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October 25, 2013 7:08 pm
The First Bohemians: Life and Art in London’s Golden Age, by Vic Gatrell, Allen Lane £25, 512 pages
Looking around Covent Garden today, it’s hard to believe what went on there in the 18th century. But Vic Gatrell’s evocation of a place “thick with coffee-houses, bordellos, bawds and privileged rakes on the razzle” takes you right back. His marvellous book shows how writers and artists were drawn to this part of London – and how the likes of Hogarth, Defoe and Dr Johnson were inspired by it.
It wasn’t all witty repartee and tavern bonhomie. Crime was rife, people “washed their bodies less often than their clothes” and soldiers were routinely summoned to deal with riots. But it’s difficult to dispute Gatrell’s claim that the raucous diversity of this community “knock[s] the ... credentials of Chelsea, Hampstead and even Soho sideways”. We learn of one painter who lived surrounded by pigeons and pigs; another who ate a wine glass during a drinking bout, “from which act of folly he never recovered”.
The First Bohemians is an exhilarating, richly illustrated and witty alternative guide to an era that is too often regarded as decorum-filled.
Review by Orlando Bird
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Bonkers: My Life in Laughs, by Jennifer Saunders, Viking £20, 304 pages
Jennifer Saunders’ new memoir reads like a series of comedy sketches. Famed for the TV comedies French and Saunders and Absolutely Fabulous, she recounts her life from happy childhood to her recent recovery from breast cancer.
Saunders won a place at drama school, where she met Dawn French: a life-changing encounter. They formed a comedy duo, starting out as circus act the Menopazzi Sisters, involving black leotards, red swimming hats and lots of flour.
Some of the writing in Bonkers is terrific. Saunders gives a spirited account of an unpopular headmistress’s reign of terror; her deputy was “an older woman who behaved like a frightened budgerigar”. The head’s eventual resignation was marked by three sixth formers presenting her with a shotgun.
There’s also name-dropping – “Jack Black was there. And Cameron Diaz, with Justin Timberlake as her date”. Saunders, throughout, never takes herself too seriously and can be uproariously funny and yes, truly “bonkers”.
Review by Lowenna Waters
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