Bohemians, farewell

They were a peculiarly British breed: talented, intellectual, often alcoholic (but usually harmless)

The man in the white gloves doesn't have his lunch in the King's Arms in Oxford any more. Sixteen years ago, he'd be in there every day - pristine gloves, bottle-green suit, cream waistcoat, watch chain, stick-thin, pencil moustache, blanched complexion, in his late forties, a bit like Dirk Bogarde in Death in Venice. Without fail he'd have the same thing for lunch - the roast of the day, followed by an apple which he'd carefully slice into discs before eating, gloves still on. I never talked to him but I liked the reliability of his odd presence, and I missed him on my return there recently.

But, again, where would he go these days after lunch? Oxford 16 years ago, like so many pretty, provincial towns - Cheltenham, Guildford, Bath - that I've been visiting recently on a book tour, was a perfect setting then for the odd, the eccentric and the bohemian. I didn't realise it during my student days, but in 1993 I'd caught the tail end of a process that had been going on for half a century: the genteel decline of Middle England that produced all the right conditions for the down-at-heel yet civilised bohemian.

Those provincial towns long remained much as they'd been since the war - slightly broken-down, a mixture of shabby pubs, second-hand bookshops, antique clothes shops and the cheap lodgings your average bohemian needed to be within shambling distance of the town centre. Architecturally handsome, their medieval and Georgian buildings provided enough amiable places to browse in. The harmless, the talented, the mildly alcoholic, intelligent yet unemployable eccentrics: they all flocked to the elegantly decayed bits of those towns. All in all, the perfect habitat for people like my friend in the white gloves.

Anthony Powell caught the type in the literary journalist X Trapnel in Books Do Furnish a Room (1971), the tenth in the Dance to the Music of Time sequence. Based on the writer Julian Maclaren-Ross (1912-64), Trapnel leads a life of unrelenting observance of the bohemian code - heavy drinking, high-minded squalor, debts, philandering, shuttling from boarding house to hotel.

Dressed in a pale, ochre-coloured tropical suit and black RAF greatcoat, dark blue sports shirt, an emerald green tie patterned with naked women, and grey suede brothel-keepers, Trapnel spends the day drifting from pub to pub in Fitzrovia. He lives near the knuckle, as Powell put it, surviving on the odd book review. His lodgings are always disgusting - "peeling wallpaper, bare boards, a smell of damp, cigarette smoke, stale food".

What's particularly striking now is where those lodgings were: Holland Park, Camden, a flat in Notting Hill, a bleak hotel in Bloomsbury or Paddington. Today the list reads like a gazetteer of fashionable, expensive London. Trapnel finally washes up in Little Venice, now impossibly grand, but then (the book is set just after the war) it "had not yet developed into something of a quartier chic. Before the war, the indigenous population, full of time-honoured landladies, immemorial whores, long undisturbed in surrounding premises, had already begun to give place to young married couples, but buildings already tumbledown had now been further reduced by bombing".

The X Trapnels have long since fled these bits of London, all now pure banker/lawyer territory. Their old haunts, in the haut bohemia of Soho, are also collapsing. The Colony Room Club, second home to Dylan Thomas, Francis Bacon and Jeffrey Bernard, is on the verge of closing, shortly after celebrating its 60th birthday in December. The Coach and Horses seldom has sentient life since its rude, popular landlord Norman Balon saw out his licence in May 2006, and the French House is packed with binge drinkers and tourists.

And the X Trapnels don't gather in provincial bohemia any more, either. The very rich (who also like pretty buildings) have taken their place. Hedge fund managers now live in the sprawling north Oxford houses once owned by penniless dons. Russian oligarchs fly in by helicopter to their children's sports days at nearby prep schools. In the cold, clear light of the credit crunch, it's easier to take stock of the vast tide of money that's rushed through these places over the past two decades.

