I have not always been honest with you. Like Hillary Clinton in her Annie Oakley persona, describing duck hunting with her father (she never fired a shot), I’ve been known to stride in print across the grasslands of Suffolk like Isak Dinesen on her coffee plantation, bucking and snorting about the political, the religious and the agricultural issues of the day, when in truth I’m hogging the wood burner and reading back issues of The New Yorker.
This tendency to stray from the facts, known in my family as The Mississippi Truth, is restrained only by the Truthometer, that is to say, my son and heir, who has a nasty tendency to out me when I wander from verity. Like when I wrote that I’d ‘rather have a digger than emeralds’. He promptly told all who gathered: ‘But you’re always saying you love emeralds, and I’ve never even seen you look at a JCB.’ I do love emeralds. I also have a weakness for moonstones and amber, Baroque pearls and turquoise.
Above all, I like interesting jewellery, antique and modern, one of a kind, contemporary and ancient, bold and beautiful. Gazing is (almost) as satisfying as owning, and that’s why I’ve never popped into Peter Jones for a lampshade without making time to nip into Sloane Street and visit a narrow little shop called Cobra & Bellamy. In fact, it’s an exquisite shop. A place where you can imagine Hercule Poirot carefully examining gold cufflinks designed by
Josef Hoffmann for Gustav Klimt, or Vita Sackville-West choosing beads of agate, lapis lazuli, opal, carnelian and jasper. There’s not a dull piece of jewellery in the shop, no pieces that, despite the address, would feature in The Sloane Ranger Handbook. Every stone looks like it was selected for its unique character and colour.
So when a letter from Cobra & Bellamy arrived in the post this morning, I expected to have a quiet drool over photographs— perhaps a ring by Barbara Bertagnolli, a necklace by Susanna Dunne, earrings by Tania Hunter, all master goldsmiths whose work I love. Instead, the card read simply: ‘Adieu. Au Revoir. Arrivederci. Cobra & Bellamy is closing on 31st January 2009.’ I shouldn’t have been surprised. Two years ago, Veronica, one of the partners, told me that the Congestion Charge had hit them hard. Last year, she revealed that rates had doubled under Ken Livingstone and the internet was making life tough for shops. But the final blow was the lease. When they began negotiating its renewal (they’ve been there 30 years), the landlord upped the rent by 50%.
Of course, Cobra & Bellamy is not the first small shop to close its doors in the early days of 2009. My friend Valerie calls me daily from her antiqe shop in Chelsea with death notices. The Woolworths make the news, but not the quirky, the individual, the purveyors of the rare, the imaginative, the irreplaceable. And, nine times out of 10, it’s not the banks that are closing down the shops, it’s the avarice of landlords who don’t seem to have heard the news. I’ve watched it happen in Bury St Edmunds, which used to have two independent bookshops that reflected the literary leanings of the owners, little antique shops with affordable treasures that still warm my heart. All gone now, and soon every fifth shop on Abbeygate Street will be empty.
When small shops fall, the streets begin to look like a smile with missing teeth, urban gum disease that the best oral surgeons will not be able to repair. The landlords go unchallenged. I shake my head at their poor judgement. Faithful tenants should be given rent decreases during these hard times, not pushed out. Cobra & Bellamy will continue online, but Sloane Square will be impoverished. Meanwhile, I write this wearing my golden amber beads, my Russian aquamarine earrings, souvenirs of Cobra & Bellamy, memento mori of a much-loved London shop. Arrivederci. Adieu. Farewell.