BARON'S COURT, ALL CHANGE by Terry Taylor
FURNISHED ROOM by Laura Del-Rivo
ADRIFT IN SOHO by Colin Wilson
Reviewed by Jim Burns
These three novels were first published in 1961 and they all deal with lives lived on the fringes of society in the 1950s. The title of the series they appear in — "Beats, Bums and Bohemians" - sums up the kind of people they focus on, though their links to an older Soho bohemianism might incline the pedantic to wonder if "Beats" really applies in a couple of cases. There were Beats around in the late-1950s, and the word itself was often a substitute for bohemians, but colourful and/or oddball characters didn't just arrive in Soho after Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg became well-known. Roland Camberton's Scamp, an earlier title from New London Editions, can be mentioned as throwing light on the subject in fictional form, and The World is a Wedding, an autobiography by Bernard Kops, tells in part about his induction into the community of misfits in Soho: "The regulars included the would-be poets, the sad girls from Scotland, the artists without studio or canvas." And he refers to Iron Foot Jack, the "King of the Bohemians," and Iris Orton, "A strange girl with a cloak, who was a beautiful poet." I remember seeing some of her poems in Jazz & Blues around forty years ago when I was writing for the magazine, so she was obviously still around then, but like so many poets she's since been forgotten. Jazz & Blues was edited by Albert McCarthy, himself an old Soho bohemian with roots going back into the 1940s.
I've mentioned Jazz & Blues because Terry Taylor's Baron's Court, All Change, the book that might have some sort of Beat linkage, has a fair amount of jazz content and points to the importance of the music as a kind of escape from the routines of working and lower middle-class lives and the dull and dispiriting nature of the jobs available to intelligent, but not academically qualified young people. John, the hero of the novel, has an interest in spiritualism, though it becomes clear that it too is a means of finding something that doesn't tie in with the conformity of the wider society. It's at one of the spiritualist meetings that he encounters Bunty, an older woman, who is also there because it offers an alternative to conventional involvements. As she says: “There's a hundred different paths to travel that have nothing to do with crying babies, football pools, watching the tele, and Saturday night at the local.” Bunty introduces John to abstract art, alcohol, and some tentative sexual adventures, but at the same time his jazz interests take him into the world of cannabis, or "charge" as those in the know called it. Several other names are also used and I suppose it's inevitable that, as well as its virtues as a novel, Baron's Court, All Change has a great deal of sociological interest. There were never all that many books, either fact or fiction, that talked about the kind of people who frequented jazz clubs where modern jazz was played in the 1950s, which is one reason that I read Terry Taylor immediately his book was published in 1961. It referred to experiences when listening to the music that I could identify with. John says that his introduction to bebop came through hearing Bebop Spoken Here, track recorded by Tito Burns in 1949. It was around 1950, when I was fourteen, that I first heard this record, and though I suspect that more-aware enthusiasts may have considered it a commercialised version of the real sounds it seemed to me to sum up an attitude of wanting to stand apart from the square world.
John is soon a committed user of cannabis and is drawn into selling as well as using it. He and a friend are soon supplying many of the musicians they admire, but John objects when the friend wants to expand their business into dealing in heroin. A couple of junkies are described in the novel and their dependency is shown as contrasting with the benign influence that cannabis supposedly has. The partners have been using the home of an acquaintance, Miss Roach, to hide their supply of drugs, though she's not aware of this fact. When the police raid her flat she's left to take the blame because she has a previous conviction for possession of cannabis. John seems to be having a crisis of conscience as the novel ends, but it's not clear if he'll tell the police that Miss Roach is innocent. He has been portrayed as behaving responsibly in other circumstances, particularly with regard to his sister, so the reader is left guessing about what will happen.
As I said earlier, Baron's Court, All Change has documentary value, and jazz historians may find it of interest. A few names of real people are mentioned, such as Phil Seamen, a legendary British drummer and notorious junkie, Kenny Graham, Sonny Stitt, and Charlie Parker, and Miss Roach has a cat she calls Wardell Gray. Other musicians have fictitious names, though it may be possible to identify the real people behind them, if that's what you like to do. For me, it's enough that Terry Taylor evokes the period and the atmosphere so well. True, some of the slang now sounds so dated that it's almost cute, but most slang is like that.
