09 July 2022

‘Unblemished, unextinguishable,
inexhaustible’ … the very model
of a statesman and Prime Minister

Trollope’s ‘Can You Forgive Her?’ side-by-side with his ‘The Prime Minister’ in the window of Collinge & Clark at No 13 Leigh Street in Bloomsbury last week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Oliver Clark is now the sole owner of Collinge & Clark, a small, one-room bookshop at No 13 Leigh Street in Bloomsbury. Many remember its shopfront as the Black Books bookshop in the 2000-2004 TV comedy by Dylan Moran and Graham Linehan.

Yet, behind the monochrome exterior, there is a wealth of literature and a treasure trove of collections in the window and across the threshold in what is probably the most interesting second-hand bookshop on these islands.

In the window last week, two volumes of Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? sat neatly beside two volumes of Trollope’s The Prime Minister – surely not a comment on today’s questions about Boris Johnson or how he once sought a paid position at the Foreign Office for his then mistress and present wife Carrie Symonds?

Inside the one-room shop, delights await anyone interested in design and typography; from independent private presses to first editions of artists such as William Morris, it is a place to browse and to be inspired.

Collinge & Clark the Black Books bookshop in the 2000-2004 TV comedy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Of course, the Prime Minister who inspired Trollope’s Mr Mildmay and Plantagenet Palliser was probably Lord John Russell (1792-1878), who gives his name to the Lord John Russell, a pub around the corner on Marchmont Street.

Trollope believed the ideal Prime Minister should have ‘unblemished, unextinguishable, inexhaustible love of country … But he should also be scrupulous, and, as being scrupulous, weak.’

These are qualities that one would be hard-pressed to find in the present Prime Minister: ‘unblemished, unextinguishable, inexhaustible love of country … scrupulous … weak.’ But Trollope found them in Lord John Russell who was twice Prime Minister, in 1846-1852 and again in 1865-1866, and Vanity Fair conceded he was ‘the greatest liberal statesman of modern times.’

Lord John Russell gives his name to a pub on Marchmont Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Russell is remembered in Ireland for his failures in trying to come to grips with the Famine, although his father, John Russell (1766-1839), 6th Duke of Bedford, was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (1806-1807).

Lord John Russell was a genuine reformer, pursuing the political rights of Catholics, Non-Conformists and Jews, seeking to extend the franchise and trying to reduce the extent and impact of the death penalty. His grandson was the philosopher Bertrand Russell.

The Russell estate continues to own considerable parts of Bloomsbury to this day, and the names of its streets and squares reflect the benevolent influence of the Russell family in the area: Bedford Square, Bedford Place, Bedford Avenue and Bedford Way, Dukes Street and Dukes Road (now Coptic Street), and Russell Square and Russell Street, recall that the Dukes of Bedford.

Tavistock Square and Tavistock Street recall a Russell family title and the fact that Lord John Russell first sat in the House of Commons as the MP for Tavistock in Devon. Woburn Place, Woburn Square, Woburn Walk – where WB Yeats lived from 1895 to 1919 – and Woburn Place are named after Woburn Abbey, the family seat of the Dukes of Bedford, about 10 miles east of Milton Keynes.

Virginia Woolf lived at 52 Tavistock Square from 1924 to 1939 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Tavistock Square has monuments to two outstanding, pioneering women, in its corners. The memorial to the surgeon Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake (1865-1925) in the south-east corner has a bust by Arthur George Walker on a plinth designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens.

A bust of the writer Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), cast from a 1931 sculpture by Stephen Tomlin (1901-1937), was unveiled in 2004 in the south-west corner of the square.

Virginia Woolf lived at 52 Tavistock Square from 1924 to 1939. From there, Virginia and Leonard Woolf ran the Hogarth Press, which became a prominent and influential publisher at the forefront of modernist fiction and poetry, publishing TS Eliot, EM Forster and Katherine Mansfield and others, and translating Sigmund Freud into English.

But the centre-piece of the gardens in Tavistock Square is a statue of Mahatma Gandhi, sculpted by Fredda Brilliant and installed in 1968. The hollow pedestal was being cleaned out and being tended carefully when I visited Tavistock Square last week. It used by people to leave floral tributes to Gandhi as a peace campaigner and nonviolent resister to oppression in South Africa and colonial rule in India.

A cherry tree was planted in the square in 1967 to commemorate the victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945. The Conscientious Objectors Commemorative Stone by Hugh Court, commemorating ‘men and women conscientious objectors all over the world and in every age,’ was unveiled in 1994.

These three features have made to the square an unofficial peace park and garden, with annual ceremonies at each of these memorials. And all three, like Lord John Russell, stand as challenges to the arrogant style and dismissive approach to power embodied in the present Prime Minister.

Today’s equivalents of Anthony Trollope and Vanity Fair are never going to acclaim Boris Johnson as ‘unblemished, unextinguishable, inexhaustible love of country … scrupulous, and, as being scrupulous, weak.’ Nor is history in danger of remembering him as ‘the greatest liberal statesman of modern times.’

Mahatma Gandhi receiving tender attention and care in Tavistock Square last week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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