Sunday, April 01, 2007
That's the old Iraqi Embassy at 21 Queensgate, South Kensington. The door is boarded up and the windows are covered with a dusty residue. Quite why the flag still hangs there is mysterious to me. The place is as chop-fallen as the country for which it once housed an ambassador.
There are other embassies on that gilded road: Oman, for instance. And it isn't unusual to see someone ride a horse up the street, usually with a stable boy trotting alongside.
Historically, the parts of London that have never been poor include most of South Kensington, the area around Sloane Square known as the Cadogan Estate which includes Belgravia, and Mayfair. This is the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea for a reason. In fact, it is a borough engaged in a curious love affair with the imperiatrix, Queen Victoria and her husband, Albert. Think, for example, of the V&A Museum, and the Royal Albert theatre, and this overlooking it:
And this, for some reason:
I saw the Duke of Westminster walking through Piccadilly last week. It was the most alarming coincidence. I had been to see one of these agencies you visit if you want temporary work. This one, though by no means any better appointed or positioned than any of the other shitholes than I've visited, had a remarkable attitude about itself. And on the table in reception was a magazine called Mayfair Week or something of that kind. Owned by the Duke of Westminster, it had his grinning face on the front and promised an interview inside. The interviewer, whoever it was, pushed her tongue all the way up his gastro-intestinal tract and licked his lips for him. He was asked about how he manages the Territorial Army, and he said something about getting on the ground and seeing it for yourself and getting to know the chaps and how bloody difficult it is to run the empire. He was asked about his problems with modern land ownership (richest fucking landowner in the country - would be the richest person but for Roman Abramovich), and he said something about adapting from time to time, but not without a fight. He was asked something about his children's education too, and said how much he rued his upbringing in a public school. Some piffle about his business skills too, but not a word was expended on his penchant for prostitutes. And a typical recount was his charming laughter, his soft, easy-going face, his benign smile, his warmth that put one at ease, so that you couldn't help but like him. I couldn't help but hate him. And then, after about two hours of putting myself through various hoops for idiots who might then be motivated to find someone willing to exploit me, I emerged from the building and saw, to my amazement, the Duke himself wandering up the street, on surprisingly decent terms with natural light, and without a throwable rock in sight. His grace didn't look like a Duke. His grace looked like a man with a flop of grey hair, yellowing teeth, a sports bag, and a rather typical looking green wax jacket hung over it. His title was created by Queen Victoria herself, in 1874, further ennobling a familial line that had gone back to the sixteenth century. One of his forebears, the fourth Duke of Westminster I think, donned the butcher's apron and helped drive millions to their deaths as a commander in World War One - he commanded in the Middle Eastern theatre. The derring-do that he ordered ensured a crucial defeat for the Ottomans, aligned with the Central Powers, which helped England grab the earliest oil reserves to sustain its naval fleet.
The location of those reserves determined the formation of Iraq, now a former country, with an empty embassy in a rotten borough owned by one of the most vicious ruling classes in the world.