Monday, 14 September 2009

Fitzrovia: London's Bohemia by Michael Bakewell

The lure of biography is hard to resist and I’ve returned to the genre with a short set of ‘character sketches’ published by the National Portrait Gallery on London’s Fitzrovia set.

West of the Tottenham Court Road and north of Oxford Street, Fitzrovia was London’s bohemian enclave in the first half of the Twentieth Century. It was also chock full of bars and drinking clubs. As Bakewell puts it in his introduction:

It was essentially a pub culture, fuelled by drink and conversation...

He also points out:

Much of the story of Fitzrovia is of talent blighted, promise unfulfilled and premature death through drink.

I’ve picked on two of the book’s characters for this entry; Dylan Thomas and Aleister Crowley. Although it was his lungs that killed him in the end, Thomas put back an astonishing amount of sauce in his time – he referred to his drinking sprees up in London from Wales as ‘capital punishment’ – and for a long time it was thought that the booze was to blame for his death at 39. He was employed by the BBC after the second world war, something they might later have had cause to regret:

As his reputation as a poet grew the talk and the drink steadily took hold and the poems grew fewer and fewer. He became increasingly unreliable, taking advances for projects that were never fulfilled. The BBC were bombarded with increasingly desperate demands: ‘ADVANCE IMMEDIATELY... I owe every tradesman in town.’

Edward Alexander ‘Aleister’ Crowley, the self-styled ‘Great Beast’ and ‘Baphomet’ was an occultist, magician and fraud. A sinister character, the Fitzrovians didn’t really know what to make of him. He ended his days in Hastings, and his funeral in Brighton was a blasphemous spectacular that shocked the Corporation into an edict of ‘never again’.

He employed alcohol, sex and all manner of drugs as gateways to his excursions into the astral plane. Inevitably he left behind him a trail of destruction, disciples, wives and the ‘scarlet women’ who assisted him in his conjurations were likely to end up insane or alcoholic or both.

I feel I shall be visiting this fascinating group of people again...


  1. Tragic that booze and drugs got to adle the mans mind before his time was anywhere near up.

  2. We can only wonder what Thomas might have produced if he'd stayed away from the pub for a couple of nights a week. As for Crowley, I'm not sure it's such a bad thing if intoxication put a limit on his output...

  3. I take the point that D.T. (how appropriate) might have produced a little more if he had been more abstemious. That said there are plenty of creatives that have become crashing bores once they climb out of the bottle. Thomas's drinking was an essential part of his persona without which arguably he would not have been as interesting. Also Crowley lived to 72 so clearly the horned one was looking after him.

  4. That's the paradox, I suppose. The intensity which created his art also when into self destruction. However poetic it might be to declare, "I've just had eighteen straight whiskies. I think that's the record" it's still going to get messy...

  5. Now this is a book I dearly want to read.