‘Who am I? I am a poet.
What do I do? I write.
And how do I live? I live.
In my carefree poverty
I squander rhymes
and love songs like a lord.
When it comes to dreams and visions
and castles in the air,
I’ve the soul of a millionaire.’
I recently attended a performance of the Royal Opera’s excellent new production of ‘La Boheme.’ (Running until 10 October, with a live cinema screening on 3 October.) Giacomo Puccini set his 1896 opera among the artistic community of Paris’ Latin Quarter. It’s a world of poets and painters, composers and courtesans, seamstresses and scholars. They live in grim poverty, but socialise in gilded cafes and glamorous shopping arcades. They are fuelled by hopes, dreams and cheap red wine. They fall in love too easily, and out of love too painfully.
‘Bohemia, bordered on the North by hope, work and gaiety, on the South by necessity and courage; on the West and East by slander and the hospital.’
Henri Murger, ‘Scenes de la Vie de Boheme’ (1849)
Watching ‘La Boheme’ I was struck by a sense of recognition. These nineteenth century Bohemians bore some resemblance to the community that I spent my career working with, and that to this day sustains the creative industry: a diverse mix of unruly, unconventional, unpredictable types; a youthful cocktail of raw talent and ambition, partying in all the right places, living in all the wrong parts of town.
Our business depends on people like this. They are the latter day Bohemians.
I can recall over the years many of our Agency creatives socialised with musicians, dancers, artists, photographers and film-makers. We had creatives who, in their spare time, wrote screenplays, painted, performed in bands, and as stand-up comics. One of our young art directors had a priceless collection of BritArt he happened to have acquired from his mates while studying with them at art school.
Clearly our creative department had a network of talented friends with diverse skills. They may not have lived particularly comfortably in the earlier stages of their careers, but they inhabited a vibrant community of ideas and inspiration. And the Agency benefitted from that.
Of course Bohemian talent came arm-in-arm with Bohemian privations.
I recall a young team would pop down around noon every day to see us in our account area. We were at first flattered by the attention - until we realised they were only visiting for our Wotsits and Wheat Crunchies. The savoury snacks clients had provided an unlimited supply, and for our hard-up colleagues, this represented a free lunch.
On another occasion we discovered that one of our young designers was inviting his friends from the country to stay in London at the weekend. He offered them free accommodation at the Agency’s offices. Early one morning the Head of Office Services caught an urchin traipsing off to the showers wrapped in a towel.
Now this may not seem the stuff of grand opera, but I’m sure Puccini would have recognised it as somewhat Bohemian behaviour.
Sadly, as I sat back enjoying the soaring harmonies of the Act I love duet, ‘O Soave Fanciulla,’ I was also troubled.
‘Bohemia is always yesterday.’
Malcolm Cowley (American writer)
It has been observed that the Bohemian life depicted in Puccini’s opera was already something of a nostalgic myth by the time of its Turin premiere. The story was based on Henri Murger’s book ‘Scenes de la Vie de Boheme,’ written some 50 years earlier. In the intervening period Paris’ civic planners - visionary types like Georges Haussman - had swept aside the narrow, unruly streets and crumbling buildings of the medieval city, replacing them with wide, straight boulevards and bourgeois housing complexes. By the 1890s the Latin Quarter had become a tourist attraction, and, with rents rising, the artistic community had been forced to move on to Montmartre, and then out to Montparnasse.
This may sound familiar.
London is, of course, a global hub for the financial industry, a magnet for international investors. This wealth has produced the glass-box towers that line the river, the lightless squares in the West and the yuppie lofts in the East. For the young it has made buying houses unachievable and rents unaffordable. The financial constraints of the Bohemian life that in the past were mostly temporary have become a permanent prospect. Moreover, where the creative community has conferred cool on a local environment, that cool attracts the cash that in time forces them to leave. And so they move from Hoxton and Bermondsey, to Ilford and Peckham; then out to Croydon, Romford and beyond.
By the time I left the Agency world a few years ago, we had had our first resignations of people who wanted to stay in the industry, but simply couldn’t afford to live in London.
Sometimes it seems this vibrant cosmopolitan city is on a fast-track to becoming a twenty-first century Zurich: a place of elite restaurants and expensive shops, for the mature and moneyed classes.
This should be a concern to us all.
The creative industry needs a creative community to sustain it. If we can’t attract the talent to live here, we won’t have an industry at all.