A farewell to Britain's most stylish street
Handmade suits, hair cream from Trumpers and a Bates hat – once, this was the formula for a well-turned out English gentleman. As a swathe of Jermyn Street is modernised, Michael Bywater doffs his fedora to an extinct species
Wednesday 10 March 2010
Americans love it. Japanese love it. Germans love it. Frenchmen and Italians not only love it but get it subtly and utterly wrong. Everyone loves le style Anglais. Except, perhaps, Englishmen. Maybe we got bored with it. Maybe we ran out of money. Maybe it was too much trouble.
And maybe it never existed.
Maybe the archetypal Englishman whose world was defined by Savile Row, St James's Street, Jermyn Street and chambers in Albany ... maybe he never existed.
But, gosh, I wanted to be him. And, gosh, I tried.
When I first came to live in London, I took steps to become him, and my first step was into Bates the Hatter, at 21a Jermyn Street. Bates was my Rubicon, my Hellespont, my peak in Darien. The window piled with hats, each with its description – "The Burlington"; "The Grosvenor"; "Racing Hat"; "Panama (Planter Style)" – and its price on a hand-lettered ticket in the hatband, struck me with that same, probably illusory, sense of peace and possibility that every misfit, every exile, every malcontent or lost prophet feels when he finds somewhere that looks, at last, like home.
Behind the window, dust-motes danced. The lettering was faded gold. The door was narrow. The bell tinkled. All was as it should be. As it had been in my imagination, which had always assigned to hatters, tailors and tobacconists a quality of church: temples to a proper English masculinity, a timeless detachment subservient to a higher cause through which the individual man was merely passing, but with which he could ally himself merely by entering in and following the rules.
There was the dust, the affable disarray, there were the mirrors at random, the dim confessional light (a couple of yellowed plaster-of-Paris electroliers hanging from the ceiling), the stacks of hatboxes crammed onto every available surface, the kettle steaming in the back of the shop, the iron spiral staircase leading down to a workroom where a hatter blocked and brushed and restitched linings and replaced worn sweatbands. Homburgs and bowlers and trilbies and flat caps, rakish psychoanalytic midnight blues and vast-brimmed black Lubavitcher hats for going to schul, and Fischer velours for going to High mass, and unlined light trilbies for going to the races, and – my hat of choice ever since – fedoras. Beaver-felt fedoras and rabbit-felt fedoras, dark grey and dove grey and fawn and brown and blue and green and, of course, black fedoras. Fedoras.
And the man – the hatter – who materialised from the back of the shop was, too, just as he should have been: quiet, helpful and entirely unimpressed, a sort of mixture of Jeeves and a clergyman. To the customer, buying a hat is a great enterprise; to a hatter, it is of no more significance than reporting a death to an undertaker or a murder to a priest. They have seen, and heard, it all before. "Seven and one-eighth," I muttered, believing, like all men, I knew my hat size. "You don't know that," said the hatter. "Everyone thinks they know their hat size. They don't." He produced his tape measure. "Seven and a quarter," he said reprovingly.
That's one of the two ways you can tell a hatter's from a shop that just sells hats. They don't believe you when you tell them your size; and there's a kettle steaming in the back of the shop. Steam is how you shape and clean hats. The self-switching-off kettle was, as Tim Boucher, the high priest of Bates for a quarter of a century, admits, an annoying innovation for hatters. "You can get special steamers," he says, "but why spend five hundred quid when an old kettle does the job just as well?" and I can see his point; once you've acquired the intuition when to use fierce small steam from the spout, and when to raise the lid for loose big steam, you'd not want to sink your money into a machine.
And so I bought, after terrible agonising, a fedora, in chocolate brown. It was the one that had first caught my eye, but between then and writing out the cheque I had worked my way through every hat in the shop. It's always the way.
They pricked my initials on the leather sweatband with an ancient machine like the punishment harrow in Kafka's In the Penal Colony, and out I went, hatted. Fate could not harm me. I had taken the first steps into a new life. I had (thought I already was one) become an Englishman. Now it was simply a matter of accretion. Of consolidation. Of the shirts, the shoes, the suits, the Simpson's shaving brush, the Trumper's Eucris, the rest of the kit.
I was, of course, too late.
But not as late as you are. If you're thinking "that sounds a good idea, I'll pop out now", forget it. Because at the end of February, 21a Jermyn Street ceased to be home to Bates the Hatter. The sign – a metal top hat, swinging from a bracket – has gone. Nothing there now; just an empty window dusted with a century's hat-fur, where Binks, the fat Bates cat, stuffed in his glass case.
They're redeveloping my epicentre. And I'm aggrieved.
I've been aggrieved for a while now, to be honest. In the window of what was once Herbie Frogg (which I always resented anyway, as they sold bright velvet suits to pop stars; quite wrong for Jermyn Street) is an unctuous notice from the Crown Estate in that blithering, affectless prose adopted by corporate PR people who think the rest of us are stupid. "Regeneration of the eastern end of Piccadilly," it oozes, "significant St James's portfolio ... core values ... amenity groups ... mixed use ... St James's Gateway."
In other words, they're going to bugger it up. Tourists. Foreigners, Luxury brands, globalised. The ghosts of Englishmen exorcised by the suave cologne redolence of LVMH and Richemont. The cult of the duty-free lounge.
It's a regeneration too far. The moment the real, actual eastern end of Jermyn Street becomes the fatuous "St James's Gateway", I imagine a fluttering of disconsolate poplin shirting, a misty redolence of G Thomas's "Royal Yacht" hair lotion, a creak of new bespoke leather shoes and a mournful violet note of Trumper's Eucris as the mass ghosts of Englishmen rise into the air, never to be seen again. The sky will fleetingly darken under the shade of millions of dispossessed hat brims and umbrella silk aged to greenishness; and the joy will go out of the courtyard of Albany forever.
The block itself is undistinguished, bounded to the east by Lower Regent Street, the west by Eagle Place, a urinous alley where Brits-in-suits relieve themselves under streetlights after an evening's drinking (note to Brits: pubs have lavatories. Use them before you leave, because if I see you taking a whizz en plein air I shall slice your whang off with my Swaine, Adeney Brigg swordstick, of which more later). To the north is Piccadilly: a gloomy stretch of it, at the Circus end, which until now has housed some very odd businesses indeed.
There was The Pigalle Club, where, when I was 17, on a Week In London, I paid a "membership" fee (I wonder if anyone ever got blackballed) to see a Swedish film called I Am Curious, Yellow whose title was never explained but which had full-frontal nudity. The rest of the time it showed those terribly English "dirty films" which, in their terrible volleyball nudist hopelessness, summed up everything we wanted to tell ourselves about our erotic ineptitude and deprivation.
There was, of late, something called The Japan Centre, a downmarket (I think; it's hard to tell) counterpart to the glossier Mitsukoshi department store east of the statue of Eros: both places where Japanese people, quite inexplicably, buy their souvenirs of London.
And then there was Baron of Piccadilly, a strange outfitters which has been there for about half a century, always a notch behind the fashion curve but never approaching the classic. Always, to my eye at least, on the brink of closure, never quite closing. Until now. Nothing has quite become Baron of Piccadilly's life like the leaving it. The clearance window display offers coat-hangers; those washable polyester powder-blue suits that English colonials wore when the district commissioner tried them for buggery; individual carpet tiles (£2); a "Mock Security Camera" reduced from £99.95 to £9.95 (a snip when you think you'd have to pay £29 for a real one from Cricklewood Electronics); and the Baron of Piccadilly signature garment, an off-white, double-breasted, wool/polyester, peak-lapelled thing described as a "Cruise Jacket", ideal for relaxing in the Jekyll And Hyde Lounge on the MV Carnival Elation. Hurry down. Last Few Days; only £79.
Turn left into Eagle Place, watching out for urinating Britsuits. Wonder how Sergio's little café has survived so long. Remember when Cigarettes M LANDAU Cigars was a thriving little tobacconist with pipes and snuffboxes, cigar-cutters and little cylinders and the Knock-Knobby™ Pipe Smoker's Ashtray (with a cork knob to tap your pipe out) and wonder how it, too, clung on so long, a tiny shadow of itself once smoking became bad for you and Doctors no longer Recommended Craven-A, They Are Kind To Your Throat.
