O’Connell lives and works in Mayfair, which serves as a backdrop for much of her contemporary women’s fiction, including ‘Making The A-List’. This is the twenty-eighth article in our regular “My London” series.
I’ve spent most of my life in Mayfair in a fourth floor walkup of a dormer-roofed, Queen Anne inspired pink-terrace of Mount Street. My father lived a few doors away, next door to the Connaught on Carlos Place during WWII. Sitting in my dormer window overlooking Mount Street Gardens, I see the ghosts of the past where amongst the exotic fronds my father and other spies received their secret missions in World War II in the thin dawn light.
My access to the rooftop through my skylight gives me breathtaking views of Mayfair. I’ve always loved the romance of walking along the chimney pots of Mount Street.
Before the Connaught was built and Carlos Place widened in 1880, there was a famous street there called Charles Street. It was home of some of Britain’s most fashionable Restoration and Regency characters. John Ruskin wrote The Stones of Venice in his rooms on Charles Street and Oscar Wilde took rooms there in 1830. I picture him gadding about London before marriage, his whole life ahead of him. Another illustrious figure of the street was the abolitionist and composer, Ignatius Sancho. Born on a slave ship in 1729 he rose to become the leading composer of Regency dance music and one of Mayfair’s most striking dandies. He lived with his wife and children on Charles St running a tobacconist and small publisher. The street now gone, there is nowhere to hang a plaque for this Regency luminary.
By 1707 when Fortnum and Mason opened its doors, Mayfair was already the most fashionable place to live in London and home to the famous cultural salons. These salons formed the epicentre of culture in Britain. Later they would be referred to as ‘Bluestocking Salons’ in reference to the lack of class, race or religious restrictions required to attend. Hosted by aristocratic women in grand drawing-rooms, they were open to all eccentrics; individuals capable of seeing beyond what is there, to imagine what could be…
Charles I and Inigo Jones had already created Covent Garden, Piccadilly and much of south-west Mayfair by 1638 when Charles II’s grandmother mother, the dowager Queen of France, Marie de Medici ‘Mother of Opera’ moved into St James Palace. She transformed it into a salon attracting artists, playwrights, composers, poets and opera singers. These salons existed all over Europe but never before had there been such an integrating of classes solely for the pursuit of ‘the arts’ and new ideas.
Cromwell cast the 67-year-old Marie de’ Medici into exile in 1642, stripping her of personal possessions and assets which many historians see as the final match that ignited the English Civil War.
Mayfair was the phoenix that arose in the Restoration of 1660 from the ashes of the bloodshed, misery and genocides of the Puritan tyranny. Charles completed his father’s legacy, building a modern London west of the city. The opulent residential garden squares and luxurious glass-fronted retail arcades selling exotic goods were the Merry Monarch’s way of cocking-a-snook at the cultural austerity and moral conformity the Puritans proselytised.
King Charles II saw the beauty of Mayfair as his architectural revenge on the puritans who had murdered his father and all who thought the arts, beauty and pleasure as sinful. The entwined C’s on the lampposts of Mayfair commemorate the part Charles II and his queen, Catherine of Braganza played in creating the area.
Much of the area’s past is concealed underground in the passageways created in the Civil War. You are literally walking on history in Mayfair. The ghosts of Handel, Angelica Kauffman, Beau Brummell, Jimmy Hendrix and Daniel O’Connell walk with you. Wandering through this maze of underground passageways still lined with empty bookcases and cellars, one begins to comprehend the secrets and scandals upon which Mayfair was built. The passages are accessed by secret entrances at various spots such as the gardens of Albany, one of the Restoration mansions that lined Piccadilly in 1664. In 1802 the Duke of Albany rebuilt it into the residential set it remains. Past residents include Lord Melbourne, the Bluestocking banker, Coutts, Lord Byron, Gladstone, Edward de Bono, Aldous Huxley and Bill Nighy.
I grew up listening to my father’s stories of his youth in Mayfair. During the war, while on leave from the RAF he’d chat up Nancy Mitford over cups of tea prepared on her camp stove in the famous bookshop, Heywood Hill in Curzon Street. For the Irish, books and bookshops have a special significance and when my son married, he and his fiancé placed their wedding list at Heywood Hill. Another visitor to her bookshop was Quentin Crisp, my unofficial godfather who persuaded me to write about the history of eccentricity as a quintessential aspect of the British character with Mayfair as its birthplace. ‘Mayfair was always the safest place in England for a queer.’
My father never spoke of the war in terms of combat or what he endured as a secret agent in enemy territory but he ignited my imagination with his anecdotes of Mayfair balls and parties. His stories of dashing to white tie balls at the Ritz and Buckingham Palace after having flown back from Germany or mixing martinis with Ian Fleming in his flat behind the Ritz, since transformed into the St James’s Club, wove their spell around my dreams and shaped my future as a writer.
