Whatever Happened To The Village Of Marylebone?
I was about to wrap up my potato peelings in a copy of the Financial Times when I caught sight of an article about the former London village of Marylebone. Reading it made me feel genuinely revolted. Marylebone is an ancient area that gets its name from a church dedicated to St Mary, built on the bank of a small stream or bourne called the Tybourne, which became Tyburn. Its received pronunciation is ‘MARRY-le-bn’ but most Londoners say ‘MAR—le-bone’.
The neighbourhoods around stations are always a little run-down and transient. (Throughout Europe, for some peculiar reason there was always a dodgy bar called the ‘Why Not?’ near a station.) Marylebone is near Paddington Station, not too far from Euston, and many of Oxford Street’s shop assistants used to rent there because properties above shops were always cheap and were considered a bit common. The redbrick Georgian terraces are intact, having missed bombings and development. They’re pretty but their rooms are disappointingly small and dark. I had a few rakish friends from around there and Fitzrovia who ate in the Indian YMCA and drank in the scruffy little corner pubs where locals still sang around upright pianos.
At some point in the 1980s something strange happened. The area started to fill with ‘lifestyle’ celebrities. The local fire station became the kind of ridiculous restaurant that becomes important to B-list TV stars, and Tyler Brulé, the Canadian journalist and adman, a man now entirely defined by his spectacles, set up his Monocle empire there. Monocle is technically a magazine in that it has pages fastened together on one side and runs shiny adverts for things nobody owns, like tiaras and watches. It soon became a desirable benchmark for little Marylebone, the personification of a bijou lifestyle. But as the Scottish political comic Frankie Boyle points out, a lifestyle is something to aim for, not achieve, because it’s a chimera that dissolves upon arrival.
It certainly didn’t stop people from desiring the Marylebone lifestyle. Those cute little terraced flats started changing hands for hundreds of thousands, then millions, then multiples of millions. By this time they were being bought not by B movie stars but by Chinese corporations and Russians rinsing their dirty cash via accommodating British property developers. The FT article bemoans the fact that the fickle and jejune Chinese prefer neon-lit underground bunkers and penthouses with 25 metre pools lit by glitter balls, and have caused a small sales downturn in the overheated terraces of Marylebone.
To the outward eye Marylebone continues much as before – except for the shops, listless high-end clothing stores, currently shuttered. The lockdown may add to the change in Marylebone’s fortunes as we start to see that fashionistas and overpriced knick-knack shops offer not a lifestyle but a way of hollowing out a once thriving and charming neighbourhood, the perfect place for Gwyneth Paltrow to flog her pricey woo-woo.
Does the loss of Chinese interest herald a return to a traditional neighbourhood? Of course not. Everything will reset to how it was before. We can dream and hope it doesn’t, though, and perhaps stop it from happening everywhere if we think a little more about what we really need and want.