Bad Journeys ? On Bloomsbury and Bohemia

Bad Journeys ? Some notes on Bloomsbury, Bohemia  and reading subcultures

Talk given to the Bloomsbury Festival October 16th  in conversation with Iain Sinclair

Bad journeys are made possible  when and wherever  we recognise that the map is not the territory. They are  about exploring  the gap or tension between  our  mental  constructs of the world and the embodied space we inhabit as we find our way through it. And in that  gap  all kinds of possible worlds  can take shape.

For most people a  so called good journey  happens  when there is   a perfect  fit between map and territory, we  traverse the city on autopilot,  the sat nav  works and  nothing  untoward happens. On a good journey, there is nothing to report.  We  follow what planners  call, without irony, a line of desire, which means going purposefully and often compulsively, from A to B in the quickest most efficient  way. Anything which interrupts  that progress  is  regarded as bad.

For children  the territory always and already precedes the map (contra Baudrillard)  and  their ideal journeys are, as they say,   ‘well bad’.  Left to their own devices, and unless they have been subjected to a traumatic encounter,   children  are inveterate explorers, builders of dens,  discoverers of hiding places, colonisers of un-programmed space. They are fascinated by  what happens on the street and in public places. Its a kind of spontaneous do it yourself  urbanism. But, of course, kids are rarely left  to their own devices, especially today  in  the era of stranger danger, when adult concerns for their safety  have become  paramount and placed all kinds of  restrictions on their movements. So children have to steer  a difficult  line.  Ronnie Laing  used to tell a story about  a boy who is  seen walking   round and round the block and when  policeman asks him what he is doing, he   replies that he is  running  away from home but   his mum has forbidden him to  cross the road.

My first walks around Bloomsbury were overdetermined by  the fact   the area in  1945 was heavily  bomb scarred, and some of   the local bombsites had been turned into impromptu adventure playgrounds. But for me the V2 bombs had been a traumatic experience and I avoided  the bombsites  although I was fascinated by the kids from a nearby council housing estate who were obviously having such a good time there. Instead my walks were with my dad, an energetic pedestrian, and concentrated on  the Bloomsbury squares.

Navigating  the local social geography  was something of a tricky business. When I went to school in faraway Sloane square, my mum counselled me  :‘say you are from Bloomsbury, not Euston’ if they ask where you’re from.  According to my parents Bloomsbury was where people like us, professional middle class- lawyers, doctors, business people lived-  artists and writers did’nt feature as part of their social landscape. Euston and especially Somers Town  was where the working class lived. According to mum and dad, it was a dangerous no go area populated by  street gangs, vagrants, drunks and people who would kidnap you  as soon as look at you. And so, of course, it was where I  staged my personal adventure stories, my bad journeys.     Proletarian Bloomsbury  hardly ever  registers, certainly it is not on the literary map, but it has its own heroes.  As he describes in his memoir, it is   where Kenneth Williams, a pioneer of camp before  it became fashionable,  grew up  in a tenement block, and  his dad cut my hair, in his shop in Marchmont Street;  Argyle Street school near Kings Cross  where I was threatened to be sent if I didn’t do well at my prep school; the Foundling estate when the Bengali community established themselves.  I never went  to any of these places  with my dad, indeed   they  were out of bounds and consequently terra incognita,  but  they featured prominently in my mental map of  the area, marked ‘there be dragons’.

Between Bohemia and the Academy

Bloomsbury is where  Bohemia  and Academia interface,  and sometimes, but not always interact. It has been where a lot of intellectuals and artists  have lived and worked, – and not just the so called Bloomsberries.  William Empson and  Aldous Huxley lived on the fringes and so did Roy Campbell (who hated and satirised the Bloomsberries ).    Its proximity to Fitzrovia, Covent Garden  and Soho  gave it a ready made  connection to a variety of bohemian subcultures.  At the same time  the growth of London University populated it with critical mass of students and academics, which despite the demographic churn  have  given the area  some social stability.

My sojourn in   the   bohemian Bloomsbury of the 1960’s is described in my memoir, Reading Room Only and bears  an uncanny resemblance to the mlieu described  by ‘ Roland Pemberton’ ( aka Henry Cohen)  a decade earlier in his novel  Scamp , which  Iain Sinclair has recently rescued from the forgotten shelves  of Bloomsbury’s bookshops and  which is also published by Five Leaves.

Unlike the hero of Scamp  my time in Bloomsbury  was connected to a brief  and thankfully uneventful career as a book thief , a career that  was greatly facilitated by the fact that opera capes were a popular fashion  at the time and provided an ideal cloak for my activities.  The counter culture mindset was that capitalism was  a rip off, property was theft and stealing equalled  liberating.  I  only  stole books  I  could sell  because I didn’t want to collect. These were mainly legal and medical textbook which  had a high resale  price  and   the money I earned  was partly to subsidise my book habit, which had grown as soon as I started to build a library.

