Sunday, 2 March 2014

Penguins no. 164 & 165: Queer Street
by Edward Shanks

He was not in love with her. Love? No, but warmth and comfort, companionship, and distraction. What, he wondered, too, would become of her? She was twenty-five and she was - easy. He was, he knew, her third or fourth lover. She had told him nothing, except by implication, about the others, but the implications were frank enough...He had dimly come to understand that state of mind since he had taken a bed-sitting room in Queer Street. What did become of girls like Mona? She was one of Post-war's experiments. Did Post-war know what it was after with this pleasant flesh and blood?

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.

It was an approach which had several drawbacks. First volumes typically outsold second volumes, and there was always the risk of annoying customers who had purchased just the first volume only to find the narrative suddenly truncated, and of even more seriously annoying customers who had inadvertently purchased only the second. In 1947 Penguin decided to replace this two-volume approach with double volumes which sold at twice the standard price, and which could be identified by two dancing Penguins standing back to back on the front cover.

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.


  1. 'Queer street' is an old phrase in British English for an imaginary street or place where people in difficulties (often, but not necessarily, financial difficulties) are supposed to live – being in Queer Street is a way of saying you're in some kind of trouble. The OED traces it back to 1811, so it's not a new idea, and not specific to the 1920s.

    1. Carey Street- where London's bankruptcy court used to be- was used with the same meaning- a distortion or old name for it, perhaps? In this book it sounds as if the characters are spending more than they can earn or pay, literally or metaphorically, so they're all "in Queer Street".

    2. Thanks Philip - that explains not only the intended meaning, but why it was always mentioned in such an odd way. Edward Shanks could clearly take it for granted that his intended audience understood the allusion, even if I didn't.

  2. If Shanks is remembered at all, I think it is mainly for his science fiction novel The People of the Ruins, which is a post-apocalyptic novel set after the fall of English civilization. I guess when you have too many people living on Queer Street that is what happens to your civilization.

    It is worth noting that for many authors all that remains of their reputations is the science fiction, fantasy and horror stories they wrote. I am willing to bet that the only book written by Shanks that has been reprinted in recent years was the abridged version of The People of the Ruins published last year. For instance, Robert W. Chambers' horror collection The King in Yellow (1895) recently appeared on the best seller list. He was a popular author in his time, but The King in Yellow is virtually the only thing he wrote which still sustains his reputation. So if you are a popular author and want to be remembered, you have to write some science fiction or horror.



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