Will The Thrill Of Going Out Go Out?


A 1920s advertisement had a headline that began; ‘If you go out these days – and who doesn’t? you’ll want to enjoy…’ The idea of ‘going out’ is a peculiarly complex one for Londoners, attached to the idea of being entertained for the evening. It is inextricably woven with sex and drink, bad behaviour and joy.

But the idea of going out specifically to enjoy what the city had to offer did not really take a strong hold until after 1800. Over the next century, London’s West End became the world’s leading pleasure district. Suddenly the city experienced the rapid growth of entertainment; theatres, opera houses, galleries, restaurants, department stores, casinos, exhibition centres, night clubs, street life and the sex industry drew visitors from all classes and walks of life.

The area from the Strand to Oxford Street came to stand for sensation and vulgarity but also for the promotion of high culture. The West End produced shows and fashions whose impact rippled outwards around the globe. Rohan McWilliam’s new book ‘London’s West End: Creating the Pleasure District 1800-1914’ studies this phenomenon and is filled with riveting facts.

The retail industry was reliant on female labour, as it was thought that only women could sell to women, but they were paid a fraction of their male counterparts. Oxford Street and Regent Street were considered resolutely female while the Strand to Fleet Street was an area of old-fashioned maleness. Shopping, it was decided, aroused ‘the emotions amenable to the female sex’.

A walk through the same areas now is a shockingly sober experience. The pandemic has removed a great many stores. Theatres are shuttered, cinemas are without product, restaurants are barely half-full and footfall is almost non-existent. Last week I met a friend in Leicester Square. It was raining hard and there was nowhere to go. We managed to find a hot snack at the Japan Centre on Panton Street, but had to take it outside, which led to its undignified consumption in a shop doorway. How had we come to this?

More disturbingly, where would it go from here? Although ‘going out’ has returned as a concept, few seem eager to take it up, and it’s partially because we’re asking ourselves why we should bother. Since the pleasure district was created much of the experience has been degraded.

Intellectuals no longer gather in coffee houses. Department stores have nearly all gone. Restaurants have become slick corporate chains. Theatres are filled with cobwebbed tourist product (‘Phantom’ is Coming Back!’ scream the posters to deafening disinterest). Large cinemas are being replaced with small ones. Night clubs have all but vanished.

So where is the pleasure in leisure now? Today’s London Times suggests that people must decide whether paying £200 to see an old musical is worth it in this newly straitened era. Even the rising middle class of wealthy Chinese visitors may decide that they’re not getting value for money. We can only watch and wait while remembering the golden age of the big night out. It will take more than statues of Batman and Mr Bean to bring life back to Leicester Square.


15 comments on “Will The Thrill Of Going Out Go Out?”

  1. Stu-I-Am says:

    What I find even more disconcerting is what seems to be a heightened mistrust or wariness of others. Sadly, not unexpected I suppose,what with all of the bureaucratic bungling. We may just have to continue to rely on our internal (self, family, friends) resources for entertainment and spiritual nourishment for a good while longer; something, to which many, no doubt, are not looking forward.

  2. Pre Covid, London offered a wealth of tiny stand-up comedy gigs in grotty rooms above grotty pubs, and live music of many kinds in sticky-flooded venues to name but two. I do hope we see that return – watching this stuff over Zoom may have helped keep the artists’ bodies and souls together, but it really isn’t the same.

    I’m too old for that kind of thing myself, but I gather from my kids that nightclubs are still very much a thing.

  3. Brooke says:

    In my city, other side of the pond, “going out” has new meaning. Outside of usual. E.g. The Horticultural Society’s huge annual show will take place in a large open urban park, redesigned for purpose. “Why the hell didn’t we do this before!” is the response. More accessible, less expensive… As winter was mild, restaurants and cafes took over sidewalks and streets, with encloded private booths –some well designed and colorful. Less car traffic, more walking.
    We’ve had very hard times and we’re a different city.