The blue plaques that pepper the area attest to its illustrious residents from the Restoration to the present century. No area of London is as festooned with blue plaques, with some buildings having two. 25 Brooks St was home to composers Handel and Hendrix.
For all its glamour and scandal, Mayfair remains a village and Mount St its High Street. I have run the tombola stall at annual fetes and sold tickets to the Duke of Westminster whose ancestor, Dame Mary “May” Grosvenor Davies, a shriver’s daughter, owned the hundred acres upon which Mayfair was built. It was the celebrity dowry of the Restoration, her land hooked a baronet, Thomas Grosvenor.
Unlike most villages, our local scandals tend to go beyond gossip and become historic national headlines. Lord Byron lived on Bond Street while his daughter, Countess Ada Lovelace, creator of the algorithm which led to the computer, lived within walking distance on St James’s Square. The two never spoke. Imagining the interactions between Mayfair locals tells a story in itself. I visualise Clive of India buying his tobacco from Ignatius Sancho’s shop on Charles Street where he was bound to bump into Gainsborough, Lady Finch and Lady Elizabeth Montague, ‘Queen of the Blues’. All of them attended the local Bluestocking Salons.
Since its birth in the seventeenth-century, Mayfair has been teeming with kings, queens, authors, artists, composers and artisans, as well as international spies and revolutionaries. My own ancestor Daniel O’Connell, the ‘Liberator’ lived on 14 Albermarle Street. After he succeeded in seeing the Catholic Emancipation Act passed in 1829, he continued to campaign for the abolition of slavery. Mayfair politician William Gladstone declared him, ‘the greatest popular leader whom the world has ever seen’.
Laurence Sterne lived on Bond Street and attended the fashionable society parish of St George of Hanover Square where the Vogue offices are appropriately situated today. The graveyard was moved to make way for Mount Street Gardens after the Jesuits bought the land to build their church in 1840. When I was young I would spend hours deciphering names – including Laurence Sterne’s – on the tombstones which were incorporated into the guttering of the exquisite gardens, where like so many locals I picnicked and played croquet with my family.
From its earliest beginnings, Mayfair was home to many aristocratic crypto-Catholics, including the Catholic author, Fanny Burney who lived on Mount Street and the artist Angelica Kauffman RA who lived in various addresses in Mayfair. During Wilde’s court case with Queensbury, Wilde frequently dined with the Jesuit priests at the presbytery on Mount Street and attended mass regularly. During the tragedy of his imprisonment they were among his few visitors. The church now hosts the GLBT service and is still referred to as Farm St, dating from the tradition of Catholics needing to hide their faith in the years of persecution. Perhaps it is why Catholicism in Britain has always held such attraction for eccentrics.
After the church was completed it became the place for Catholic society weddings, baptisms and conversions. Every Saturday I look out on wedding parties strolling from the church to receptions nearby on Park Lane, the Connaught or Claridges.
The Bright Young Things of the twentieth-century were frequent attendants of the 11.00 full sung Latin mass which was seen as an act of rebellion by the aristocracy. Many, including Evelyn Waugh, Edith Sitwell and Alec Guinness took the long road to conversion at Farm St. It is estimated in the eighteenth-century over a third of Mayfair residents were Anglo Irish, more interesting though is that many were crypto-Catholics. One of these was the famous Bluestocking, Lady Isabella Finch, Countess of Winchelsea, close friends with both George II & his Bluestocking Queen, Caroline. In 1742 she hired her friend, architect William Kent to rebuild 44 Berkeley Square with a secret Catholic chapel in the basement.
As a child I was fascinated by the ethereal beauty of the swan-necked women alighting from Aston Martins and Rolls Royces of an evening. Their husbands in black-tie epitomised the 007 attitude they cultivated in the way they tossed their keys to valets, before breezing into the basement nightclub of Annabel’s or upstairs to Aspinall’s Clermont Club where aristocratic gamblers rubbed shoulders with East End gangsters such as the Kray twins. It was here Lord Lucan acquired infamy passing the chemmy slipper at baccarat before clubbing his children’s nanny to death and disappearing into the mists of scandal that have shrouded Mayfair since the Restoration.
I’d often dash downstairs for milk at night in my flannelette nightie concealed under Mummy’s sable, a Hermes scarf around my head, waving at the diners of Scott’s as I sped past. If I was ill or immersed in a book and couldn’t face the stairs, I would drop a plastic bucket down on a rope and phone Allen’s Butchers. They’d pop a brace of pheasants or chop inside and I’d haul it up on the rope. If entertaining, nearby Scotts would place a couple of dozen oysters with a bottle of chilled Ruinart in my trusty bucket. It takes a lot to raise an eyebrow in Mayfair where people know the value of secrets.