Saturday, 10 July 2010

Real Bloomsbury

The Real series of alternative handbooks, histories and guides to the conurbations of Wales is expanding. South Pembrokeshire next. Powys soon. Then Bangor. But beyond that is another country. In preparation for the publication of Nicholas Murray’s book I’ve spent the weekend walking around Bloomsbury. Not a thing I usually do nor something, it seems, that all that many tourists do either. For a slice of central London this Georgian suburb of avenue and leaf seemed relatively deserted.

Bloomsbury is that region of London elegance stretching from the British Museum to Euston and the far end of Oxford Street to St Pancras, that new entreport for visitors from Europe. They arrive from their green French fields and their muscular German industrialnesses to gaze on what, until very recently, was the red light district of Kings Cross. Today those urban difficulties have been moved on. What remains is a sprawl of cheap eateries surreally enlivened with a statue of John Betjeman.

What I did find, specialist bookshops aside, was something we don’t see that much of in Wales – plaques. In Bloomsbury the bookshops are as diverse as they come – horses, Tunisia, the gay universe – and so too are the plaques. Circular inscriptions celebrating the fact that W B Yeats spent many years of his life writing in this back room. That Charles Dickens lived in Doughty Street for long enough to complete five novels. That the man who thought up the idea for the postal service did it while residing near Tavistock Square. That the Bloomsbury set itself – Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell and Lytton Strachey – all lived, at one time or another, in the tall, beautifully proportioned houses of Gordon Square.

Back home the Rhys Davies Trust has been putting up plaques to the literary eminent for decades. John Tripp, Leslie Norris, Glyn Jones, Brenda Chamberlain, John Ormond, R S Thomas are all celebrated. More men than women but that’s the shape to which Welsh writing once conformed. But it’s slow progress. The unsubstantiated fear is that a plaque on the house will attract visiting hoards who will come to stare and trample on the tulips. As a nation we should be more welcoming.

To promote our native plaques – and despite what I’ve said there are still a fair number – visitors can use the Academi’s new interactive plaque finder web site at There are also free of celebratory black and white postcards. Series one has sixteen cards showing some of our greatest including John Tripp, Roland Mathias, Raymond Williams, Brenda Chamberlain, Emyr Humphries, T H Jones, Jack Jones, Leslie Norris, and R S.

Sets are free and can be obtained by sending a large stamped addressed envelop to the Academi, 3rd floor, Mount Stuart House, Mount Stuart Square, Cardiff CF10 5FQ.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday July 10, 2010. #155

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