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Reference group
Fitzrovia (act. c.1925–1950) is the retrospective label applied to a district of central London where, between roughly 1925 and 1950, the pubs, restaurants, cafés, and drinking clubs provided a fashionable rendezvous for a diverse range of writers with a taste for bohemian life. The label, which had passed into common usage by the early 1960s, acknowledged the one-time status of the Fitzroy Tavern, at 16 Charlotte Street, as the area's pre-eminent venue. Together with Rathbone Place, Charlotte Street forms the crooked spine of Fitzrovia. Sometimes known in that period as North Soho, this district represented a narrow annexe to Soho, which in this period offered an English equivalent to the Left Bank in Paris or Greenwich Village in New York. Like Soho proper, Fitzrovia was famous for its distinctive ambience, created by its French, Greek, Italian, Russian, and Jewish emigré populations. These coexisted with an incongruous array of criminals, artists, musicians, actors, film-makers, and writers, drawn to Fitzrovia not by some shared ideology or aesthetic but by its louche, easy-going reputation.

Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, numerous painters, among them John Constable, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and James McNeill Whistler, had lived and worked in the district, imbuing it with strong artistic associations. It did not, however, establish itself as an important point on the London literary map until the late 1920s. Ambitious young writers such as Roy Campbell, Anthony Powell, and Jack Lindsay became regular customers in the Fitzroy Tavern, where they found a raucous, rough-and-ready alternative to the precious salons of nearby Bloomsbury. An equally youthful Patrick Hamilton was drawn to the area not by the opportunity to rub shoulders with his peers but to sample Fitzrovia's thriving demi-monde. His experiences, above all his corrosive obsession with a local prostitute, yielded the raw material for Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky (1935), his trilogy of novels set in the Midnight Bell, a fictitious pub on the fringe of Fitzrovia. Seen through Hamilton's jaded eyes the area was devoid of the joie de vivre that rendered it irresistible to so many people.

In the Fitzroy Tavern and neighbouring cafés, clubs, and restaurants—notably Bertorelli's and La Tour Eiffel—writers could gather material by mingling with the colourful characters who frequented the area. These included the painters Augustus John and Nina Hamnett, the composers Alan Rawsthorne and Constant Lambert, the horse-racing tipster Peter MacKay, known as Ras Prince Monolulu, and the notorious satanist Aleister Crowley. More than anyone, Crowley was responsible for the alluring whiff of scandal that consolidated Fitzrovia's status as the epicentre of bohemian life in the capital. When Hamnett published Laughing Torso (1932), a popular memoir of her dissolute youth, Crowley took exception to what he regarded as a libellous reference to his occult rituals. At the subsequent trial, which provoked considerable, outraged press coverage, another of the Fitzroy Tavern's regulars demolished the prosecution case by giving evidence that Crowley had baptized a toad as Jesus and then crucified it. In the wake of the trial, crowds of curious Londoners went to observe the hard-drinking, self-consciously unconventional denizens of what would later be dubbed Fitzrovia.

Two of the writers most closely associated with the district first sampled its attractions during the early 1930s. Dylan Thomas moved to London just before the publication of his début collection, 18 Poems (1934). On previous trips to the capital he had discovered the Fitzroy Tavern, which he was soon patronizing on a daily basis. Despite its dominant role in his life, the beery tang of the saloon bar could seldom be detected in his work, more often than not inspired by recollections of his native Wales. While Thomas embarked on his parallel career as a roistering bohemian, Julian Maclaren-Ross made his earliest forays into the Fitzroy Tavern and the surrounding streets that occupied a central position in his later life and work. Although Maclaren-Ross was living in Bognor Regis during the late 1930s, he often visited Fitzrovia. Together with his friend the writer C. K. Jaeger (1912–2008) he would head for The Wheatsheaf, at 25 Rathbone Place, the pub that succeeded the Fitzroy Tavern as the area's most fashionable watering hole. Unlike Dylan Thomas, who had already established the bibulous routine that led to his premature death, Maclaren-Ross did not initially succumb to Fitzrovia's destructive charms. By the time that happened he had endured a dismal spell in the wartime army and established himself as a leading short-story writer. Discharged from the military on psychiatric grounds, he installed himself in the saloon bar of The Wheatsheaf. His observations provided Maclaren-Ross with material for many of the distinctive, conversational stories featured in Better than a Kick in the Pants (1945) and The Nine Men of Soho (1946).

