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.

News
news

Emergency call 'started off dumb, but got pretty serious'

Sport
Erik Lamela celebrates his goal
football

Argentinian scored 'rabona' wonder goal for Tottenham in Europa League – see it here

News
The cartoon produced by Bruce MacKinnon for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald on Thursday, showing the bronze soldiers of the war memorial in Ottawa welcoming Corporal Cirillo into their midst
news
News
peopleFox presenter gives her less than favourable view of women in politics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Voices
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into disastrous conflicts
News
The Edge and his wife, Morleigh Steinberg, at the Academy Awards in 2014
peopleGuitarist faces protests over plan to build mansions in Malibu
Property
One bedroom terraced house for sale, Richmond Avenue, Islington, London N1. On with Winkworths for £275,000.
property
Voices
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
voicesNigel Farage: Where is the Left’s outrage over the sexual abuse of girls in the North of England?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
musicReview: 1989's songs attempt to encapsulate dramatic emotional change in a few striking lines
News
Mario Balotelli has been accused of 'threateningly' telling a woman to stop photographing his Ferrari
peoplePolice investigate claim Balotelli acted 'threateningly' towards a woman photographing his Ferrari
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Voices
Don’t try this at home: DIY has now fallen out of favour
voicesNick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of it
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Sport
Phil Jones (left) attempts to stop the progress of West Bromwich Albion’s James Morrison on Monday
Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo, writes Paul Scholes
Arts and Entertainment
Saw point: Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in ‘Serena’
filmReview: Serena is a strangely dour and downbeat affair
Life and Style
The Zinger Double Down King, which is a bun-less burger released in Korea
food + drinkKFC unveils breadless meat beast
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    General Cover Supply Teacher Norwich

    £24 - £32000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad are currently l...

    English Teacher Norwich

    £24000 - £32000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad are looking ...

    Maths Teacher, Chatham School

    Competitive Rates of Pay: Randstad Education Group: Our client school in Chath...

    Humanities Teacher (History)

    Main Teacher Pay Scale : Randstad Education Leeds: Teacher of Humanities (Hist...

    Day In a Page

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker