Sunday, 13 October 2013

Lord Byron and Paradise

Born where?
For some years I have thought myself suffering from a false memory.  When walking in Cavendish Square near Oxford Circus I could have sworn I had once seen a plaque of some sort in the vicinity announcing the birthplace of Lord Byron.  But look as I might, I never could find it and began to think the whole business was a fit of imagination. 

Then yesterday I was visiting the John Lewis department store in Oxford Street looking for a 2014 pocket diary and I rediscovered the mysterious memory, or rather its replacement.  There was once a plaque, bronze on wood, attached to the doorway of John Lewis, the side entrance on Holles Street.  This must have been what I had remembered, but at some point it had been removed, explaining why I failed to find it again.  Then in 2012 it was replaced by a City of Westminster plaque, and this is what I came upon yesterday.

Replacement plaque erected in 2012.
This is the fourth plaque erected to commemorate the birth of Byron on this site.  The first was put in place in 1867 and was in fact the very first such plaque - the beginning of the idea of marking the spot where famous people have lived, an idea that has spread throughout the United Kingdom and now to many parts of the world.

That was at Holles Street, a private residence at the time, but the house was demolished and the
John Lewis Holles Street entrance.
plaque was lost.  John Lewis had already opened a draper's shop in Oxford Street in 1864 and within a few years his flourishing business occupied the corner of Oxford Street and Holles Street, and here just before the Second World War his son John Spedan Lewis erected a second plaque which was thought lost when the building was bombed in 1940, though it has recently turned up.  This was replaced by the third plaque, the wooden one with the bronze profile of Byron, which I had begun to think was a fantasy of mine, and that in turn has been replaced by the new City of Westminster plaque with Byron's advice to laugh when you can.

So I was in John Lewis today and also in Waitrose, its basement food shop, and I was thinking of paradise.  I was thinking of paradise because that is what some friends of mine call Waitrose and John Lewis, and I do not disagree.  Waitrose is certainly my favourite supermarket and I always feel in good hands when I shop for clothes or computers or just about anything else at John Lewis.  The reason, though I did not know this at first, is that the John Lewis Partnership, which includes John Lewis department stores and Waitrose supermarkets all over the country, and the Peter Jones department store in Sloane Square, is a company owned by its employees; in fact its employees are not employees at all, they are partners - shelf fillers, check out assistants, buyers, department managers, no matter what they may be, all are partners.  This came about because the founder's son, John Spedan Lewis, decided that not only should customers be guaranteed the quality of the goods they were sold, but that his employees should be guaranteed quality in their work and the way to ensure that was to hand the business over to them, to have everyone share in its fortunes.

That philosophy is explained in this brief biography of John Spedan Lewis and also in this BBC broadcast he made in 1957 when he was an old man.  Spedan Lewis has rightly been voted Britain's greatest business leader in a BBC poll.  Certainly the decency and the spirit of the man and his philosophy has been transmitted to the shop floor, and that explains why, even long before I knew all that, I thought along with my friends that pushing a trolley along the aisles of Waitrose was a transport through a kind of paradise.

And so how happier the association now that I have found Byron's plaque on the side of my favourite department store.  Poor George Gordon never had the pleasure of shopping for Waitrose own-brand baked beans but he did have other delights, and now I will connect with these too next time I approach the check out counter.

Byron's version of paradise, one of them anyway, was Marguerite, Countess of Blessington.  When she visited him in Italy he showed her a neighbouring villa, hoping to entice her to stay; the place was called Il Paradiso and he wrote this little poem, called Impromptu, his tribute to the paradise he found in her proximity.

Lady Blessington

Beneath Blessington's eyes
The reclaimed Paradise
Should be free as the former from evil;
But if the new Eve
For an Apple should grieve,
What mortal would not play the Devil?