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

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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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