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Focus: Resisting everything except temptation

In the week of the unveiling of a statue of Oscar Wilde, other events were a reminder that the Naughty Nineties applies as much to London's Soho today as it did 100 years ago
JUST a few yards from the Palace Theatre - where Les Mis has been packing them in for 13 years - you'll see a row of run-down Victorian buildings. There are a couple of cheap restaurants, a strip joint and a shop selling X-rated videos for pounds 10 a go. You'll also notice the groups of shifty-looking men who loiter in the doorways of premises that advertise themselves as cab firms. They'll sell you drugs at any time of day, but once the pubs are shut and the theatre crowd has been bussed back home, their territory undergoes a subtle transformation. After 11.30, these men will also invite you upstairs for an after-hours drink.

There's a pounds 4 entry fee, but don't ask for a membership card. Just make your way up the stairway, past the Biro'd notice advertising the services of someone called Vera. Go up another flight, and you'll find yourself in a poorly lit room with a few optics on the wall, a crate of bottled beer stowed under a trestle table, some unpleasantly sticky floorboards and hardly any other customers - unless you count the two blokes with lots of gold teeth who want to sell you something expensive. And, of course, if you're not into that, there's always Vera.

Despite the creeping Conranisation of Soho - the slow invasion of sleek Modernist eateries, branches of Coffee Republic and smart apartment conversions - its heart is still as dark as it was in the 1890s, when Oscar Wilde walked its pavements. The heritage-style street signs have gone up, and there are walking tours that take you to see places where famously louche Londoners turned their tricks, but there's enough down-and-dirty decadence for sleaze still to determine the character of the area. No matter how many sushi bars and internet cafes move in, it seems that late-Victorian seaminess will not shift. Indeed, one might argue that some more recent establishments - Damien Hirst's restaurant Quo Vadis, and media hangouts like the Groucho Club and Soho House - are simply restating 1890s decadence in slightly more contemporary terms.

Last week, three events provided a sharp reminder that the vices of the 1990s still have much in common with those of 100 years ago. At midday on Monday, behind St Martin-in-the-Fields, a public memorial to Oscar Wilde was unveiled by the playwright's great-grandson Lucien Holland. The culture secretary Chris Smith made a speech about how far society had come since the intolerant days of Victoria's reign. But by lunchtime, Nigel Hawthorne - who turned up with Dame Judi Dench to read an extract from A Woman of No Importance - had discovered that when it came to cabinet ministers, some of the old rules still applied.

Then, on Tuesday night at 7.12pm, 500 police officers stormed a building in Denmark Place, a shabby alleyway just off Charing Cross Road. Just when we thought the pushers had all moved out to the council estates, Chief Superintendent Jim Overton from Holborn Police Station announced that their sting had put a "fortified, drugs warehouse"out of action. Local residents, however, suggested that there were 10 more such establishments nearby. At the end of the week, Denmark Place was still sealed off with police tape.

Meanwhile, a company called Green Bohemia announced that it was about to begin importing absinthe into the UK from the Czech Republic. A byword for fin de siecle decadence, absinthe was enthusiastically knocked back by figures such as Wilde, Toulouse-Lautrec and the poet Ernest Dowson. Green Bohemia is taking advantage of the fact that every true decadent's hallucinogenic cocktail of choice was never officially declared illegal in Britain, as it was in its mother country, France. Chi-chi Soho watering holes are reportedly queuing to buy it for pounds 40 a bottle, keen to stock up in time for the fin de millennium.

Despite the wartime damage it suffered, London remains an essentially Victorian city, and Soho has kept its character more surely than many other areas. Its social and sexual geography has changed little in 100 years. Then, as now, Old Compton Street was where men went pick each other up. In the 1890s, liaisons were conducted behind sash curtains in private supper clubs. Today, bars and pubs like Balans and the Admiral Duncan have made such time-honoured procedures less secretive. Then, as now, the back alleys of Soho were thronged with seedy bookshops. Today, customers scutter in an out of windowless shops on Walker's Court, bootlegged videotapes stashed in their briefcases. In the 1890s, the Victorian equivalents of these men were dodging in to the same premises to purchase nudes photographed by Sarony, or pore over top-shelf titles such as Raped on the Railway: A True Story of a Lady Who Was First Ravished and then Chastised upon the Scotch Express (1894). Narcotics demanded less shady transactions, since the Londoners of the 1890s could still buy their cocaine over the counter. (This is doubtless the reason we're never told the name of Sherlock Holmes's dealer - he probably sent Mrs Hudson down to Boots for it.)

