"Tracey Emin — Artists on an Eternal Picnic: Bohemians such as George Barker Lived in Creative Chaos on the Margins of Mainstream Society. Are Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst Trying to Imitate Them?" D.J. Taylor
New Statesman. Volume: 131. Issue: 4614. November 18, 2002.
There comes a moment in most biographies when, almost unwittingly, some aspect of the subject's life, work or attitudes suddenly assumes a defining symbolic shape. In The Chameleon Poet, Robert Fraser's recent biography of George Barker, who died in 1991 at the age of 78, it comes on a summer evening in the 1980s when a visitor from London turns up at the Barkers' rambling, chaotic house in north Norfolk. Everyone has disappeared: a note pinned to the unlocked door apologises for their absence. Moving inside, the visitor roams wonderingly around the deserted rooms. Finally a pair of teenage boys in the bright blue uniforms of Norwich School arrive to shatter the silence. The visitor wonders where their father gets his money. "Dunno," one of the boys replies. "Grants and stuff," the other gamely deposes.
As a child growing up in Norfolk in the mid-1970s, I knew all about the Barkers: they were a famous local scandal. Aunts day-tripping on the coast brought back sightings of the multitudinous brood of Barker children. Numbers of them passed vagrantly through the Norwich day schools. Their clan-base at Itteringham, at one stage accommodating nine of the progeny from Barker's various liaisons, had a popular reputation halfway between the Hellfire Club and an eternal hippy picnic. Without visible means of support, they were supposed to survive on literary charities and hand-outs: a teeming, outlandish commune cheerfully thumbing its nose at respectable county society.
Reaching the end of Fraser's book-a kind of pageant of drunks, quarrels, women and poetry; one becomes gradually aware that, both in his life and his poems, Barker represented something in English cultural life that is now almost wholly extinct. And yet, drifting in the air like the smoke of the Soho pubs that the younger Barker frequented, its essence still hangs slightly out of reach. Philoprogenitiveness, maybe (there were, devious calculation insists, 15 Barker children in all)? Art's perennial reluctance to pay the rent (the Itteringham establishment was effectively kept up by the Royal Literary Fund)? Both these characteristics played their part.
In fact, what Barker represents, in half a dozen different and dazzling ways, is the absolute fag-end of what might be called the bohemian tradition in English literary life. The bohemian strain tends to be omitted from most official surveys of English culture. This is understandable-how, after all, do you track the development of what is, in the last resort, an ambience, a way of behaving, membership of a club whose abiding principle is that the club doesn't exist? But however elusive, its influence winds through the cultural scenes of the past two centuries like bindweed, a proud heritage from which any number of suave modern practitioners would like to think themselves descended.
Doubtless Tracey Emin fancies herself to be a bohemian, along with the ornaments of this year's Turner Prize shortlist and the writers of all those pieces in short story anthologies that begin: "The cockroaches were crawling over the floor of the flat again. Fingers shaking from withdrawal symptoms, Marlon reached for his stash..." Adjectivally, the word "bohemian" defines an environment it could be anywhere from the corner of a society drawing-room to the saloon bar of a spit-and-sawdust Frith Street pub in which literature, art and certain kinds of music come briefly together in defiance of, if not outright opposition to, prevailing cultural orthodoxies. Self-consciously avant-garde, avid to cock snooks at "ordinary life" and conventional morality, it did not altogether exclude class distinctions there were plenty of upper-class bohemians who never quite forgot that they were upper class while remaining relatively classless in scope.
In bohemia, a duchess and an apprentice poet could temporarily meet as equals. Vanity Fair's Becky Sharp lived in that kind of world in the days of her decline, a world of seedy Continental hotels, money earned no one quite knows where, flagging spirits kept up by sociability. Thackeray himself, a pillar of bourgeois respectability in later life, confessed that he admired Becky and her "bohemian people" beyond his other creations. His work indeed is full of wistful little glances at contemporary bohemian life: the sprawling artistic colonies of Soho (Becky's father is a drawing master), publishers' parties attended by broken-down magazine hacks lately released from the debtors' prison. Thackeray's mentor William Maginn was a pattern bohemian of his time: an erudite Irish classicist who died of drink and once spent a morning declaiming Homer to his protege before taking him off to a fourpenny brothel. Although one suspects that this kind of thing had always existed in British cultural life think of Moll Flanders, or Smollett's novels, or Hazlitt's journalism it took the early Victorian age to bring it into sharper focus. The middle-class puritanism that enveloped public life from the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign was deeply hostile to this combination of artistic dabbling, loose morals and general excess. The anarchic literary world of the 1830s, exemplified by the bitchy and exuberant Fraser's Magazine, was dead by mid-century: the newly founded Punch was a much safer guide to middle-class sensibilities.
In its wake, "pure" bohemianism of the Becky Sharp variety tended to be associated in the public mind with cities like Paris from the Victorian age onwards Paris is the place to which fictional heroes migrate to sow their wild oats before returning to prudent marriages and proper jobs. It was in Paris, too, that the late19th-century "decadent" strain in art and literature found its first sponsors. Desperate to emulate exotic icons such as Baudelaire and Rimbaud, English decadents of the 1880s and 1890s were sometimes conscious that their own efforts lacked conviction. Baudelaire, invited to London to recite his poems, was watched with pious horror, most of his audience realising that in his eyes their bohemianism was largely cosmetic. And yet domestic bohemianism, where it existed, was authentic enough. Reading accounts of Oscar Wilde's dealings with figures such as Aubrey Beardsley, one is always conscious of Wilde's unease in the company of young men who really did poison themselves with absinthe and write lurid poems to Leicester Square prostitutes. However keen on feasting with panthers, a part of him was always pining for the drawing-room. Simultaneously, the bohemian world of the post-Wilde era was characterised by its ability to penetrate polite society, to exist as an acknowledged adjunct to fashionable life.
