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)