One of London’s most exclusive address is a haven for incurable oddities. “Go down Piccadilly and turn right before the Royal Academy. You can’t miss it. Ask the porters for… . Oh, and please, please, bring a decent bottle of wine”. I’m on my way to meet a client.
‘Lucky you’ was the standard response of those whom I told of my assignment. And anyone who knows this handsome chunk of real estate — said to be the oldest apartment block in London — will understand just how lucky. It is not only the W1 postcode, nor the fact that Fortnum & Mason is your local grocer. It is more to do with the feeling, summed up by one long-term resident, that "to live here is to live in history".
OK, you may tense on hearing the Fortnum’s clock distantly chiming an ersatz version of The Eton Boating Song, but apart from that, you are firmly back in the 19th century. Those who wish to genuinely plunge into this rarefied world — and the place really has changed little over the past 200 years — will need plump wallets and a good deal of patience.
All the apartments (sets) are on leases. In 1804 it was decided by the trustees that "in order to exclude improper inhabitants" there was to be no "Profession, Trade or Business". It’s a little easier to get in now. Some old-timers say the place has lost a lot of its dotty English character; that due to the escalating rents, it is becoming the preserve of bankers. However, from the cast of characters I witnessed it’s the haunt of bachelors, or of married men who try to lead bachelors’ lives — the dread of suspicious wives, the retreat of superannuated fops, the hospital for incurable oddities, a cluster of solitudes for social hermits.
I fear some of the more monastic and strait-laced types will not thank me for saying this, but a rakish aura still hangs over it like the smell of cordite around a cannon (Lord Byron famously smuggled in his lover Lady Caroline Lamb in dressed as a page boy to beat the no-women rule).
Take Alan Clark, the late Tory MP and diarist. The porters loved "Clarky" and still talk about the old boy fondly. It was in B5, a set he described as "the straitened quarters of an Edwardian bachelor on his uppers", that he seduced two girls young enough to be his daughters, having performed an identical service for their mother in an earlier era. You may recall this tryst resulted in her husband, Judge Harkess, roaming around London looking for Clark with a horsewhip. On another occasion, after flooding a fellow tenant’s cellar, Clark asked contritely if there was anything he could do. "Yes," came the splenetic reply, "go and lie down in Piccadilly and wait for a double-decker bus."
Incurable oddities; “The Place” is made for them.