As I have mentioned already, one of the more striking features of the Barney trial is the almost universal lack of sympathy for the victim. Though the press and the public eventually turned against Elvira, from the moment of her arrest, to the scenes of the “Great British Public” singing “For She’s A Jolly Good Fellow” on learning of her acquittal, the balance of opinion was firmly pro- Elvira and anti- Michael. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the many lachrymose articles devoted to the tragedy and plight of Sir John and Lady Mullens. Michael’s family barely get a look in.
Part of this is due, I am afraid, to the deference towards wealth that marks English culture in the period. It is hard to read some of the accounts of the trial without wincing at the extent of forelock-tugging on display. Michael, though from a thoroughly respectable middle-class background, could not compete with the perceived glamour of the upper crust.
But there is more to it than that, I think. One aspect is the rather familiar habit of assuming that any signs of “degeneracy” on behalf of a woman is down to her being “led astray” by a man. A good example of this is the case of Billie Carleton ( examined by Marek Kohn in Dope Girls). The adventurous and independent Carleton was transformed by her overdose into a “broken butterfly” by a press keen to blame Limehouse Orientals or her gay friend, the costume designer Reggie De Veulle, for her untimely death. More recent examples can be found by looking at tabloid coverage of the likes of Kate Moss and Amy Winehouse.
However it is the portrayal of Michael as sponger and womaniser (and possibly worse) that influenced popular opinion and, I strongly suspect, the jury. Elvira is depicted as foolish but Michael is sinister. His sexuality is an issue at the trial, not hers. One can still hear the judge’s disapproval on being told that Michael’s last known occupation was as a dress designer (“I suppose that means women’s’dresses”). Furthermore, Michael fitted easily into an already well-established stereotype – the “cad” who shuffles between Soho and Mayfair. Now, that might seem to apply to any number of Elvira’s male friends but for the 1930s’ readers of newspapers, detective fiction and “True Crime” tales, it carried a very specific set of meanings.
Fairly typical is this 1931 description.
“An elegant young man of the “mother’s spoilt darling” type, who moves in Mayfair when he is not in Soho: stylishly dressed with a touch of effeminacy in his make-up, and all the talk of the cocktail parties and the flashier clubs of the Bright Young Things. There is some mystery about his origin; he is supposed to derive from a good family on the shady side! He certainly has an entree to the lighter side of Mayfair which he puts to good – or bad – use in sundry ways. The Underworld has its liaison officers who “tip it the wink” or retail it a spicy bit of scandal for a consideration. What happens to the casual bit of information after he has retailed it is of no importance to him. He just pays one or two pressing bills – usually the tailor’s – and goes to another cocktail party or gets an invitation to the Opera or the Ballet or a fashionable First Night. Nobody asks him how he lives, for he moves in an Overworld in which everyone has money of some sort, somewhere, without having to work for it or explain its source. So long as he can keep on friendly terms with his tailor and his laundry he need not worry about much else. If he cannot afford to buy the smart society weeklies he can cadge them from a friend or run over them at a friend’s house, see them he must, but he would never condescend to be seen entering a public library…”
If this is not actually Michael, then it fits the public image of him like a well-tailored glove.The elegant clothes, the rather unmasculine appearance, the lack of a proper job, the gambling debts and the insinuations of not-to-be-mentioned vices are all of a keeping with a figure that a decade of such writing had made instantly recognisable.
The quotation comes from Trevor Allen’s “The Underworld“, from a chapter appropriately entitled “Soho Night Clubs: The Drug Craze”. Trevor Allen’s contribution, supposedly based on the memoirs of Soho hustler “Charles Brooks”, was one of a spate of nominally non-fiction works offering the law-abiding English audience a glimpse of the exotic underside of London life. This genre flourished in the 20s and 30s and the contents are nearly always the same – a section on nightclubs and racetrack gangs, something on the drug craze, great emphasis on “Vice” and obligatory remarks on the interaction between Mayfair and Soho. Salacious in intent, the books manage also to assume a relentlessly moralising tone. They are also uniformly racist, homophobic and misogynistic. Crime reporters and hack authors, such as the egregious Sydney Horler (a sort of cross between Sapper and Richard Littlejohn) and ex-Mosley bodyguard Peter Cheyney, bravely sought out the corrupt and the unnatural for the public’s edification. This was no marginal phenomenon, Horler and Cheyney were two of the best-selling authors of the inter-war period. Criminals got in on the act too. Conmen such as Netley Lucas, a King’s Road resident in 1931, churned out several such volumes in between periodic brushes with the law. In such sensationalist company, Allen’s “The Underworld” is actually one of the more sober accounts.
None of the above writers placed a high premium on historical accuracy but as an insight into that mixture of fascination and fear that characterised the popular media view of clubland and its habitues, they are invaluable. The genre continued well into the 1950s when Robert Fabian’s London After Dark and Arthur Tietjens Soho, were still regaling suburban readers with tales of Brilliant Chang and Eddie Manning, sinister blackmailers, “perverts” and good girls lured into vice with barely an altered sentence from the pre-war titles.
So, just as Elvira is forever associated with the song “Poor Little Rich Girl”, Michael was damned by the resemblance he bore to an already established set of images about young men “of his type”. Of course, he may have shared all of the “vices” that underpinned that imagery. But he may not have. By the time of the trial it didn’t matter. He had become that oddest of things – a “guilty corpse”.
Should anyone wish to delve further into this odd little corner of English publishing then, as well as Allen, I would particularly recommend Netley Lucas’ Ladies of the Underworld, Sidney Horler’s London’s Underworld and Ada Chesterton’s Women of the Underworld. It appears that it was compulsory to use the term Underworld in every title. If you want a book that covers the same general area but does so genuinely from an “insider’s” point of view then Mark Benney’s “Low Company” is, despite a rather self-consciously “philosophical” style, indispensable.