Monday, 30 March 2015

Hello, Byron!

Byron on the hoarding at 55 St James Street.
Earlier today I was crossing St James Street on my way to the London Library when I came upon Lord Byron.  He had been pressed into service to decorate a hoarding behind which 55 St James Street is being re-developed.

A helpful notice on the hoarding explained that 'St James Street came into existence soon after King Henry VIII's acquisition of St James Hospital on whose site he built St James Palace. After 1662 the street became famous for its coffee houses and chocolate houses which led to the establishment of aristocratic clubs such as White's, Brooks' and Boodle's.  Regency leader of fashion Beau Brummel held court at White's displaying his taste and style to all passersby. The clubs spawned businesses supplying their gentlemen members with necessities such as perfume, shaving brushes, razors, wine hats, boots and clothing'. And so it remains true in this area today.

But why Byron?  It did not say.

In fact Byron lived at 8 St James Street in October 1811 soon after his return from the East.  He had been visiting Ali Pasha in Ioannina in what is now northern Greece where he started Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.  Now on his return he walked up St James Street and directly across Piccadilly into Albemarle Street, the home and premises of John Murray.  The following March Murray published cantos I and II of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage which caused a sensation and made Byron famous overnight.  Girls and young women crowded about Murray's door squealing in hopes of seeing their romantic hero.

John Murray would have quite enough of that over the years to come.

On one of my visits to John Murray's I was ushered into a room where I sat down on an embroidered cushion.  No, no, you must not sit there, came an anguished cry, and I was quickly planted elsewhere.  Within the embroidered cover was the pillow on which Byron died at Missolonghi.

But worse things had happened, I was told, and at the hands of John Murray himself.  Not the original John Murray but a later John Murray.  In every generation for two hundred years the family business was run by a John Murray.  The catastrophe was done by a Victorian John Murray.  It seems he discovered that Byron on his travels and pilgrimages had been sending clippings of the pubic hairs of his ladies to the first John Murray who dutifully filed them away.  But then along came Victorian Murray who threw them into the fireplace.  This story of incalculable loss was told me to lighten the mood lest I had felt unduly chastised for sitting on Byron's death pillow.

To get back to 55 St James Street, I suppose Byron is there on the hoarding to raise the tone of the development.   And I did enjoy seeing Byron larger than life.  Whenever again I look at 55 St James Street I will think of those lost pubic hairs.

55 St James Street, London.