Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Palace of Bling

"Have you got a few minutes?" cousin Philip asked me. "There's something in Selfridges I'd like you to see."

Much of the century+1 year-old store on Oxford Street has come to resemble one of the brand-saturated departure lounges at Heathrow, and the fish counter in the Food Hall has been "decimated" according to Philip; But there's one high-ceilinged hall on the ground floor which has become what he described to me as "the palace of bling" and "a playground for the offspring of the oligarchs."

In recession-ravaged Britain who but little Russians and Middle-Easterners can afford the objects displayed in little glass boxes organised around the central pair of escalators, sold by shop assistants with the look of trophy girlfriends, and protected by security guards with the look of the Chechen Mafia*?

We paused to gawp at the audaciously oversized U-Boat watches, each with a diameter to make many a man self-conscious about the size of his wrist, and few with a price tag below £3000. But the real jaw-dropper was £69,000 ($111,000) diamond-encrusted Vertu Signature mobile phone. That's a lot of dosh for a piece of kit with a tendency towards technological obsolesence.

The West End is in a state of flux. Most of the grungy Victorian buildings that the Nazis left behind at the intersection of Charing Cross Road with Oxford Street have been demolished in the last six months and my old office on Soho Square now has a clear view of Centrepoint ...though not of that infamous fountain in front of it, which made the area awkward for pedestrians; this is hidden behind a London Underground-branded wooden enclosure.

The plan seems to be to spruce up this last rather grotty crossroads in the area, with the biggest improvement of all below street level: a shiny new tube station for Tottenham Court Road. I couldn't decide whether the feelings of promise or those of loss were uppermost as I surveyed this remodelling of such a familiar patch of my old home town.

* The Chechen Mafia is one of the few global organised crime networks which functions like a franchise business. You don't actually have to BE Chechen to be part of the Chechen mafia, you just have to run your local branch as if you were. Any failure to follow up on your threats will lead to brand damage and a possible visit from head office!

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