By Nick Rennison
Oldcastle Books. 224 pages. £12.99. ISBN 978-1-904048-30-5
SOHO : THE HEART OF BOHEMIAN
By Peter Speiser
The British Library. 192 pages. £10.00. ISBN 978-0-7123-5657-2
Reviewed by Jim Burns
Nick Rennison outlines the birth of bohemia in his
briskly written survey of where it was to be found in
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
There were examples of bohemian behaviour in the
lIves of artists like Augustus John and Jacob Epstein. John cut a
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
I have to admit that Rennison’s suspicions about
whether or not the
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
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
During and after the Second World War some of the
action shifted to
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
Speiser documents the histories of different groups
of immigrants who have clustered in
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
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.