By Nick Rennison

Oldcastle Books. 224 pages. £12.99. ISBN 978-1-904048-30-5


By Peter Speiser

The British Library. 192 pages. £10.00. ISBN 978-0-7123-5657-2

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Bohemia? What is it, where is it, does it exist anymore? There are suggestions that it doesn’t in any meaningful way, in which case my questions should be, what was it, where was it? More than one commentator on the subject has suggested that bohemia is always yesterday, and memoirs by those who lived in bohemia at one time or another often give the impression that what they experienced was the genuine thing and anything coming after just a pale imitation of it. Henry Murger, the man usually held responsible for starting the bohemian ball rolling in the 1840s, was of the opinion that bohemia couldn’t exist outside Paris, and that it had passed when his particular group broke up.

Nick Rennison outlines the birth of bohemia in his briskly written survey of where it was to be found in London. Like most accounts, he starts in Paris with Henry Murger’s Scènes de la vie de Bohème (Scenes of Bohemian Life) which was published in book form in 1851, though the first of the  sketches which make up the so-called novel had appeared in a Paris publication, Le Corsaire, in 1845, and a play by Murger and Théodore Barrière, had been based on them in 1849.

It might be worth noting that Balzac’s A Great Man in Embryo, published in 1839 as part of Illusions perdues (Lost Illusions), provided a vivid plcture of the Parisian literary world of struggling poets and journalists that Murger would have known. Murger’s version of it tended to play up the humorous side on the whole (the death of Mimi and some other details indicate that there were dark aspects to bohemia), and when Puccini came along forty or so years later, and presented his opera, La Bohème, to the world, romanticism really took over. The harsh realities of bohemian life were made to seem tolerable because of the compensations of wine, women, and song.

Murger, Puccini, and George Du Maurier with Trilby, popularised bohemia, but there was nothing new about it even when Murger arrived. There had always been hordes of minor writers attempting to hack out a living in London, Paris, and no doubt elsewhere, with poems, plays, satires, scurrilous suggestions, and anything else that might earn them a penny or two to pay the rent and purchase the food and drink (especially the latter) they needed. Grub Street in London was, for a time, a centre for them, and even when they moved on the name stuck. The link between Grub Street and bohemia was always easy to see. There may be some truth in Malcolm Cowley’s statement that “bohemia is Grub Street on parade”.

It’s usual to acknowledge that the term bohemian came into use around the 1830s in Paris, the oddly-attired students and scribblers in the Latin Quarter reminding people of gypsies who were, at that time, thought to have arrived from the actual land of Bohemia. But there is an interesting book, discovered by the American historian, Robert Darnton, which was published in 1790 with the title, Les Bohémians (The Bohemians), and which is about a group of feckless philosophers of one kind or another who function almost as strolling players, discoursing on philosophical questions, swindling country folk, stealing what they need to in order to survive, seducing any woman in sight, and generally misbehaving. According to Darnton, the book was written by Anne Gédéon Lafitte, Marquis de Pelleport while he was in the Bastille. In a nearby cell was the Marquis de Sade, busy churning out pornography.

Pelleport was a man, despite “Anne” being part of his name. His activities, as told by Darnton, certainly display an affinity for Grub Street bohemianism. A translation of The Bohemians was published by the University of Pennsylvania in 2010. In his long, informative introduction Darnton mentions that he came across a reference to “bohemians”, in the sense of disreputable types, in a book published in London in French in 1783. There were quite a few exiled French hack writers living in London at the time, many of them banished from their own country because of libellous and salacious material they had written.

I think the main point to be made is that the Grub Street hacks were living the way that they did out of necessity, whereas many bohemians, once the idea became widely publicised, chose to live in garrets and suffer for their art. Or pretend to.  The rise of the Romantic in literature had encouraged poets to see themselves as at odds with the world. They would not churn out doggerel for pay, and if the public didn’t care for what they did produce, well that was the public’s fault.

