A sultry Sunday early evening stroll round Bloomsbury was just what my hangover required. One of my literary role-models, Thomas Burke spent a lot of time walking these streets and I fancy, often feeling slightly jaded from a few the night before. In his 1939 book, Living in Bloomsbury he writes about how the reputation and nature of the area had changed, “as one district erases its shabby past, and improves and promotes itself, another forgets its decent past, and deteriotes and wanes…. Bloomsbury is a notable example of the whirlygig of favour.”
Burke outlines Bloomsbury’s arc from a smart neighbourhood for professionals and bankers in the 1820’s – 1860’s to the dwelling place for ‘hard-up clerks’ by the 1880’s, then starting to become re-gentrified during the interwar years of the 20th Century when he lived there. He lists the 19th Century books on London life that he accumulated during this time, books for people who are “seeking illumination on the realities of the period”. The intriguing collection includes, The Wilds of London and The Seven Curses of London by James Greenwood; Ritchie’s Night Side of London, Occult London, Mark Lemon’s Up and Down the London Streets, and James Grant’s The Great Metropolis.
From Sicilian Avenue I make my way for a mooch in Book Warehouse on Southampton Row and then on to the Brunswick Centre after stopping to admire the font of the Underground sign above the entrance to Russell Square tube station.
I photograph the doorway of an apartment block in Marchmont Street that I imagine is where those ‘hard-up clerks’ mentioned by Burke might have lived. The prostitute from Patrick Hamilton’s The Midnight Bell also lived round here somewhere. There’s always life in Marchmont Street, in the cafes, the launderette with the cranes looming above, the pub, Judd Street Books (which I just missed).
Moving round to Judd Street munching on a Topic bar you have to stop and admire Clare Court, a fine 1920’s brown brick block of flats, a fitting tribute to the 18th Century brick fields upon which it stands.
The neighbouring Lucas-Cromer estate was developed for housing with the first six houses rising from the cow pastures in 1801. By 1815, Lucas the tin-plate worker, had built another 99. Cromer Street today is dominated by a mixture of social housing blocks – the backs of the estate that lines Harrison Street and older flats with locally-listed shop fronts below. It has a European feel in the sunset, reminds me of the outskirts of cities in Emilia Romagna – Modena, Parma, Bologna.
The view north from Swinton Street is a panorama of changing London – the backs of early 20th Century social housing and the gleaming new glass towers of the Kings Cross development. I’m closing in on sacred ground – the Pen Ton mound, springs gurgling beneath the pavement, rising on the high ground around the top of Pentonville Road. The only reasonable thing to do now is to follow the water to a table near the banks of The New River outside the Marquess Tavern in Canonbury, a grand Victorian pile where George Orwell used to drink.