And then 22 Jermyn Street, a luxury hotel no more, and once a strange, mad warren where the current owner's father would drop in to guests' rooms and sit on the edge of the bed for a chat. And Bates. And Trumper the barber; once Ivan's, then co-opted under the Trumper's name, still offering Chiropody on the shop-front but I wonder if you'd get it, or any of those old Englishman hair things like singeing and friction and doing the ear-hairs with a lighted taper ...
All going. Some will be back, perhaps, in the new St James's Gateway. Others won't; Bates is moving in to share space with Hilditch & Key further to the west. But it won't be the same. The patina will have gone, and the continuity, and the authenticity. "It's dusty and dirty, a bit of a shambles," says Boucher of Bates, "but that's how it's meant to be. It's real. I'm sorry to leave it. Sorry to see it go. But ... it's all about sterilising everything now. It's all about luxury branding. It's all ... " (he drops his voice to a hatter's murmur) " ... bollocks."
It's not the same. But was it ever the same? Was the Englishman I wanted to become – the Wimsey, the Campion, the eminence grise, the lean tanned adventurer in his immaculately-cut tweeds, the London flâneur – I wanted to become: were they ever real, or was I trying to participate in a marvellous fiction, all the more beguiling for being achievable?
For a young man, unsure who to be or how to be it, such a world was almost irresistible and, now I look back, a far more benign way of self-reinvention than many. This was, after all, the late Seventies. Punk was on the streets, attacking on all fronts things I instinctively longed for: continuity, a sense of belonging (though I didn't know what I wanted to belong to), an idea of civility, of how to live in a great city. The imagined Englishman I was trying to become – to buy into salvation, every bit as blatantly as a pre-Reformation Catholic shelling out for indulgences and chantry masses – was as much a product of the culture I was anxiously rejecting as it was of reality.
The route seemed obvious. You wore your hat. You got your shirts from Harvie and Hudson, or Hilditch & Key, or, if slightly rakish, Turnbull and Asser. You carried your silk umbrella from Brigg identifiable by its thick rubber band to hold the spokes in place; or you carried your swordstick, bought in a fit of lunacy, disguised as an ash walking stick with a real Wilkinson blade slipped down the centre (but what you really wanted, and which they would really, actually sell you, back in the late Seventies, was a shotgun-umbrella: press the button and it fired a .410 shell through the ferrule-end (though, I think, you had to open the brolly to fire it, which meant that all of a sudden you couldn't see your assailant, a low blackguard in ready-made clothes).
You wore proper shoes from Foster or Tricker or Poulsen, Skone. You had, of course, your tailor, of whom you never spoke (and God forbid anyone should recognise his cut); his label was sewn out of sight, inside the breast pocket, but, like a religious relic under the shirt (sea island cotton, French cuffs), it protected you against... something. Something unspecified.
Your hair was cut at Trumper's and you put Eucris on it, and other things in medicinal bottles with crown stoppers and marvellous lies: the Lazy Scalp hair tonic with real hormones; the Milk of Flowers aftershave which prevented irritation of every description; the Special Lotion which smelt cosily of a day out in the old two-seater, tootling along – coconuts, B-roads, diesel, geraniums and ham – and promised to do something unspecified to the hair. If you were a bit of a dandy, you might venture to Trumper's rival, Truefitt and Hill, for a small bottle of Hammam Bouquet, unabashedly scented: you could sprinkle it on your silk handkerchief and imagine yourself unspeakably wicked, a ladies' man, probably rich, Mexican, polished nails, absolute outsider, what?, damn fellow wears SCENT. Odd: pretending to be an outsider of a culture you were already pretending to be an insider of. I must have been an odd fellow, back then.
But you wore all this, did all this, as the outward and visible signs of an inward and invisible transformation of which the epicentre was the HAT. Poised 6ft above the Jermyn Street pavement, it sat above all this scented, barbered, subtle splendour like a kind of spiritual cork, bottling-in the carefully constructed genie of Englishmannery. Remove it, and what was left?
A poor, bare, forked animal, is what. An ordinary nothing. An oik, a berk, a civilian, a schlub.
