Reading histories, I marvel at the accessibility of great people in former times. At the Restoration, Charles II may have been a popular figure, athletic and affable, but some people would have done away with him. And yet, according to Jenny Uglow’s wonderful biography A Gambling Man, he could often be seen playing at mall in Pall Mall or walking dogs, in the park.
Anyone with the ‘face of a gentleman’ was allowed to watch him eat in the Banqueting House. (If only the same criterion could be used at airport security.) It’s unlikely one would bump into one of the present Royal Family practising tennis serves in front of Clarence House.
I blame Edward VII for the change. He had the Mall redesigned, with a wedding cake of a memorial to his mother on what used to be a round-about at one end and Admiralty Arch with typical Treasury parsimony, a triumphal arch that doubles as civil-service accommodation at the other. It was conceived for the car and works well, there always being a special thrill in bowling along the regally red road surface.
But the intimacy has gone. So has mall, played by striking a leather ball through a suspended iron hoop with something like a croquet mallet. Pity. It sounds lethal.
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