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The Bloomsbury Boom
A New Chapter for a Dowdy London Neighborhood

By Tamsin Todd
The Washington Post
Sunday, November 29, 1998; Page E01

Late afternoon in London's Bloomsbury Square, just as it should be: leafy trees, stately Georgian homes, tweedy academic types, a cluster of tourists--and 500 dreadlocked, pierced, Lycra- and platform-clad teenagers. They're hanging around with a film crew on the south end of the square. A middle-age man shouts into his mobile phone and herds the teenagers back and forth across the square. I go up to a tall, slim girl with a ring in her lip. She's excited; she waves her hands around as she talks. She's been picked to be in Five's new video. Five is London's latest teen-marketing creation, a prefab band of would-be Spice Boys blowing through the summer pop charts.

"You're shooting the video here?" I say, incredulous. "In Bloomsbury?"

"Why not?" she says, with a look that says, Don't you know anything?

As it turns out, I don't. I've always thought of Bloomsbury as a sort of big interactive museum. It's a place you visit if you're a student (University of London), or if you're interested in literary history (the Bloomsbury Group) or imperial loot (the British Museum). It's not a place you'd go for an evening meal, or--more unimaginably--live music. Like many people, I've learned about Bloomsbury from books written by its famous literary residents (Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf), and films based on their lives and works (including "Carrington" and last year's "Mrs. Dalloway"). In my imagination, Bloomsbury hasn't changed since 1935.

In fact, Bloomsbury has declined severely since World War II. Bisected by one of London's major thoroughfares, it grew congested with commuter traffic. Local residents--including the artists and intellectuals who made it famous--left. Starting in the 1930s, the University of London expanded into the Georgian terraces, converting them into academic departments and student housing. In recent years, many of the remaining large homes have been turned into cheap hotels and "bedsits." Efforts to revitalize the district in the 1960s and '70s failed. For most Londoners, Bloomsbury is a place you think of visiting once a year--when you're hosting out-of-town visitors.

Well, think again. Walk east from the Goodge Street tube station through leafy squares (Bedford and Gordon are the best) and you'll see the usual smattering of literary agents and academics. But you're equally likely to see black-clad guerrilla sculptors checking out their latest art installation. On Museum Street, traditionally home to antiquarian print and book shops, new design firms, artists' studios and cafes share sidewalk space with long-term tenants. After work, the Oasis Sports Center (32 Endell St.) is abuzz with media types wearing designer sportswear, and just around the corner is a top-rated nightclub, The End (18 W. Central St.). Something new is happening in Bloomsbury.

East of London's nightlife hub (Soho) and west of its financial center (City of London), Bloomsbury is at the geographical center of late-20th-century London, and its eclectic architecture reflects the city's diversity. It's a district of contrasts. Elegant Georgian squares border modernist housing projects. The neo-Gothic spires of the now-derelict Midland Grand Hotel (St. Pancras Station, Euston Road) loom over the stark red brick planes of the new British Library (96 Euston Rd.). The most imposing structure of all is the Post Office Tower on Cleveland Street--a space-age glass and steel pylon in nearby Fitzrovia that's visible from every street and square in Bloomsbury.

Once unappealing to Londoners, this urban juxtaposition of old and new is attracting a new breed of residents--professionals like former West London resident Caroline Keppel-Palmer. As spokeswoman for London First, the coalition of businesses that's promoted London's "Cool Britannia" image worldwide, Keppel-Palmer knows London in and out, and when it came to buying her first flat she chose a one-bedroom in a Victorian mansion block with sweeping views of Bloomsbury.

She's not alone. Students are staying on in Bloomsbury after they get their first jobs, and young professionals are moving in, says real estate agent Russell Ball. "It's more popular to live in the middle of the city than it was a few years ago. For young people, Bloomsbury is the most affordable area in central London."

