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24 January 2017

Did I magically make Kate Middleton pregnant? Well – not quite

“When I ring this bell,” I told my sceptical audience, “William and Kate will conceive a new child”.

By Nicholas Lezard

And so there is another casualty of the real-estate boom in Marylebone: the Sue Ryder shop on the corner of Baker Street. It is now utterly empty. Bare, ruined choirs where once the sweet, second-hand shirts sang. They had told me it was coming, the sweet till workers who would wave at me when I walked past, but I’d thought we had a couple of weeks yet. I’d wanted to fillet the place for one last bargain, but when the property developers move in, they move in fast. Where is British procrastination when you need it?

Correction: it’s not the property developers, it’s the lease owners. I can guess what’s going to happen: the place will be empty for months until they can find someone who’ll pay through the nose, mouth, ears and the remaining cash-producing orifices through which a human can be bled.

That Sue Ryder shop has been a lifeline since I moved in here, nearly a decade ago. My first purchase was an Aquascutum jacket, which fitted me like a glove and cost only £14.99, a figure so improbably low that my announcement of its price to
a sceptical audience caused the memorable rejoinder, “Another one of your lies.”

Since then, the prices have crept up and, a few months ago, when I saw a fine Paul Smith cashmere overcoat in the window, I was warned off it by a conscientious staff member.

“It’s too much,” she said. She knew my budget. “I’ll write it down for you.” The first figure she wrote was a four.

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“That’s enough,” I said. (It was clear that the number she was writing down was going to have more than two digits and no decimal point.)

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But I think of the things I have bought there: countless shirts (well, five or so); shoes for various women (there seemed to be no lack of quite unworn classy ladies’ shoes and boots, and if one was strolling past the shop with the woman and pointed them out, there was no stigma in buying a pair); a pair of binoculars; a set of wine glasses (absurdly cheap but, alas, made of breakonium, the most fragile substance on Earth, and all long gone); the set of carpet bowls that were renamed “Hovel bowls” and entertained the children on many a rainy afternoon; and possibly my favourite kitsch knick-knack: a porcelain bell celebrating the marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. A visitor once looked at it sceptically and an amusing idea popped into my head.

“It’s actually a magic bell,” I said, “intimately connected to their loins, and when I ring it” – I gave the bell a little tinkle – “William and Kate conceive a new child.” I thought this a rather amusing conceit but the next day my visitor rang me, sounding a little spooked.

“Did you know?” he asked.

“Eh? Know what?”

“Look at the news,” he said, and lo and behold, for the date was 8 September 2014 and it had been announced that the woman who will one day be our queen was pregnant with their second child, whose name I forget. You may disbelieve this story about the bell with
as much fervour as you like, but I know it is true and I have a witness, who has looked at me in a new and awed light ever since.

Anyway, the shop has gone. No more the mystic dinner bells, the indoor bowls set, out of which I once extracted a whole column, the spectacular shoes for the women I was walking out with. My last purchase was pretty good: a 1960s Debenham and Freebody overcoat in immaculate condition, maybe a little wide round the body for my slender frame but with arms just the right length; and a silk Christian Dior tie so beautiful (a deep crimson with emerald lozenges) that I bought it even though I only normally wear ties when I have to, in the pavilion at Lord’s.

I asked what was going to happen to the shop. “Offices,” they told me. I suppose it would have been pushing it to convert a plate-glass-fronted shop in a 1960s building to “luxury accommodation”, which is the usual story.

However, all is not bad news. The Beehive – the victim of a fire in 2015, and whose exterior, beneath the scaffolding, has been used as a dosser’s kip-down ever since – has reopened as a pub. Seeing as the other three pubs within walking distance have closed, this is something of a miracle. It was never my favourite of the pubs in the neighbourhood but beggars can’t be choosers. I think I’ll pop over there in my spiffing overcoat and Dior tie and see if I can make any new friends.

This article appears in the 18 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era