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Black Lamb


Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.


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Back in Bloomsbury

March 1st, 2007


I am leaning on the railings in Queen Square in the cool dusk, staring at the building opposite me and thinking how different a place can look according to why you’re there. The building is the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, and six years ago I spent some stifling summer weeks driving regularly and anxiously round the oblong “square” looking for a parking space en route to visit a friend who had just had two lots of emergency brain surgery. If I’d been asked to draw the area during that time, I’d have sketched a huge hospital with a small undistinguished patch of greenery outside it.

Now, though, my friend’s recovery long established, the shrunken building opposite, its legend obscured by the dusk, is not even distinguishable as a hospital (ambulances come and go out of sight behind it). It’s just one of the buildings round a rather festive London square with people criss-crossing it as they head home from work or seek out the warm interior of one of the nearby homely Italian restaurants, while others can be glimpsed eddying and animated in the lit windows of the adult education centre to my right.

Lit windows behind me, in the Georgian building of the Art Workers Guild, open up a vista through its rooms like an illustration of perspective, trays of canapés set out in the first, where a young woman is carefully filling ranks of goblets with red wine. More and more of us are leaning on the railings now, waiting for them to open the doors, including J and A, who have invited me this evening. We are here for a truly Bloomsbury event. J has always been a great Edith Wharton fan and we are going to a talk by Hermione Lee on her forthcoming Wharton biography, sponsored by her publisher, Persephone Books, a small but much-loved house printing “mainly neglected fiction and non-fiction by women, for women and about women,” whose shop and offices are just around the corner in Lamb’s Conduit Street.

Finally inside, now figures in a lit window ourselves, we pick up glasses of good red wine and excellent quality cheese straws before ambling through to the endpoint of our view from outside: the red-walled hall, where about a hundred chairs are laid out under the stern, oil-painted gaze of dozens of former Masters of the Art Workers Guild, presided over by the bust of William Morris. Not only have I never been here before, but till this week I had not even heard of the Guild. This is perhaps not surprising, though, since the Guild is in fact a private club for craftspersons and artists of all kinds and has never courted publicity. It was founded in 1884 under the influence of the Arts and Crafts Movement, originally, as I understand it, by architects who were concerned about the professional divisions that were opening up between, for instance, architects and designers, and was intended to provide a place for meeting and continuing to share ideas.
Although it is still a flourishing club, there is a rather harking-back feel about it all. In the introductory welcome, for instance, we are recommended to pay a visit to the ladies’ loo as a piece of unreconstructed Victorian sanitary provision. The renting out of this hall, where we are now settled in long rows, is one of the ways that the Guild keeps afloat in the twenty-first century.

Unlike my friend, I am no expert on Wharton, but I am pleasurably engaged by Hermione Lee as she takes us with her on her biographical trail with its the anxieties and surprises: the worries about how to present her subject honestly and as a whole without being relentlessly linear, the journeyings in Wharton’s footsteps, the serendipitous discoveries of written sources, and so on. The time passes unheeded away, so that we are suddenly into question time, an opportunity to gaze around the overflowing room, observing that the audience is largely female, largely of a certain age, and almost wholly white, while the questioners’ accents also suggest a certain class bias. I note this mildly but am still mainly enjoying the novelty of the place and the experience. We are also now hungry, so we forgo the loo experience in favor of seeking out our own Italian dinner in nearby Southampton Row.

By one of those strange little coincidences that life sometimes throws up, my friend R from Glasgow, on a rare London visit, comes over later in the week and tells me about the poetry book launch which brought her to London. It took place at this venue she’d never come across before: yes, the Art Workers Guild. She is passionately concerned at having met to celebrate a book specifically by women poets (including herself) surrounded by those solidly masculine portraits. I later find out that the Guild did not admit women to membership until the early 1960s, and I think of that most famous of the denizens of Bloomsbury (whose great biography by Hermione Lee I bought after the lecture) and how Virginia Woolf would have been wholly with R on this one. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Wilce | Link to this Entry


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