Don’t think I haven’t noticed that people are talking about Christmas. They try to keep it quiet, but I’m not daft. In our local, The Olde Ruptured Duck, decorations started to appear weeks ago. I’ve seen things on TV, y’know: shops and what-not, each flogging their own version of seasonal perfection – a sofa that is guaranteed to arrive before the Big Day, cute little fairies that add sparkle to – well, almost anything, I should imagine – a mate for lovelorn Monty the Penguin, the cheapest way to total oblivion – and so on.
I love Christmas, I really do. And, like any other stereotypical male, I am absolutely thrilled by the prospect of Christmas shopping. Of course, simultaneously sharing that sublime retail experience with thousands of other people, each and every one of them full of peace and goodwill to all, transports me to unimaginable heights of ecstasy... So we went to Liberty’s of London.
Liberty’s of London is one of those iconic British shops, like Harrods, John Lewis and Grace Bros. It is renowned for its fabrics and floral prints, but also enjoys a reputation for the slightly exotic and individual – as its website says, “where rich heritage combines with the cutting edge and avant garde.” Rather beguilingly, it goes on to purr, “We welcome you into our eccentric, indulgent and utterly charming world and invite you to get truly lost in Liberty.” Just in case you don’t get the point, it quotes Oscar Wilde claiming that, “Liberty is the chosen resort of the artistic shopper.”
Liberty’s founder, Arthur Lasenby Liberty (1843-1917) was the son of a draper who found himself working for Farmer & Rogers’ Great Shawl & Cloak Emporium in London’s Regent Street. He was put in charge of their oriental business and decided to break out on his own. Borrowing £2,000 from his future father-in-law and with a staff of 3, in 1875 he leased half a shop at 218a Regent Street, calling it the ‘East India House’. Within 18 months, Liberty had repaid the loan and leased the other half of the shop. He was an instinctive niche retailer, growth was rapid and Liberty’s business became associated with the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements. Unfortunately, he did not live to see his fabulous new premises open on Great Marlborough Street, at the junction with Regent Street, where it remains today.
Built in mock-Tudor style, Liberty’s sticks out from the surrounding buildings like a morning suit at a football match. The timbers used in its construction came from two Royal Navy ships, HMS Impregnable, launched as HMS Howe in 1860 and the Navy’s last wooden-wall ship, and HMS Hindustan, a battleship dating back to 1841. Apparently, Liberty’s shop front along Great Marlborough Street is the same length as HMS Hindustan was – 185’. Don’t ask me why.
Inside, Liberty is as unlike every other shop in London as it is on the outside. It seems mean-spirited to call it an up-market department store, though that’s sort of what it is, offering homeware, clothing, accessories, beauty products and, of course, haberdashery and fabrics. It’s all on 5 floors, which sometimes creak alarmingly underfoot and, at the best of times, it seems to me like a cross between formal shop and bazaar, contained within an intimate wooden labyrinth. As soon as we’d made our way in for the Christmas visit, I realised that the sanctity of personal space was at risk because the place was heaving. Liberty’s fragrant staff floated across the floors, smiling encouragingly, but otherwise it looked about as serene as tank full of piranhas at snack time. English Home County blended with virtually any overseas accent you care to think of, and most of the owners could have auditioned for the First XV. Head Office and others of the gentler sex seemed to be perfectly at ease with it all, picking up things and fingering them before moving on in a kind of tackle-proof trance; but, being only 6 foot tall and around 14 stone in weight, I was slightly terrified and just a little confused. What I really needed was the Kevlar invisibility cloak - and a ball of string so that I could find my way back.
Upstairs in the Christmas shop, there seemed to be an unofficial one-way system in operation. To attempt a U-turn was hazardous – so if you missed something, you really needed to go round again. It must be enormous fun, putting together a Christmas shop – and I think most stores make a pretty good fist of it, to be fair. Liberty’s certainly do – the place glitters. I gather from reading some background to the Channel 4 documentary series, ‘Liberty of London’ - which, inexplicably, I kept missing (I think it clashed with ‘Bleak House’ in Cantonese) – that planning for it starts in January and they receive more than a ¼ million visitors from all over the world. Apparently, they stock 100,000 baubles, 3,000 fairies and 1,000 novelty dogs. Eat your heart out, Asda.
Resisting the urge to buy a gold-framed portrait of Her Majesty the Queen to hang on the Christmas tree at £15.95, or a very useful almost man-sized stuffed toy polar bear for £995, we settled for a bauble that reminded me of a Fabergé egg. On the way down, we had to inspect the world-famous fabrics. I spotted a dress mannequin covered with a bright, floral, design; the price-tag was £1,300 – I suppose one can’t just drag a peasant in from the estate anymore, and hang things on them all day.
For much, much, more information, visit Liberty of London via their website – and don’t forget to tell them you believe in Santa Claus. By the way, does anyone remember Farmer & Rogers?