I stood in the Strand and beheld it and blessed God,’ exclaimed John Evelyn, moved by the spectacle of the London crowd rejoicing at the Restoration. In the 19th century, the road seemed to represent, to Charlotte Brontë’s heroine Lucy Snowe in Villette, ‘the heart of city life’. Disraeli considered the Strand to be ‘the finest street in Europe’.
By the 1890s, it could boast more theatres and music halls than any other street in London. The Savoy Hotel opened; The Strand Magazine was launched. Nearby, Aldwych and Kingsway were rebuilt in the Edwardian period. This was the area to be. Nobody, these days, would promenade the Strand for pleasure. I tried doing so last week, without success, en route to the High Commission of India.
I wanted to find an exhibition (shown, as it turned out, in South Audley Street), ‘Calcutta: Stately Homes in the City of Palaces’, mounted by the Indian photographer Anirban Mitra. Here, hauntingly, was grandeur in decay. Columns peeled, statues eyed each other mournfully, motes of dust danced in bright sunlight. And yet the buildings, no longer populated by house parties, expressed a poetry that triumphed over their sometimes poor state of repair. In London, we also have legacies of empire. One of them is the Strand.
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