Thursday 21 February 2013

"It'll pull you in, duck"

From my unpublished review of NIGHTS OUT : Life in cosmopolitan London by  Judith R. Walkowitz: (Yale University Press, 2012) I wrote this very quickly on spec but then couldn't find a British publication willing to run it. So I learned my lesson and don't write reviews on spec any more. Good book, through, and recommended.

Don't even think of driving there. Parking's a nightmare and you'll be having a drink. Take the tube to Tottenham Court Road, leave via Exit 1, pick your way around the muddy rubble of the recently-demolished Astoria Theatre, and head south. Before you get to Foyles turn right into Manette Street and walk past Goldbeater House (its foundation-stone laid by the poet laureate John Masefield, and once home to Danny la Rue), pausing briefly to admire the sturdy French Gothic chapel opposite. A few more steps and you'll be standing on the brink of Greek Street, under a reeking archway between the Pillars of Hercules pub and a stuff-yourself-silly Thai buffet. This, according to one wag, marks the spiritual entrance to Soho. 'If there's a spiritual exit,' he added gloomily, 'no-one has ever found it.' 

There are other approaches to Soho, of course. Not all of them can be found in the London A to Z, but Judith R. Walkowitz, professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, offers some valuable new directions in her engaging field guide to the district, Nights Out. She writes:
Soho was […] a space of intimate and sometimes tumultuous encounters between men and women from many walks of life: rich and poor, unschooled émigrés and Bloomsbury literati, moral purity campaigners and libertarian anarchists, fascists and anti-fascists, queers and heterosexuals, Italians, Jews, Greeks, Americans, Germans, Swiss, black GI’s and white Britons.

It was a place with permeable social barriers where new conventions and tolerances were negotiated, reflecting the high (and low) aspirations of the protagonists. Since the 1890s, when this study really comes into its own, Soho has been a spontaneous social experiment, an unregulated proving-ground for an emerging cosmopolitan identity, contributing to the heterogenous urban mix that now obtains throughout the capital and the rest of the country, with varying degrees of success. From the late Victorian era Soho developed at a tangent to bourgeois convention becoming, in Walkowitz's phrase 'a multiethnic polyglot settlement of many European diasporas' and she investigates the meaning of cosmopolitanism with brisk and lucid analyses of well-chosen subjects: Conrad's shabby anarchists in The Secret Agent; the erotic dancer Maud Allen, the queer patrons of Lyons Corner Houses (discreetly managed by trained Nippies); the well-connected 'nightclub queen' Mrs. Meyrick in whose lively Gerrard Street premises Rudolph Valentino was once mistaken for a waiter and a dance hostess died from an overdose of cocaine supplied by a Chinese restaurateur named Brilliant Chang); the Berwick Street market 'schleppers' (fast-talking rag-traders such as the corset seller Madame Birnberg with her magnificent cry of: 'It'll pull you in, duck!'), the influx of Fascists and their opponents in the 1930s, and Wardour Street's Shim Sham club, a taste of Harlem in the West End. 

If present-day Soho seems less distinctively non-conformist it's largely because the rest of the nation has caught up in terms of cultural diversity, sexual innovation, deli-awareness and day-long drinking. Relaxation of the licensing laws in 2005 has made Belchers of us all. 

Muriel Belcher herself doesn't appear in this book. She was the breathtakingly foul-mouthed proprietress of the Colony Room, a dingy upstairs joint with overpriced drinks, one of many private clubs catering for their thirsty members when the pubs closed for the afternoon. A few other surprising absentees are Julian Maclaren-Ross, the matchless wartime chronicler of Soho and Fitzrovia, Francis Bacon, the photographer John Deakin, Henrietta Moraes, Dylan Thomas, Jeffrey Bernard, and the students of nearby St. Martin's School of Art. But this is to quibble, and in any case they enjoy a boisterous afterlife in many other published accounts. Walkowitz concentrates productively on the period up to 1945, with a brief postscript considering the pivotal role of the Soho Society and Great Compton Street's re-invention as the Champs Élysées of gay culture. 

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