning in a by-election, spruce and melodramatic in the cockpit of a fighter, gesturing at the loungers in the Mile End Road like Oswald Mosley.

Pemberton-Billing was a demagogic proto-Fascist who ran xenophobic newspapers called The Imperialist and Vigilante. In 1918 he turned from his usual denunciations of "Jew boys" and Huns to announce the existence of a conspiracy by the German Empire to sap the British war effort. He claimed that the German secret service had a list of 47,000 British perverts - "Privy councillors, wives of cabinet ministers, even cabinet ministers themselves, diplomats, poets, bankers, editors, newspaper proprietors" - who were "prevented from putting their full strength into the war by corruption and blackmail" and were emasculating the fighting men with their seductive wiles. His allegations were luridly misogynistic: "in Lesbian ecstasy the most sacred secrets of State were betrayed".

Billing attacked the performance by a dancer named Maud Allan of Oscar Wilde's Salome in an article headlined "The Cult of the Clitoris". When Allan sued for libel, Billing defended himself, and used the courtroom for a series of highly publicised stunts to embarrass the wartime government. He relied on dubious witnesses including his mistress Eileen Villiers-Stuart (shortly afterwards convicted of bigamy), a lunatic psychiatrist called Serrell Cooke and a vindictive young man named Harold Spencer, recently invalided out of the British Secret Service after obviously mad claims of almighty German conspiracies.

Together they subjected their imaginary perverts, from the former prime minister Asquith and his wife onwards, to a campaign of wild innuendo calculated to cause as much political disruption as possible. It is doubtful whether the sexology was widely understood. As a bewildered Lord Albemarle asked his Turf Club cronies, "who is this Greek chap Clitoris they're all talking about?" Confronted with the inflammatory techniques of the political and sexual witch-hunt, the judge lost control of the case and the jury found for Billing.

Billing's premeditated histrionics, the far-fetched perjuries of his witnesses, the scurrility and paranoia are enthralling. But the excitements in the Central Criminal Court do not provide the only compelling passages in Wilde's Last Stand. Billing's stunts were yet another bout in the perpetual struggle between English decadents and the puritan philistinism of John Bull. In Hoare's treatment, the joie de vivre of the party people and the generosity of their lives make a brilliant contrast to the sterile violence of Billing's gang. Ultimately this book shows the meagreness of nationalism and all the virulence conveyed in Mussolini's maxim. "Punching", he once said, "is an exquisitely Fascist means of self-expression."

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