From 1914 to 1918, for instance, no fewer than 150 illegal nightclubs opened up in Soho alone, where chorus girls danced to black jazz bands, sustained by cocaine given to them by soldiers to whom it had been issued for medical purposes. At the most infamous club, the Cave of the Golden Calf in Heddon Street (a back street that would later feature on David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust cover), futurist poets in goatee beards recited avant garde verse, and guests were greeted by a phallic sculpture designed by Eric Gill, to which they bowed in mock idolatry. When Wilfred Owen was on leave in London, he noted that the upper floor of the Piccadilly cafe in which he sipped tea contained an opium den.
Nearby, in Half Moon Street, Robbie Ross, Oscar Wilde’s first lover and his literary executor, painted his rooms gold in protest at the war. In the wake of Wilde’s conviction for gross indecency, the war itself presented a new challenge for gay men; Ronald Firbank called it “that awful persecution”. But as the first modern, industrial conflict overturned class and gender barriers, it also opened up the possibility for new sexual identities – even in the mud and mire of the western front.
By advertising in the international press after the war, asking people to send him accounts of their sexual experiences during the conflict, renowned German sexologist, Magnus Hirschfeld (who features in Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin writing) discovered there were transvestites in the trenches with ball gowns in their backpacks. In the archives of the Imperial War Museum, I discovered other personal diaries that detailed same sex behaviour between serving soldiers. Hirschfeld also found accounts of drug clubs, and nudist clubs in London, Paris and Berlin. Even in suburban Clapham, a teenage Noël Coward and Esmé Wynne, his companion/muse, wore “futurist pyjamas”, and swapped clothes to run riot, in drag, in the West End.
The war also saw the first celebrity drug death, as a chorus girl called Billie Carleton overdosed on cocaine in the Savoy (her story would re-emerge in Coward’s first successful play, The Vortex). Such decadence was regarded as a hangover from the fin-de-siècle 1890s; as Paul Fussell notes in The Great War and Modern Memory, some saw the war as a “Condy’s Fluid”, a disinfectant to purge Britain of this strength-sapping sense of perversion. Concerns over changing sexual roles for women came to a head in 1918 with the publication of Marie Stopes’s Married Love, which offered advice on birth control; that same year lesbianism was mentioned for the first time in a British court.
In a bizarre hearing at the Old Bailey, the “Salome Dancer”, a performer called Maud Allan, was accused by proto-fascist independent MP, Noel Pemberton Billing, of having a clitoris so over-developed she could only be satisfied by a bull elephant. Billing, an Edwardian lothario and inventor of the sea-plane, had formed his own Society of Vigilante party, pushing for power in the chaotic wartime period. In his self-published newspaper, the Imperialist, he had libelled Allan for the purposes of publicising his homophobic, xenophobic, antisemitic campaign. Sued by the dancer (who had implicit backing from the government, fearful of the rabble-rouser’s increasing popularity), Billing represented himself in court.
The case, which ran for five sensational days, also drew in the duplicitous figure of Lord Alfred Douglas, who testified in Billing’s favour, and denounced Wilde, his former lover (whose own case had been tried in the same courtroom), as “the greatest force for evil in Europe in the past 350 years”. Such Alice in Wonderland madness (the case provides the background for Pat Barker’s evocative novel, The Eye in the Door, as well as my own book, Wilde’s Last Stand) continued as Billing threatened to produce evidence that Margot Asquith, the prime minister’s wife, as well as members of the royal family, were named as sexual perverts in a “black book” held by the German secret service that was being used to blackmail the British establishment and undermine its war effort.
To troops serving on the front – where they could receive the day’s Daily Mirror – reports of this circus seemed utterly surreal. They might well have wondered, as did Siegfried Sassoon, why they were fighting for such a society: “The world is stark staring mad,” the poet-soldier wrote. Such an alternative history hinges on a sense of carpe diem, of course (even as it seems to prefigure the fraught decadence of Weimar Berlin).
But there’s a serious lesson here, too. On the one hand, we have the liberation of new attitudes to gender and sex and the uneasy birth of a modern society. On the other, we have Billing, whose power fed on the failing war effort and its need for scapegoats, and who continued in his extreme but popular campaign, conflating race and sexuality as twin bêtes noire. He demanded that “enemy aliens” (ie German Jews) in the East End be prevented from reaching air raid shelters before British subjects, and that they wear yellow cloth stars of David on their lapels to indicate their inferior status.
Billing’s Vigilante thugs roamed the backstreets beating up young men of serving age who were not in uniform, and who looked either foreign, effeminate, or both. He even filled the Royal Albert Hall with his followers, and made the first election campaign film, being towed down Commercial Street in Whitechapel in one of his self-designed aeroplanes. He was a man of the people, and spoke for the people, and he was cheered out of the Old Bailey when he won his court case, calling loudly for a Britain for the British. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Yet it was Billing who was the tail-end of an imperial age. And while the war destroyed so much, we might yet salvage from its horrors a paradoxical benefit – at least in hindsight – as a terrible catalyst for positive change.