Soho began its existence as a luxurious quarter for aristocratic residents, full of coffee houses patronised by 18th-century wags and Whigs. It was during the 19th century that the area began to acquire a more seamy status. In 1854, a cholera epidemic sent the last of the well-to-do residents scuttling from the area. A population of poor immigrants moved in to replace them, and gave the district its lasting reputation for good eating. Poets and artists rented rooms in lodging houses on Greek Street. Theatres sprang up, the grandest of which was the Palace, completed in 1891.

Walk around Soho today, and you can still get a strong sense of the Decadent Nineties. The pavements carry a comparable mix of media darlings, fashion victims, rent boys, pimps, pushers and shiftless ne'er-do-wells. Kettner's is still there on Greek Street, where Wilde dined with Bosie and demi-mondans such as Alfred Taylor (a brothel-keeper who was sentenced with Wilde at his trial), Sidney Mavor (a rent boy who later became a Church of England priest) and Maurice Schwabe (a nephew of the then Solicitor- General). As his biographer, Richard Ellmann, noted, this was the "feasting with panthers" of which Wilde spoke later. If he went there today, he'd have to content himself with feasting on pasta. But he might be reassured to find An Ideal Husband playing at the Lyric Theatre just round the corner on Shaftesbury Avenue.

Our relationship with the 1890s is an ambiguous one, partly because of its superficial similarities with the current decade. Some of our sharp media practices were theirs, too. Like Cool Britannia, the Decadent Nineties was an image generated during the period itself: a PR offensive by limelight- hungry poets, artists and their cronies. When Wilde encouraged his friends to wear green carnations to the opening night of Lady Windermere's Fan, it was a canny publicity stunt disguised as a mysterious badge of brotherhood.

And 1890s figures are still giving shape to 1990s controversies. Take last year's Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy, for instance. Writing in the Spectator, Philip Hensher identified Damien Hirst as the inheritor of Aubrey Beardsley's artistic legacy. But the Daily Mail declared that Hirst and his fellow Sensationists were "perverted, brutal, horribly modish and clever-cunning, degenerate, exhibitionist, high-voiced and limp-wristed". Their movement was, it argued, directly descended from the culture of Wilde and Beardsley, whose "intellectual degeneracy" was signalled by their "taste for opium, cocaine and obscenity".

Last week's unveiling of Maggie Hambling's sculpture, A Conversation with Oscar Wilde, neatly dramatised our still-difficult relationship with a century- old decade of sex and scandal. A crowd of public servants, literati, B-list celebrities and journalists all turned up to admire a piece of public art depicting the playwright emerging from his sarcophagus, fag in hand, ready for a gossip. There they stood, to do homage to a writer whose name could not be mentioned in polite society for the best part of the 20th century. (E.M. Forster's Maurice, you might recall, describes himself as "an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort".) Once Nigel Hawthorne and Judi Dench had done their bit, Chris Smith announced that it was fitting that there was at last a memorial to Wilde "on the fringes of London's Theatreland", and Sir Kenneth Baker, Sheridan Morley and Amanda Barrie (Alma from Coronation Street) applauded politely. Stephen Fry - who played Wilde in Brian Gilbert's recent biopic - talked gently to gathered reporters about how he knew many gay Tory MPs who were afraid to come out, because it would break their mothers' hearts. Matthew Parris hovered on the sidelines, as far away from Chris Smith as possible. George Melly, a jazz singer, in a strange parody of aesthetic gear (canary yellow fedora, black pinstripe suit and a Tellytubby badge) signed autographs for ladies of a certain age. Was this Wilde's triumphant return to respectability, or a photo- opportunity for a crowd of hangers-on, 100 years too late for the party?

As Merlin Holland, Wilde's grandson, suggested to Channel 4 News later that same day, some of the people schmoozing him at the post-unveiling drinks were the very types who sent his grandfather to Reading Gaol. And only a few hours later, Nigel Hawthorne was silenced during a live BBC broadcast because he had made the mistake of suggesting that Wilde's situation was "not a million miles away" from that of trade and industry minister Peter Mandelson. It made an awkward footnote to the continuing history of a part of London that, a century on, we still don't know whether to celebrate or censure.