The counter culture  was about celebrating   the sensuous  immediacy of lived  experience ;it involved  the quest for   some form of  ekstasis  whether  through the  natural highs of  music, dance, sex, Eastern mysticism  or poetry, or through psychedelic drugs. It was’nt anti-literature, or anti intellectual  as such, after all  it produced a whole lot of poets, writers  and intellectuals, but it was  against  disembodied  abstract  knowledge  as purveyed in Academia. It  challenged the  enclosed self reference bookish culture that could only make books from other boos. Finding an alternative    life style   was  about NOT  relating to the world  second hand through  books and the order they impose on experience. One of our slogans was  from Blake  -The road of excess  leads to the Palace of Wisdom./    Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.

Unfortunately quite a lot of people  who enlisted  in the psychedelic colours   found the road of excess led not to a palace of  wisdom  but to the  mental hospital where R.D.Laing was on hand  to tell them that  they were prophets who had no honour in their own country of the mind.  The high casualty  rate is  often ignored   in accounts of the counter culture.

The counter culture was also against the kind of modernism that had been produced by and for a  cultural elite- the modernism associated with the Bloomsberries. Our literary heroes were Blake, Godwin, Lautreamont, Rimbaud, Blaise Cendrars, Mac Orlan, Genet, Mailer,  Camus, Ginsberg. Not    Milton or Tennyson,  Lytton Strachey, T.S.Eliot, John Wain,  J.B Priestley, or Philip Larkin.


On the Road Again:the English Beats Revisited

The road was central  to English beat  subculture. The doss bag was a standard item of equipment,  along with a guitar or mouth organ,  a black leather jacket, long hair and a copy of ‘Howl’. There was a  beat trail that went  from London down to Brighton, then along the South coast to St Ives, which was a big summer scene. The beats would get  casual jobs in hotels, restaurants  and cafes  in the seaside resorts, some would busk or sell stuff, including drugs, to make ends meet. If we could afford it we would  share pads, but mostly we slept in derries, or if it was warm enough, on the beach, or in a tent. In St Ives  the pill boxes  and shelters on the cliffs  were  much favoured.  The majority of Beats I met were from working class backgrounds. A lot of them came from the Midlands and   the North. They used to go home and work in factories  during the winter, it was their form of hibernation,  and save up some money  to take  with them in the  Spring.  Hitching was the only way to travel and in those days a  lot of people did it, including  students.   Students were despised  as weekend  beatniks, who were supported  by their middle class families and just played at being ’on the road’. There were a few   student drop outs like myself, but we were a definite minority.  Some beats wrote poetry or songs, and would occasionally turn up to poetry and jazz gigs if they could afford it, and  we generally subscribed to the notion of beat as hip and cool as  opposed to straight or square.

Bloomsbury  as a lieu de memoire

Roger Fry claimed to have been born and bred in Bloomsbury  but he was  talking about a country of the min d  not  a geographical area.   The most important thing about  Bloomsbury is that  it never existed. As Leonard Woolf, its biographer  put it ‘Bloomsbury  was a largely imaginary group of people  with largely imaginary objects and characteristics’.  As such it does play a large – too large –  part in the literary imaginary of Englishness.  In terms of the history of ideas  it provided for a time a point of intersection between   literature, the visual arts, economics and the social sciences and a conduit for ideas  that  came from  continental Europe and challenged the insularity of  English intellectual life.The Bloomsberries were cosmopolitans, but they were elite cdosmopolitans.  The group t was too exclusive   to constitute  a real artistic milieu  or an intellectual  movement ; it was  more a coterie  or salon. It was never part of a broader  republic of  English letters, but  through its many intermediaries and its own forms of self publicising it did exert a large – too large -influence on it.

Each generation discovers its own Bloomsbury. In the 1960-70’s it was a  pioneering experiment in sexual politics; in the 80’s it was a hotbed of  aesthetic experimentalism,   more recently its pacifist and rationalist attitudes, or the primacy accorded to  conversation  have been highlighted.

One of the defining moments  in the  history of the Bloomsberries  was the formation  of the Memoir Club in. It would meet regularly  and members would read extracts from their diaries. They had decided  at this very early stage that  they were going to be famous enough, and their lives of sufficient public interest  to begin work on their memoirs. In doing so    they also set out to    challenge  the dominant  norms  of life story telling – what I have called the ‘whig interpretation’ of life history.

