Selfridge’s, on your left near the west end, is perhaps still the key, an imperial palace of trade set up by the American, Gordon Selfridge, in 1909, when the west end of Oxford Street was still of little importance. Whether or not it is still the biggest and the mostest, it set the original standard of exuberance, politeness, and of quantity; it was perhaps the first to encourage shoppers to drift without being importuned to buya market but also a spectacle.
“This,” said an enraptured French boy recendy, “is the best museum we’ve visited yet.” Thus Bleriot’s aeroplane was on view there the day after it flew the Channel; it was in Sclfridge’s that Baird gave the first public demonstration of television.
It established perhaps even the characteristic basic smell of the great London itores, basically canned, yet plushy, except where the soap and cosmetics counters drench the air. If it be true that Selfridgc’s and iu rivals along the road tend to lack subtlety, it is also true that neither they nor their street can, once you have happened on them, be ignored; at their busiest times, as on a pre Christmas shopping day, they are as compulsive as a segment of Dante’s inferno. It was not originally Oxford Street by name; its true and tppalling title is Tyburn Road. “This street has its Name,” says a 1708 guide, “as being the next street to Tyburn, the place for Execution of all such Malefactors (generally speaking) as have committed Facts worthy of Death.”
In your course east towards Oxford Circus, you should take your eyes off the shop windows for a little enclave, just beyond SeUridge’s, called Stratford Place, a cul dc sac in the shadow of that great treasure house of shoes, Lilley and Skinner’s; across its end, unreal almost as a stage drop, is the facade of Derby House, Adam ish, oa 73
with quiet Ionic pilaster and a pediment, a modd ofdj that may linger at the back of your eye as you push on don pa the commercial business in Oxford Street, each shop strivtng do its neighbour, past the traffic lights that seem to come every fifty yards, past the street hawkers, the people and again and ajpin the shoo (ooecan come to think Oxford Street is a fetishut s temple of shoes)past aU this to Oxford Circus where you turn right, down Regent Street, the tempo again shifts; the crowd, though it may well be thick, is less solid and one can make out individual human beings darting to and fro in their egocentric way. And although this too is the home of many vast and famous emporia, the tone is generally almost genteel in comparison with the bazaar wonderland of Oxford Street. It is also much more solid seeming, with a more or leas uniform rooffine, and a certain coherence of line and style.
This clarity reflects in faint degree the nature of its original creation, for Regent Street was the middle phase in John Nash’s triumphal way for the Prince Regent from St James’s Park to Regent’s Park (see p. 41); it was drawn starting with a dean, scimitar like curve from Piccadilly Circusthe Quadrant, lined with colonnadesand then running straight to the conical spire of All Souls in Langham Place well north of Oxford Circus. This was the defining eastern boundary of Mayfair, ordered and new, leparating it from the old, undisdplined and teeming jungle of oho to the east, and as such Regent Street remains. Its archied ure, though, is no longer the bright variegation of stucco, but he massive stone facings that wc saw fit to substitute for it earlier this century.