You remember the ice cold political drama House of Cards starring Ian Richardson as the murderous, Machiavellian Tory politician Francis Urquhart (F.U. for short)? The scriptwriting was sublime and the casting second to none. When I heard Kevin Spacey was co-producing and leading a US version of House of Cards set around the White House rather than the Palace of Westminster, I resisted. The original was such a great British production that could only be spoilt by Brooks Brothers suits and big blow dries.
Shows how wrong you can be. I barely slept last night watching the first series of Spacey’s House of Cards and have to ration the second or I’m going to end-up looking like I’ve just got off the slab. Need my sleep these days, don’t you know. If one needs a master class in world politics, one could do worse than spend the last five years writing brief lives of Henry Poole & Co’s Celebrated Customers for the Hall of Fame.
I am sure the ladies and gentlemen in Poole’s workshops adjacent to the new archive room think I am quite the peculiar duck poring over old books dating back to 1846 page-by-page and year-by-year. What they don’t realise is that for me, delving into the lives of the emperors, first ministers, oil tycoons and courtesans who patronised Poole’s is as thrilling for me as flicking through the pages of Heat might be for a teenage girl at a bus stop.
As all history buffs know, there is absolutely nothing new in the zoo. There is always a precedent if you listen hard enough for the echoes. Human nature is the common thread that keeps history repeating. What has become crystal clear when studying the lives of the men and women who made history – as seen through the prism of the Henry Poole ledgers – is that triumphs and disasters are two sides of the same coin. How one deals with either is the mark of a man.
I am not religious but I do find some sense in the Kabbala’s fundamental belief that life is a test. The red herring is assigning yourself the wrong judges. You know deep down whether you have succeeded or failed a test just by gaging reaction from those you love and respect. Tests have nothing to do with getting the job, earning the money, buying the apartment or going on glamorous vacations. It’s the look in someone’s eyes when they first see you walk into a room.
Of course one can’t please everyone all of the time. In fact, there have been times in recent years when I don’t think I’ve pleased anybody least of all myself. I recall writing to you last month and asking ‘what’s the bloody point?’ I think I have found a point trying to make people happy to see or hear from you.
Whatever you give out tends to come right back. It is definitely true of negativity and bugger only knows a sky full of crap has fallen on me in recent years. However, the clouds seem to have rolled by and I can’t help feeling a smidgen of optimism for the rest of the year.
It’s funny, when I first agreed to help restore and catalogue the Henry Poole ledgers and the larger archive collection it was all stored in a dust bowl of a broom cupboard. The books were water damaged, mouldering and toxic. The room was s health hazard and there were papers and photographs stuffed into drawers and hidden in cupboards all over No. 15 Savile Row.
Fast forward five years and we have an immaculate new Archive Room with a study room annex and the company understands that what we have is truly unique. I will put my neck on the line and say I believe Henry Poole & Co has the most important bespoke tailoring archive in the world bar none. When the V&A came to view the ledgers, there were rumblings about UNESCO.
Who’d have thought it all those years ago when I was choking on book dust and marking-up the dates of the 120 ledgers with black marker pen in preparation for their delivery to the book binder? It has taken me five years to tame the Henry Poole archive. The ledgers might as well have been written in hieroglyphics when I first studied them and the indexes were as obtuse as Mary Portas when someone disagrees with her on screen.
I have learned more about European and Russian royalty from the Poole’s ledgers than I did from a thousand biographies. Today, for example, I was researching Queen Rasoherina of Madagascar. I didn’t even know there was a Madagascan monarchy let alone four successive queens with three called Ranavalona.
Admittedly, I was rather overwhelmed by the 120 plus ledgers each stretching beyond 1000 pages and discovering titles that would baffle a life-long scholar of the Almanac de Gotha. Now I am more than half way through cataloguing the ledgers and listing the celebrated customers page-by-page, I do feel they are a gift that keeps on giving.
One of my favourite members of the British royal family is Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale. As you know, he was Queen Victoria’s grandson and should have been king had he not died of pneumonia aged twenty eight. He was the great dandy of his day hence my interest. On close inspection of his mother Queen Alexandra’s orders, I found Prince Eddy and his brother Prince George on the books at Poole in 1875. As I said, the Henry Poole Archive is a gift that keeps on giving and it is a privilege to have sole access to them for now.