At one point in Terry Taylor's novel his hero is in a Soho coffee-bar and describes it as a place "where the strangest mixture of human beings gathered to fix up deals that never materialise, to talk about their painting and writing and a whole gang of other things, but I'm afraid they talk more than they create." It's a description almost echoed in Laura Del-Rivo's The Furnished Room when the central character, Beckett, goes into a Soho cafe and reflects on the kind of people he'd fallen in with when he moved to London: "He had found writers who did not write, painters who did not paint, petty thieves who were so unsuccessful that they were always scrounging the price of a cup of tea, and pretty girls who turned out to be art-school tarts with dirty faces."
Taylor's hero has ambitions, if only to break away from suburban existence, and his activities as a drug dealer might point to an attempt to establish a role for himself in the circles he'd chosen to move in. But Beckett is a drifter, a man without any real aim in life. He works as a clerk but hates it and hasn't the energy or motivation to move on to something more interesting or challenging. He's not necessarily a bad person and helps an old man who is being harassed by some Teddy Boys. He also has some regard for his mother. But an encounter with a disgraced ex-officer leads to him considering whether or not to get involved in a plot to murder an old lady for her money. Beckett, with his mixture of Catholic guilt and existentialist doubt, needs to do something that will force him to face up to reality. He wants to feel something beyond doubt and disbelief because, as he says at one point, "disbelief is the opposite of freedom, because it paralyses action at the root."
The Furnished Room, like Baron's Court, All Change, is full of small details that create the atmosphere of the 1950s. It's a world of brown ales and pubs that close at 3pm. When Beckett invites a girl back to his bedsit he has to ask her to talk quietly because he's not supposed to have visitors after 10.30pm. And he says: "I want to find a place without a landlady on the premises. I detest the whole race. The constant pettiness and prying, the complaining notes pushed under the door." After Beckett walks out of his job he drifts around, has desultory affairs with a couple of women, and eventually agrees to kill the old lady.
The kind of quasi-philosophical discussions that Beckett has with the old man he helped and with the slightly sinister ex-officer are the sort of thing that Harry in Colin Wilson's Adrift in Soho likes to engage in. It's perhaps not surprising that Laura Del-Rivo was, in the 1950s, a member of a group that clustered around Wilson. I would guess, though I could be wrong, that he had some influence on her writing. Wilson's own novel is about yet another unsettled young man who samples the Soho scene. The difference is that Harry has no desire to become a king-pin around the jazz scene, nor is he as depressed and aimless as Beckett.
It's true that, like John and Beckett, he's at odds with the world of humdrum jobs and conventional people, but he's determined to become a writer and is far more intellectually inclined than the others. Harry understands from the beginning that the bohemian life he encounters in Soho may have its charms, and can be entertaining, but it's not likely to lead to producing anything of great value. His immersion in it is just a short episode on a longer journey. It was Arsene Houssaye, the 19th Century French writer, who said that he was suspicious of literary bohemians because he saw them as only passing through and looking for material to write about. And it isn't to Colin Wilson's discredit if I say that his book often gives that impression. It's an intellectual exercise, albeit one with a light touch and some humour. John and Beckett are contemptuous of the non-productive bohemians they encounter, whereas Harry is amused by them.
The world of literature and learning is a constant throughout Adrift in Soho and names like T.S.Eliot, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche soon crop up. There are also references to Count Basie, Stanford White, Sir Thomas Beecham, and Charles Boyer. Harry is an autodidact and likes to immerse himself in a world of culture where one thing leads to another. When he finds his way to bohemian dives in Soho he encounters a self-proclaimed anarchist, Robert De Bruyn who sells him a book by Lautréamont, and is introduced to Iron Foot Jack and other characters. I'm sure that many of them would be easily recognisable to anyone who frequented Soho in the 1950s, or who knows something of the literature of the period. The people Harry talks to are not the types found in Baron's Court, All Change, nor in The Furnished Room. They often seem to be from an older category of bohemians.
