Graham Greene’s 1930s Mayfair

Graham Greene’s 1930s Mayfair

A few months ago, my wife came across a green recycling box full of yellowed paperbacks left on the pavement of a street near where we live. We don’t think they were intended for the recycling truck, but for anyone passing to help themselves to. Round our way, this is normal behaviour, though it more usually involves items of furniture (I’ve left a few of those out myself).

Authors dumped in the box included Ken Kesey, Edna O’Brien, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Wolfe, James Joyce, R. D. Laing, Iris Murdoch, Arnold Bennett and Graham Greene, including a collection by the latter called Twenty-One Short Stories. These were written between 1929 and 1954 and include one from 1936 called Jubilee – presumably a reference to the silver one of George V the previous year. It starts like this.

Mr Chalfont ironed his trousers and his tie. Then he folded up his ironing board and put it away. He was tall and had preserved his figure: he looked distinguished even in his pants, in the small furnished bed-sitting-room he kept off Shepherd’s Market. He was 50, but he didn’t look more than 45; he was stony broke, but he remained unquestionably Mayfair.

Don’t know about you, but I’m right there, observing Mr Chalfont in his underwear. Not quite so sure about that apostrophe and “s” after “Shepherd”. But never mind. Soon, Greene has us at Mr Chalfont’s side as he heads out on the the streets:

He couldn’t disguise the fact that he was after the ladies. He didn’t want to disguise it. It made his whole profession appear even to himself rather gallant and carefree. It disguised the fact that the ladies were not so young as they might be and that it was the ladies (God bless them!) who paid.

Mr Chalfont enters a nearby lounge and looks for a chair where:

He could exhibit himself discreetly: the select tie, the tan, the grey, distinguished hair, the strong elegant figure, the air of a retired governor from the colonies.

His usual chair was occupied by a woman in a mink coat, who winked at him.

He blushed, he was horrified, nothing of this sort had ever happened to him before; the porter was watching and Mr Chalfont felt scandal at his elbow, robbing him of his familiar restaurant, his last hunting ground, turning him perhaps out of Mayfair altogether into some bleak Paddington parlour where he couldn’t keep up the least appearance of gallantry.

Soon, they are trying to recall where they’d been in each others’ company before. Jermyn Street? Mr Chalfont’s former flat in Curzon Street? Then they discussed the Jubilee celebrations. The woman has said he can can her Amy:

“It was lovely,” Amy said. “Why, I said to myself, everyone ought to do something to make it a success. So I cleaned up the streets.”

“I don’t quite understand,” Mr Chalfont said. “You mean the decorations?”

“No, no,” Amy said, “that wasn’t it at all. But it didn’t seem to me nice, when all these colonials were in London, for them to see the girls in Bond Street and Wardour Street and all over the place. I’m proud of London, and it didn’t seem right to me that we should get a reputation.”

“People must live.”

“Of course they must live. Wasn’t I in the business myself, dear?”

“Oh,” Mr Chalfont said, “you were in the business?” It was quite a shock to him; he looked quickly this way and that, fearing that he might have been observed.”

The Jubilee story covers a lot of ground in exactly six pages. Twenty-One Stories is still in print, and you can buy it here. Today, Mayfair more Mayfair than ever and Shepherd Market contains rather a lot of smart restaurants, one of which I dined at one recent Christmas (see photograph). But it has been known for far longer as home to celebrated London writers and, as you’ll have spotted, to another kind of uncertain trade.


Categories: Books, Culture

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