The invasion of the chain shops is well documented. But what's remarkable is just how saturated these once odd, quirky towns now are with them, and quite how chi-chi those chains are. There's a Farrow & Ball paint shop in what was the rough part of Bath. Seaside towns, too - which became artistic colonies and, by extension, bohemian boltholes because of their beauty and cheapness - have also been cleaned up and turned into kitsch versions of themselves.

Even with depressed property prices, no penniless artist could now afford to live in Newlyn near Penzance - home to the Newlyn School of painters in the late 19th century - or St Ives, also in Cornwall, which the potter Bernard Leach, the painter Ben Nicholson and the sculptor Barbara Hepworth colonised from the 1920s onwards. These towns are now the victims of their haut bohemian fame, the haunts of weekending bankers who like to take in those artists' works at Tate St Ives.

The same goes for Laugharne, the pretty seaside town in Carmarthenshire where a broke Dylan Thomas decamped to from the late 1930s onwards alongside his friends, Augustus John and Richard Hughes, author of A High Wind in Jamaica. It is now a hip holiday venue, home to a Welsh farmhouse-turned-boutique hotel, Hurst House, with its own helipad, Moroccan hand-carved doors and reiki massage in the dedicated spa, and all for £300 a night.

Jamie Oliver has opened up one of his Italian restaurants in dingy George Street in Oxford. The area hasn't been as grand since the mid-1920s, when the undergraduate John Betjeman frequented the ultra-chic restaurant named after the street, where he spent "evenings dining with the Georgeoisie. Open, swing doors, upon the lighted 'George' and whiff of vol-au-vent! Behold Harold Acton and the punkahs wave: 'My dears, I want to rush into the fields and slap raw meat with lilies.'"

Anything a little downmarket, dusty or cheap can't survive in the shade of the onslaught of the glossy, the new and expensive. The majestic, rambling second-hand Oxford bookshop opposite Balliol didn't stand a chance against the tide of new money. It lingers on, in much reduced circumstances, with smaller premises, in a less fashionable part of the town. The same goes for the book warehouses on the edge of town by the railway station - a once scrubby bit of land now home to the Business School, a gleaming limestone ziggurat with a green and yellow glass spire built with £23m of money from its billionaire benefactor, Wafic Said.

I have nothing against Mr Said - in fact his ziggurat is rather handsome. I just write to comment on how a city has changed. In a recent evening spent at an Anglo-German conference in Lincoln College, I met several students from the Business School. Another was at the university's Environmental Change Institute; another doing a doctorate in Vladimir Putin and the possibility that he was setting up a gas cartel along the lines of Opec. All this is very up to date and, perhaps, useful. But somewhere along the line, education for education's sake - a bit of theology, a bit of Greek, anything at all that's a little interesting and a little useless, a little bohemian, in fact - seems to have gone by the wayside, like those dusty bookshops and their broken customers. Even Oxford Prison, a tremendously gloomy 19th-century job straight out of Porridge - it was in fact the prison used to house Noë Coward's Mr Bridger in The Italian Job - has become a chic boutique Malmaison Hotel.

The antiseptic spick and spanification of provincial Britain has destroyed the pleasing air of decay. Gone with it are the anaemic men in cream waistcoats, the plump red-faced men in jerseys in Turkish carpet patterns and tweed jackets, often gay, usually highly intelligent, a bit prickly, working off their hangovers in those bookshops or in the prep schools up the ­Woodstock Road, still cursing that doctorate in medieval English they never got round to ­finishing 30 years ago.

I imagine they're still ­eking out a living somewhere in these pretty provincial towns. It's not as if the chain stores have had the bohemian class machine-gunned, just that the town centre no longer has anything of interest to draw them in. The pubs those ­bohemians used to stretch out the day in are still there - but loud music and the smoking ban have driven them out of the snug. I can't see my friend in the white gloves browsing in Karen Millen.

