The day began in Cairo with the army shooting at a Muslim Brotherhood demonstration outside a barracks. The army claimed that soldiers had come under sniper fire – and that a soldier had been shot in the head. The Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, accused soldiers of shooting at a peaceful sit-in protesting former President Morsi’s ousting. It claimed 53 people were killed, including children. “The army are dogs” said a doctor in a nearby hospital which treated the injured; he claimed to have seen eleven bodies. Egypt’s interim leader Adly Mansour appealed for calm.
Mount Street Gardens in Mayfair, W1 take their name from Mount Field which, according to Westminster Council, “included Oliver’s Mount, the remains of fortifications erected during the English Civil War.” This hot afternoon the Gardens are a cool oasis. Their centre is a great Canary Island Palm. Around it men and women sit on benches, chatting to friends, reading, sunbathing. Many of the benches commemorate the close relationship between the peoples of Britain and America. ‘In Memory of Alfred Weber who made my wonderful London life possible, Beatrice Weber, California, USA’. ‘This bench given to honour the gardeners by Harry Lucas, a Texan who spent many happy hours here.’
A stone fountain, now filled in with pretty shrubs, is a ‘gift to the City of Westminster from the President of the Italian Republic’, handed over in 1987 and sponsored by ‘the Italian banks of London’. The afternoon light in the Gardens is dappled, their spirit calm and restful. ‘No Ball Games’ requests a bossy little sign planted in a flower bed. ‘Please Keep Off the Grass’ says another. There is the ‘tick tick’ of an irrigation spray. England’s civil war was long ago.
Near the top of Hill Street a butler stands framed in one of those pretty Mayfair doorways; he oversees two men fussing about a black Range Rover – one is busy polishing its bonnet, the other fiddling about in its boot. A little way down the hill a white-haired man stands on the pavement slowly smoking a cigarette. He looks wealthy, and I am reminded of that thorny question: when is the optimal time to resume smoking? Will one actually want to smoke if one gets old? When is old? The old man seems alert and thoughtful in the warm sun. Behind him, builders are gutting No. 42; its shell is crawling with men in hard hats. Two are lifting a slap of thinly sliced white marble off a flat-bed truck. Through the open doorway I can see a flight of stairs, freshly moulded plaster and the gleaming of black and chrome fixtures.
Further on, outside a superior block of flats called The Ascott a chauffeur helps an African man (Sudanese?) into a black Mercedes saloon; he has already seated the man’s wife and daughter. The chauffeur is chewing gum and smiling to hide his bad temper. A BMW in a deep shade of midnight blue, its rear windows darkened against the public gaze, glides past. Such cars are two a penny in Mayfair. Everybody goes about in them, their telephones pressed to their ears, staring grimly ahead as if great outcomes depend upon their reaching an agreed destination safely and on time.
On South Audley Street a mechanical digger is making a racket. A stone facade, with classical windows and handsome balconies, is all that remains of a handsome building. The facade is held up by steel girders and behind it is a great empty space, sitting hugger-mugger with The Dorchester and crying out for development. A temporary wall is high enough to prevent further inspection. Here, says a green plaque, lived General Pasquale Paoli, who ‘fought tirelessly for Corsican independence’ and hated France. At No. 72, according to a blue plaque, lived Charles X, the exiled Bourbon King, and another enemy of the First Republic. The building’s current purpose is unclear.
I am looking for the Egyptian Embassy, and I find it around the corner on sunny South Street, an Egyptian tricolour drooping over the main entrance. Had Cairo’s unrest spread to London’s size-able Egyptian diaspora? The street is almost deserted. A single policeman stands guard opposite, wearing a peaked hat and a stab proof vest. He stands very still. Behind him is a neat pile of crowd control barriers, anticipating a crowd that is yet to gather. The Embassy – a modest sized building facing north – shows no sign of disturbance, the top floor windows are open to the breeze. No one enters or leaves. There is no sign of occupation.