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Beef Wellington at 45 Jermyn St. (©45 JERMYN ST.)



As I write this, there are upwards of 5,000 international journalists camped out in Windsor, providing breathless round-the-clock commentary on the marriage of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle. I asked my friend, a royal correspondent, about life in the Wedding Bunker, aka the Travelodge in Slough. “It’s not so bad — I’ve got a kettle, and there are sachets.” Assuming she makes it to Saturday on a diet of shortbread and individually packaged coffee creamer, by the time you read this Ms Markle will have become the Duchess of something, and my friend will have plumbed a marathon’s worth of clichés on how the Brits do pomp and circumstance like no one else. Apparently the hacks are running a book on who can get the “sceptr’d isle” from John of Gaunt’s soliloquy in first. Folk memory is a funny thing. Just as no one from Great Britain can hear Churchill’s “finest hour” speech and remain entirely unmoved, even when it’s delivered by Gary Oldman in a fat-suit, so the sight of the guards and the uniforms, the carriages, the swords and Princess Beatrice’s headgear will lend itself at some moment on Saturday, even to the most sceptical, to a little atavistic shiver of pride and belonging.

It works on the senses, too. Cities have memories which write themselves on our subconscious. There’s a street corner near Mecklenburgh Square where when it rains you can even now smell the sweat and dung of ghostly horses; the churchyard in St Giles still draws wild-eyed drinkers, though the slums from which they once emerged have long been replaced by Renzo Piano architecture and Jamie Oliver franchises. In Shepherd Market at twilight the will o’ the wisp glow of the tarts’ lamps remain phantasm tabernacles to generations of popped public-schoolboy cherries, and if the wind’s right, I swear you can catch a poignant whiff of Guerlain’s Après l’Ondée above the traffic fumes of Berkeley Square.

The palimpsests of memory pertain, even when the geography of the city has been irrecoverably altered. In the 1920s, the novelist Nancy Mitford was still forbidden to walk unchaperoned along Piccadilly. Having run the gamut of ogling from the gents’ clubs in St James’s, there was nothing left by then to alarm a bright young debutante, but such was Piccadilly’s louche aura that apparently no respectable women could afford to be seen alone there.  The etymology of Piccadilly, and its sinful connotations, was the subject of hot antiquarian debate from the mid-17th century, when Thomas Blount suggested that the street took its name from “pickadil”, the name for the round hem of a skirt, transposed to a style of banded collar.  A pub called the “pickadilly”, at the edge or “skirt” of  St James’s, where the lost fields then began, was the source of the denomination. However, in 1791, the topographer Thomas Pennant boldly discounted Blount’s theory on the basis of a pastry shop which sold “piccadillas” or savoury turnovers.

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