I'm not saying that all this is necessarily for the worse. The grey and brown postwar dreariness of Oxford in 1993 was more limited and grimmer in many ways than the spruced-up version of 2008. In 1945, there was one French restaurant, the Elizabeth, in Oxford, on St Aldate's, and one curry house, the Taj Mahal, in the centre of town, on the Turl. In 1993, things had barely changed. The Elizabeth was still there, the number of curry houses in the centre of town had doubled to a grand total of two, and there was a new Pizza Express. Nowadays, Oxford is like an extension of Kensington High Street, bulging with banks converted into restaurants, a transformation also undergone by neighbouring Chelsea, once, long, long ago, the bohemian heart of London.

There are always run-down boarding houses and new strip developments to go to in these pretty places, but they are increasingly on the far-flung fringes of town. Oxford's last outpost of cheap living is the concrete suburban jungle of Blackbird Leys, and it's a long time since any self-respecting blackbird chose to roost there, let alone a bohemian aesthete.

Bohemians, like blackbirds, cannot survive when their habitats are smothered, either by concrete or by retail outlets. Will they start flocking back to their old roosts as those shops begin to disappear with the credit crunch? I don't think so. It's too late. Bohemia has been outpriced, forced into exile, and faces extinction.

Harry Mount's "A Lust for Window Sills: a Lover's Guide to British Buildings from Portcullis to Pebble-dash" is published by Little, Brown (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Interview: Alistair Darling

Laura Hynd for New Statesman
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Having the last laugh

How Diane Abbott – overlooked, mocked and marginalised by her own party for three decades – ended up as the closest ally of a Labour leader

“I don’t think you’re up to it.” It is 1970, and Diane Julie Abbott, aged 17, is keen to apply to Cambridge University, but her history teacher has other ideas.

“I was an omnivorous reader,” she says now, sitting in her parliamentary office, in a prime spot overlooking the Thames, “and in all these books, particularly these novels between the wars, if you went to university, you went to Oxford or Cambridge.”

The teachers at Harrow County School for Girls, where Abbott was the only black girl in her class, were not supportive. Her memories are less happy than those of her contemporary Michael Portillo, who attended the affiliated boys’ grammar school, and who played Macduff to her Lady Macduff in a school play.

Even when Abbott succeeded, she was regarded with suspicion. She remembers getting an A-minus in an English class – a mark that disappointed her – and being asked to stay behind by the teacher. “She picked up my essay between her thumb and her forefinger and said: ‘Where did you copy this from?’ I was genuinely shocked.”

The story suggests that she acquired her ability to shrug off criticism early. It is also a reminder of how often she is underestimated. The Times journalist Matt Chorley once described a successful day for Labour as one in which “Diane Abbott was on TV a bit less”. Julie Burchill described her in the Spectator as a “preposterous creature” who “blotted the landscape of English politics, speaking power to truth in order to advance her career”. In the Guardian, Michael White dubbed her a “useful idiot”.

She has been endlessly dismissed as stupid, untalented and bad at politics – an obvious “diversity hire”. These criticisms are immune to evidence: her time at Cambridge, the only black British student from a state school in the entire university; her 12 years on the sofa with Portillo on BBC1’s This Week; her time in the shadow cabinet under Ed Miliband; her reliable ability to hold the line in television interviews; and now her status as Jeremy Corbyn’s closest political ally. She is largely ignored by lobby journalists, even as they lament their failure to secure a line into the Labour leader’s thinking. In 2017, Diane Abbott celebrates her 30th year in parliament. Should we take her seriously?

 

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Abbott’s mother, a nurse, and her father, a welder, were born in the same village in Jamaica, but met and married in London and lived in Notting Hill “before it was a fashionable place to live”. Abbott was born there in 1953, 12 years before the phrase “race relations” first made its way on to the statute books. “My father was very aspirational,” she recalls, “and so every weekend, he and my mother would drive round houses in Pinner, and every Monday they’d ring the estate agent, and the estate agent would say the house had gone. But, of course, the house wasn’t gone.”

