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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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain