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.