Sue Gee on Joy Grant, Harold Monro and the Poetry Bookshop, SF Issue 72

In Pursuit of an Ideal

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On 1 January 1913 a new kind of bookshop opened in London. Located in a rundown street off Theobalds Road, it occupied three floors of a Georgian house, and was presided over by an idealist whose private income – largely derived from family-owned asylums – never quite met the shop’s expenses. This was Harold Monro, poet, publisher and editor of The Poetry Review, to whose subscribers he announced his intention of opening a bookshop ‘devoted to the sale of poetry, and of all books, pamphlets and periodicals connected with poetry’. For the next two decades he was to put the Poetry Bookshop at the heart of the London poetry scene. The other figure bestriding literary London at this time was Ezra Pound: in tempera­ment, taste and ambition the two men could not have been more different.

Devonshire Street (now Boswell Street) was dark and narrow, once described by Osbert Sitwell as ‘given over to screaming children, lusty small boys armed with catapults, and to leaping flights of eighteenth-century cats’. Alida Monro, Harold’s second wife and most assuredly his saviour, described ‘a slum street . . . the passerby in constant peril of being hit on the head by kipper bones and banana skins falling from upper windows’. There were three pubs, and the policemen patrolled in pairs.

Elegant though its proportions were, it was brave indeed for Harold Monro to take the lease of No. 35 and hang over the front door a swinging sign in bold black letters announcing THE POETRY BOOKSHOP. But he knew what he was doing.

‘The piquant idea of a poetry shop in a slum street took people’s fancy,’ writes Joy Grant, author of Harold Monro and the Poetry Bookshop (1967). I was led to this book by my interest in the poet Charlotte Mew, befriended to the end of her tragic life by Alida and Harold. Grant writes wonderfully well about the couple’s marriage, the bookshop and its times, and is an astute critic of Monro’s own poetry and o

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About the contributor

Sue Gee collection of essays, Just You and the Page: Encounters with Twelve Writers, is published by Seren Books. She can also be heard discussing the art of editing on our podcast, Episode 3, ‘Stet’.

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