Piccadilly Circus is at the throbbing heart of London and for years visitors have crowded under the statue of Eros, which was originally designed as an angel of mercy but later named after the god of love with his devastating arrows.
It was set up in 1892 to commemorate a famous Victorian philanthropist, the Earl of Shaftesbury. In those enlightened days the rich and privileged built art galleries and libraries, set up foundations and contributed other public works rather than stashing all their money in offshore accounts to avoid tax as they do now.
Originally a part of a master plan for Regent Street by the architect Nash, Piccadilly Circus has declined into a shopping and entertainment hell, full of flashing neon signs, nightclubs, cinemas and pubs. I did however enjoy a great play here a few months back – The 39 Steps.
Apart from the more recent vulgarity of this part of London, however, the nearby Albany is a reminder that Eros is the ruling deity here.
Albany is a set of rather exclusive residential chambers 200 yards from Piccadilly Circus, set behind a discreet courtyard. Originally intended for well-heeled ‘single gentlemen’, there have been numerous famous residents here and my favourite story concerns Lady Caroline Lamb. She had a nine-month infatuation for Lord Byron and at the end of the affair disguised herself as a page boy and slipped into his private chambers in the hotel. He was out, and she wrote ‘remember me’ on the fly-leaf of one of his books.
In August 1812 Byron wrote her a poignant love letter:
‘If tears, which you saw & know I am not apt to shed, if the agitation in which I parted from you, agitation which you must have perceived through the whole of this most nervous affair, did not commence till the moment of leaving you approached, if all that I have said & done, & am still but too ready to say & do, have not sufficiently proved what my real feelings are & must be ever towards you, my love, I have no other proof to offer.
‘God knows I wish you happy, & when I quit you, or rather when you from a sense of duty to your husband quit me, you shall acknowledge the truth of what I again promise & vow, that no other in word or deed shall ever hold the place in my affection which is & shall be most sacred to you, till I am nothing.’
You don’t get devotion like that anymore…