I am really delighted and excited at present, and a little overwhelmed, because this odd street tour of mine is becoming ever so surely a grand passion. I just feel it. I’ve given three tours now of Jermyn Street, each one so different, and none of them allowing time to say all that I’ve learned, each one throwing up new questions that demand answering — if not this week then next, or next month, or when I can find time to get into an archive and surround myself with wrinkly paper. That monk-like existence is the one I’ve known for so much of my life, and for many years that merely meant being home surrounded by books, aware that the kids would need to be collected from school soon. Of late I have been so busy promoting the tour that I’ve missed my books and burying myself in some archive or other. I missed people a lot in that old life, but the surprise to me now is that I actually miss doing the research and I must get back to it or go a little mad.
Fortunately, The Jermyn Street Experience has got me wondering about so many things that I need no further excuse to retreat to my study. Top on the list is to learn more about Beau Brummell. I stand by that gorgeous statue at the front of the Piccadilly Arcade and I start to rattle off the familiar and not so familiar facts, yet feel forever as if the Beau is escaping me, much as he escaped England in 1816 under a cloud of debt. He died decades later of tertiary syphilis, leaving a nation to shake its head over his mistakes and miscalculations, but really everyone just missed him, much as they missed Byron, similar stars who appeared at times too bright for their native spheres. To conjure up the magic of a man like Brummell in a few sentences can seem at times, well, an act of magic, and I long to be more familiar with the details of tying a Regency tie as much as as I want to know about his lovers and pursuit of love.
Then there is the interesting riddle of Aleister Crowley: magician, mountaineer, philosopher, occultist. I only learned this week that the man lived on Jermyn Street above Paxton and Whitfield’s cheese shop, which during the war had become a grocer. Here was one of the most controversial Brits of the twentieth century, called a wicket “Satanist” in the press, hearing the bells of St. James’s and enjoying the battling aromas of the various fruits and vegetables as he entered his lodgings daily. Here he was, continuing to write and publish on magic while a stone’s throw from the shops and clubs frequented by some of the most powerful men in the land. Perhaps he was still involved in some kind of espionage, as some of his biographers have speculated.
There’s also more to learn about the Duke of Marlborough and his Battle of Blenheim; about Thomas Gray and his poetry; about Walter Scott and his last years. The story of Rosa Lewis is likewise not easy to sum up in a paragraph, yet somehow I find I leave people smiling when I say what I do know. The mixture of wealth and poverty on the street is becoming a recurrent theme, and yet, to many upon entering and looking through the shop windows, Jermyn Street can seem solely the preserve of the better off.
The individual shops tell a much different tale: one of skilled and dedicated craftsmanship developed over more than a century, especially in the case of shops like Turnbull and Asser or Floris or Foster and Son. These privately-owned businesses where long-term employees take pride in knowing their talents are appreciated has produced a quality in dress and adornment that the world has long respected. Taking notes while I listen to their tales, I am only beginning to grasp the fine detail. Yes, I am very happy to be here on Jermyn Street, eager to learn more from everyone and celebrate the stories of the shops and their workers as much as the great personalities who, in many cases, boarded above those shops.
Sometimes I feel as if I could tell so much of the history of England’s last 350 years simply by telling the history of this one street — but that’s a crazy idea. It can only be a slice of English life, yet it is a rich, colourful and sumptuous slice of that life, and it’s still going on, still beautiful and challenging and fluctuating. Keeping the past present is what Jermyn Street is all about, and, I guess, it’s what The Jermyn Street Experience is about. If you are free some Friday afternoon before 4 pm and find yourself near Piccadilly Circus, turn that corner into Jermyn Street and wait for me outside the theatre. Or if that day and time won’t do, ask me for a private tour and I’ll see if I can arrange it. I want to share this very special experience of a street with as many people as possible.