In its earliest years Penguin published longer books in two volumes, each sold at the standard six-penny price, and with pages numbered consecutively to make it clear that the two volumes comprised a single book; Queer Street was the eighth such Penguin edition.
I assume that the title of this set of Penguins is meant to refer to a new trend rather than a genuine 1920's London location, although it is difficult to be sure as Queer Street is mentioned infrequently and obliquely - but it doesn't connote what it would today. I think Queer Street is an allusion to what is suggested as the post-WWI phenomenon of young adults moving out of their parents' home and into bed-sitting rooms in the central parts of London, sharing bathrooms and heating up their evening meal on a gas ring.
Euan Cartaret takes this step when his only sister is married, as until this time her role in the family had been the rather limited one of staying home and 'keeping house'. His friend Mona Fenwick is also living in a bedsit, although this is perhaps a more interesting and novel state of affairs because she is female. The life she leads in consequence is not an easy one: she needs to evade the unwelcome sexual advances of her employer, and she must nightly seek out men willing to pay for her drinks and her meals if she is to have sufficient left to pay the rent at the end of the week. Such men often want something in return, and so an easy virtue helps her cope with her financial dilemmas.
And so it seems implied that the 1920s were a heyday for men, particularly those who were middle-aged and unhappily married, or younger and on decent salaries but reluctant to commit; women, on the other hand, couldn't afford to be too choosy. The underlying demographic of the 1920s which must at least partly underpin this trend - the mismatch in numbers between young men and women following the war - is never mentioned, although the limited prospects of the surplus women are outlined: it was life-long virginity while keeping house for an ungrateful relative, or marriage with any man willing to provide the means to escape from such a fate.
This advent of Bohemia is suggested instead to be a reaction to the austerities and the terrors of the war years. Once the war was over the younger generation willingly embraced optimism and exuberance, and began living as though the future need never be considered:
When did it begin, this period? Perhaps a year after the peace, when we woke up out of dreams and nightmares and realized that the millennium and the final disaster were both equally far off and that the present was rather worrying. That was the time when the young people began to emerge and cheerfully to accept as permanent a world which to their elders seemed more fleeting than any that had ever existed. The world, as the young people saw it, looked good and they leapt on to the merry-go-round as it went by. Little did it avail their elders to tell them that this visit to the fair had been only a night out after a stiff day's work.Life was about pleasure, and the main reason for working was to fund the socialising. Enjoyment apparently entailed excessive drinking, eating and dancing, and there was no rational reason to save or plan. You could buy what you wanted now through hire-purchase, or invest next year's profits in today's grand schemes. And anything was possible if you had access to a financial backer.
Sir Maurice Blabey was one such backer. He had made his fortune during the war, and he now acts as an entrepreneur, backing those ventures which take his fancy. One of these is the Bran Pie Club, a nightclub situated on one of the laneways near Piccadilly Circus. The membership is meant to be exclusive, but it is really restricted to anyone who is solvent and who hasn't recently upset Horace Griffin, the club's proprietor. It is the centre of the world for all the characters whose lives are described in this novel.
Edward Shank's intention seems to be to supply an amusing novel which also provides a comprehensive survey of the nightclub-frequenting public of the 1920s, while perhaps passing comment on the precariousness of a life devoted to the pleasures of the moment. It is an ambitious project: he details the lives both within and without the club of a vast cast of nightclub patrons. Their stories and their fates inevitably intertwine, so that the success or failure of one of their number can have serious implications for them all.
It is interesting principally because it describes a way of life entirely unremarkable now, but apparently shocking at the time, but it is simply too long. In living for the present the two principal characters are not heading anywhere - Monica Fenwick's battle with the rent collector must be fought weekly, but it is an ongoing cycle from which she can never escape because no one will contemplate marrying a woman with her history. And Euan's ardent affections for the passionless Phyllis Blabey, daughter of Sir Maurice, also becomes tedious as the book continues. Despite the twists and turns of the plot, and the fortunes made and lost, there was not really enough to support the 522 pages used in its telling.
Published September 1932. Published in Penguin Books 1938.