Eventually, they did buy a house, not in Pinner but in Edgware, north London. “My brother – his best friend was Jewish,” she tells me, “and he’d attend the Jewish youth club with his friend, and one day his friend said in a really embarrassed way: ‘I’m really sorry, I’m afraid you can’t continue to attend the club, because they’re afraid it will encourage the girls to marry out.’

“The thing was,” she continues, “my brother was upset about this. We were all upset on his behalf but it was just part of life.” And in 1970, a black straight-A student being told that she wasn’t good enough to go to Cambridge was, again, part of life. It was her response that was out of the ordinary: “Well, I do think I’m up to it. And that’s what matters, isn’t it?”

At university, Abbott didn’t get involved in politics, and she found the Cambridge Union off-putting. Her hall tutor advised her to go into the civil service, and so she arrived at the Home Office in 1976, the lone black graduate trainee on what she now describes as “a quixotic quest to do good”.

In turn, that took her to the National Council for Civil Liberties, now Liberty. Believing it to be a hotbed of communist sympathisers, MI5 tapped the office phones, an action that was ruled unlawful in 1990. “One of the things that Diane still talks about,” a friend tells me, “is her experience not only of the Home Office, but of being the subject of official surveillance. She has a cynicism about the state that hasn’t gone away.”

Abbott also joined local campaigns on some of the issues that have defined her career, such as the abolition of the “sus laws”, the informal provision that allowed the police to stop and search anyone under the ­Vagrancy Act, which activists claim was used to target ethnic minorities in Britain. After joining the Labour Party, she became a councillor in Westminster in 1982.

In the 1970s and 1980s, as today, Labour took the lion’s share of the ethnic minority vote. But no one from an ethnic minority had ever sat as a Labour MP. In the 1983 election, just one person from a minority was selected as a parliamentary candidate, and in an ultra-safe Conservative seat. In response, Labour’s minority activists formed the Black Sections, a campaign to secure ethnic minority representation.

It was through these that Abbott met Linda Bellos, who was the leader of Lambeth Council, where Abbott worked as a press officer – her last job before entering parliament. “I was born here in 1950, one of 50,000 black people [living in the UK],” Bellos tells me. “We might have talked about going home but home for me was bleeding London, wasn’t it? Hence the need to make sure we were involved in all of the parts of the state. Someone like Diane had been to Cambridge, she’d been a councillor, she knew the democratic process, she was friends with a number of MPs, she knew the score. If someone like her couldn’t be selected, what was the point of any of us being here?”

The Black Sections wanted affiliated status, similar to that of the Fabians. But there were concerns that black candidates would not appeal to Labour’s presumed core white working-class vote. Some on the left saw “identity politics” as a distraction from the class struggle; and some on the right thought the Black Sections were too radical. At the 1984 conference, their plan was thrown out by a margin of ten to one.

Despite this setback, the fight had an important legacy. In the 1987 elections, four ethnic minority MPs entered the Commons for Labour: Paul Boateng in Brent South, Keith Vaz in Leicester East, Bernie Grant in Tottenham – and, in Hackney North and Stoke Newington, there was the 33-year-old Diane Abbott.

 

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She was the first black woman to be selected for a safe parliamentary seat. The Times marked the occasion with a leader denouncing her “rhetoric of class struggle and skin-colour consciousness”.

A few months later, the Sun profiled the “ten looniest Labour candidates” in Britain. “We were all there,” Abbott recalls. “Jeremy [Corbyn], the rest of us, and I was number eight.”

The local party in Stoke Newington was delighted with this firebrand reputation. “They said: ‘Stick with us, and we’ll take you right to the top!’”

