I discovered communist London on a literary walking tour

In The secret agent by Joseph Conrad, a cornerstone of British espionage is in a pornographer’s shop. This secret hideout is not somewhere anonymous, but on Irving Street, just off Leicester Square.

This hidden history – one that reveals the hideouts of socialists in Soho and Bolsheviks in Belgravia – is revealed on Conrad’s Secret Agent Walk, one of Footprints of London’s literary walking tours. Other themed walks include Italy’s Clerkenwell and Peter Ackroyd’s East End, but I’m here to discover early 20th century London and the real-life places that inspired Conrad’s most mysterious novel.

The secret agent Set in 1886, it follows Adolf Verloc, a spy who does his best to impress a mysterious, probably Russian, embassy. On behalf of the embassy, ​​he infiltrates an anarchist group and forces his brother-in-law, who has an intellectual disability, to bomb the observatory in Greenwich. The political landscape of the book feels quite pertinent, but the events are based on a real bombing in Greenwich in 1894, which killed Frenchman Martial Bourdin when his explosives detonated early. His motives were never discovered.

Joseph Conrad

Author Joseph Conrad was familiar with the landmark haunts of communist London: Bettmann

I am accompanied by Oonagh, a retired archivist who has been leading walks around London for about a decade. We do not follow scenes from the novel in chronological order, necessarilybut follows the route of the communards, refugees and political exiles who inspired the author to write.

Conrad, now somewhat out of fashion, was the son of two exiled Polish revolutionaries. Both died before he was 12; his early life was marked by political unrest and ill health, spending time in boarding houses for people orphaned by political activities. After a career in the French merchant navy, Conrad eventually moved to Pimlico to write.

Oonagh mischievously suggests that this disturbed childhood is why the writer is so ambivalent towards his revolutionary characters. He may have been hesitant, but Conrad nevertheless knew the communist character of early 20th century London.

Take, for example, its many revolutionary meeting places. It is the first stop of the walk: in a side street near Tottenham Court Road we find the former meeting house for European exiles. Rudolf Rocker, the German anarcho-syndicalist, spent time here before organizing an influential strike of Jewish garment workers in the East End in 1912. Now Stephen Mews is home to a pub and not much else; its radical history is unmarked.

Newman passageNewman passage

French communards found refuge in London’s Newman Passage – Heathcliff O’Malley

More puzzling, however, is the cobbled Newman Passage, accessed via a musty-smelling alley. The building was once the site of a soup kitchen and housed French communards, who fled to the British capital when the Paris Commune collapsed in 1871. Persecuted at home, the radicals gathered across the Channel. The “influx” of French exiles (in reality only about 3,500 came to London) is a major problem in the The secret agent – characters in the book worry that international conspirators are infiltrating the city. Rathbone Street is worth a visit, not for its remarkable beauty, but for the ease with which you can imagine its former purpose.

As we walk through Soho, Oonagh pulls out laminated cards to tell the story of Louise Michel, a French writer and teacher who founded an anarchist school in London, which closed after explosives were found in the basement. It turned out that Auguste Coulon, a Special Branch provocateur, had planted them; Coulon, by the way, was used by Conrad as a basis for Chief Inspector Heat The secret agent. Michel remains unknown in Britain, but after her death in 1905, some 100,000 people attended her funeral in Paris. It is a strangely unknown biography, one not helped by Conrad, who is relatively unconcerned with women revolutionaries.

However, it is remarkable how the signs of the man city are still visible. We turn the corner onto Windmill Street, where an ominous Moroccan café is part of a terrace of shops. Oonagh tells me that this was where the Autonomy Club was, a social center for anarchists in the late 19th century. Now a few tables are occupied, but it is relatively quiet; you wouldn’t imagine this as a place of revolution. The radicalism was short-lived: a raid was conducted after a membership card was found in Bourdin’s possession, leading to its dissolution.

Blue plaque of Karl MarxBlue plaque of Karl Marx

Karl Marx’s Dean Street residence is marked with a blue plaque – Getty

Not the entire tour is about intrigue. It is believed that the Sondheim Theatre, on the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Wardour Street, is the approximate location of St Martin’s Hall. The hall hosted the first meeting of the International Workers’ Association, where delegations from across Europe gathered to discuss the future of the trade union movement. A certain Karl Marx was present from Germany, although he refused to speak. Marx would eventually live in neighborhood poverty, writing and working alongside fellow communists in Soho. His flat in Dean Street is now marked with a blue plaque.

Lenin was also a resident. “He wasn’t that interested in interacting with other people, though,” says Oonagh. Despite his antisocial tendencies, the Russian moved around central London, living in Clerkenwell and spending time in the British Library. It is from here that he conceived his revolutionary newspaper, The sparkwhich aimed to spark an uprising against the Tsar.

As a final stop we meander through the busy streets to Maison Bertaux, a French café. In front of the windows are ice cream sandwiches, croissants and pastries, coquettishly hidden behind Breton striped blinds. It was founded in 1871 by a former communard to serve the growing French population, offering pastries and cakes familiar to Paris but completely foreign to London. It remains popular, with a steady stream of customers rushing through the door for an espresso.

The café almost immediately became a favorite among refugees and locals alike, and remarkably remains so. It looks like Conrad’s town is still there – if you know where to look.

Footprints of London runs walking tours all year round, with tickets from £15. Find out more via its website. Oonagh Gay and fellow guide Sue McCarthy can also be booked privately through Capital Walks in London – see the website or email oonagh.gay@icloud.com for more information.

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