Sharing Maclaren-Ross's smoky domain, which offered a comforting refuge from the bleakness of wartime London, was a fluid assembly of writers. Thomas, who had met his wife, Caitlin [see Thomas, Caitlin], in The Wheatsheaf, was commonly seen there. So too were the poets George Barker, Keidrych Rhys [see Jones, William Ronald Rees], W. S. Graham, and John Heath Stubbs. They were often joined by the up-and-coming young novelist Peter Vansittart (1920–2008); the poet and sportswriter Alan Ross; the emigré Indian novelist Mulk Raj Anand, author of Untouchable (1935); and the New Zealand writer and publisher Daniel (Dan) Davin, whose memoir Closing Times (1975) included a touching reminiscence of his friendship with Maclaren-Ross. Their fellow Wheatsheaf stalwarts were the light-fingered Canadian Paul Potts (1911–1990), self-styled ‘people's poet from the Canadian prairies’; the Scottish short-story writer Fred Urquhart; Peter Brooke (1907–1973), who later published successful travel books under the pen-name Anthony Carson; and Meary Tambimuttu, the Tamil editor of Poetry London. Less regular visitors to The Wheatsheaf included Quentin Crisp, years away from achieving recognition with his autobiography The Naked Civil Servant (1968); Gerald Kersh, best known for his lowlife novel Night and the City (1938); the high society rebel and poet Nancy Cunard; and Joan Wyndham (1921–2007), whose amusing wartime diaries—Love Lessons (1985) and Love is Blue (1986)—focus on bohemian life in London. There were also occasional visits from influential literary figures like George Orwell [see Blair, Eric], Stephen Spender, and John Lehmann, editor of Penguin New Writing, the high-circulation magazine that provided a showcase for most of the finest English writers of the 1940s.

The end of the Second World War marked the beginning of various slow changes that dispersed the literary community that had grown up in Fitzrovia. In search of employment many writers transferred their loyalties to the pubs near the BBC's Broadcasting House at Portland Place, venues frequented by the corporation's producers, who were on the lookout for fresh scriptwriting talent. Other writers, including Davin, acquired families and demanding jobs that compelled them to change their way of life. By the end of the 1940s Fitzrovia had retained its bohemian aura yet lost its literary cachet. Of the wartime stalwarts only Maclaren-Ross continued to spend night after night there, his obdurate presence serving as a reminder of the area's heyday. For aspiring writers wanting to meet their more prominent peers, seek practical advice, or forge potentially useful contacts, Fitzrovia was no longer an obvious destination. Its seedy drinking and music clubs nevertheless served to attract a dwindling band of writers with an interest in West End lowlife, not to mention the nascent youth culture of teddy boys and beatniks. Though middle-aged the gay novelist Colin MacInnes was a regular in the Moonglow Club on Percy Street. His intimate knowledge of the racial tension, violence, and casual liaisons of 1950s Fitzrovia found an outlet in his novel City of Spades (1957), in which the Moonglow appears as the Moonbeam Club.

Well after Fitzrovia's reputation as a literary meeting place had waned, its unique ambience was captured by Maclaren-Ross's Memoirs of the Forties (1965), widely recognized as the definitive portrait of the area during the Second World War. In ‘The Polestar Neighbour’, a vivid chapter about his brief friendship with Dylan Thomas, he quoted Tambimuttu on the dangers of contracting ‘Soho-itis’, a condition prevalent in both Soho proper and its northern annexe, Fitzrovia. ‘If you get Soho-itis’, Tambimuttu warned, ‘you will stay there always day and night and get no work done ever’ (Collected Memoirs, 301). Alan Ross, who was responsible for serializing the book in the London Magazine, also eloquently conveyed the multi-faceted appeal of Fitzrovia. ‘There was’, he wrote, ‘nowhere else I … wanted to be, certain that it was here that life had real meaning, that art and literature and sex all [came] magically together among friends’ (Blindfold Games, 249).

Paul Willetts

Sources  

N. Bailey, Fitzrovia (1981) · D. Davin, Closing times (1975) · R. Hewison, Under siege: literary life in London 1939–1945 (1979) · D. Hooker, Nina Hamnett: queen of bohemia (1986) · J. Maclaren-Ross, Collected memoirs (2004) [with introduction by P. Willetts] · P. Pentelow and M. Rowe, Characters of Fitzrovia (2001) · A. Ross, Blindfold games (1986) · D. Stanford, Inside the forties: literary memoirs, 1937–1957 (1977) · P. Willetts, Fear and loathing in Fitzrovia (rev. edn, 2005)