out there; Alix Sharkey invited 500 friends to enter his own Palace of Wisdom

John Walsh: a stranger in the Palace

Desmond from Tipperary was there, of course, sporting his shimmery gold carnival mask, his chaplet of flowers and the brown crepe angel's wings made specially for him by Penny MacBeth, wife of the late poet George. How would he describe...? "Performance artist, I suppose," he said coquettishly, "if you must pin it down to any one thing." It had been his brother Julian's idea to write to Alix Sharkey for tickets. Julian, earnest and puppyish, looked like one of the Proclaimers and talked media bollocks at high speed about how, after three albums and two novels, he was ready to find an audience at last. I wished him luck, but he was in the wrong place. The last place to find a sympathetic ear for your tortured soul was the Palace of Wisdom party.

I arrived at 11pm, in the grip of a) a virulent strain of Johannesburg Flu, and b) a pair of artery-constricting black Moss Bros strides last worn to a wedding in 1975. The dress code was "Divine Madness, Daemonic Glamour", an enigma I struggled to crack for hours. Obviously it just meant Bette Midler for the girls and Basil Rathbone for the blokes, but you couldn't be sure. (Didn't Bertie Wooster's friend Gussie Fink-Nottle once make an ass of himself by going to the wrong house in a Satanic red jumpsuit and a spiky tail?) Eventually I settled for the Tierra del Fuegan Dope-Pusher's Ensemble: bootlace choker, oil-slick shirt (20 acrylics were sacrificed to give it that sexy black shine), leather jacket, leer. The taxi driver studied my demonic face, on which my daughter had drawn a slender, Geldofian line of beard with an eyebrow pencil. "Wanna borrow a rag, mate?" he asked. "Got somethin' nasty on yer chin".

I shouldn't have worried. The place was crammed with red horns and glowing tridents. Cheapskate look of the evening was the Reservoir Dog (black suit and tie, white shirt). Synthetic fetish of choice was PVC, especially as worn by a couple in powder-blue police uniforms, complete with nightsticks. The party was in two rooms. One was a dark, throbbing dancehall playing an unvariegated stream of leaden trance music. The other was for no-holds- barred posing, where we talked and drank and strove to look unimpressed by the new arrivals. It was where at any moment you'd hear someone say, "Well of course I don't know him as such, but my ex-girlfriend once played poker with him..." Meaning, of course, Alix Sharkey, reputedly the coolest man alive, a devotee of catwalks, bands, style magazines, nightclubs, newly-invented pharmacological compounds and serial heartbreakers. Nobody at the party seemed actually to know him; they were all, you know, friends- of-friends. When he appeared in a crown and floor-length silver robes over a black leather corset - a deviant hybrid of Mongolian warlord, Venetian doge and the Emperor Bokassa - it was clear how things stood. At the court of King Alix, the courtiers are far too cool for warm emotions like friendship.

But what a court. I talked to a crumbling beauty in Miss Havisham weeds, her hair an explosion of orange spun sugar that trembled sweetly whenever she emitted her eldritch cackle. Escaping, I ran into a beauty in an advanced state of deshabille, one of a contingent from Agent Provocateur, the lingerie company, who stood around chatting in their undies. Her name was Eileen, she worked for a Gothic-erotica film company and it was, she modestly admitted, her tush which adorned the cover of last week's Time Out. Why she was wearing a mesh birdcage, like a rudimentary bustle, on the back of her knickers, she was less sure.

After midnight, the costumes got wilder. A full-fig Pharaoh chatted to a mad person in a baldie bathing-cap and Mr Spock ears. A sufferer from galloping hypertension turned out to have merely upended a litre of red poster paint on his head. The Irish guardian angel drifted about the dancefloor.

But as we schmoozed and shot the breeze and wondered if the party offered a snapshot of the British zeitgeist, bang in the middle of the new Nineties, it became clear that, style-wise., things were in serious retro-thrust. Everywhere you looked, the Eighties were back in force. All the little cells of clubland, all those sub-divisions of style - New Romantics, Goths, Batcave, Blitz, Wag - had suddenly returned, bewildered to find themselves under the same roof. Among the gay brotherhood, it was all peaked caps and Holly Johnson pouts. If Boy George had wandered in, you wouldn't have been surprised. On the dancefloor, a chap in a suit ceased trying to score with Rachel, the aloof Planet 24 beauty, fell to the floor and started breakdancing...

Just before I left, I met a Scouse charmer, one of this organ's devoted readers. He indicated his pretty girlfriend (who turned out to be John le Carre's niece) and said, "I've brought her here to find out about Nineties ideology". Nice try, but all she'll learn is that it means a desire to return to the lucrative past as soon as possible. Palace of Wisdom, no; Museum of Style, yes

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