I’ve never been sure that bohemia ever established itself in London in the style that it did in Paris. Café life didn’t exist in the same way in the British city, and despite the attractions of pubs they were never really likely to appeal to poets and artists as places to engage in spirited discussions about art and literature and philosophy.  Joanna Richardson in The Bohemians: La vie de Bohème in Paris, 1830-1914 (Macmillan, London, 1969) reckoned that the “matter-of-factness of the Englishman”, and his reluctance to “prolong intellectual conversation”, worked against the kind of café life that encouraged bohemianism in Paris.

Rennison provides a brief look at Grub Street, an actual location as well as a descriptive term. Alexander Pope satirised the hacks in The Dunciad, and books have been written about them. One of the more recent, Vic Gatrell’s The First Bohemians (Allen Lane, 2013), shows how Covent Garden took over from Grub Street as a centre for the crowds of impoverished writers and artists desperately trying to earn a living at their respective trades, and in the process often resorting to trickery, pornography, and worse to get by.

As the subtitle of London Bohemia suggests, Rennison’s story really gets off the ground with the Pre-Raphaelites, whose paintings can still sometimes cause a fuss, if the removal of a work by J.W. Waterhouse from public display in Manchester City Art Gallery is anything to go by. (It was later put back after protests about censorship).  19th century artists, not all of them Pre-Raphaelites, often had a predilection for naked women and girls, some of them below the age we’d now consider acceptable for models. The artists’ patrons no doubt favoured them, too.

Rennison mostly focuses on Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose activities with various women, not to mention his liking for alcohol and drugs, makes for a lively tale. As usual with accounts of bohemia, not much is said about the work that Rossetti produced as a painter and poet. We are told about him burying a collection of poems with the body of his wife, and later having her body exhumed so he could recover the manuscript for publication. That’s the thing with bohemia, it’s the antics of bohemians that take precedence over the work. It’s true that a lot of bohemians were “failures” (but then, “give flowers to the rebels failed”), and their works ephemeral, but there is an attraction about forgotten books and magazines that I find hard to resist. A reference or two to Pre-Raphaelite poets, and their short-lived (four issues) little magazine, The Germ, might have been useful. It may well have been one of the first little magazines that marked the march of bohemia, and became its mode of expression. Little magazines and small press publications record the history of bohemia.

Rennison does devote some attention to a couple of little magazines that were related to the bohemianism of the 1890s. The Yellow Book and The Savoy have come to represent the era in some ways, though in the case of The Yellow Book its reputation for decadence largely resulted from the fact that when Oscar Wilde was arrested he was carrying a yellow-backed novel and the newspapers said that it was a copy of The Yellow Book. They probably weren’t bothered about the inaccuracy, The Yellow Book in their minds being associated with foreign influences, especially from France, and so at odds with British tastes for sport, plain speaking, and down-to-earth general behaviour. The fact that London was packed with prostitutes, both male and female, that children could quite easily be bought to satisfy the desires of men with money, including members of the aristocracy, and that extreme pornography was obtainable from “under the counter” sources, appeared to pale into insignificance compared to Wilde’s peccadillos. Or so the establishment obviously thought.

Both publications published a range of writers and artists, but The Yellow Book was, on the whole quite decorous, though Aubrey Beardsley’s drawings may have hinted at suspect ideas. They were quickly dropped from its cover and contents when Wilde fell foul of the law. Leonard Smithers, the editor of The Savoy, was, to be fair, a somewhat dubious character. He peddled pornography on the side, while at the same time publishing poets like Ernest Dowson and Arthur Symons, both of them symptomatic of 1890s decadence, though in Symons case his verses about assignations with actresses (“The pink and black of silk and lace,/Flushed in the rosy-golden glow/Of lamplight on her lifted face;/Powder and wig, and pink and lace”.) are generally thought to be inferior imitations of the kind of writing by French poets who he admired.