  4. Stu-I-Am says:

    Yes — there is a fog-like greyness that has managed to seep into the nooks and crannies of life these days, reminiscent in many ways of that in the old Eastern Bloc. It raises the question of what exactly the “new” normal will look like and how long lasting will be the present battle fatigue and its effects. Fortunately, Mother Nature is her usual welcoming self.

  5. David+Ronaldson says:

    I think we’ve become more discerning, “Will putting on proper clothes and spending over £100 really be better than watching Netflix?”

    I too thought nightclubs were dead, but then I always liked the gloriously grotty Gossips, and still possess my VIP card for Le Scandale, so what do I know?

    I went to a local pub, indoors, on Monday and surprised the bar staff by ordering using their App when I’m pushing 60; the other customers were still trying to work out how to use the Hand sanitiser. Waiting for the great leap forwards.

  6. Keith says:

    After critically missing live concerts and eating out since the start of this pandemic, I think I would now rather spend my time sipping a cloudy pint of Farmer’s Arse bitter in the most obscure and stygian backstreet pub I could find. Preferably alone. I’ve lost the will to visit cinemas, restaurants and shops. I’ve just become a lazy bastard. I was sick of people staring at mobile phones and I am now sick of looking at people wearing face-masks. Whatever normality used to be, I can hardly remember, and I don’t think we’ll be finding that again.

  7. Stu-I-Am says:

    I’m considering hypnosis in lieu of both domestic and foreign travel — to say nothing of actually having to join polite society again on a full-time basis. A bit of suggestion here and there and you’re enjoying a pint anywhere you like or having a private tour of the Louvre at your convenience. No PCR tests, no proof of vaccination and no need to wear proper clothes. All from the comfort of your own home.

  8. Helen+Martin says:

    A local photographic studio that specialised in foreign shots “We’re having a great time in Rome and must have a group photo near the Coliseum” are now doing recreations of foreign holidays as well as our new at-home holidays.
    We were never great “going out” people so we’re not missing a great deal but I will be glad to meet friends again. All those apps just lead people even more deeply into their phones so that just makes things worse. I heard my husband talking to our son on the phone and the two of them were whining about how bored they are. Ian I understand as he’s a “going out” person but I’m not sure what the husband wants to do that he can’t do now. Perhaps it’s just wishing he had the choice.

  9. Stu-I-Am says:

    I have to wonder if pandemic-induced agoraphobia is likely to revive that short-lived but appropriately eccentric English custom of ornamental hermitry.

  10. andrea says:

    My book club hit our 15th Anniversary during the pandemic. We skipped our monthly gatherings for 14 months but now that everyone is vaccinated we met again last night. It was wonderful, but we did not discuss the planned books. Too much to catch up on. Lots of laughs and tears as everyone shared their experiences, joys and tragedies of the quarantine. Next month we will be back to business as usual. I had to go into work for all but 2 months of the past year. I wonder how I had the energy / desire to go out to concerts, theater and parties in the before time. I don’t miss it and I have made great progress on my To Be Read piles.

  11. Helen+Martin says:

    Andrea, perhaps you could set up an ornamental hermitry to contain your TBR pile.

  12. Ian Luck says:

    Being a night worker, I never went out much before the pandemic. I suspect I’ll go out even less, now. I have a horrible feeling that the thickos, the anti-vaxxers, and anti-mask brigade will cock everything up, and bring us back to sitting indoors, squinting at our phones. I’m reckoning about mid August.

  13. Jan says:

    Even with the mask this statue is as much like Michael Gove as Mr. Bean.

  14. Des Burkinshaw says:

    We could do our bit.
    Are there any other B&M fans on here from London who fancy meeting up for a coffee/pint one evening in Soho? I’ve been in a few times and as Chris says, it is very oddly quiet.

  15. Andy Morley says:

    I would love to, but live up North, although my Son lives in London

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