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Thirty years ago a zoroastrian from Zanzibar with eye make-up, buckteeth and unusually stretchy clothes, lost in his music whatever it was about, was a reminder that there were bohemians in Britain. [First published Do Not Disturb magazine]
The defining image of bohemian has been the artist’s cape, a knobbed cane, facial hair, opium-addicted good-time girl eating mouse on toast, suicidal bluestocking, postwar drunks in Soho bars, beaky nosed heiresses doing interpretive dance under a full moon, anyone in a kaftan, anyone in an airstream. These days its most often used to define a town where it’s possible to find shops selling sourdough, vinyl, vintage industrial furniture with buff paper labels attached by string in between a nail bar and a betting shop.
There’s a bohemian code of conduct, a requirement is that something goes against expectation, convention, is anti-establishment, and in Britain, particularly a Victorian, Edwardian, and post-war Britain, a country thick with rules, class, conventions, mores and etiquette, were there for the breaking.
The definition: “especially an artist, literary man, or actor, who leads a free, vagabond, or irregular life, not being particular as to the society he frequents, and despising conventionalities generally”.
Few people are prepared to go that extra mile these days. Bohemian as a tone more self-conscious and transient, a colonising phase a magnet for hangers on chased by pacman of property developers and chainstores. It’s hard to find a place to be a bad artist, and the good ones might be part-time bohemians, or at best bobos, bourgeois bohemians, who like the look and possibly the convoluted sex life, but not the poverty, inconvenience and early death.
So forget Greenwich Village and Montparnasse, we celebrate Bohemian Britain past and present in all its forms of non-conformity. As Freddie Mercury says: “Galileo Figaro Magnifico”
Chelsea, London’s rive gauche. Its stinking Thames-side houses, big and cheap enough for unusual households in the 19th century, divided into bedsits and cheap flats in the 20th century, made it quintessential bohemian territory. A time traveller peering through the windows of one street alone, Cheyne Walk, might have seen the artist, JMW Turner, pretending to be an Admiral Booth canoodling with his mistress, Mrs Booth at No. 119; the pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, poet Algernon Charles Swinburne and writer George Meredith having a food fight at the breakfast table over Victor Hugo at No.16, or Swinburne sliding down the bannisters buck naked, or the menagerie in the back garden that comprised a zebra, bull, raccoon, wombat and kangaroo; Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful being arrested at No. 48 in 1967, and Keith Richard and Anita Pallenberg painting the walls of No.3 black.
The Chelsea Arts Club founded by Whistler in 1891 specifically to be “bohemian in character” is now frequented by the cast of Made in Chelsea, and property prices (a 4-bedroom house on Cheyne Walk was recently advertised for £10.5 million) are more tempting to bankers than mavericks.
GARSINGTON MANOR, OXFORDSHIRE
An open house for left-wing atheists, conscientious objectors, prominent artists and writers, owned by the truly bohemian Lady Ottoline Morrell, who invited all to stay for months and “live the noble life . . . freely, recklessly, released from convention”. Ottoline, over 6ft tall, beaky-nosed, with a fondness for fantastical homemade clothes and hats, worn with “great style and bravado” conducted affairs with most of her guests, including Bertram Russell, Augustus John, Henry Lamb, and a bisexual stonemason. The whole set-up was widely mocked: “I sit quivering” wrote Lytton Strachey, “among a surging mesh of pugs, peacocks, pianolas, and humans, if humans they can be called”, but she continued gamely until the money ran out. The house is now privately owned.
Heyday: 1930s -1950s
The setting for darker, shabbier, La Boheme style goings-on, the pubs of Fitzrovia, (north of Oxford St, west of Tottenham Court Road) were frequented by young writers, artists, models in the 1930s, many new in town, like Dylan Thomas, and living in the area’s cheap bedsits. Post-war, the clientele in the drab, smokey bars was the same (‘regulars, wits, and bums’) but older, drunker, less optimistic. Once vivacious Queen of Bohemia, artist and model Nina Hamnett, was cadging drinks and picking up sailors in the Fitzroy Tavern, telling anyone who’d listen ‘Modigliani said I had the best tits in Europe’ before flashing them, and died after jumping from her squalid bedsit and getting impaled on the railings. The King of Bohemia, writer Julian Maclaren-Ross, squandered his talent at The Wheatsheaf, Rathbone Place. The super-sharp dandy often slept on the floor of Euston Station, and died from a heart attack after celebrating a royalty payment by drinking a bottle of brandy. Augustus John, Wyndham Lewis, Quentin Crisp, with his blue rinse and lipstick, Ezra Pound and George Orwell all drank in the drab, smoky bars of Fitzrovia; The Newman Arms is the Proles Arms of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Once twinned with Narnia and then Area 51, the US military’s alien life form repository in Nevada, (the sign officially reads Vire), this is the UK capital for alternative therapists, herbalists, buskers, organic farmers, vegans, people who like to walk around in Elizabethan dress, or dressed as jesters, or with owls on their shoulders, all united in the conviction that Totnes is special, and determined to keep it that way by banning chains. It’s wacky but progressive: Totnes was the first town in Britain to have a cats’ cafe (now closed), natural healing centre, its own currency (the Totnes Pound), and (if you ignore Kinsale, which most people do) to become a Transition Town pushing for self-sufficiency in power production before the world’s oil runs out.
