Sunday, October 2, 2022

The Sandjak of Bloomsbury

Thomas Burke’s Living in Bloomsbury (1939) is a book of ambulatory reminiscences somewhat in the style of Arthur Machen’s The London Adventure (1924): Burke was an admirer and acquaintance of the Welsh author. Just as Machen’s work is a book about not writing a book about London, so Burke’s publisher describes his volume as “not essentially a book about London”, but rather “a disarming commentary on an infinite variety of topics”. The four sections of the book are named after the seasons, starting with Spring, but they don’t stick particularly to this temporal theme.  

He suggests that Bloomsbury is ‘a notable example of the whirligig of fashion. From the twenties to the sixties of last century [the 19th] it was the home of the comfortable middle class . . . Then, in the eighties and nineties, it began to wilt . . . its name was used allusively for shabby-genteel poverty and the grey half-world’. But ‘soon after the end of the war’ it became favoured again: ‘There was an outbreak of green doors and brass knockers . . .’

Burke had achieved fame for his stories of the Chinese in London in Limehouse Nights (1916), a best-seller, and followed this formula in several similar titles. His novels are not perhaps to today’s taste, but his non-fiction may still be read with enjoyment. He has a good ear for an anecdote and a good eye for a curious or pleasing detail. Lots of oddities that might otherwise have been lost are preserved in his pages. There are brief sidelights on other authors, and allusions to acquaintances, evoked by their calling: the Musician, the Magistrate, the American Bookseller, etc.

He was also the author of some effective macabre stories and in this book he reflects on the short story form, which he defines as including ‘the conte of two thousands words, or the novellino of twenty thousand’. I was unfamiliar with this latter term, which I like, but it so happens that my own longest story (‘Armed for the Day of Glory’ in This World and That Other, Sarob Press) is 20,000 words, so I shall now call it a novellino.

Burke offers as a general rule for the short story: ‘To keep the territory of your tale as isolated and sharp-cut as the focus of the sun through a burning-glass. For the novel one needs the look-out’s eye; for the short story, the watch-maker’s eye.’ The form, he says, is not so easy as it looks to the reader. His own practice is, once the story is formed in his mind, to write parts of it on scraps of paper, not in consecutive order, in fact often starting with the ending or the middle.

‘The coming of ideas,’ for stories is, he says, ‘inexplicable. All authors agree on this.’ His own sources might come from ‘chance remarks overheard in trains or restaurants; from a queer face seen at a corner; from an advertisement hoarding; from a label on a tin in a grocer’s window.’

. . .

My copy of Living in Bloomsbury is of the 1947 Second Impression and, to judge from a pencil note on the free front endpaper, it once cost someone (not me) 3/6d, as compared to its original jacket price of 12/6d. But the book proved to have an unusual extra attraction. The back of the dustwrapper has printed on it a detailed map showing swathes of green with wriggles of red roads. It is headed both ‘(SCUTARI)’ and ‘B E O G R A D’. 

However, even more thrillingly, the main town on the map itself is Novi Pazar, which will stir the soul of readers of Ruritanian thrillers and Balkan intrigues. The Sandjak of Novi Pazar always sounded as if it were a title, like the Sultan of Zanzibar or the Dame of Sark. But it actually denoted a territory, one of the minor provinces of the Ottoman Empire, which existed for about fifty years from the mid 19th century, and was also coveted by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was alluded to in a Saki short story, ‘The Lost Sanjak’. It is also the scene of my own unfinished and possibly unfinishable yarn, ‘The Great Imperial Moustache Wax Conspiracy’, a story, like that of the Giant Rat of Sumatra, for which the world is not yet prepared. Nor the author, for that matter.

This is apparently not a singular piece of accidental printing, for another copy offered online has a dustwrapper printed on the back of a map of Trondheim, and a third has a map of Poland. The book was issued just two years after the end of the Second World War, when paper rationing had been in force, and there were perhaps still scarcities. And detailed maps of potential theatres of operations of the war would no doubt have been produced in quantity. We might reasonably infer that this was simply a shrewd reuse of wartime surplus.

It would be tempting to collect multiple copies of the book in order to acquire an unusual selection of mid-20th century maps of Europe. But what if, on closer examination, you then noticed inconspicuous markings on each map, denoting perhaps Cold War safe houses, caches of looted art treasures, or possibly the secret citadels of the last heirs of the Holy Roman Empire?

(Mark Valentine)


  1. Burke wrote another even more curious guide to London, also published by Routledge. For Your Convenience. A Learned Dialogue Instructive to all Londoners and London Visitors overheard in the Thélème Club and Taken down Verbatim. By Paul Pry (1937). The book is a coded dialogue in the “Thélème Club”, in which a young man with a peripatetic knowledge of London tells a much older clubman, Mr. Mumble, where public toilets are to be found throughout central London and mentions the usefulness of “places of that kind which have no attendants afford excellent rendezvous to people who wish to meet out of doors and yet escape the eye of the Busy” (i.e., the police). The repartee between the young new member and Mr. Mumble is a litany of London place names and practical information with occasional, oblique mentions of “another kind of love”. Burke’s pseudonym for this book, Paul Pry, is a knowing allusion to a popular farce of the 1820s, where the eponymous character leaves his umbrella behind and a pretext to return and eavesdrop on conversations. Published when homosexual activity was still a crime in Britain, For Your Convenience is a witty gazetteer and the endpapers by Philip Gough provide the first printed map of “cottages” in London.

    1. How did this "Paul Pry" book become attributed to Thomas Burke? I don't doubt it, but I can't find (on the internet at least) any argument for the attribution. Can you point us to any? Thanks.

  2. Burke acknowledges it briefly in 'Living in Bloomsbury' as 'an unacknowledged thing of my own' (pg 125).