Smithers himself came to what might be seen as a suitably bohemian end, sinking into poverty and addiction, and finally dying naked in an unfurnished house, his body surrounded by empty bottles of Dr Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne, a patent medicine containing laudanum, tincture of cannabis, and chloroform. There are several versions about the circumstances involving Smithers’ death, and they’re fully outlined in James G. Nelson’s Publisher to the Decadents : Leonard Smithers in the careers of Beardsley, Wilde, Dowson (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000).

Other 1890s personalities met similarly tragic ends. Ernest Dowson died from consumption, exacerbated by his heavy drinking. Lionel Johnson, another heavy drinker died from a stroke. John Davidson committed suicide.  The fine short-story writer Hubert Crackanthorpe died in a mysterious manner in Paris. Aubrey Beardsley died of tuberculosis. The little-known John Barlas went insane. Arthur Symons, suffering from the effects of syphilis, spent time in an asylum. Francis Thompson fell into “opium and squalor”. Vincent O’Sullivan did survive until his seventies, but died in poverty in Paris. It’s easy to mock the fragile careers of these people, but I have a fondness for their poetry and prose.

Perhaps it’s relevant to mention at this point one of my own favourite novels, George Gissing’s New Grub Street. It isn’t about bohemianism in the way that the 1890s poets may have lived and died, but it seems to me to exemplify how Grub Street and bohemia intermingled. Some of Gissing’s characters toil in the “valley of the shadow of books”, the British Museum Reading Room, where they write erudite articles for intellectual magazines. There are also a couple of novelists, one a kind of proletarian trying to produce a social-realist book that will probably never be published, the other aiming for something different but whose books don’t sell. And there’s a man who will succeed because he’s learned how to write for the popular publications that are springing up to cater for a newly-educated public that doesn’t want intellectual fare but likes to see itself as intelligent and informed. He’ll live well, but the others will struggle to make ends meet, just like the bohemians.   

It has been suggested that the Wilde trials and their attendant publicity had a negative effect on the development of literature in Britain, with many poets and novelists being reluctant to push too far in expanding the boundaries of style and expression. It might also have put a damper on flamboyant displays of bohemianism, long hair and colourful clothing being associated in the narrow British mind with homosexuality.  It’s a theme investigated in Hugh Kenner’s A Sinking Island (Knopf, 1988).

There were examples of bohemian behaviour in the lIves of artists like Augustus John and Jacob Epstein. John cut a swathe through London society, and especially the female part of it, with his good looks and obvious talents as a painter. Epstein also attracted attention, sometimes because the public sculptures he was commissioned to construct upset the puritans. Both John and Epstein frequented the Café Royal, the haunt of many writers and artists over the years.

Did Wyndham Lewis go there? He founded one of the few genuine British art movements, Vorticism, and published a couple of issues of Blast, a publication that has a place in the history of avant-garde little magazines.  Lewis was also a novelist and an excellent painter. An exhibition at the Imperial War Museum North in Salford in 2017 fully covered the range of his activities. He was a great arguer and not looked on too kindly by the liberal establishment in England because of his expressed admiration for Fascism in its early phases. He later seems to have changed his mind.

I have to admit that Rennison’s suspicions about whether or not the Bloomsbury group were bohemians appealed to me. As he puts it: “By some definitions of the word, it is difficult to categorise the Bloomsbury artists and intellectuals as ‘bohemian’. If they were, they were upper middle-class bohemians who often found it difficult to forget that they were upper middle-class. They were bohemians who needed to employ maids and cooks to cater to their everyday needs”. The fact that they liked to bed-hop didn’t make them into bohemians. 

The Great War had an effect on bohemia, with people either volunteering or eventually being conscripted for military service. And no one was likely to be interested in bohemian capers while thousands of men were dying in France and elsewhere. There was certainly nothing like the democratic spirit that was prevalent during the Second World War and which, from a literary point of view, led to an outburst of activity at all levels of society and the birth of numerous little magazines and, despite paper rationing, many small presses. It’s impossible to imagine publications like Penguin New Writing and Reginald Moore’s Modern Reading being around between 1914 and 1918.