Bloomsbury, in turn, is catering to its new residents. Running north from the classic arched tube station at Russell Square is villagey Marchmont Street, filled with cafes, health food shops and gay-friendly bookstores. The concrete eyesore on the east side of Marchmont Street is the Brunswick Centre, a complex of shops and low-income apartments built in the early 1970s that is now undergoing renovation. The Hare and Tortoise Dumpling & Noodle Bar there is busy, and an arty crowd gathers each evening for drinks and foreign films at the Renoir, an art-house cinema and bar.

Farther north, check out the eclectic performance schedule at the Bloomsbury Theatre (15 Gordon St.), where a typical week includes stand-up comedy, a Croatian film festival and a troupe of flamenco dancers. Then stop in next door at the UCL (University College London) Union (25 Gordon St.) for a latte or cheap pint, browse the day's papers and get caught up in a discussion about the politics of film noir or the aesthetics of the European Union.

Pouring vodka tonics in her brightly painted front room--which is modishly devoid of furniture except for a colossal retro fridge that I suspect cost nearly as much as the flat--Keppel-Palmer talks about Bloomsbury's resurgence. For dinner, we head south to the Covent Garden end of Bloomsbury. We're careful to avoid the tourist traps on Southampton Row and Russell Square (e.g. Virginia Woolf's Burger and Grill Restaurant).

Outside the London Cartoon Gallery (44 Museum St.), we're waylaid by some cartoonists who invite us inside for a drink. The collective they belong to is launching a new book. Over beers, they explain how their work derives from one of England's great traditions, the editorial cartoon, and how cartoon art is gaining popularity as a valid art form and is definitely, definitely the next big thing.

A few beers later, we wish the cartoonists luck and move on to the restaurants. Wagamamma's (4A Streatham St.) serves some of the best noodles in London. In an austerely minimalist but noisy basement, you eat next to advertising execs and post-docs on long benches. Pizza Express (30 Coptic St.), in a charming former dairy, is part of a chain but serves decent thin-crust pies. The Konaki Greek Restaurant (5 Coptic St.)--"live music every night"--is hidden away at the end of an alley. The Museum Street Cafe (47 Museum St.) has just gone vegetarian and serves meals all day.

We settle on Alfred (245 Shaftsbury Ave.), where the Modern British menu includes haggis, whiskey-cured salmon, ribeye steak with Stilton butter, and a sticky toffee pudding--which, our waiter boasts, so impressed actor Bruce Willis that he sent his chef to learn how to re-create it.

An odd feature of life in late 20th-century London--one Londoners frequently complain about--is the difficulty of finding an after-dinner drink. Licensing las still close down most watering holes at 11:30. Soho bars stay open later but charge covers and exorbitant prices. The buzz this summer is to head away from Soho and into Bloomsbury, where the owners of The End have opened a new restaurant and late-night bar called AKA adjacent to the club.

A staffer named Damian shows me around. He's wearing sneakers and combat pants and a mobile phone is permanently attached to his left hand. He points out the restaurant's cobalt-blue floor lighting, extended cocktail bar, lounge area and sweeping metallic staircase. A large screen at the back of the restaurant shows new filmmakers' work on Monday nights and a Sunday brunch program of old films. (Sunday brunch! In London!)

But shouldn't the place be in Soho with the other nightclubs? I wonder.

Damian scoffs. "Soho's a cattle market. We wanted to be central but not there. There are lots of people--filmmakers, designers, artists--coming here for that reason."

Taking my cue from Damian, I check out the local art and film scene. At the northern end of Bloomsbury, the industrial spaces along Cheney Road and near St. Pancras Station have been taken over by film and post-production studios.

Cheney Road, with its 19th-century industrial facades and original cobbles, is one of the most-filmed streets in London. "It's the only street that looks and feels like a prewar Victorian site," says Menhaj Huda, a director with Dancing Fleece Productions, which produces music videos and ads. When Dancing Fleece arrived on Cheney Road four years ago, he says, the street was dilapidated. Since then, other production companies, attracted by the large spaces and low rents, have moved in.

