A post on The Women's Room today inspired me and reminded me of some great British institutions. Whilst now, in the harsh glare of 2009 these may seem totally outdated and uncool (some for good reason, while others remain untouchable), I would like to transport you back to a time when they were really rather special and made you feel very, very good indeed. We used to call one of them our 'corner shop', and it was absolutely true, it really was literally round the corner but it didn't occupy a corner in so much as a whole block, as indeed it still does today. I'm talking of course about dear, darling Harrods. Due to its proximity to where we lived, it really became a trusted, huge, red brick friend who was always there, waiting for us with open doors. As a young girl in the seventies I have the most vivid and intense memories of spending endless afternoons with my mother mooching round the Food Halls, the toy department, the pet department, the super groovy Fifth Floor and of course the endless womenswear rooms where I would get lost in a sea of coats, eveningwear and shoes! What I remember most of all about those visits to Harrods are the smells and the sounds. Not sure if it still exists today, but after a particularly taxing shopping spree, my mum would take me to the Juice Bar in the Food Halls, where you could take a seat on a bar stool and choose from a vast selection of fresh fruit to have your very own fresh fruit smoothie created while you watched. It was all the rage and the waiting times were understandably long. Mine was usually some multi-berry concoction, deep, dark pink and a bit tart. So divine. I can still taste and smell the amazing flavours wafting round that corner of the shop. On Saturday mornings I used to wander down, hand in hand with my father and together we would march again and again through our beloved Food Halls and buy wonderful breads and cold meats for lunch. All you could hear in these halls were deafening echoes of people talking - actually no, shouting their orders loudly in those plummy tones - it was all a buzz, full of posh old dears and dashing gentlemen squires buying foie gras for supper. What's not to love about that? Then upstairs it was all hush hush, the sales staff were just as elegently dressed as the shoppers and I was, as in most of my childhood fantasies, swiftly transported into an Alice in Wonderland world as I ran silently on the soft grey carpet between the garment carousels pretending to catch my rabbit.
Walk into Harrods today, and little or none of that old British glamour has survived. It certainly looks the same from the outside, but nothing in its interior atmosphere (nevermind actual interiors) could be further removed from its original splendour and British class. Of course Harrods was always meant to be somewhat otherworldly and exotic, but in a very British way which it just doesn't manage to pull off today - I mean, who needs or wants an Egyptian blimmin' escalator? However I do remain faithful and hopeful that one day some fabulous English eccentric will reclaim it and relaunch it as the glorious, modern and exciting British shopping experience it so clearly deserves to be. I think it's about time, don't you?
Unlike Fortnum's which remains to this day in a class of its own, spinning in the same British fairytale era, never dissappointing, whether you're a Londoner, an out-of-towner or a tourist. I do SO LOVE their gentle dress code reminder which you can find on The Fountain Restaurant page of their website: "We kindly request that both sexes lean more towards elegance"... How utterly charming is that and how wonderful if in general people of both sexes would lean more towards elegance? Then there is of course Liberty where they have cleverly managed to maintain the department store's old and unique charm whilst also keeping up with the times and becoming a very special avantgarde London store. And last but by no means least, Selfridges. Which is so important in terms of London retail that it deserves its own special post.
So you see dear, darling Harrods, it is possible to be cool, cutting edge and totally British...