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