Cavendish Square: Behind the department stores, la plage

Here’s another from the school of “places I have rushed through a great many times without ever looking at.” At the weekend I needed to run a few errands on Oxford St and found myself for once looking up at the buildings, and thinking that as ghastly as many are there’s a pluralism to it all, a coherence in the incoherence, and wondering if it ties into our never having had a nationalist dictator with narcissistic plans to rebuild the capital in his own image… but I’m getting miles ahead of myself.

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Not wanting to use up too many of London’s icons in my first few blog posts, I tried wandering slightly off-piste, looking for something else to look at, and found myself at Cavendish Square. The square is not one of those glorious stage scenes you might find in Mayfair or Bloomsbury, but by dint of its proximity to Oxford Circus I often cut through it, often on the way to a club in the basement of the Phoenix or just trying to get away from the streams of shoppers.

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I’ve always thought, if I thought of it at all, as a place bereft of charm. There’s the foliage, but it barely registers, cordoned off by the 1970s-looking brick wall and entrance to an underground car park. Towering over the square are the rear ends of John Lewis and some uncharismatic skyscraper, making it feel like a miserly back alley. Backstage is, as those who can get there know, just a small grubby cupboard with a mop and a mini-fridge of Red Stripe tins.

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At first glance, the square is telling you “No, don’t stop, keep up your pace. Nothing to see here.” Persevere past the car park entrance, however, and you’ll find a perfectly pleasant green square filled with mingling office workers and couples on dates. Yes, it’s cluttered with dustbins and so on, but there’s also a judicious juxtaposition of sculpture classical and abstract, and seconds from the mania of Oxford Circus, a quiet place where one can sit without being assailed by consumerism is a welcome surprise.

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And past the arse-end of Oxford St’s facade, the other sides of the square are much easier on the eye too: to the west this grandiose building, now home to a number of clinics.

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To the north, hidden behind the trees is the pleasing twin facade of a complex which, according to Google, houses the Medical Society, the King’s Fund, and a convent, which may explain the madonna col bambino.

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And on the West, hi-falutin dining rooms, houses with a touch of the Victor Horta about them…

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…and pelicans piercing their own breasts to feed their young.

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The abundance of blue plaques reveal Cavendish Square to be a place where Stuff Happens.

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There’s plenty to catch the eye beyond the sqaure as well. Someone totally unfamiliar with the area will still know Harley St and Wigmore St by reputation. Wigmore indicates the way to its hall with a frieze depicting a orchestra of putti on the street corner, Harley St begins with an imposing palazzo.

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This was a very quick survey and I didn’t think to dig out Nairn, but later realised that these two streets are in there, being “nothing spectacular, but full of atmosphere, an anatomy of English reserve… the icy understatement still at the top of every British ladder…” How times change, although not necessarily in these circles; Nairn admits that “you may never meet it in a lifetime, normally”. My only brush with it was once being taken to dinner at the nearby Royal Society of Medicine, I think. Nairn points out a few choice buildings from the unostentatious crowd, and recommends a couple of pubs as representations of “how the other half live, and yet it is never thrown in your face” (times really do change). I must revisit and take a proper look.

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Off this square, something interesting catches the eye whichever direction you look. On Margaret St, I’ll need to go back for All Saints, also in Nairn and whose entry begins, “To describe a church as an orgasm is bound to offend someone…”

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I was compelled down Chandos St by the sight of this jewel amongst townhouses, which instantly struck me as being the kind of place where affluent men get married in hand-woven kilts. Turns out it’s in Nairn too; for him, “hardly worth notice at first… then it catches alight like a slow fire”. The architect, Robert Adam, had a substantial hand in C18th Edinburgh & Glasgow, memories of whose fantastic buildings must have trickled through to my subconscious.

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As for the rest of Chandos St, Nairn notes that “the blether around here takes some shouting down”. The Medical Society’s entrance is commendably unshouty, albeit followed by a C20th apartment block (in no bad style) and another extensive car park for the surgeons.

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Across the road, a menagerie of Flemish monsters introduce the Langham Hotel. Follow them, and you’ll see chauffeurs, bellboys and top-hatted concierges doing their thing.

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The hotel is obese, bloated to Ceaucescu proportions. Kids, who see places like this as bespoke adventure playgrounds, could have the time of their lives getting lost on its myriad floors.

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This street leads to the bottom of Portland Place, where we find BBC Broadcasting House…

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… and All Souls Church.

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I’d make a gibe about the two pillars of institutionalised paedophilia, but it’s not the correct church and I would dearly miss the BBC’s radio output, blissfully free of strident car insurance adverts, if it were no longer there.

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Post Savile, and that astonishing London Review of Books article about the BBC apartments which served as boy brothels to the stars, Eric Gill seems more apt than ever. We’re supposed to separate the art from the author, and my instinct is to side against the iconoclasts who want it taken down, but the associations are so notorious that Prospero cradling a diminutive nude Ariel leave me queasy. Keep it up there, though, on the glass houses principle; no doubt most of our commonplace practices will be perceived as unspeakable atrocities in 200 years’ time, and I’m not even sure which ones.

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Next to this Broadcasting Babylon, the exclamation mark of All Souls steeple looks indignant. It’s Nash but I momentarily took it for Hawksmoor, so odd and disconcerting is the steeple. A cone like a dunce’s cap penetrates a ring of ionic columns, creating tension and a faintly satanic look. Nairn commends the interior and, although the BBC has partly “ruined” the effect, “the way it insouciantly frisks Regent St around a corner to become Portland Place. One of the most difficult of all jobs is made to seem dead easy.”

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There’s a good story, which currently escapes me, about why Regent St was built for George IV. Another thing to look up when I revisit this area. Off on holiday tomorrow so there won’t be another post for a while.

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