When Rennison gets into the 1920s I have to admit that my interest began to wane a little. I’ve always felt that bohemia has little meaning if it’s not linked to the arts. His account of the period tends to focus on various clubs that were meeting places for bright young things who may have sniffed cocaine, slept around, and provided material for novelists who observed them, but they were, on the whole, non-productive as writers and artists themselves A few may have written memoirs in later years, but I can’t pretend to be concerned about their lives.

Luckily, the narrative picks up when he moves on to the 1930s. Pubs became more important than clubs. Fitzrovia, the area to the north of Oxford Street bounded on one side by Tottenham Court Road, became popular, and there were bookshops and magazines, political demonstrations, the Surrealist Exhibition in 1936, and left-wing political groups which encouraged poets and others to lend their voices to the demands to alleviate the suffering caused by the Depression and the threats caused by the rise of Fascism. The Spanish Civil War focused many minds on the need to take a more-serious stance in terms of both personal behaviour and commitment to something other than personal achievement. Was this likely to lead to bohemian lives? Well, it could do if one considers how money was short and opportunities to get ahead limited. A commitment to a political cause, coupled with a commitment to writing poetry or a novel, might incline a writer to eke out a frugal, bohemian-like existence so as not to compromise. But not everyone was politically inclined.

Parts of Ethel Mannin’s novel, Ragged Banners (Jarrolds, 1931) are set in this world. In one scene in “Reinhardt’s (in reality The Fitzroy Tavern, often called “Kleinfeld’s” after its landlord) there are references to “a frowsy woman in a disreputable old pony-skin coat…….with her glazed eyes and tawdry clothes, a ruin of a woman”. Someone explains that she was once famous in Montparnasse. It’s a description of a character clearly based Nina Hamnett, who naturally took offence at being portrayed in this way and threatened to give Mannin a black eye if she saw her again. Denise Hooker’s Nina Hamnett: Queen of Bohemia (Constable, 1986) is an excellent biography of the artist.  

During and after the Second World War some of the action shifted to Soho, and I’ve got to acknowledge that I have an interest in the literature and art of the 1940s and early-1950s. In recent years, I’ve travelled to Edinburgh to see an exhibition of the work of the Two Roberts (Colquhoun and MacBryde) and to Chichester for another about John Minton, as well as to other towns and cities where relevant work could be seen. And I’ve been lucky enough to have met W.S.Graham, David Gascoyne, John Heath-Stubbs, and some more survivors from those days.

I’ve also collected the books and little magazines that published the poets and prose writers, not paying excessive amounts for them but instead prowling around second-hand bookshops, charity shops, and market bookstalls. All that was in the days before the internet and when there were still plenty of second-hand bookshops. It never bothered me that the books were grubby and the magazines occasionally tattered. If all the pages were there, I was happy. It also pleased me that I once participated in a poetry reading in an upstairs room at the “French”, the name given to the York Minster in Dean Street, and on another occasion watched the landlord eject an inebriated Jeffrey Bernard from the premises. All that was some time after the glory days of the Forties and Fifties, but the shadows of old bohemians hovered in the corners of the room.

But I’m digressing and Rennison’s colourful account encompasses Francis Bacon, John Deakin, Lucien Freud, and others who now have books and articles written about them. The thing is that, for all their waywardness in the French or the Colony Room, Bacon, Freud, Minton, Colquhoun, MacBryde, and many others, did also produce some work of value. So did writers like Julian Maclaren-Ross, George Barker, David Wright, Paul Potts,  Philip O’Connor (his Steiner’s Tour, published by the Olympia Press in Paris in 1960 is probably forgotten now, but I enjoyed it), and even Jeffrey Bernard, whose Spectator columns were always a pleasure to read.

