‘Literary London’ has become a phrase in itself. Here is a city that has nurtured the world’s greatest writers for centuries, but while hopeful artists go to Paris to paint (the light is several degrees brighter than that of London’s) you never hear of writers going to London to write, because this occupation is associated with tranquility, and calm is in short supply here.
Yet writers should be drawn to London, because here is where scribes of all shades still meet and exchange ideas. Obviously we can take Chaucer, Dickens, Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf and Conan Doyle as read (as it were) but that’s only the uppermost surface of the talent pool. At No. 8 Russell Street in Covent Garden, Boswell first met Johnson in Davies’s Bookshop (now a café). The Scot was thirty years younger than the great anti-Scot, and wasn’t at first impressed.
‘Mr Johnson is a man of a most dreadful appearance. He is a very big man, is troubled with sore eyes, the palsy and the King’s Evil’ (Scrofula, usually a swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck caused by tuberculosis) ‘He is very slovenly in his dress and speaks with an uncouth voice.’
But Johnson was superb company, and the pair became besties over the meetings that followed. If you take a short walk north of Oxford Street, you’ll come to a rather ordinary but pleasant enough pub at no. 16, Charlotte Street. This is the Fitzroy Tavern, which gave the area of Fitzrovia its name. It became the home of creative types between the 1930s and the 1950s. Here vorticists and abstract artists drank with models, poets, writers, criminals, music hall artistes and rebels of all types. Just as British artists and writers had headed (some would say absconded) to Paris in the 1910s, so they now flooded back, and often ended up at the Fitzroy. Regulars included George Orwell, Lawrence Durrell, Ruthven Todd and Dylan Thomas.
Some London venues are as much a state of mind as a real place. Grub Street was real, though. It was later renamed Milton Street, then mostly demolished to make way for the once-unloved, now revered Barbican (see top). Here writers so frequently gathered that they had their own newspaper, the Grub Street Journal, in which Alexander Pope had a hand. John Foxe, the author of the ‘Book Of Martyrs’ and the water-poet John Taylor were also based here.
George Gissing wrote ‘New Grub Street’, his novel about writers struggling to get published, in 1891, and re-sited the writers a little further up the road in Clerkenwell, which was then sinking into penury at a time when ‘house hackers’ were subdividing properties into tenement rooms because of high rents.
Farringdon Road, which runs through Clerkenwell, was the other place you went to buy books, your first stop being Paternoster Square by St Pauls, now the sterile home of chain stores. The wonderful Farringdon book market continued to run until about 7 years ago, when it was finally forced out to make room for shops selling fairy cakes and Bulletproof coffee. Now a monthly book market runs at the National Hotel not far from the spot.
No 34 Claremont Square (now smart, then ratty) was the home of the experimental writer BS Johnson, whose books I’ve kept since a teenager. Johnson famously tested the commitment of his publishers by messing with the form of a novel, publishing loose chapters in a box for ‘The Unfortunates’ and cutting a hole through the pages of ‘Albert Angelo’, which is set in the spot where he lived.
And that has always been London’s strength; that for every Terence Rattigan, Elizabeth Bowen or Walter Scott there’s a disreputable, struggling rebel writer seeking like-minded individuals. I belong to the Sohemians, a writers’ group that meets in an old pub in central London that has been mercifully overlooked by developers. And there are many similar meeting places – I’ve been to three others this week alone.
But of course we’re only scratching the surface here. For a much lengthier and fuller picture of literary London, read ‘London, City Of Words’ by David Caddy and Westrow Cooper, which catalogues hundreds of writers and the landscapes they inhabited.