THE WILD WEST

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

Har­ley Street’s private clin­ics, where the rich and fa­mous have re­ceived exclusive med­i­cal treat­ment for the past cen­tury or more. Some lo­cals still like to pro­nounce it as Marly­bone.

In 1828, John St John Long, the so-called King of the Quacks, opened a prac­tice for wealthy fe­male clients at 84 Har­ley St. He would ask his clients to in­hale from a long pink tube filled with a po­tent gas, not­ing how their re­sis­tance to his ‘‘ mas­sage ses­sions’’ less­ened the more gas he used. Af­ter the death of two of his pa­tients, he was con­victed of man­slaugh­ter and fined £250.

To­day, May­fair (in the south­west) is the place to dis­cover dis­creet (and ex­pen­sive) art gal­leries, em­bassies, small streets of el­e­gant mews cot­tages, Pic­cadilly and its grand ho­tels, Hyde Park and its fa­mous Speaker’s Cor­ner, where you can hear just about any rad­i­cal phi­los­o­phy or re­li­gious be­liefs be­ing de­bated (or some­times just shouted at passers-by). In Grosvenor Square the squat US em­bassy is get­ting a se­cu­rity makeover. In 1968, 100,000 peo­ple gath­ered here to protest the Viet­nam War.

Walk back from May­fair past Gor­don Ram­say’s restau­rant at Clar­idge’s, a ho­tel where the guests have in­cluded the Ital­ian fas­cist leader Ben­ito Mus­solini and US gen­eral Dwight Eisen­hower (who said his room looked like ‘‘ a god­damn fancy funeral par­lour dec­o­rated in whore­house pink’’).

The mod­ern no­tion of shop­ping was born in Ox­ford Street: shop­ping, that is, for shop­ping’s sake. Crowd-surf dur­ing the Christ­mas rush; an­gle through the hawk­ers and ‘‘ chug­gers’’ (char­ity mug­gers, has­sling you to sign up to any num­ber of good causes) and you will be among the liv­ing sym­bols of William Deben­ham, D. H. Evans and John Lewis. They ar­rived in the 19th cen­tury and changed the Bri­tish high street for­ever.

Along with Har­vey Nichols and Har­rods, Sel­fridges, at 400 Ox­ford St, is one of the best-known stores in Lon­don. Gor­don H. Sel­fridge was not a Brit at all but a self-made Chicago mil­lion­aire who ar­rived in town in 1909 de­ter­mined to build Eng­land’s first Amer­i­can su­per­store.

Ev­ery­thing was on an enor­mous scale: it had 130 de­part­ments, a post of­fice, roof gar­den and soda foun­tain. Open­ing with the

slo­gan ‘‘ Why not spend a day at Sel­fridges?’’, it stunned staid Ed­war­dian so­ci­ety. Within a week, a mil­lion shop­pers had passed through its front doors. It was also the site for first television broad­cast, in 1925.

To the south of Ox­ford Street is Soho. A curious mix of tat­too and pierc­ing par­lours, del­i­catessens, cof­fee shops, wine bars, mas­sage par­lours and mini-cab of­fices, as well as a me­dia and gay hub, it takes its name from ‘‘ So-ho’’, an old hunt­ing cry used by the Duke of Mon­mouth. As Charles II’s bas­tard son, Mon­mouth em­bod­ied the hopes of those who wanted a Protes­tant suc­ces­sion when oth­ers closer to the throne were Catholics. Sent into ex­ile for links to a group of ex­trem­ists, he re­turned to the cap­i­tal with­out per­mis­sion and in Soho was greeted by the ring­ing of church bells and cel­e­bra­tory bon­fires.

When the un­for­tu­nate duke failed to seize the throne af­ter his fa­ther’s death, he was put to death in a ter­ri­bly botched ex­e­cu­tion. It took three blows to re­move his head and even then a knife had to be used to com­plete the de­cap­i­ta­tion.

Mean­while, the eateries of Fitzrovia, to the north­east of Ox­ford Cir­cus, are fa­mous among the city’s busy din­ers, ad ex­ecs and oth­ers work­ing in the area. Named af­ter the Fitzroy Tav­ern on Char­lotte Street, it was a fa­mous (or in­fa­mous) place for the creative likes of poet Dylan Thomas, artist Au­gus­tus John and writer Ge­orge Or­well, who set sev­eral scenes of his dark-fu­ture novel Nine­teen Eighty-Four in the lo­cal pubs.

By the 1950s all that had changed. A cer­tain Amer­i­can trash writer by the name of L. Ron Hub­bard had es­tab­lished the Lon­don Church of Scien­tol­ogy at 37 Fitzroy St, only a few doors down from the head­quar­ters of the cult run by the no­to­ri­ous Aleis­ter Crowley decades ear­lier. Nowa­days you’re more likely to find mi­nor em­bassies, clois- tered ar­chi­tects’ of­fices and fab­u­lous restau­rants, such as Elena’s L’Etoile, which has been around since 1904 and re­mains pop­u­lar with the film crowd.

As Glin­ert con­cludes in his book, the West End has been home and host to some of the great­est rev­ellers the planet has known: Os­car Wilde, Casanova, the scan­dalous Ge­orge IV, co­me­dian Tony Han­cock (who later died in Aus­tralia), the artist Francis Ba­con and more. It has be­come one of the few places in Bri­tain where bo­hemian be­hav­iour is ex­pected.

A mere visit won’t turn you into a bac­cha­na­lian mon­ster, but it does ev­ery­one good to walk on the wild side once in a while. Nick Ryan is the au­thor of Home­land: In­toaWorld­ofHate (Main­stream/ Ran­dom House).

Check­list

WestEndChron­i­cles:300Year­sofGlam­our andEx­cessintheHeartofLon­don by Ed Glin­ert (Pen­guin). Glin­ert is also the au­thor of TheLon­donCom­pendium:AStreet-byStreetEx­plo­rationoftheHid­denMetropo­lis and the forth­com­ing Lon­don’sDead.

www.vis­itbri­tain.com.au

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