There is no shortage of  memoirs  and autobiographies written by artists, writers, intellectuals, political dissidents, bohemians, social deviants,  rebels with or without a cause. By definition  they have had more interesting than usual lives  and may also have special   skills  which can be demonstrated in the telling of them. Philosophers are likely to talk about their lives philosophically, film makers to depict  its mise scene  cinematically, poets  use their poetic gifts to capture its more fleeting and intimate moments.  Many of these accounts  trace the springs of creativity to particular  existential situations, especially  in childhood,  sometime traumatic, sometimes nurturing,   experiences which have  set the narrator out on a life long quest  for authenticity and  self expression.  This  sense  of having a special calling or gift  is often a central  theme in these accounts as is the  apprenticeship to  a particular   discipline or craft.

The memoirs, diaries  and  letters published by  the Bloomsberries have two  thing in common: they are  self conscious portraits  of a shared  culture and  they are highly literary in tone and style. Cf, Constance Garnett’s Deceived by Kindness .

Increasingly though, no matter  what your   ‘calling’ , whether you are an artist or writer, a sportsperson  or policeman,  a civil servant or an entrepreneur, a criminal or a criminal lawyer, you  are likely to describe  your life course  as a  career, as so many incremental steps up a ladder of professional progress. In the so called network society,  many people  are as careerist in their  choice of sexual partnerss as they are in their working lives. Everyone  is supposed to be not only the authors of their own lives, but to apply  rational  calculation  to its accounting, to estimate the costs and benefits of every move they make.  Against this background it is left  to  the bohemian fringe  to re-inscribe the original, wilder meaning of career – as in careering about .

Reading Room : refuge and prospect

The British  Museum  exerted a spectral and rather forbidding  presence in my childhood landscape- it was a place to be circumnavigated rather than explored.  Later as a teenage when I began to explore the literary hinterland of Bloomsbury, and visit local bookshops, it came to represent a promised land –the project of a universal library where the whole knowledge of the world could be stored and accessed. .

When  I first became a reader in the BM, after I’d dropped out of Cambridge, it became a home from academic home, and a social club.  Then when I became part of a media generated  inferno  surrounding  the mass squats in central London in 68/9, it  became a refuge from the  political storm    Finally when I re-entered academe as a free lance researcher it became simply a workplace.

But the reading room is also metaphor for a particular kind of inner mental space,  a space where you can really think, where you can find within the inferno that which is not inferno, give it expression  and make it endure (Calvino)  As such it can take many forms, sometimes material, like the library or the study,   sometimes  symbolic, like what happens when you take a line of thought for   a long cross-country walk. It is an intellectual  equivalent to what athletes describe when they say they are ’in  the zone.’

My  intellectual journey  took me across the frontiers of many  disciplines  to explore their common borderlands: philosophy,  linguistics, anthropology, history, psychoanalysis, literature.  was able to roam widely across these different field  precisely because I was unconstrained by  the Academy and   its divisions of labour  and also because the emergent paradigms of structuralism and post structuralism created  certain common paradigms.  

Reading as metaphor     

Largely due to the  influence of post structuralism, reading has become a general paradigm for  understanding  and engaging with the world. All the world’s a text  and all the people in it merely paragraphs   waiting to be deconstructed.  Inter-textuality rules OK.  This must be seen as part of a broader retreat of intellectuals  from the hurly burly of public life and political struggle.  In the decade after 1968, as the student radicals  abandoned Marxism and its revolutionary rhetoric  in favour of  cultural and identity politics, as the transition was made from the commune to the common room, and political ambitions became sublimated in academic ones,  reading became the key form of critical engagement  with the world. New barricades were erected in the corridors of knowledge power, and the library  rather than the street became the front line of  confrontation.

This shift also corresponded to an actual development in  capitalism – its cultural turn and the growth of a global knowledge economy of which universities were now a key  part. Today  we are living in a textually saturated culture, the forms of textuality have multiplied and  diversified  and  are no long confined to the book.   One of the conditions of the possibility  of the textual turn  is the way reading, as a cultural practice,  has become disembodied ( we hardly every read aloud ), and socially  disembedded, ( reading  as  a  private not a public activity). It becomes   form of abstract labour, an abstract intellectual operation    transferable  across many different  platforms.

Of course there are counter movements- performance poetry, public readings,  the proliferation of reading groups-  but  what has been lost in the  dissemination of reading as a  pervasive metaphor    is the sense that  the act of reading   creates a margin of meaning that  is not reducible to or deducible from  the text, and does not simply  mirror the received opinions of  the professional literati.  Reading has become instrumentalised  and utilitarian– people read  for professional purposes,  to pass exams, increase their job prospects,    improve their life chances, or  simply to gather information. The death of the ‘general reader’ is everywhere in evidence, not least in the just in time production of  second hand ideas packaged for  the best sellers list. Instead we have  a proliferation  of specialised niche markets,  with small independent publishers  keeping the republic of letters alive.  But if literature is ever going to become a poetry made by and for all, then it seems important to return to the reader  the  capacity to subvert the fixed, durable  order of writing, in the name of a more ephemeral and  subversive  pleasure: that of  the scavenger  and the eclectic.