A London secret shared

I believe every great country should have a great capital. Naturally, a metropolis will absorb plenty of resentment and bitterness from the provinces, that’s as true of London as it is of Paris and Rome, Washington, Moscow and Madrid. But as a provincial boy growing up in Norfolk, I dreamt of London almost every night as I tried to fall asleep. Reaching it seemed like an impossible dream. I am tired of having to apologise for it. It is one of the wonders of the world.  I love Norfolk no less, nor Yorkshire nor Gloucestershire nor Burnley. But hell, what a city London is.

This is a Britain where metro-hatred and provincial arse-licking has led to such fatuous absurdities as the farcical moving of the entire BBC sports department to Salford months before the Olympic Games come to London. Read that back twice and forbear to weep, groan, roar or wet yourself laughing.

Where does one begin with the BBC’s “regionalism”? They destroy local radio but move to Salford to “appease” the North. As if “the North” is one place! Do they think the citizens of Sunderland and Leeds are cheering because there’s a new BBC media centre in Salford? I should think even Mancunians are pissed off by it, let alone Geordies or Lakelanders. In-fucking-sane. But don’t get me started. Oh – you did.

Takes deep breath. Calms down.

Right…

Central London, like all great capitals, has its grand cathedrals, palaces, memorials, parks, public spaces, fashionable shopping districts and wild Bohemian quarters.

But also, like most great cities, it has its hidden secrets. Tiny little gardens, yards, alleyways, statues, institutions and passageways that maybe just metres away from the thronging concourses of Leicester Square or Cheapside, and yet are as quiet and undisturbed as a village churchyard.

One of my favourite areas of London is St James’s, that area bounded to the north by Piccadilly, to the south by the Mall and St James’s park, to the east by Haymarket and to the west by the Ritz and Green Park. Of course the very name summons up the worst images of elitism, aristocracy and old-fashioned, self-serving grandiosity. This is London’s clubland. Whites, Brooks’s, the Carlton Club, Boodles, Bucks, the Reform, the Athenaeum, the Oxford and Cambridge, the Travellers and even Pratt’s (it’s true). For all but a tiny percentage of you reading this, such places are at best amiably preposterous hangovers from a bygone age and at worst a symbol that Britain is still the same hide-bound, class-bound society it ever was.

I’m not going to go into all that. I’m just speaking of one who loves to wander around. I love to glance up at Blue Plaques and try to recreate in my mind the days of horse: when phaetons, landaulets, berlins, curricles, stage coaches and grand equipages dominated the streets that are now owned by vans, Boris bicycles, motorbikes, taxis and cars.

Let us just look at St. James’s Square in particular. Whenever I pass the north east corner I marvel that the memorial to WPC Yvonne Fletcher is never unattended. There are always fresh flowers and hand-written notes. In 1984 a member of the Libyan mission shot and killed her from a window of the embassy during at anti-Gaddafi demonstration which she was helping to police. The murderer got away, such are the laws that govern diplomatic immunity. It is hard not to whisper now, as I pass, “Don’t worry. He’s gone now.” If I thought that way, I would fancy that she is now sleeping more soundly.

Just next door to the ex-embassy is the house where Nancy Astor lived and entertained. It now has an “IN” painted on the left hand column of its portico and an “OUT” on the right hand. This is typical English eccentricity. I’ll tell you how it came about.

Lord Palmerston, the 19th century prime minister, used to live in a fine mansion on the north side of Piccadilly called Cambridge House. It was so grand it that it had a carriage sweep, with one gatepost marked IN and another marked OUT to prevent collisions and assist the flow of arrivals and departures. After Palmerston’s death the house was sold and turned into a club, called the Naval and Military (not to be confused with the Army and Navy or United Services or Cavalry Club, oh no siree. This is clubland, nothing’s that simple). The Naval and Military club’s nickname, on account of the gateposts, was “The In and Out”.

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