So you're at a grand party in a Park Lane mansion and get a bit tipsy. Seducing a beautiful woman, you tiptoe to a bedroom with her. In the morning, by way of thanks, you send her a diamond. Unfortunately it turns out to be one of the German crown jewels, which are not yours to give. The Kaiser is angry, the lady refuses to return the gift, an international incident threatens to break...
It's just another day in the life of a London home, this one being Grosvenor House, owned by the Duke of Westminster. Once it was filled with art, including seven Rembrandt portraits. Now it's filled with reps getting hammered while Jimmy Carr presents advertising awards. London isn't what it used to be.
The past is what fascinates Ed Glinert, author of The London Compendium, whose new book is subtitled "300 years of glamour and excess in the heart of London". His history of the West End is defined as Marylebone, Fitzrovia, Soho and Mayfair - anywhere with a W1 postcode, and that seems fair enough: Bloomsbury remains genteelly tipped in with Holborn, and St James's is too royal to be described as "up West". A Mayfair address has never been an assurance of good behaviour, even if the ladies changed their outfits four times a day. When Hitler-acolyte Ronnie Greville, whose husband had been part of Edward VII's circle, handed Bacon, her paralytic butler, a note at her dinner party that read: "You're drunk. Leave the room at once," Bacon promptly passed it on to Tory grandee Austin Chamberlain, who sat in silent mortification for the rest of the night.
In Fitzrovia, the WAM Nina Hamnett (Writer, Artist, Model) slid from glamorous confidante of Picasso, Diaghilev and Cocteau to dissipated dipso, finally throwing herself on to spiked railings in 1956 after becoming convinced she'd been slandered in a radio play. At the Fitzroy Tavern, where she drank, the house cocktail created by Aleister Crowley was a Kubla Khan No 2 - gin, vermouth and laudanum. Beat that, Soho House.
In Regent Street in the 1920s, the pseudonymous oriental drug peddler Brilliant Chang (his surname being slang for cocaine) was hunted down by the police even as idolising women ran their fingers through his hair, and London society was shocked in 1929 when West End nightclub doyenne Kate Meyrick was given a prison sentence for serving liquor without a licence, mainly because no one had ever seen her in broad daylight before.
In wartime West End, Fascists controlled every aspect of Italian life in London until blacklists weeded out many, including the manager of Claridge's hotel, and waiters from the Ritz were ejected mid-shift. The area's polyglot nature proved a natural draw for a broad variety of cultures, and Americans always fascinated. The US army's intelligence boys, described as being like "jeune filles en fleur straight from a finishing school", trained their agents in Berkeley Square and lived where Ian Fleming was to write his spy novels.
The West End owed much of its reputation to the sensational headlines of the Sunday papers, who gleefully reported back whenever toffs behaved poorly in nightclubs, a habit they continue to this day. Glinert does himself a disservice by unfavorably comparing the likes of Alex James and Kylie Minogue with older generations of clubbers. Media stars trounce the likes of Colin MacInnes and Muriel Belcher in terms of style if not wit, and I'm not sure that tales of Colony Room members drunkenly shouting "Fuck off" to other soaks amuses much today. The hard-drinking raconteurs who barely mask their desperation and the watering holes that can't be lively without displaying a nasty side are still in evidence. What's missing now is the scale of ambition that allowed the owner of Soho's Gargoyle club to hire Henri Matisse and Edwin Lutyens to jazz up his decor.
London's streets don't change their character from one century to the next. Mayfair was aristocratic, Soho misbehaved, Fitzrovia was bohemian and Marylebone could only be dull. Skipping to the dirty bits, there's mention of guidebooks to the sporting ladies of Covent Garden and Soho, including this from a 1788 edition concerning Miss B at 18 Old Compton Street: "In bed she is all the heart can wish... every limb is symmetry, every action under cover truly amorous; her price two pounds." Dostoevsky was disgusted by the harlots of the Haymarket, but the French whores of Maddox Street were admired by police for being clean and businesslike. London conducted a schizophrenic relationship with its rentable ladies, but Soho's gay quarter was not always so tolerant. After a raid on the White Swan pub near Oxford Circus in 1811, six men charged with intent to commit sodomy were pilloried and pelted with bricks and dead animals, while Charing Cross pubs had signs warning "Beware Of Sods".
As the divine and dreadful roll-call extends from William Blake to Jeffrey Archer, the array of anecdotes makes for chaotic, attention-deficit reading. Fewer stories in greater depth would have spared us further retellings of the escapades of Oscar Wilde and Francis Bacon, and besides, Glinert is much more fun on the area's footnotes: Verlaine describing London as "black as a crow and noisy as a duck", the death-curse of Tutankhamun coming to roost in Soho, the robbery so redolent of an Ealing comedy that it ended up getting mentioned in The Ladykillers. Everyone has their own experience of the West End, and Chronicles rounds up the best of them. sReuse content