By Adam Samuel
Let’s face it; our neighbourhood is different. It is not Marylebone with its serene mixture of Georgian, Victorian and arts and crafts classic building. That, not this, has “the street where you live”. Bloomsbury has… well the Bloomsbury set. They may have invaded Fitzroy Square and the top of Conway Street but nobody ever declared there to be a Fitzrovia set. This might have needed Virginia Woolf and George Bernard Shaw to have lived in the same building in Fitzroy Square at the same time rather than at different ones or for Augustus John and Dylan Thomas to have a different sort of relationship.
While there has been plenty of sex and violence in this neighbourhood’s history, the battle of Soho never quite spread north of Oxford Street. Nor happily did the various gangs or hard core porn. Fitzrovia did sordid; it never quite did the Windmill or the great musical venues like the Marquee and Ronnie Scots. Somehow the vanished Scala Theatre’s place in a Hard Days Night doesn’t quite make up for the fact that Fitzrovia has no great musical tradition. The fabulous revelation that Johnie Rotten and Sid Vicious worked at the Cranks restaurant in Tottenham Street (on the Fitzrovia News’ great Fitzrovia walking tour) and the news that Dylan’s (not the Thomas one) first London gig was at the King and Queen do not quite make up for that. Nor does (Boy) George O’Dowd’s undistinguished squat here.
So, what of the books? Andrew Duncan’s London Walks describes the neighbourhood as a Soho sight. However, his “Notorious Soho” walk, covering the Great Mail Van Robbery of 1952, the 1947 Jay’s Jewellers murder and well-known brothels in Cleveland and Newman Street provides one side of the story.
However, the cognoscenti or obsessional take their Camden History Society Streets of Bloomsbury & Fitzrovia on walks. No architectural majesty or story is left untold. The Grafton Hotel will not look the same after learning that Ottoline Morrell and Betrand Russell had two steamy nights together there. The “Streets” gives the enormous pleasure of telling the owners of an anonymous café that his was the sight in the 1890s of the anarchist Club Autonomie.
The Camden book also introduces a phenomenon appropriate for a neighbourhood with historically more political divides than many sovereign states. There are three Fitzrovias: north, central and south. It is extraordinary for a neighbourhood so small but each section has its own coffee shops, restaurants and vibe reflecting distance from Euston Road and Oxford Street. These sections are also strangely lopsided. North covers the activity around Warren Street and AN Wilson’s “stupendous Fitzroy Square” (I think of it as the girl far too beautiful to be available). Central stretches from Goodge Street through to the bottom of Charlotte Street and then west along to the BBC church. The south is dominated by Oxford Market, Eastcastle Street and the side streets off it.
The west, not being part of Camden, remains unexplored by the guides. An art historian friend had a blissful moment discovering that Fuseli, the Swiss artist and Royal Academy founder lived in Foley Street (ignoring the take-out pizza place now occupying it). The fabulous public lavatory there and strange architectural concoction of the Langham Street Hotel deserve a stroll. All Saints Margaret Street can be enjoyed but has anyone worked out the opening hours for the gorgeous looking Welsh chapel in Eastcastle Street? Andrew Duncan tells of the great hoax of Berners Street. Now sadly the same site, the Sanderson, will be remembered for the first public disaster of Amy Winehouse.