The signposts of early 20th century bohemia point in a bewildering variety of directions: to Lady Ottoline Morrell's salons at Garsington Manor, to the White Tower restaurant in Percy Street and its imperious proprietor Stulik, to the Euston Road art school, to the Varda bookshop in nearby Bloomsbury. Anthony Powell's 1920s memoirs give a fair idea of the kind of artistic circles that could be infiltrated by a young writer de termined to meet "interesting people" who existed slightly beyond the confines of polite society. Powell was an Eton-educated regular army officer's son who worked in publishing, yet his circle during his first few years in London included Augustus John, the painter Nina Hamnett, the composer Constant Lambert and numbers of smaller fry. Cyril Connolly inscribed Powell's copy of Connolly's Enemies of Promise(1938) with the words: "For Tony, who like me was an 'Afternoon boy'." Powell politely disparaged this claim to solidarity. Connolly's associationwith the Soho charivari was , he implied, minimal.
If this cavalcade of down-at-heel artists and garret-inhabiting poets had a focus it was the area west of the Charing Cross and Tottenham Court Roads known as "Fitzrovia", described recently in Characters of Ficzrovia by Mike Pentelow and Marsha Rowe (Chatto Windus). The Second World War, inevitably, increased the pace of Fitzrovian cultural life. Transient hordes of on-leave soldiers and cultural tourists moved in and out. Among the inhabitants were the anarchist poet Paul Potts, who stole the young Iris Murdoch's typewriter on the grounds that he had greater need of it, the painters Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde (one of whom insisted on shaking hands with George Barker with fragments of a wine glass concealed in his palm) and, perhaps the most celebrated bohemian of the entire era, Julianx Maclaren-Ross. Immortalised in half a dozen Soho memoirs, Maclaren-Ross had the bohemian lifestyle down to a fine art: residence in some shabby west London bedsitter or cheap hotel with a younger woman; day-long stints in the Fitzrovia pubs and coffee shops; furious small-hour writing sessions. He died in 1964, a ghostly survivor from a vanished age.
It would be easy to mark down this strain in literary life as merely another example of the picturesquely second-rate, like the bailiff-haunted hangers-on who crowd the offices of the Pall Mall Gazette in Thackeray's Pendennis. To do this, though, is to ignore Bohemia's ability, through most of the 20th century, to colonise the literary mainstream. To name only the most obvious figures, Powell, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell and Stephen Spender all cultivated bohemian links at some point in their careers. Orwell, for example, in his BBC days, was a notable sponsor of Fitzrovia, while his friendship with Lucian Freud, maintained to the very end of his life, was only one of several attempts to keep these credentials up to date.
As a phenomenon, too, the bohemian lifestyle was much more widespread than the stacks of Fitzrovia memoirs, most of them confined to a couple of square miles of central London, might suggest. Soho may have been the English bohemians' spiritual capital, yet English bohemia was never exclusively metropolitan. As Philip Callow's 1950s novels show in particular Common People (1958), from which Jarvis Cocker borrowed the title of the Pulp song there was a provincial bohemia too, often working-class in tone (the key influence was D H Lawrence) capable of existing in practically any urban centre containing clever, disaffected people united by their opposition to mainstream culture. Malcolm Bradbury's Eating People Is Wrong (1959) offers a glimpse of this kind of world, including a tiny sub-group called "the beets" (not to be confused with the American Beat poets) consisting of Midlands university students who headed east in vacations to work on the sugar beet harvest.
This kind of existence has proved unsustainable. One of the characteristics of modern cultural life is its institutionalising tendency: the posts in creative writing at provincial universities, the British Council lecture tours, the state funding for the arts. Judged by one set of values, Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst look like exactly the kind of people who would have stood drinks to Nina Hamnett at the bar of the Wheatsheaf. Judged by another set, they are merely the worst kind of establishment pets.
Irvine Welsh has a fat contract from Jonathan Cape and has his work on the cinema screen. This is not bohemia — traditionally left-field, unobtrusive, detached from the central current — but sheer upward mobility. But here and there patches of old-style bohemianism endure: in the novels of Carol Birch and Niall Griffiths, for example, which describe a provincial life of the mind remote from metropolitan fads and preoccupations, or in Michael Horowitz's revivals of the spirit of the late-1960s underground poetr y scene. Elsewhere, the adjective "bohemian" is not much more than a term of abuse. In Peter J Conradi's recent biography of Iris Murdoch, a visitor to the fantastically cluttered Oxfordshire house that she shared with her husband, John Bayley, marks it down as "beyond bohemianism" — in other words, more squalid than could be expected, even of two raptly self-absorbed literary types.
Twenty years ago I used to listen to the stories about the feckless Barkers with deep contempt. Why couldn't the old man keep up his pension contributions like anyone else? Why should he be allowed to bring 15 children into the world without the means to support them? The briefest survey of a career such as Barker's brings out what Orwell called "the pew-renter" in every middleclass professional. But for all the shiftlessness and the eternal belief that, miraculously, someone else would pay for it all, Barker's determination to live his own life on his own terms has a queer kind of integrity. In an age where accountancy firms get to sponsor art exhibitions and Soho is merely a part of the West End tourist trail, one could wish for more of the bohemian spirit.
DJ Taylor's biography of Orwell is published next June.