Sunday 15 April 2012

Nights Out - Soho

Like many others, I have long been a fan of Professor Judith Walkowitz's City of Dreadful Delight (1992) which devotes chapters to, amongst other things, the Jack the Ripper murders, W.T.Stead's exposé of child trafficking, the 'Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon', and the Mrs. Weldon case (the woman who famously fought back against her conniving husband having her certified as a lunatic). That book presents a fascinating picture of women's lives in late Victorian London - I'd go so far as to say it is essential reading for anyone with even a passing interest in the era - and so it was with some excitement that I came to Walkowitz's new book Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London which, despite the title, is actually a study of Soho.

The book begins with Mrs. Ormiston Chant's 1894 famous investigation of prostitutes at the Empire Music Hall in Leicester Square - finding women 'very much painted' (wearing make-up!) prowling the Empire's promenade, on the look out for male company. It moves on from the Victorian era to the Edwardians, focussing on Maud Allan's racy dance interpretation of 'Salome' which drew a new female audience to West End theatres. Some were girlishly adoring - I love the quote from a fan letter: 'I saw you and thought your dancing perfect. I tried to move my arms like yours, but they seemed to have much fewer joints'.

The heart of this book, however, is - for me at least - less familiar territory, namely Soho between the wars. We have the Soho of Italian restaurants, fascists and anti-fascists, anarchists, and - that Soho perennial - police corruption. The chapter on Berwick Street market is particularly illuminating and evocative - a piece of Soho that was (rather briefly) a Jewish enclave, selling cheap frocks and hosiery to shoppers who were daring enough to dip into the shady alleys behind Oxford Street, home both to 'flappers' searching for bargain frocks and the aggressive 'schleppers' (touts, both men and women) who attempted to lure passing trade into their shops. The section on dancing at the Astoria is equally gripping, with Walkowitz utilising oral history to great efect.

The book continues with a chapter on 1920s/30s night-clubs, the 'bottle parties' of the jazz age where the likes of the redoubtable Mrs. Meyrick  opened clubs in Soho basements, negotiating with both corrupt policemen and criminal gangs, always bouncing back after arrest and imprisonment. Then, finally, a chapter on the Windmill Theatre, famous for its 'nude tableau', run by the eccentric Mrs. Henderson.

Overall, the book is a fabulous read and I would definitely recommend it to anyone with an interest in Soho or London between the wars. If pushed, I would level three criticisms. The first is simply inherent in the nature of the work - this is an academic book, and phrases like 'kinesthetic and social remappings' occasionally appear. For those of us not used to such language, it can be bewildering, but Walkowitz is a skilled author and the academic analysis never overwhelms the history (with the possible exception of the introduction, which the general reader may prefer to read after finishing the body of the work). Second, the time-frame is rather peculiar. I had hoped to see something on my own Soho favourite, Caldwells dancing-rooms - a dance-hall of the 1850s - or the infamous Argyle Rooms -  or Soho in the 1960s - but all of these fall outside Walkowitz's period. Third, I did wonder whether the section on night-clubs was rather rushed, even if it was only intended to cover the career of Mrs. Meyrick. I would say, for instance, that I found Marek Kohn's Dope Girls a more interesting excursion into jazz-age London. The sum total of these complaints, I suppose, is that Walkowitz does not provide a complete history of either the period or the district - but, in fairness, she makes no claim to do so.

Perhaps Soho's night life is too vast a subject to be tamed by a single author. Yet, to level this sort of crticism feels churlish. For this reader, Nights Out brought to light many new aspects of London history and proved an engrossing read. I would say it is well worth both your time and money.

1 comment:

  1. Did you know Maud Allan's brother was the executed killer Theodore Durrant? A very odd man and their parents were equally strange.