The voters of north London were less welcoming. A brick was thrown through the office window of her local party. With Abbott as the candidate, some traditional Labour voters switched to the SDP-Liberal Alliance, taking the Labour vote below 50 per cent for the first time in the seat’s history (the second occasion was in 2005, just after the invasion of Iraq).

In parliament, the intake of ethnic minority MPs was regarded with caution. Abbott recalls that the then speaker of the House of Commons, Bernard Weatherill, was “very anxious”. She adds: “He thought we’d be like the Fenians and disrupt and collapse parliamentary process. So he invited Bernie [Grant], who was regarded as our leader, for port. And Bernie came for port and the speaker was very nice to him. And I imagine the speaker thought this was what stopped us being like the Fenians.”

Those Labour MPs who were disruptive – such as Corbyn the serial rebel – were in low spirits for other reasons. The marginalisation of Abbott and her allies during the late 1980s and 1990s explains why they have so little sympathy for the party’s beleaguered centrists in the current power struggle.

At the Labour conference in Liverpool this year – where she spoke as shadow health secretary – Abbott told me: “I came to party conference every year for 20 years, and we would lose and lose and lose. These people have lost twice and they’re complaining!”

Her thick skin was toughened during the New Labour years – and it reaffirmed her close friendship with Corbyn. (The two had a short sexual relationship in the early 1980s, which ended amicably. Abbott was married for two years to a Ghanaian architect from 1991 to 1993; her son, James, was born in 1992.) “She’s always had an odd hold on Jeremy,” one Labour MP tells me. “You would see them having lunch together and her bossing him about. I think people underestimate how influential she
is on his thinking.”

When David Lammy, her neighbouring MP in Tottenham, entered parliament in 2000 following the death of Bernie Grant, he found her “vilified, ostracised and exiled by the Blairites”. There were several attempts to remove her as an MP – another reason why the Corbyn camp is unconcerned by complaints from MPs such as Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle about their local parties threatening to deselect them.

Abbott retains a network of friends from her time before politics, including from her stint as a television producer. They urged her to quit in the Blair years – or to end her association with the left-wing Socialist Campaign Group. “I never thought I was willing to trade what I thought was right for some position in the party,” she says.

Some allies see it differently. “I don’t think Diane is someone who can quit [politics],” a friend told me. “I see her tweeting at all hours. She has interests, books and so forth, but she couldn’t walk away.”

Abbott says that Keith Vaz convinced her to stay, telling her, “You have forgotten what it took for us to get here.” (Some of Corbyn’s allies believe that this is what made the leader so supportive of Vaz during his latest scandal.) This sense of solidarity with other ethnic minority MPs has led to the long-standing rumour that Abbott would have nominated Chuka Umunna had Corbyn not stood for the Labour leadership.

“Diane is absolutely loyal to Jeremy,” one MP who knows them both well tells me. “She’s loyal to the project, yes, but she’s also loyal to him, in a way I don’t think you could honestly say about John McDonnell or Clive Lewis.” During the coup attempt against Corbyn last summer, Abbott spoke forcefully in favour of Corbyn remaining in place, rather than striking a deal to put Lewis or McDonnell on the ballot. “Her position,” one insider recalls, “was that we’d got a candidate we knew could win, and that candidate was Jeremy.”

Not that they always agree. Abbott advocated a less conciliatory approach after Corbyn’s first victory in 2015. “The thing that can be infuriating about Jeremy is that he likes to think the best of everyone,” she says. “I’m always perfectly straight with him as to what I think, and even if he doesn’t believe me at the time, he always does come round to my point of view.”

Abbott is one of the few people in the Parliamentary Labour Party whom Corbyn trusts completely. In their relationship, it’s hard to see who is the senior partner.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Corbyn and Abbott settled into a pattern of dissent, followed by defeat. Corbyn spent the time attending to foreign and human rights campaigns and signing thousands of early day motions. Abbott carved out a niche as a reliable critic of the Labour government under Tony Blair, with a month-long slot at the launch of the BBC’s This Week in 2003 blossoming into a regular gig alongside Michael Portillo. But away from Westminster, Abbott was making a decision that she knew could destroy her political career.