The new age thinking’s not new; when an American heiress and her husband, a Yorkshireman fresh from managing a community farm in India for Rabindranath Tagore bought nearby Dartington Hall in 1925, they set up a sustainable living centre, arts college and workshops, made cider, wove stuff, invited convalescing Second World War servicemen to do watercolour painting in the grounds, and founded a famously liberal co-ed boarding school. The boho spirit drifted over the bustling market town of Totnes like a waft of patchouli, and the rest is history.
“Nowhere” says local writer Tom Cox “are you more likely to find a woman in a smock playing the flute under a tree, or a man whose appearance evokes the phrase: “Jesus: the Progressive Rock Years”.
FIRLE, EAST SUSSEX
This became a retreat of the Bloomsbury group of writers and artists giving much for local farmers to mull over in pubs. Vanessa Bell lived at Charleston with two children and two men, (neither her husband, Clive, who stayed in London with his mistress) and her sister Virginia Woolf moved to nearby Rodmell. It was just after the First World War. “We were going to paint; to write; everything was going to be new; everything was going to be different; everything was on trial,” recalled Virginia. Her novel, Orlando, was certainly different, but so was their lifestyle involving a who’s who of famous house guests (frequently economist Maynard Keynes, writer Lytton Strachey, artist Roger Fry) and convoluted sexual criss-crossing, most notably Virginia’s affair with Vita Sackville-West, and Vanessa’s affair with gay artist Duncan Grant resulting in a daughter who later married Grant’s former lover, ‘Bunny’ Garnett, Messy.
In 1949, American model turned war photographer, Lee Miller, (fresh from posing in Hitler’s bath), settled six miles from Firle at Farley Farm House, and once again great artists all headed for East Sussex, this time surrealists mainly, including Picasso, ex-lover Man Ray, and Max Ernst, for heavy drinking, intellectual conversation and garden frolics. All houses are opt to the public, though Monk’s House at Rodmell and Charleston Farmhouse seem rather twee.
Birthplace of Augustus John (1878) a fine artist who dressed flamboyantly in gold earrings and capes, shared a live-in lover with his wife, is rumoured to have fathered 100 children, drank enormous amounts, and for a while, travelled around in a gypsy caravan, all as a result, apparently, of a bump to the head while on holiday in 1895. (Nina Hamnett was also born here.)
NEW QUAY & LAUGHARNE, Carmarthenshire
Dylan Thomas is buried alongside wife, Caitlin, in Laugharne, and his former home, the Boathouse, is pretty, a tourist attraction devoid of a whiff of bohemia; anyone who would have remembered the drinking, the fighting, the scandalous affairs, and Caitlin cartwheeling with no knickers on is long gone. Previously they’d lived in New Quay, allegedly the Llareggub of Under Milk Wood. A Dylan Thomas tour passes the house of his friend Norman who inspired Nogood Boyoe, and pubs, including the Blue Bell where he drank with Richard Burton, and The Seahorse, maybe the Sailors Arms of his masterpiece. Here too “scenes of singing and dancing, as in Under Milk Wood are no longer a common sight,” barman Gwilym Phillips told Wales Online. “As for Dylan Thomas, well there aren’t too many of the old drinkers left here that remember him, but from what I’ve been told he wasn’t hugely popular with local businesses. He left a lot of unpaid bills.”
THE COLONY ROOM CLUB, SOHO
The single most colourful spot in London, this single tackily-furnished shabby green room up a flight of stairs above what’s now Ducksoup, a kind of nouveau tapas and natural wine place on Dean St, was safe sanctuary from all the people who worked 9-5, and spent most of the day sober. On opening in 1948, the foul-mouthed Jewish lesbian proprietor, Muriel, paid Francis Bacon to invite people he liked to join, and it fast became a watering hole for Lucien Freud, Jeffrey Bernard, George Melly, Maggie Hambling, Peter O’Toole, John Hurt, Christopher Isherwood. It wasn’t elitist; anyone with a head for the house champagne and a tale to tell was welcome (as long as Muriel approved), particularly spies and call girls but it was special, a seedy, smokey salon. The place lost its shine when Muriel died in 1979, flickered briefly when discovered by a new generation of artists, the dandy Sebastian Horsely, Damian Hirst, Tracey Emin, and Sam Taylor-Wood, then closed for good marking the end of an era.
