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Flesh and loan: downfall of a pornographic prose pioneer

On this week’s virtual ramble around Westminster, Diary visits ‘the forgotten segment of central London’, recalls a theatre with a sliding roof, and explores the many euphemisms of John Cleland

31 July, 2020 — By The Xtra Diary

Nairn’s London

WE parted company last week in Eccleston Square, Pimlico, gazing at the house of flying daredevil Douglas Douglas-Hamilton.

We mentioned, too, the architectural tale behind Pimlico’s development – how it was once a marshy swamp, until builder Thomas Cubitt filled in puddles with spoil from Thames docks, and set about creating his own version of Nash-like terraces.

We shall wriggle south until we meet Warwick Square, home to one of the most approachable architectural critics of the 20th century, author and broadcaster Ian Nairn.

In his 1966 publication, Nairn’s London, he described his neighbourhood as “the forgotten segment of central London, Westminster-behind-the Abbey: the well-built, dull, regular streets of Pimlico, where after five years’ residence you may still not be able to find your way home”.

Nairn was likened to William Cobbett and John Ruskin, the Victorians who saw the damage of industrial age wreaked on the countryside. He fumed about urban sprawl, coining the term “Subtopia” as fields disappeared under speculative developments.

Nairn joined celebrated architecture guide Nikolaus Pevsner, helping with his books. Pevsner said Nairn was far the better writer – but a bit too easy to voice his strong opinions, which did not suit the straitlaced approach of the Pevsner series.

He described, for example, an elephant cast on the Albert Memorial as “having a backside just like a businessman scrambling under a restaurant table for his cheque-book”.

His light-hearted nature is illustrated by a TV series he made in 1972: a great beer drinker – he would die an alcoholic aged 52 – he came a cross a railway signal box in Cumbria that he said would make a jolly home, suggesting the levers to change signals and tracks could be converted into handy beer pumps.

From a writer of good houses to a writer of those of ill-repute: we now switch eastwards to find our way to Petty France, on the fringes of Pimlico.

So named because of the Huguenot refugees who gathered there in the 17th century after fleeing Catholic France due to their penchant for a bit of Calvinism on a Sunday, it was the London base of author John Cleland in the 1740s.

Cleland is perhaps the most famous writer of titillating pornography in the English language: his novel, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure: Fanny Hill, published in 1748, was penned while he languished in a debtors’ prison.

Cleland studied at Westminster School, travelled to Bombay as an employee of the East India Company, and while there got into a pickle after offering a haven to a female slave who was being mistreated by her owner.

The Victoria Palace Theatre

On his return to London, he became friends with author Thomas Cannon, and promptly borrowed £800 from him. It was this debt that saw Cleland sent down – and while incarcerated, he clearly had time to let his imagination do some wandering.

The result is considered by literary boffins as the first pornographic prose novel written in English, and is known for its tremendous use of euphemisms: Cleland writes at great, great length of matters of the sensuous flesh, but does so without using any so-called “dirty” words at all. He swerves biological terms for genitalia too, using such phrases as the “nethermouth”, “wonderful machine,” “engine of love-assaults,” “stiff staring truncheon,” “sensitive plant” whose head is “not unlike a common sheep’s heart”.

Indeed – and such prose meant the autobiographical letters of Fanny, who we meet as a 15-year-old Liverpudlian orphan before being given a bedside seat to numerous exploits, was banned right up until the Lady Chatterley case in 1963. Cleland himself would be arrested for obscenity, the phrase “stiff truncheon” appearing on his record as being the final straw for magistrates.

And from here to another house of cheeky bawdiness: the marvellous Victoria Palace Theatre, a few streets from Cleland’s home.

A concert venue was first established on the site above a set of stables in 1832. It morphed into the Royal Standard Theatre, home to music halls, before the current space was designed by Frank Matcham in 1911.

Its design was ground-breaking, with Matcham including a sliding roof on the auditorium which would be rolled back during intervals to allow fresh air in – and offer the audience a view of the night sky.

Impresario, horse racing dabbler, Baronet and Tory MP Alfred Butt managed the programme: with its music hall past, it had a reputation for light-heartedness. Even when serious plays were produced, the audience would look for laughs.

In 1934, the 83-year-old Rev Walter Reynolds wrote Young England, a piece of stodgy patriotism of how the Boy Scout movement instills moral values. It was universally panned to such a degree that it became a cult hit and saw 278 sold-out performances before transferring to other West End theatres. Lines such as a Scout Mistress saying: “I must go to attend to my girls’ water” was roared out by a chorus of voices from the stalls who had learned the awful script by heart.

Two years after this unintentional success, Butt, who represented Balham and Tooting from 1922, was accused of leaking details of the 1936 Budget and benefiting financially. He resigned and scurried off to Newmarket to look after his horses.

And with such tales we take leave for another week. Stay well, stay safe.

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