 

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The London borough of Hackney is today a national leader in schooling, but in 2002, just a third of students received five or more A*-C grades. That prompted Abbott to send her ten-year-old son, James, to City of London, a leading private school.

“I knew I could lose the seat over it,” she told me. “I was a single parent, and time after time, I had not been there for things at school, or I was too tired to take him out somewhere . . . I just thought, just this once, I should be prepared to make a sacrifice for him. If I lost the seat, then I lost the seat.”

She kept the seat. “Other things do annoy Diane – reporters saying things about her that aren’t true, people talking down to her,” one friend tells me. “But with [the schooling] I think she was very happy with that deal and to take that blow.”

Then, in 2010, Abbott’s career began a surprising second act: a bid for the party leadership. Activists and commentators felt uninspired by the choice in front of them – Ed Miliband, David Miliband, Andy Burnham and Ed Balls, four former special advisers from the New Labour era. Abbott called them “geeky men in suits”. Harriet Harman, in particular, was keen that the contest should not be an all-male field. Her support swayed Abbott. “If you had to pick one person, it was her,” she says, “because she was more mainstream.”

David Lammy set up a meeting between Abbott and David Miliband. The front-runner told her that, if she were a vote short in the nominations from MPs, he would vote for her. “But because it was David Miliband, I didn’t believe him.”

The elder Miliband had his own reasons for backing her. He believed that having her on the ballot would deprive his brother, Ed, of valuable support from the left. This was also the calculation that allies of Yvette Cooper made about Corbyn in 2015. “David’s legacy,” the Wakefield MP, Mary Creagh, wrote five years later, “made it normal – Blairite, even – to put a left-winger on the ballot to ‘have a broad debate’.’’

Of Corbyn’s campaign, Abbott says now: “I knew he’d do well, because what people missed is that had it been one person, one vote [in 2010], I’d have come third.”

Had the unions and the MPs not had a disproportionate influence on the result, she says, “I’d have beaten Andy Burnham, I’d have beaten Ed Balls. I’d been to 53 hustings – most Labour people are where Jeremy and I were. I knew there was much more left-wing sentiment in the Labour Party than the lobby thought.”

As a result of Corbyn’s victory in 2015, she is shadowing one of the great offices of state in what once looked like her final term in parliament. Her policy priorities as shadow home secretary are broad but include her favoured subjects of police reform and anti-racism. “I want to help shape the debate on migration,” she tells me. “I think we’ve had a very vacuous debate.”

That has put her at odds with the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. Though both are long-time friends of Corbyn, their relationship is not warm. Allies believe that the division stretches back to the late 1980s, when McDonnell – then outside parliament – gloried in not going “soft” in the manner of Neil Kinnock. Abbott attracted suspicion, in part because of her early conversion to a pro-European position. Many believe that McDonnell never embraced the European project. He has ruled out opposition to Brexit and is behind the toughening of the party’s line on immigration. Abbott, privately and publicly, is determined to hold Labour to a more open and pro-immigration position. She has said that Labour cannot win as “Ukip-lite”, a coded rebuke to McDonnell.

The shadow chancellor is the only MP with a comparable influence to Abbott’s on Jeremy Corbyn and, thus far, the Labour leader has struck a middle path on migration, supporting Abbott’s line that the single market cannot be traded away for restrictions on the free movement of people but stopping short of a full-throated defence of free movement in principle.

As well as winning that internal battle, Abbott faces the task of landing more blows on Amber Rudd than her predecessors – Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Ed Balls – managed against Theresa May when she was the longest-serving home secretary in a century, transforming the reputation of a department once regarded as a political graveyard. Not many give Abbott much chance of success but, as always, she believes in herself and thinks that she’s up to it.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent of the New Statesman

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge