Real Bloomsbury, By Nicholas Murray

Literati and other local heroes
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The Independent Culture

Like many of the small towns and villages that make up London, Bloomsbury is more a state of mind than an administrative area.

Its name has come to stand for a number of artists and intellectuals who happened to live there in the early 20th century. Nicholas Murray's new book is aptly named: he manages to avoid dealing with the "Group" until the final chapters.

Given its air of social exclusivity, it's heartening that the word Bloomsbury is derived from a medieval sewer. Murray gives us some of the blacker social history; of vicious criminals and rioters in the 18th century, and of crimes once legal, such as the selling of children from workhouses to Northern mill owners. To keep such things at bay, or out of sight, the squares of Bloomsbury were gated. Officials turned away undesirables until the 1890s.

But there has always been a tradition of radical political and religious belief in Bloomsbury: sometimes both, as in the Church of Humanity. One wonders how they celebrated their feast days for Socrates and Shelley. And Thomas Coram's Foundling Hospital, demolished in 1926, was a genuinely charitable institution.

Despite the depredations of post-war planners, much of the old Bloomsbury survives, although a great loss was suffered when the British Library was transferred to St Pancras and Panizzi's Reading Room became another stop for tourists. But, as Murray points out, a few excellent bookshops and pubs remain, while he rightly bemoans the lack of any "self-standing bakers or fishmongers or fruiterers".

In the end, it is the writers we remember. A huge number passed through or settled here, either in grand houses (Dickens in Tavistock Square) or single rooms (Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in Rugby Street). Among the literary ghosts, one can easily imagine Gissing watching the Reading Room filling with fog, or Roy Campbell taking a swing at Stephen Spender in Regent Square, raging that the poet and his effete friends had "never broken a horse... or branded a steer".

Which brings us to what most people think of as "Bloomsbury": the House of Woolf and its attendant tribes of Garnetts, Bells and Stracheys. Murray deals with them fairly, but not before he has delved into every nook and cranny of this part of London. His amiably informative and well-illustrated book is the ideal companion to any tour.

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