Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Book Review - Bohemia in London by Arthur Ransome

Bohemia in London by Arthur Ransome

Oxford University Press, 1984 (originally published in 1907) ISBN 0192814125

What a gem of a little book! Arthur Ransome, who is known to many readers through his children's series Swallows and Amazons, led a very long and interesting life both on the sea and off it; Bohemia in London was the first book he had published of which he was proud, and it would be hard to find a subject more distant to that of young girls and boys messing about in boats.

Part autobiographical, part historical, and I'm sure part fantastical, Bohemia in London takes us on a tour of the physical locations and human types that inhabited the intellectual quarter of London, in places such as Chelsea, Soho, Bloomsbury and the Charing Cross Road.

Ransome is at his best in this work when describing the sights and sounds of Bohemia - pen portraits of struggling authors and artists and their affectations, editors of failing magazines who are living an imagined life of glory, and parties fueled by cheap claret, pipe tobacco, bravado and singing.

He intersperses his work with historical snippets from older times, evoking the spirits of Johnson, Smollett, Steele and Addison. These forays are somewhat less successful than the rest of the book, and an imagined party in Ransome's room with the "attendance" of Ben Johnson, Robert Herrick, John Gay, John Keats and William Davies is the one occasion in the book where Ransome's youthful ardour (he was 22 when he wrote this book), overcomes his better authorial sense.

What comes through for the more modern reader is how little many of the ways of Bohemia have changed since this book was written - the self-importance, without reason,  of many of the inhabitants, the tendency to cliques, the dismissal of any "mainstream" activity as "selling out", and the fact that most people leave its realms as age, success, or responsibility settles on their shoulders. Ransome's final chapter is an envoi for Bohemia - even at 22 he knew he'd leave it one day - and how step-by-step most people move on. It is right to do so of course, as Bohemia is a situation only truly useful to the young; Ransome writes "...it is better so. There are few sadder sights than an old man without any manners aping the boyishness of his youth without the excuse of its ideals, going from tavern to tavern with the young, talking rubbish till two in the morning....it is too pitiful to be amusing."

For the bibliophiles amongst us, the chapter in Bohemia in London entitled "The Book-Shops of Bohemia" is a must. This is a wonderful picture of the bookshops that once lined a section of the Charing Cross Road, and the types that frequented them - I will indulge myself with some quotes -

  "There is something more real about this style of buying books [i.e. secondhand], than about the dull mercenary method of a new emporium. It is good, granted, to look about the shelves of a new bookshop,.....all that is pleasant enough, but to spend money there is a sham and a fraud; it is like buying groceries instead of buying dreams."
"And then, too, the people who buy in the ordinary shops are so disheartening. There is no spirit about them, no enthusiasm. You cannot sympathise with them over a disappointment nor smile your congratulations over a prize...the books they buy are doomed, Christmas or birthday presents, to lie about on drawing-room tables."

"It is an odd thing, by the way, that sumptuous volumes are always easiest to part with; a ragged, worn old thing, especially if it is small, tugs at our feelings, so that we cannot let it go whereas a school prize or an elegant present - away with it."

I fear that in the current barbarian age, we may well be losing the true joys of the second-hand bookshop - the good ones are closing, leaving the "sham" bookshops (overpriced, bad selection of titles, ignorant owners) left. While the internet is a boon in the sense that any book can be found, it spells the death of the innocent joys of browsing - soon we may only have the writings of ones such as Ransome to remind us of the era of the good second-hand bookshop. sic transit gloria mundi.

Bohemia in London is out of print - check your local library, or try your local second-hand bookshop (if you have one!)

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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