Best of British. December 2011.

Dear Rowley,

Last week I made the acquaintance of Jean Clark at James J Fox on St James’s Street: arguably the finest purveyor of cigars left in London. I wanted to include Fox in my The Perfect Gentleman book for Thames & Hudson; tobacco being a requisite for this particular gentleman and all of the greats named in the book such as Napoleon III, Edward VII and the Duke of Windsor. Fox has a collection of treasures in the museum below the shop such as a glass casket containing the oldest surviving cigars made for display in the Great Exhibition of 1851.

My particular favourite objects are the cigarette box bearing the Royal Warrant of the Duke of Windsor when Prince of Wales and a cigar band printed with a handsome portrait of King Edward VII. The King is, for me, the patron saint of The Perfect Gentleman. He was a true friend to the purveyors of gentlemen’s requisites in Mayfair, Piccadilly and St James’s and perhaps the monarch who most enjoyed the finer things in life.

Archive research is vital because it yields unexpected treasures such as a booklet called Famous Streets of London printed in the 1930s that offers a perfect snapshot of the luxury goods business of that age. This one pamphlet is far and away the richest piece of research on the subject I have found to date. It was a delight, for example, to discover Craven A’s Piccadilly shop traded under the slogan ‘praise from every throat’ or to make the acquaintance of Mrs St Clair of the Auxiliary Bureau on Regent Street who ‘can supply guides and escorts about London, advice on clubs, reliable accommodation, particulars of lectures, concerts, exhibitions, shows etc and all the miscellaneous problems that beset the traveller’.

Where is Mrs St Clair when you need her today? I truly believe Londoners in the 1930s would find elements of city life today to be the ninth circle of Hell. I cannot even tell you of the abject misery that is Sainsbury’s Holborn Circus branch since that dark day when the store introduced self service tills. Until recently, it was always quite a jolly shop manned by chatty cashiers and ruled with a rod of iron by a silver haired valkyrie called Sylvia: the Boadicea of Bloomsbury supermarkets.

Now we have a labyrinth of cordoned-off lanes that would baffle a Minotaur into which shoppers are squeezed like sausage meat only to burst forth into a chaos at the tills not dissimilar to being in the maelstrom around Mecca during Haj. The once smiley staff are now reduced to directing human traffic – barking and pointing as if we’re the canines on One Man and His Dog - then having to troubleshoot for irate customers every time the infernal self-service machines mistake bin liners for Bollinger.

They do still have a couple of humans at the cigarette counter and we old-fashioned folk vie for their attention like amorous swains competing for the love of Lydia. I can only imagine how much booty has been half-inched since ‘help yourself’ tills were introduced.  I’ve since defected to Waitrose who have as yet resisted the forward march of machines replacing human beings. Don’t even get me started on Tesco Express Southampton Row. The place is mean, squalid, small and smells. Even if it is mighty convenient for the 10.55pm Prosecco dash, I’ve resolved never to darken their door again.

I tell you Rowley, Hyacinth Bouquet has nothing on me. I would no sooner put my rubbish outside Bloomsbury Towers in a Tesco bag than I would loiter outside You Me Bum Bum Train carrying a sign saying ‘get it here’…just seeing if you’re paying attention. I have since discovered that the YMBBT sign outside the old Holborn sorting office is a guerilla theatre company that is currently the talk of the toon. Apparently, it is interactive. The mind boggles.

Do let me know what you think of the latest snapshots. The latter two of the Fox Museum are my first experiment with the new Sony Cyber-Shot. As you know, my publisher suggested that I try my hand at snapping for The Perfect Gentleman. I am not the Beaton de nos jours but I could I hope shoot the smaller images rather like being the director of the second unit on a movie. I can’t lay claim to the festive bespoke shot. It is my favourite Christmas card this year and came courtesy of Fox Flannel: the Somerset cloth mill founded in the 18th century currently enjoying an assured, ambitious renaissance thanks to MD Douglas Cordeaux and owner Deborah Meaden.

Britain’s cloth mills have been something of the revelation for me in 2011. While working on the Anderson & Sheppard project at No 17 Clifford Street, I had the opportunity to visit Stephen Walters in Suffolk: a silk mill that has traded since 1720 when the Huguenot founder migrated from Paris to Spitalfields in East London. Can’t even begin to tell you how inspiring it was to spend time looking at silk swatch books dating back to 1800 and to see that the British silk industry is thriving. There is nothing Walters cannot to: the only limitation being the creativity and bravery of the client. But, then again, this is equally true of the Savile Row tailors they serve. Until next time…