They were no Timothy Learys but when 40 British beatniks hitchhiked to Newquay in their jeans, t-shirts, and sandals in the summer of 1960 they caused panic. They were banned from shops, bars and tearooms, set on by alsations, some even escorted out of Cornwall. The harbour wall was dug up and replaced with railings to stop them sitting on it. Alan Whicker, despatched by the BBC to investigate was told by an irate councillor that ‘It’s not so much the eccentricity of dress or the long hair, but the fact they were becoming dirtier and dirtier and finally, quite frankly, stinking became more than we could stand.’ For many years though, folksingers like Wizz Jones, Clive Palmer, and Donovan headed to Newquay for the summer to be passively countercultural. Innocent days given recent complaints about public sex, beach bonfires, and streaking in the so called New Ibiza.
TIPI VALLEY, CWYMDU
The UK’s original eco-community, a camp of yurts, tipis, vans and turf-roofed houses is spread over 200 acres of Welsh mountain accrued over 40 years. It’s home to 80-90 people, some old-school hippies there since the beginning, veterans of sit-down protests and the sexual revolution, others of raves, and there’s a steady stream of new arrivals. It’s a bit like camping at Glastonbury, but for life . . . and without the line-up, although there are regular naked sweat lodge chanting drumming parties in celebration of mother earth. Most people here have jobs – there are teachers, carpenters, beekeepers, artists, even an Anglican minister – but choose to live a different way, specifically, in mud without running water, more in touch with nature. There’s the perception that boho means unequal tables in an inner city café, but according to the bohemian checklist (sacrifice, ideals, non-conformism), this is actually closer to the bill.
Site of Britain’s most glamorous commune, run in the days of festivals, drugs, rock and roll by artist Sarah Ponsonby and John Rendall, who’d raised a lion ‘ Christian’ in his Chelsea flat. Originally located outside Stratford, it was frequented by Helen Mirren (who was playing Lady Macbeth at the RSC), fellow actors, and her boyfriend, Prince George Galitzine, musicians, and Bob Whittaker the Beatles photographer. A former inmate remembers ‘continual fun and games, and a lot of pranks . . . Everything painted in different colours, very strong home-brewed cider and of course lots of dope.’ By 1975 they’d moved to Surrendell and Princess Margaret, dressed like a farmwife would come to stay with their much younger head gardener, Roddy Llewellyn (the Poldark of the day) and not only muck in, but regale everyone with renditions of Chattanooga Choo Choo. Press attention and the discovery of cannabis plants at the farm brought the party to an end. Parsenn Sally, the group’s restaurant in Bath, is now a Cafe Rouge.
Like something out of fiction itself, this bookish bohemian kingdom is the creation of its deposed ‘king’ Richard Booth. He arrived in the out of the way Welsh town in 1961, bought the castle, the fire station, a workhouse, cinema and various shops and stuffed them full of secondhand books. In 1977, on April 1, he declared himself King Richard Coeur de Livre, King of Hay. He created knights and dukes, a Kingdom of Hay passport, the Hay House of Lords, and made his horse prime minister. Sales improved and by 1988 when the first Hay Festival of Literature was held, partly funded, allegedly, the proceeds of a poker game, the town was well on the way to being the world capital of secondhand bookshops that it is now. The festival described by Bill Clinton as ‘Woodstock of the mind’ and its founder, Peter Florence as “the best bits of university but with great live music and double-beds” has made Hay world famous but, despite Booth’s empire now being ruled by an American, and the proliferation of self-consciously boho things (accommodation in off-grid shepherd shacks, espresso in vintage furniture stores) it remains jolly and quirkily British.
STOKES CROFT, BRISTOL
A patch of inner city Bristol dubbed the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft, that battles to be left alone, and a rough, filthy centre of vibrant art, political activism, creative thinking and late night drinking. Its hub is the industrial-looking community café venue Canteen and the studios above it, occupied by radio stations, alternative therapists, illustrators, writers, clowns, and artists. Banksy’s Mild Mild West (teddy with petrol bomb) is the best of the copious lashings of street art and attracts wary tourists into the zone. Basement dives, squats, and independent arty shops still exist along Gloucester Road but locals are ever vigilant for signs of creeping gentrification.