Does anyone remember John Gawsworth? He met a bohemian end, alcoholic and overlooked, though in his day he had been a productive poet and an active editor and anthologist. His poetry was what is usually referred to as traditional. The Spanish writer, Javier Marías wrote about him in his novels All Souls and Dark Back of Time. And how about the bookseller David Archer, who spent all his money on publishing poets and, cast aside in the pop-dominated 1960s, committed suicide in a hostel for the homeless? A friend of mine, now dead, worked in Archer’s bookshop for a brief period in the late-1950s and liked the man, but thought him unworldly when it came to business matters.

There are novels from the late-1940s and 1950s that are worth reading for their pictures of the period, among them Roland Camberton’s Scamp and Colin Wilson’s Adrift in Soho. It may be relevant to mention that, years ago, I did a poetry reading with an older poet who had been in London around 1950. One of the poems I read imagined walking through Soho and thinking that the ghosts of old bohemians were lurking in doorways and around the next turning. He had actually encountered some of the Soho literary bohemians and, in his view, they were better read about than experienced. He didn’t have a high opinion of them or their poems.

Rennison points out: “The supporting cast of characters in Scamp and Adrift in Soho are painters, philosophers, and traditional bohemian eccentrics”, with the central characters out to achieve some sort of literary status. But by the late-1950s, music was beginning to dominate. The new literature saw “a future in which literature and the visual arts will lose their primacy and music will take centre stage”.  I suppose as someone who was always a great jazz fan and collector (my first visit to a London jazz club was when, at the age of sixteen in 1952, I went to the Studio ’51 in Great Newport Street, just off Charing Cross Road, to hear some of the early British bebop musicians) I might have been expected to have taken a tolerant view of music coming to prominence. But I hadn’t foreseen the dominance of pop music, and it eventually struck me that it had a negative effect on bohemia. It’s difficult to think and talk when loud music is playing endlessly.

Music seemed to bring the ethics of the market with it and that inevitably meant publicity and a hunt for success. Big money was often involved and businessmen stepped in to take over. Bohemia had always been a small-scale thing, centred on a few cafés, pubs, and bookshops. The magazines and small-press publications that were hallmarks of bohemia were never expected to sell in large numbers. There were, of course, writers who spent some time in bohemia and moved on to become best-sellers. There were artists such as Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud who achieved fame. But they often didn’t seem to change in their basic attitudes, and it all seemed different from the world of pop culture. There’s an interesting passage in Edward Field’s memoir, The Man who would Marry Susan Sontag (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005): “It was Andy Warhol who declared the end of bohemianism with his camp emphasis on celebrity. Suddenly becoming successful and famous became the goal of creative artists and the bohemian ideal was finished”.

The onslaught of pop culture didn’t wipe out literary activity, and in some ways it may have helped it by providing outlets for magazines and pamphlets and books from small presses. I spent a lot of time in the Sixties and Seventies visiting Zwemmer’s on Charing Cross Road, Indica on Southampton Row, Mandarin Books in Notting Hill, Bernard Stone’s bookshops in their shifting locations; Kensington Church Walk, Covent Garden, and one I can’t place, though I recall reading there. There was also the splendid Compendium Bookshop, described as “a bohemian outpost in Camden Town”.

It was something of a boom time for little magazines (I started one myself which struggled through eight issues) and poetry readings in all sorts of pubs, clubs, private homes, bookshops, and other places, so it wasn’t all the sound of music. And “alternative” bookshops which were always happy to stock poetry magazines and pamphlets opened up in many towns and cities. A lot of them, like the publications they sold, were short lived, but that was often the way in bohemia.

I have to admit that, sitting in the audience at the big 1965 Albert Hall reading by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, and Gregory Corso, I had a feeling that it was an event rather than a great reading, and that it was too big to be genuinely bohemian. I had met Alexander Trocchi in a pub a year or two before he compered the Albert Hall show, and it seemed more natural to come across him in that setting with poets and little magazine editors exchanging information and gossip.

