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Fops, flappers and fascists

British urban history takes a new slant in Judith Walkowitz’s scholarly study of life in Soho in the

Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London

Judith R Walkowitz
Yale University Press, 400p, £25

In 1906, an inspector for the Metropolitan Police denounced Greek Street, Soho, as the "worst street in the West End of London . . . some of the vilest reptiles in London live there or frequent it". Given that you have to be a banker to afford the prices at L'Escargot, and that such establishments as the unassuming Coach and Horses and the quite presumptuous Soho House cater to media types and journalists, many readers might conclude that little has changed.

Judith R Walkowitz has written a social history of Soho in the first half of the 20th century. She begins with Virginia Woolf, on her "usual round" from Bloomsbury to the book stalls of Charing Cross Road, then down to Gerrard Street and the 1917 Club, co-founded by her husband, Leonard, as a place for intellectuals and activists to gather. Woolf also enjoyed slumming at Berwick Street Market, "the Street of Silk Stockings"; there, she wrote, "the stir & colour and cheapness [pleased] me to the depths of my soul".

At the end of the Victorian era, the district of Soho - approximately one square mile - was one of the city's most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods, marked by urban vices including crime, illicit sex and political intrigue. Nineteenth-century urban planning ploughed boulevards through the West End, including Regent Street, Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road. "One of Nash's stated objectives" in building Regent Street, Walkowitz notes, "was to provide a 'complete separation between the Streets occupied by the Nobility and Gentry, and the narrower Streets and meaner houses occupied by mechanics and the trading part of the community'". It worked: cockney inhabitants were pushed east, making room for the immigrant populations that rapidly took their place, and then created business and entertainments that were frequented by the rich, despite - and because of - their proximity to the edgy, "vicious" spaces of Soho.

Looked at from one angle, Nights Out is a history of cultural tourism, but Walkowitz is more interested in the people offering the tours than the people taking them. That said, the book offers its own kind of tourism, of the social transformations created by "men and women of many walks of life: rich and poor, unschooled émigrés and Bloomsbury literati, moral purity campaigners and libertarian anarchists, undercover police and dance hostesses, fascists and anti-fascists, queers and heterosexuals, Italians, Jews, Greeks, Americans, Germans, Swiss, black GIs and white Britons". Walkowitz suggests this diversity was all part of a new "cosmopolitan identity", an academically fashionable idea that is also tautological. Such scholarly lily-gilding is, happily, infrequent - mostly she lets her stories speak for themselves.

The book is organised in a loosely chronological sequence, each chapter selecting a representative example that enables Walkowitz to map the varied cultural experiences on offer in Soho: theatre, dance, shopping, restaurants, nightlife. She begins with Mrs Laura Ormiston Chant, a "Shavian heroine" and feminist purity reformer who was satirised by Punch as "Mrs Prowlina Pry". Mrs Chant's efforts at reforming the drinking and sex trade at the Empire Theatre in Leicester Square were met by resistance from a group of young aristocrats, led by a Sandhurst cadet named Winston Churchill, who delivered his maiden political speech in these "rather unvirginal surroundings". Attending the shows to find evidence of moral turpitude, Mrs Chant was surprised to find that she enjoyed the female acrobats, and she announced that the "immense muscular power displayed by a woman must have dispelled from the spectators any pet theories as to innate physical incapacity in the weaker or, more accurately speaking, the undeveloped sex".

Next comes Maud Allan, an American dancer at the Palace Theatre whose Vision of Salome was so popular with London audiences that the newspapers insisted she was Canadian. Eventually conservative papers accused Allan of belonging to the "Cult of Clitoris", an Edwardian euphemism for lesbianism; the subsequent lawsuit destroyed her career. In the name of scholarly originality, Walkowitz wants to shift focus from the sensationalist trial to Allan's dance and what it suggests about changing ideas of the female body, which is all very worthy, but probably less interesting to most of us than the trial.

Another chapter considers the "Fascist Invasion of Soho" by the Italian food industry, represented by Peppino Leoni's Quo Vadis restaurant, which opened in 1926. Quo Vadis became popular thanks in part to its innovative strategy of displaying modern art for sale; by 1932, "everyone who is anybody in the theatrical and artistic worlds" was dining there. Leoni was eventually interned during the Second World War for his fascist sympathies. Meanwhile, just down the street, the York Minster pub, better known as the French House, became the "unofficial headquarters" of the Free French.

Soho shopping comes next, exemplified by the emergence of Berwick Street Market as a fashion district in the 1920s and 1930s. Flappers found independence and ready-made dresses here, but clothes rationing during the Second World War signalled the beginning of the end. "A Jewish Night Out" follows, in which Walkowitz shifts abruptly into oral history to reconstruct the story of restaurants such as the Lyons Corner House, which employed young women as waitresses. They were known as Nippies, to suggest modern speed and efficiency.

Then there is the queen of the London nightclubs, Kate Meyrick, memorialised as Ma Mayfield in Brideshead Revisited. Meyrick's prosperity enabled her to purchase for her children the education that would assimilate them into "upper-class social networks". This was precisely what conservatives feared: that the "free and easy mingling of classes" in an "atmosphere of artificial gaiety" could lead to "strange matrimonial alliances" across class lines. The Bright Young Things of the 1920s frequented Meyrick's clubs, which were "open to customers with deep pockets and no pedigree". This leads into a discussion of mixed-race dances in nightclubs; it was "Harlem in London", the Melody Maker proclaimed in 1936.

The final chapter focuses on the nude revues at the Windmill Theatre during the 1930s and through the Blitz, when Laura Henderson's girls became one of the symbols of British endurance. Pictures of the Windmill's naked women made it into the papers, paving the way for use of female nudes as marketing tools. An epilogue brings the story more or less up to date, whistling through Paul Raymond's sex empire and the establishment of the Soho Housing Association, which helped to bring professionals and artists back into the area in the 1980s and 1990s.

For all Walkowitz's efforts to do justice to Soho's "cosmopolitan identities", there are choices here that one might dispute. Most surprising of these is that the queer history of Soho between the wars is not given a chapter of its own, though the Jewish experience gets two. She by no means ignores the gay experience, but surely such a definitive aspect of the district's history should not be elbowing for space - especially not in a book so interested in the story of Soho as a history of inclusion and exclusion.

Sarah Churchwell is the author of "The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe" (Granta Books, £9.99)

Sarah Churchwell is chair of public understanding of the humanities at the University of London, and author of “Behold, America” (Bloomsbury)

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Mission impossible