Peter York: Everyone else still wants to go to Chelsea

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The Independent Online

Chelsea was always a tremendously accessible bohemia, convenient for Knightsbridge and Belgravia. Eaton Square is just round the corner from Sloane Square after all.

Chelsea was always a tremendously accessible bohemia, convenient for Knightsbridge and Belgravia. Eaton Square is just round the corner from Sloane Square after all.

The world Ann Barr and I covered in the original Official Sloane Ranger Handbook (C1982) - nice girls, Sloane Grannies in big flats behind the square, Peter Jones - was just a walk away from old arty Chelsea. Old Arty Chelsea is Tite Street, Wilde and Whistler, Norman Shaw houses. It's the Chelsea Arts Club where, weirdly, the waitresses always look as if they've been drawn by Augustus John. It's Cheyne Walk, a good place to paint the Thames from in 1890.

And between them was the King's Road. By the time I first lived on it in the Seventies, just before World's End, everyone was forever saying I'd missed the real thing. That usually meant the Chelsea Sixties, from Mary Quant's Bazaar at the very beginning to Nigel Waymouth's Granny Takes a Trip at the dippy end. It meant all those Chelsea girls with their velvet-suit-from-Blades aristocrat and pop star boyfriends. Those Chelsea Girls were crucial, the archetype for every rock star and tennis champion's constant companion ever since. But by 73/74, so they said, it was just one big shopping precinct. The locals said they stayed away at the weekends.

The premise of Elvis Costello's "I don't want to go to Chelsea", 1978, was that Chelsea was pretentious and past it, its bohemia tame and the avant-garde long gone. But everybody else still wanted to Go To Chelsea. Retailers certainly did, because the King's Road was where the flagships of High Street chains reached the young aspirational hinterlands of London and way beyond. (Manchester! New Jersey!) There were pilgrims coming to see the Kings Road Saturday Parade well into the 80s, when it really was over. There'd been one pilgrimage to see Swinging London Mark I (the 1966 Time magazine version which featured a lot of Chelsea types). But then there'd been a much bigger pilgrimage after punk in 1977. Punk was supposed to have started from Mclaren and Westwood's little clothes shop Sex on World's End.

And when Dai Llewellyn, "the seducer of the Valleys", a key figure in the New Chelsea gossip world Nigel Dempster had invented in the late 60s, fronted a new club, Wedgies, in 1976, it had to be on the King's Road. In the Eighties Chelsea Baby Boomer life went on and no one really acknowledged the change.

For me Chelsea is the Patsy character from Abs Fabs, a Chelsea Girl gamely Carrying On. Patsy couldn't really afford to live in Chelsea now, but she'll creep back from Wandsworth to die there.

I feel I've been in denial about Chelsea. Even now, when the Sloane Grannies have been defenestrated to make places safe for American investment bankers and Eurotrash and Chelsea Harbour is a development as ugly as Monte Carlo it's still resonant for me. And Nicholas Coleridge, managing director of Condé Nast, who is never wrong about these things, told me he'd been thinking very hard about Chelsea for 2005.

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