In the bar at the nearby Great Northern Hotel (Cheney Road, Kings Cross), film producers and editors rub shoulders with traveling salesmen and backpackers. At 35 Little Russell St., the design firm Intro displays the work of locally based artists. Last January, the Cartoon Gallery replaced one of Museum Street's antique print shops. In 1997 two graphic designers turned the Colville Place Gallery (1 Colville Pl.) into London's first digital art gallery. "We came here because of the local artistic community," says co-director Ian Middleton. "Soho's where 18-year-olds go to show off their new [sneakers]. Here, there's a history of artistic activity."

As Middleton talks about history, I realize I'm so caught up in present-day Bloomsbury that I've forgotten to visit the museums. With little time to spare, I decide against the Dickens Museum and the British Museum (undergoing renovation) and head for the lesser-known Sir John Soane's Museum (13 Lincoln's Inn Fields). Many Londoners say it's their favorite museum, and I want to know why.

Soane, an architect who designed the Bank of England, was an avid collector of art and antiquities. In the early 1800s, he bought three adjoining Georgian properties to contain his collection, which includes Greek torsos, medieval stained glass, an Etruscan tomb complete with skeleton, "The Rake's Progress" by Hogarth, and an Egyptian sarcophagus. The overstuffed museum has the exhilarating feel of a fantastic junk shop, and is the antithesis of the meticulously regimented British Museum.

Another relatively unsung museum is Bloomsbury's newest, the Pearson Gallery (96 Euston Rd.) inside the new British Library, where an interactive exhibit explores the history of printing, and you can try your hand at operating a Gutenberg press or designing a book page.

When Virginia Stephen (later Woolf) and her siblings moved to Gordon Square in 1904, Bloomsbury seemed a world away from their family home in west London's bourgeois Kensington. Bloomsbury meant vigor and life and novelty. "If one lived here in Bloomsbury," muses a Kensington girl in one of Woolf's early stories, "one might grow up as one liked. There was room, and freedom." In millennial Bloomsbury, that sense of novelty is alive again.

Tamsin Todd is a writer based in London.


Literary Bloomsbury

And then there's Literary Bloomsbury.

The Bloomsbury Group centered on Gordon Square. (From the Russell Square tube station, walk north along Woburn Place and take the first left after Russell Square, at Tavistock Square; continue straight on to Gordon Square.) Virginia, Vanessa, Thoby and Adrian Stephen moved to 46 Gordon Sq. in 1904. Vanessa and Clive Bell later lived at 50 Gordon Sq., writer Lytton Strachey at No. 51, and economic theorist John Maynard Keynes at No. 46.

In 1907, Virginia and Adrian Stephen moved to the other side of Tottenham Court Road, to 29 Fitzroy Sq. The painter Duncan Grant lived at No. 22, and in 1913 Roger Fry established his design firm, Omega Workshop, at No. 33.

A block east of Gordon Square is Tavistock Square. Virginia and Leonard Woolf lived at No. 52 (no longer standing) from 1925 until shortly before Virginia's suicide in 1941. A block south is Torrington Square, where Victorian poet Christina Rossetti lived at No. 30.

Other Bloomsbury frequenters include T.S. Eliot, who worked at Faber & Gwyer (now Faber & Faber) at 3 Queen Sq. from 1925. Novelist E.M. Forster rented a flat in Brunswick Square in 1925, and poet W.B. Yeats lived at 5 Woburn Walk from 1895 to 1919.

Dickens House at 48 Doughty St. is the only one of Charles Dickens's 15 London addresses still standing. Dickens wrote "Nicholas Nickleby" and "Oliver Twist" during the two years he lived here (1837-39). Letters and annotated books that Dickens used during lecture tours in Britain and the United States are on display.

The domed Reading Room at the British Museum (Great Russell Street) famously provided writing space for Karl Marx, Gandhi, Lenin, Thomas Hardy and George Bernard Shaw, among others. The Reading Room is closed for refurbishment until 2000, when it will reopen as a public reference library.

--Tamsin Todd

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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