In recent years, I’ve got to know the people at Debrett’s, who publish People of Today, which has always been a tiny bit more democratic than Who’s Who. It was first published in 1982 and used to sit on the shelf besides Who’s Who in those long-forgotten, pre-digital days when one needed to find out who somebody was, their career and what they had published, plus hobbies. The firm was founded by John Debrett, the son of a Huguenot cook, Jean de Bret. Debrett worked for John Davis, a bookseller in Piccadilly. The New Peerage first appeared in 1769, a year after the Royal Academy, and maybe belongs to the same era of grand systems of social stratification and the policing of professional boundaries. Now, they have set up a foundation which is dedicated to doing precisely the opposite, encouraging young people from underprivileged backgrounds to go to the best universities.
I’ve done blogs on Somerset House before. One of the pleasures of working in Blackfriars is that it provides frequent opportunity to walk through its monumental courtyard, free now of the parking of tax officials and I prefer it free of skating, so that one can see and appreciate the qualities of William Chambers’s restrained style of scholarly French classicism, informed by his training in Paris under J.F. Blondel and his studies in Rome, together with sculpture by the first generation of RAs:-
I had a meeting in Knightsbridge first thing this morning which I walked to across Green Park. It’s an oddly indeterminate shape, an empty bit of grass and trees alongside the rushing hoardes down Constitution Hill. I was surprised by a) how empty it was b) how attractive it is that it leads from nowhere to nowhere and c) how spacious it can feel with trees and what is nearly a field, so that you can lose any sense of London fragmentarily:-
More Brexit talk tonight. On the one hand the pessimists think that a fear of the consequences of mass migration, the demagoguery of the Murdoch press and the repulsive opportunism of Boris Johnson will bring about our departure from the European Union, producing ten years of chaos in which we have to negotiate trading terms with our former, now implacably hostile European partners. On the other hand, the moderate optimists think that a natural conservatism and caution about the consequences of exit, combined with a recognition of the benefits of European subsidies, particularly to farmers, the support of the Labour party for European protection of workers’ rights and a guarded admiration for the way in which David Cameron has renegotiated the terms of membership, will bring about a narrow, polling booth victory.
I’m not that keen on Piccadilly as a street, which never seems to have the monumental coherence of Regent Street, nor the opulence of the shops in Bond Street. Maybe it’s a memory of it being yellow on the Monopoly Board, a bad square to land on, next to Jail. But tonight, walking across Piccadilly Circus, with the sun going down beyond the carriage lamps, it had vestiges of its Edwardian stateliness, looking past the old Swan and Edgar building, designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield in 1910, hit by a Zeppelin in 1917 and then rebuilt, down past the columns of Norman Shaw’s Piccadilly Hotel, his last work, towards the RA somewhere in the distance:-
I somehow managed to miss two openings of the Vogue exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery so called in en route from Piccadilly to Blackfriars. I had forgotten how relentlessly and magificently glamorous images in Vogue can be, particularly with heightened digital imagery and over-posing. I preferred starting in 1916 with vintage prints of ladies of fashion by George Hoyningen-Huene and Edward Steichen, Tallulah Bankhead by Cecil Beaton and Nancy Cunard by Man Ray. What I hadn’t realised, but should have done, is how many famous photographic images first appeared in Vogue, including Edith Sitwell by Cecil Beaton, Alfred Hitchcock and Evelyn Waugh by Irving Penn, and Martin Amis by Tony Snowdon. Clifford Coffin gets my vote as photographer, plus Corinne Day for her wilfully downbeat and colour-drained photographs of Kate Moss.
I don’t normally talk about politics in my blog. But after an evening in which nothing was discussed but the forthcoming referendum, I feel it is worth recording that out of 16 people sitting down to dinner not a single person was in favour of exiting: a few were sitting on the fence, but the majority were in favour of Europe, not because of any narrow economic benefit, but a much longer historical perspective which sees the benefit of a family of nations with a shared history of warfare, but which has since the second world war been united by common democratic purpose. Very few people, including the Prime Minister, have been willing to articulate this larger purpose. But it is good to talk about it.