Rennison in his epilogue reflects on bohemia today and mentions the Groucho Club. It always struck me that a club like it was the very opposite of what bohemia stood for. There was, of course, the Colony Room, famous for its bohemian clientele, but it was an exception to the rule. Informal meetings in pubs and cafés were better suited to bohemia. I may be prejudiced and I’ve always preferred pubs to clubs, though I can recall being taken to Soho drinking clubs by Albert McCarthy, editor of Jazz Monthly, in the 1960s when pubs closed at 3pm. Albert had been around Soho since the 1940s and knew many of the writers and painters of those days. He had known Wrey Gardiner, who edited Poetry Quarterly and ran Grey Walls Press. Gardiner’s own books, The Flowering Moment and The Dark Thorn, probably wouldn’t suit contemporary tastes – they’re too effusive and emotional – but are worth hunting for. When he died in 1980 Derek Stanford wrote a poem in which he imagined Gardiner “behind a coffee stall with some young Mimi,/sharing with her a new anthology/without a penny and without a care.” Definitely a bohemian. 

Rennison isn’t complimentary about those who frequent The Groucho Club: “Certainly many members of the Groucho wanted the wider public to believe that it was upholding bohemian traditions. There was a kind of self-consciousness in their behaviour. Paradoxically, this had the effect of making them seem less free and unconventional than their predecessors. Old-style bohemians behaved as they did because it came naturally to them. Groucho bohemians always seemed to have one eye on the photographers and the gossip columnists”. The influence of pop/celebrity culture again.

Peter Speiser’s Soho: The Heart of Bohemian London doesn’t just focus on the bohemians, and is more of a general history of the area. It does have brief comments on many of the same people that Rennison deals with (Nina Hamnett, for example, and her sad story of bohemian decline. A fictional character in Julius Horwitz’s wartime Soho novel, Can I Get There by Candlelight, published by Deutsch in 1964, is based on her), but its main value, in the context I’m writing about, may be as a kind of companion volume to Rennison’s entertaining history of London bohemianism. The bohemians were only one relatively small part of Soho. It’s perhaps a tribute to the other residents (and they often were residents, whereas quite a few of the bohemians weren’t) that their antics were tolerated. Was that because many of the residents weren’t English?

Speiser documents the histories of different groups of immigrants who have clustered in Soho over the years. As he says: “Soho’s history is inextricably linked with that of London’s immigration”. They opened shops and restaurants and brought variety to what was often a bland British range of foods on offer. They also often brought their politics with them. Karl Marx and his family lived in Soho for a time. (See Rosemary Ashton’s Little Germany: German Refugees in Victorian Britain, Oxford University Press, 1986).

He also provides information about the theatres and other places of entertainment, and the performers who appeared in them. One of the theatres mentioned is The Alhambra, which “hosted the first ever performance in London of the French can-can – which promptly cost the Alhambra its dancing licence”, (more English puritanism?). In a recently-published book, Arthur Symons: Spiritual Adventures (The Modern Humanities Research Association, 2017) there is a reprint of an essay about the Alhambra by Symons which originally appeared in The Savoy in September, 1896. Symons clearly enjoyed going there, though he was more concerned to write about ballet rather than the can-can.

Both books have useful biographies, though any listing of books about bohemia can always be added to. Before closing this review I’d like to mention another book that came to my attention and has links to Grub Street, if not bohemia. The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, edited by Nick Rennison (No Exit Press, 2008) reprints detective stories from the days when The Strand and similar publications  carried short stories, alongside other material. It was a relatively good time for writers who could turn out entertaining stories on a regular basis, though I don’t doubt that some of them weren’t exactly living in luxury. Most writers don’t. Grub Street is always with us. Bohemia might be a thing of the past. And then again, it might not.