Footloose in Fitzrovia
“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
— Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson was certainly on to something. I’ve visited London many times, I’ve lived in London, I think I know London. Yet every time I go there, I find something completely new. I started visiting London when I was fifteen. And decades later, here I am discovering yet another undiscovered corner of it (at least undiscovered to me) with its own charms and eccentricities. This time it’s Fitzrovia.
What or where is Fitzrovia? As far as I can tell, it’s a little bit of Camden, a dash of Bloomsbury with maybe a tiny sliver of Soho and Westminster. Whatever it is, it has full Bohemian cred as the past home and stomping grounds of writers as Virginia Woolf, George Bernard Shaw and Arthur Rimbaud; artists and personalities such as Augustus John, Quentin Crisp, Dylan Thomas, Aleister Crowley and Karl Marx. I’m not sure how I missed this pocket neighborhood, especially since I spent a year at the University of London campus at nearby Russell Square. In any case, ground zero for Fitzrovia is Charlotte Street and the Fitzroy Tavern which is directly across from where we are staying at the Charlotte Street Hotel. Fitzrovia is our ‘hood now. And, like London, it seems to have all that life can afford.
One of the joys of coming back to a well-visited city is the opportunity to bring your visit into a smaller and smaller circle. In recent trips to London, that’s what we’ve been doing — parking ourselves at a certain hotel and planning all our tourist activities in that neighborhood or a few tube stations away. Fitzrovia may be our smallest circle yet. We’ve quickly decided that all our dining will be right on Charlotte Street as there is every kind of London experience we’d want there — from pub grub to French Bisto to Indian Curry house. As well, I might point out, as London dining spots we would NOT like to experience such as a Mexican restaurant (you don’t even want to know how the British translate Mexican) and chain pizza (thank you, no). But with the British Museum anchoring one corner of Fitzrovia and Burlington Arcade at another and the edge of the Theater District at yet another, I think we can keep this trip all in one neighborhood. Except that is for dinner with Gordon Ramsay. Because Gordon did invite us to dinner. Provided we pay. Still, it’s worth it to go.
At this stage in our traveling life, Andy and I are firm proponents of what Calvin Trillin calls “The Hanging About Tour”. So for a day and a half, we’ve mostly been hanging about Fitzrovia — popping into cafés for coffees, window shopping at the Burlington Arcade, and checking out everything and nothing in particular. But as the great Calvin Trillin also notes, it is entirely possible that you might be delayed at Customs leaving a country when it is discovered that you did nothing cultural or edifying while visiting. We quickly penciled in a morning at the British Museum to fulfill that requirement of travel.
If there is a Temple of Knowledge, it most assuredly is the British Museum. I spent many hours studying in the reading room here during my days at University of London. At that time, a student could get a library card for, I think, £1 or 50p. Along with reading privileges, you got to breathe in the dust of hundreds of years of scholarship.
This trip, we chose to bypass anything British to check out the special exhibit on Pompeii and Herculaneum. I wasn’t sure I was interested at first as I’ve been to the real cities way back when dodgy men would charge you an extra few lire to go into a back room and look at the naughty frescoes. However, the exhibit was well worth it, not just for the curation of artifacts, but for all that has been learned about the two cities since I visited them. For one thing, the volcanic ash didn’t just happen to preserve the Pompeian houses of prostitution better than it did the average home. Turns out all those naughty lamps and frescoes and statues of penises and erotic acts weren’t just found where prostitutes worked. They were features of everyday home life, proudly displayed with the best silver. In fact, my big take-away from the exhibit was that the Romans loved wine, penises and terriers. Not necessarily in that order. You’ll have to see the exhibit to see the penises, but I will share some terriers.
Shaken by seeing this unfortunate terrier, and feeling that we’d fulfilled our cultural obligations, we headed back to Charlotte street for more hanging around. Charlotte Street is also where you’ll find happier Homages de Terrier. The Café Rouge bistro on the street has several old advertising posters featuring terriers. The bar in the hotel is called “Oscar”.
Now excuse us while we continue hanging about.
Note: There is absolutely no photography in this exhibit. The images of Pompeian terriers was lifted from the exhibit website.