Literary London – Shepherd Market
Jen Pedler talks about Shepherd Market
Today Shepherd Market, just off Piccadilly, is a hidden oasis of pubs, restaurants and up-market shops. In the 1920s it was far less salubrious; a haunt of prostitutes and also home to writers such as Michael Arlen and Anthony Powell who both encapsulated the world of 1920s Mayfair in their work.
It is here that we first meet Iris Storm, the tragic heroine of Michael Arlen’s 1924 novel The Green Hat. The narrator sees her Hispano-Suiza car parked under a lamp “Like a huge yellow insect that had dropped to earth from a butterfly civilisation, this car, gallant and suave, rested in the lowly silence of the Shepherd’s Market night. Open as a yacht, it wore a great shining bonnet, and flying over the crest of this great bonnet, as though in proud flight over the heads of scores of phantom horses, was that silver stork…” And he is drawn into her mysterious world. The novel was a runaway best-seller and encapsulated the wildness of the era.
It was this novel that inspired Anthony Powell to rent rooms in Shepherd Market when he moved to London in 1926. In A Buyer’s Market, the second of the 12 volume series Dance to the Music of Time the narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, is living in “quite cheap but rather noisy” rooms in Shepherd Market “just beside an all-night garage and opposite a block of flats inhabited almost exclusively by tarts.” Returning from a night of partying he finds it “… touched almost mystically, like another Stonehenge, by the first rays of the morning sun, the spot seemed one of those clusters of tumble-down dwellings, depicted by Canaletto or Piranesi, habitations from amongst which arches, obelisks and viaducts, ruined and overgrown with ivy, arise from the mean houses huddled together below them.”
You can still capture the sense this era when you enter the market’s winding alleyways today.