And so I was, all along. More precisely, I was a simulacrum: a copy without an original. It was, all unwittingly, a splendidly postmodern thing to be: an entire illusion, a complex sign, pointing at ... nothing.
In the end it went wrong. The turning point was when I found myself commissioning some subtle herringbone shirts with little holes in the collar-points to accomodate one of those gold collar-bars like a tiny femur which Peter Wimsey would have inherited from his grandfather but which I had to buy (Harvie & Hudson, I think) because my grandfather would have thought the whole idea barking madness. Before I knew it, the shirts had been followed by a dark strawberry crushed-velvet fedora and a baby-blue ditto, which goes to show what happens when you commit sartorial adultery with a hatter not your own. Next thing I knew, there I was, pictured as an exemplar in The Young Fogey's Handbook. I had become a fashion statement when all I had wanted was to be an Englishman.
For a while, I clung to my liturgies. Put my name down for chambers in Albany (though I couldn't afford them and anyway I fell out with my sponsor after he threw the silliest of, my dear, hissy fits). Banked with Coutts, out of my league, who threw me out. My heart was no longer in it. I had lost my faith. Not only was I not Peter Wimsey or Albert Campion; neither were they, nor ever had been; nor were they based on any reality.
I had thought them fictional incarnations of a real, a Platonic, Englishman, and by becoming that Englishman I could be miraculously transfigured, freed of insecurity and inadequacy, of feeling myself a stumbling hopeless lost thing. It was as though Thomas à Kempis had written the Imitatio Angli and I was following it ... religiously, while reciting the sartorial litany. Harvie & Hudson: ora pro nobis. Swaine, Adeney Brigg, Whipmakers By Appointment: ora pro nobis. Floris's Rose Geranium Shaving Soap: ora pro nobis. Tricker's oxblood half-brogues: Te rogamus, audi nos. From being adrift in a hostile world which isn't really hostile: Libera nos, Domine. Pray for us; hear us; free us.
But there was nobody listening. Nor had there ever been.
Dorothy Sayers admitted once that Lord Peter Wimsey was constructed as a comfort to her. In her tatty bedsit, she gave him chambers in Albany. When her rug wore to threads, she gave him a Bokhara carpet. Skint, she gave him an unearned income. Evelyn Waugh built a similar fantasy for Uncle Theodore Boot in Scoop:
"Two thousand a year, shady little gentlemen's chambers, the opportunity for endless reminiscence; sunlit morning saunterings down St James's Street between hatter and bootmaker and club; feline prowlings after dark; a buttonhole, a bowler hat with a curly brim, a clouded malacca cane, a kindly word to commissionaires and cab-drivers."
A lovely fantasy; but that's all it ever was. In redeveloping – let's just swallow the silly Disney name, eh? – "St James's Gateway", maybe the Crown Estates are, after all, doing me a favour. What they are erasing is the physical locus of an old delusion. But what will be left is the reality: Bates still do the best hats, and will continue to do them up the road in Hilditch & Key at No 73. English shirtmakers and tailors are the best in the world. Foreigners will continue to come and buy, or try to buy, le style Anglais. Russians, Americans, Japanese will continue to buy the old iconic English firms. A Dubai investment company, JMH Lifestyle, not so long ago bought Savile Row tailors Kilgour. As Tim Boucher says, luxury branding "is all about sterilising everything." But it's the future. My imaginary Englishman, the man I wanted to be before I decided to be the man I was already, was never even the past.
I'll still walk along Jermyn Street. I'll still pick up the odd shirt, the occasional pair of shoes, a tub of shaving cream from Taylor's, the odd cigar (oh Charatan! Oh Astley! Oh tobacconists of yesteryear!). But it will be because they are good, not because they are magical.
But all the same, I bought a hat. Mid-brown Antelope fedora. The very one I intended to buy but which I had to try on everything in the shop before I made up my mind. Handed my credit card over under the glassy gaze of Binks, stuffed in his rakish glass case on his last day on his old shelf. The kettle-steam. The brushing. The Kafka machine is broken now, but the thought was there. And the label says: "Bates Hatter. 21a Jermyn Street, St James's." End of an era, in the crown of a hat.
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