Darlings of decadence

BY COLE MORETON WILDE'S LAST DANCE by Philip Hoare, Duckworth pounds 16.95
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The Independent Culture
According to Philip Hoare, our ideas of decadence, the ever- topical notion of dancing while the world destructs, were largely formed during the First World War, thanks to the activities of a group who took their lead from the Wildean pursuits of the 1890s. These were the lords, ladies, army officers and young people of private means who drank, gambled, took cocaine and (it was rumoured) danced naked in the nightclubs of London, while men were dying in the fields of France.

In the tense, paranoid London of early 1918, with the ambiguous struggle of the Great War still some way from being resolved, the likes of Lady Diana Manners, dancing to fast modern music played by imported negro bands and feasting on "far-fetched American delicacies - avocados, terrapin, and soft-shell crabs" - seemed unpatriotic, subversive, dangerous, foreign.

This decadence of the privileged was challenged in a court case that provides the focus of Hoare's book. During the summer of 1918, the scandal- starved newspapers watched in rapt attention as the Old Bailey was filled with an extraordinary cast of characters, led by Noel Pemberton Billing, an independent MP with a mad glint in his eye (and a monocle). Billing was an aviator, inventor, playboy, Futurist and nascent fascist. He founded the Vigilantes, a movement that would in turn give rise to Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts, and is described with reluctant admiration by Hoare as "the Goering we never had".

Billing's own right-wing newspaper published an extraordinary allegation: that a certain German prince had in his possession a black book, compiled by spies, containing the names of 47,000 men and women who had been "prevented from putting their full strength into the war by corruption and blackmail and fear of exposure". These Privy Councillors, cabinet ministers, diplomats, bankers and other people of power had been lured by the filthy Hun into "evils which all decent men thought had perished in Sodom and Lesbia [sic] ... in Lesbian ecstasy the most sacred of States were betrayed."

In order to attract publicity for his cause, Billing published a libellous attack on the first British performance of Oscar Wilde's Salome. The lead role was to be played by Maud Allan (left), an Edwardian superstar dancer whose own highly charged version of the Salome story had already made her the Madonna of her day. Under the headline "The Cult of the Clitoris", Billing published a suggestion that if Scotland Yard were to seize a list of people who had applied to attend the performance, it might secure the names of several of the corrupt 47,000. Hoare draws heavily on the Vigilantes' verbatim report of the trial, contemporary newspaper reports and Michael Kettle's book, Salome's Last Veil.

By far the best-paced and most entertaining part of the book takes place in court. The extent of Edwardian male prejudice and ignorance when it comes to women and sex is revealed in graphic (and hilarious) detail. By "the cult of the clitoris" was meant those dedicated to "superficial sensation which did nothing to help the race". Dissecting Salome for sexual perversion, a misguided doctor suggested that the lead would best be played by a woman suffering from the "mental disease" of sadism - which he described as the lust for dead bodies - at a certain time of the month, when "female erotomaniacs" were crazed by the moon. Billing was acquitted of libel, but only just. Rather than being extinguished by the chaos of war, as conventional theory has it, Hoare suggests that "the cult of Wilde" survived intact, and was reinvigorated during the inter-war years by the likes of Noel Coward, whose biography he wrote so well.

Hoare is on the side of the subversives, and describes Billing's voice as that of the outraged British middle class: "the unknown will always remain so to those who do not choose to explore it." But there is another dimension to this story, which Hoare's focus will not allow. Working- class lives were wasted while the generals prevaricated and their offspring snorted cocaine. In complaining against that, perhaps the madman Billing had a point.