Uneasy mix of the people who lost their jobs when Clarke’s, the nearby shoe factory, closed down, and witches and wiccans in velvet sipping tea; a place to pop into Spar for a packet of cheddar and the Wonky Broomstick for magickal things; Boots is round the corner from Covenstead witchcraft-themed B&B. Glastonbury’s mystical status built on leylines and links to Arthurian legend has lost a little magic sparkle of late (“populated entirely by tramps and the mentally ill”, as a former resident described it; “drug-addled escapism in which real and fantasy worlds exchange places” said another) but it does have a population of lively, creative, free-thinking people who dance to the beat of a different drum on a full-time basis.
For bohemians with office jobs, summer festivals offer a chance to be wild, dirty, cultural and more than a little drunk for just five days. Glastonbury festival (actually in Pilton) is the place to spot bobos, bourgeois bohemians (think Cara Delevingne, Sienna Miller, Kate Moss) who, while fascinated by sacrifice for art, and poverty, know its not for them. In uniform of Hunter boots, micro shorts, something crocheted, and cat’s eye sunglasses, they make wooden spoons in the Greencrafts Village, get down and dirty in the Florence mosh pit, eat something from Thailand or Jamaica off a polystyrene plate and then retire to an RV for £5999 (£225 extra). Not very Augustus John.
Decay, urban, on the edge, cheap, social mix – the classic requirements of Bohemians. Artist Lennie Lee moved into a rundown house in Dalston in the mid-80s, and was able to make a living performing (e.g. a babyspeak lament ending in the smashing of a beer glass) and selling Rubbish Pictures made from stuff he found on the pavements for £9.99. a maze of empty buildings and artists were busy taking them over, turning them into squats and make-shift studios. Risqué fancy dress parties in which the house would be covered in murals. Turkish, West Indian, low income students, families, transvestites, folk singers area below the limelight. New falange of hipsters arrive, driven east by the poncification of Hoxton, Shoreditch, in search for grittier, edgier, and frankly cheaper properties, but of a more entrepreneurial bent, fashion designers Christopher Kane and Gareth Pugh, the team that turned a derelict restaurant into Dalston Superstore gallery, disco and gourmet hangout. the crowds, the area becomes desirable, squats and unlicensed property taken over, prices go up, In come Britney Spears and Harry Styles and despite organisations like Land of Kings dedicated to ‘transforming the high street’s humdrum’ by putting on events in underground bunkers, to ocakbasi basements, car parks, for purists, it’s all over.
Heyday: Weekends since the 1920s
It’s hard to think of Brighton being new; its allure for bohemians has always been the shabbiness, its underbelly, the suggestion of seedy, risqué things occurring down there in damp boarding houses at the margins of society at the end of the line. Keith Waterhouse described it as having ‘the air of a town that is perpetually helping the police with their enquiries.’ In the 1920s Brighton was the place to go for a dirty weekend and The Metropole was the hotel of choice; by the 1930s, it was one of Britain’s few openly acknowledged gay destinations, with women’s dances at the Royal Albion Hall and gay men thronging The Star of Brunswick. Although not so permissive that a woman who married her girlfriend and honeymooned at the Grand while disguised as a Colonel Blyth-Barker wasn’t described as a ‘mad pervert of the most undesirable kind’ and imprisoned.
The old textile mill town’s abandoned industrial buildings and dilapidated houses were bought or squatted and either way restored in the 1970s & 1980s by like-minded creative types, many from Leeds and Manchester. So while it looks like an old-fashioned traditional sort of place with its artisan shops, artists’ studios, and real ale pubs, its community prides itself on being non-traditional. It’s been called a stronghold of anarchists, marxists, feminists, punks, and hippies, and the lesbian capital of the UK (which statistically is true). Maxine Peake was here recently raising money for the socialist paper Morning Star, it’s that kind of place, although better known as being near the birthplace of Ted Hughes, Mytholmroyd, and the grave of Sylvia Plath (Heptonstall).
Heyday: before 1698-1930
‘His slumbers are late – his labours are light – his occupation his amusement. Government he has not – law he feels not – physic he wants not – politics he heeds not – money he sees not – of war he hears not. His state is his city, his city is his social circle-he has the liberty of his thoughts’ so wrote Lachlan Maclean about the inhabitants of the St Kilda archipelago. Located 110 miles off the Scottish mainland islanders were left to their own devices, dancing ‘with great delight’ to fiddle music until Victorians called on cruise ships and spoilt everything. They left in 1930; St Kilda is now managed by the National Trust for Scotland.
Copyright DO NOT DISTURB / SORREL DOWNER 2016