I was reminded of John Gawsworth, at one time a poet with at least a minor reputation but who declined into drink and a shambling existence around Soho and elsewhere. I doubt that many people know his poetry, and I've only read it in a couple of anthologies, but he had been rated enough in his day for a Collected Poems to be published by Sidgwick & Jackson in 1949. He also edited Poetry Review for a time and was said to be knowledgeable about the literature of the 1890s. Gawsworth (his real name was Terence Ian Fytton Armstrong) also wrote fantasy and horror stories and knew M.P.Shiel, who bequeathed him an island in the Caribbean that he supposedly owned. Gawsworth liked to see himself as the King of Redonda and was given to bestowing titles on friends and acquaintances, especially those who plied him with liquor. There's an entertaining, though perhaps also sad account of a visit that Gawsworth paid to the St Ives poet Arthur Caddick in the Winter 1972 issue of The Cornish Review. Caddick was not averse to a drink himself but he struggled to cope with Gawsworth's alcoholic eccentricities. Interestingly, there is some useful information about him in All Souls, a novel by the Spanish writer, Javier Marias.
Have I digressed too far from considering Adrift in Soho? Not really, because I wanted to mention Gawsworth as an example of the sort of bohemians around Soho when Wilson got there in the pre-Beat days. His book is full of characters like Gawsworth. Harry meets a man who describes himself as a "Babouvian," which he explains is a follower of Gracchus Babeuf, "one of the earliest and greatest of the socialist thinkers." Later, there's a reference to "two drunken homosexual painters," who, when mentioned a second time, are described as "Welsh." But it doesn't take much imagination to guess that they're based on the two Scottish Roberts - Colquhoun and MacBryde - who were well-known around Soho in the 1940s and 1950s.
Harry has a dream of establishing a "community of artists" who would pool their resources and support each other. But he lodges in a tumbledown Notting Hill house where a variety of would-be poets and writers live, and soon realises that their main aim is to avoid having to work. He comes to the conclusion that "avoiding work costs more energy than a straightforward job." While sampling the bohemian scene he's met an out-of-work actor who has explained his philosophy of bohemianism, and though Harry has been interested by what he's seen and heard he knows he can't possibly remain in that situation: "I could never live according to James's 'philosophy of freedom.' For better or for worse, I am a bourgeois." Harry has realised the truth in what Tambimuttu, another Soho regular of the post-war years, told Julian Maclaren-Ross: "If you get Sohoitis, you will stay there always day and night and get no work done ever."
Adrift in Soho ends on a more-positive note than the other two books under review. Harry helps an artist, Ricky, who is the one talented person in the Notting Hill house, to construct a barrier to his studio so that the shiftless bohemians hanging around in the rest of the property will not keep invading his space and stopping him working. Harry feels a sense of satisfaction at the thought that Ricky has accepted him as understanding why it's sometimes necessary to go to extreme lengths to assert one's needs for privacy and time to work.
I can't end this review without referring to the context in which the three books were first published. 1961 was very much a time when books and articles by and about bohemians, Beats, and other outsiders seemed to abound. The Beat explosion of the late-1950s was partly responsible, but I'd guess that rising affluence and the loosening of the social restrictions that shaped life in the 1950s also helped. The 1960s didn't really start until 1963 or so, and the kind of "underground" scene often dominated by pop music was not much in evidence before that. But something was stirring. I've had a quick look along my bookshelves and there are books, all published around 1961, that point to the interest in the bohemian lives of artists and writers. To name a few of them, Robert Baldick's The First Bohemian:The Life of Henry Murger; Allen Churchill's The Improper Bohemians; Ned Calmer's All the Summer Days; Louis Vaczek's The Troubador; Lawrence Levine's The Great Alphonse. I'm sure I could find more if I looked hard enough. Bohemianism was in the air, and Soho, St Ives, Montparnasse, and Greenwich Village, not to mention North Beach in San Francisco were the places to head for.
And the writers now? Taylor, Del-Rivo and Wilson are all still alive. A note tells us that Wilson lives quietly in Cornwall with his 30,000 books. He's written over 100 himself on a variety of subjects. Laura Del-Rivo also carried on writing but supported herself with a market-stall in Portobello Road. Terry Taylor never published anything after his first book, though there was a "lost" novel and another that remains unpublished. He had a somewhat colourful life, being at one time the lover of the photographer Ida Kar. An exhibition of her work at the National Portrait Gallery in 2011 included photographs of Taylor and Laura Del-Rivo. I was delighted to read that, in more recent years, he ran a sandwich shop in Rhyl.