I stopped through the Orchard Tea Garden today, outside Cambridge in the historic village of Grantchester. It’s a garden in an oasis. Grantchester was, for many years, a bohemian bedroom community of the colleges five miles away, a lazy day’s punt along the Cam or a brisk walk through the surrounding fields. Literary lights including Byron and Archer (not really in the same league) resided there, and it’s said to have the highest concentration of Nobel Prize winners of any spot on earth.
The Orchard was a rooming house where poet Rupert Brooks lived at the turn of the century: the tradition of sitting in folding canvas chairs among the trees for tea, scones, and conversation sprung up around him 100 years ago. You can still sit among the trees on similar chairs (in the rain, today) and read poetry written by the members of the Grantchester Group of writers, philosophers, and artists who met there.
The Grantchester Group started as an offshoot of the London-based Bloomsbury Group, of which Keynes, Woolf, Russell, Wittgenstein and others were also members. Many went on to become famous writers, scholars, thinkers, and teachers. Accounts of the period highlight the remarkable composition of the group and the unique ways in which the members struck intellectual sparks from one another. All credit the early influence of the others as a factor in their later success.
But to what extent is their later individual success a function of that early association?
Certainly there are partnerships that bring out latent talents and creative works that transcend what individual members might have accomplished alone. Like a virus, ideas can spread among receptive and energetic minds, especially in an isolated and relaxed social settings Startup accelerators operate on those same principles today. A bright gang of 20-somethings, playfully topping one another, can incubate enough ideas to fill a career.
But it may also be that these groups are simple self-promoting, retrospectively. When each of member looks back on their lives, did they fondly remember their youth, giving it undue credit for focusing and motivating their later works? I think that we all reflect back on formative experiences in our 20’s, whether first love, going to war, off to college, road trips as coming-of-age stories that shaped our later lives and works.
Would the Grantchester Group be remembered for it’s own product if it’s members hadn’t had individually remarkable careers afterward?
These Great Groups, artistic and literary, seem to share at least two traits. They are young: contrast Groups like the pre-Raphaelites or the ‘Lost Generation’ in Paris with older Schools like the Bauhaus. And the Group created it’s major body of work after the members dispersed, following their own intellectual trajectories.
In that sense I wonder if “Group” isn’t more of a convenient label afterwards than a causal force ahead of their success.