Michael Thomas is Ducking New York in London

 

Long decades ago—first when I was an investment banker and then when I embarked on what seemed at the time a promising writing life, and both my fiscal and physical state were in more robust condition than now—I used to go to London regularly. Those were the palmy days, the early 1970s through the 1980s, before Mammon took over the world. My London life centered on Mayfair and Knightsbridge: after a few hours of city or publishing business, I would look in at Heywood Hill bookshop, then run by my lifetime friend, the incomparable John Saumarez Smith. Time would be found for consultations with my tailor at Anderson & Sheppard, where the cost of a suit back then didn’t require floating a bond issue, and my shirt man at Bowring Arundel, that wonderful shop now just a memory. There were bookstores and art galleries to visit. I had kind of a rounded London life.

Meals were a key part of this. This was back in the days before London got gastronomically fancy, when meals were fun. How fondly I recall long boozy lunches at Lefevre Gallery on Bruton Street with Martin Summers and Desmond Corcoran; the delicious fare and elegant passing parade at my friend Enzo Cecconi’s eponymous place near the Burlington arcade where the word “gratin” could be applied to the clientele as much as to certain dishes (“Michael, I had four royals today,” Enzo once told me, beaming). I recall beef at the Guinea; oysters, potted shrimp, and grilled plaice or sole at Wilton’s, then still on Bury Street and then still owned by the Hambros; the unforgettable collations with golden boys and girls at Mirabelle, the roof rolled back to disclose a perfect June sky, a bottle of Champagne in the ice bucket. Salad days those were, a time when one felt one “[carried] back bright to the coiner the mintage of man,” as A.E. Housman memorably puts it.

Of course, nothing stays the same, whether you’re talking a place or an era, or a person and his circumstances. As a dear friend recently put it in another context, “It’s not that I hate the way Southampton has changed, I hate the way I’ve changed!” I would say the same about my relationship with London. I don’t get around like I used to; my day-long perambulations around the city, the long hours spent in the National Gallery and the V&A, now belong to the past. And so, over time, my forays to the English capital have become fewer and fewer. Nowadays I travel to London perhaps once a year: to see special old friends and so that my English wife can have time with her family. 

On our last trip, a four-day excursion this past spring, our main reason for going was for a very dear old friend’s 75th birthday. The venue was Brooks’s Club, the St. James Street establishment that is still redolent of past Whig glories—Charles James Fox and all that. It was a splendid evening, but it was also the only time we ventured into the part of London I once considered my natural haunt, a fact that prompted reflections, some rueful, the rest mostly resigned, about the way London seemed then and the way it seems now.

So how would I compare the then and the now? Well, in a word, London today strikes me as more like New York than used to be the case. It’s always been a more spacious city than ours, but even so, today it seems crowded, noisy, egregiously “touristified.” These are both cities that turned themselves upside-down to attract and welcome big foreign money. In Mayfair, I’m told, and in Knightsbridge and parts of Chelsea, one strolls at night past one unlit apartment building after another—the darkened windows signaling that these flats are occupied much of the time by their owners’ flight capital. And the prices in London are staggering. Of course, like many senior citizens, I think things ought to cost what they used to cost. Still, even my wealthiest friends gasp when the check comes. This is what happens when an urban economy focuses on attracting a demographic convinced that nothing can be any good unless it’s expensive.

Last year, for instance, I stayed at a hotel in a part of London I like—right off Marylebone High Street and a block from the Wallace. It was the sort of place, slightly frayed, favored by English country families who’d come up to London for “the season.” Checking in felt like stepping into a novel by Evelyn Waugh or Barbara Pym. 

But by last year it was clear something had changed. The place had gotten spiffed up. The prices were significantly if not insultingly higher. And the clientele was different; many of the other guests were speaking Russian. 

I’m frankly a snob. I rate clubs, hotels, and restaurants by the sort of people I’m likely to find myself surrounded by. So this year, I decided to make a change. On the website of Indagare, my friend Melissa Biggs Bradley’s innovative travel service, my eye was caught by a boutique hotel with the unlikely name of Zetter’s Townhouse Marylebone. The photos suggested the place had something you don’t find much of these days: charm. I booked us for five nights. 

Well, I tell you! If I go to London again, I’ll never stay anywhere else. Everything one might rate a hotel by—comfort, amenities, location (Zetter’s is on a quiet street near Marble Arch), décor, what the Brits call “mod cons” and, above all, the quality of service provided by the staff (handsome young people from all over Europe) is off the charts. And right around the corner from Zetter’s is New Quebec Street, with a full range of amusing places to eat. 

Zetter’s capped a perfect London week: that is, not too long a sojourn. We went to Tate Britain and saw an interesting show about the art of World War I and lunched at the museum’s excellent café. We dined with family and old friends. I went to Moss Bros and rented a dinner jacket for the big knees-up at Brooks’s. Apart from that, I didn’t set foot in a shop, nor on Oxford Street or Piccadilly. Thanks to Tamara’s sister-in-law, who’s a BBC presenter, we got tickets to The Lehman Trilogy at the National. It’s a splendid production of a play that I found problematical (as a former Lehman partner, I would!) but that my wife greatly liked. New Yorkers will have a chance to make their own minds up when the play comes to the Armory
next spring.

Then we came home. And what the hell: London is still London, a special place. You just need to duck its New
York parts.