On a UK Monopoly Board, Piccadilly is the sixth most expensive property at a whopping £280.00 and bears the colour yellow. To build a Monopoly hotel on the site will set you back £1,200.00. In reality, Piccadilly is a busy, multi-lane thoroughfare in London’s West End, running from Hyde Park Corner past Green Park to Piccadilly Circus. It’s home to the Hard Rock Café, The Ritz and the Royal Academy. Piccadilly is where Russian spy, Alexander Litvenenko visited a branch of Itsu just after he was poisoned by polonium, a deadly radioactive substance, in a modern-day Cold War power struggle. It’s where to browse through book stacks at the amply-stocked bookstores of Hatchard’s and Waterstone’s, ogle gourmet delights at Fortnum and Mason and Caviar House or refuel at The Wolseley, where weekend brunch tables are a hot ticket. With such esteemed neighbours, both historic and present, it’s no surprise that Piccadilly is where the French hotel chain, Le Méridien, decided to install their landmark London hotel – a stone’s throw from Eros and the Circus’s famed flashing signs. It has now resided at the Regency property of number 21 Piccadilly for a sound twenty-six years, since 1986, in a purpose-built building that first housed The Piccadilly Hotel in 1908 and Masonic temples in its basement.
I’m ashamed to admit that Le Méridien on Piccadilly is a place I must have passed thousands of times yet never once entered and I cannot fathom why. This has recently been rectified; not only have I now entered Le Méridien Piccadilly, I’ve also luxuriated in its underground swimming pool and snored soundly in one of its gigantic beds, oblivious to the busy West End traffic artery located mere feet from my head.
My recent stay at Le Méridien has also educated me in their all-pervading approach to art. The arrival art is what a guest encounters first. As part of Le Méridien’s re-branding at the hand of the Starwood Hotels and Resorts group since they took ownership of the chain in 2005, art has been incorporated into all areas of the guest experience, starting the moment you walk through the door. Before I’d even reached the check-in desk I’d already noted a display of limited edition umbrellas by designer Duro Olowu, with snazzy geometric prints that any connoisseur would be happy to shelter beneath in a London rainstorm.
Even the lowly key card has been welcomed into the LM artistic experience. My card, a work of art in its own right, sported part of a Yan Lei Colour Wheel, its design being part of the LM Unlock Art incentive: not only does the key card open your door it forms part of a collection by a contemporary artist. The current featured artist at LM Piccadilly is Langfang-born Yan Lei, a member of the LM100, the collective comprising 100 influencers who contribute to the LM experience, through their expertise across a wide selection of the arts, from art and design to cuisine and perfumery. Some of the previous Unlock Art card collections, by fellow LM100 members, Hisham Bharoocha and Sam Samore, hang in frames by the lifts, but form and function are only two facets to the LM key cards; they also provide free access to Tate Britain and Tate Modern exhibitions – all you have to do is tell the concierge which Tate exhibitions you’d like to attend so he can arrange access for you, then just flash your key card when you get there, unlocking a local cultural experience for free.
Yan Lei’s Colour Wheel paintings hang in the Piccadilly lobby, the bespoke carpets underfoot are awash with lines, thoughtfully reflecting the inspiration for the company’s name – the meridian lines which criss-cross the globe, and in the ground floor internet den the shelves are set with contemporary ceramics, smart and stark against a dark background. There’s a video installation, created especially for Le Méridien, playing on a loop behind the Guest Relations desk and, on your way to the Longitude Bar, you’ll pass an elegant series of black and white portraits of the people responsible for the overall artistic experience that a guest will enjoy at Le Méridien – the LM100. As for that subtle aroma wafting through the lobby? That’s the signature Le Méridien scented candle, LM01, created by more members of the LM100 clan, Fabrice Penot and Edouard Roschi. It’s a unique blend of frankincense, iris absolute and musk with cedar notes, gently adding to the sensory welcome so carefully constructed with a guest’s first impressions in mind.
The final and possibly most important part of Le Méridien’s atmosphere is the human component. In my time at the hotel I truly appreciated the comportment of the staff. From greeting to leaving, there was always a smile, a courteous hand, nothing too much trouble. Lift doors were held open without asking, a troublesome door catch dealt with immediately by not one but three kind and patient staff, an unusual breakfast order delivered on-time, without issue, a forgotten toothbrush taken care of, taxi doors opened and closed, a myriad small kindnesses. Whomever I spoke with on the staff seemed to genuinely care that I had a positive experience of Le Méridien Piccadilly. That’s what I call the Art of Hospitality, and in the travel environment it’s absolutely priceless.
(Image courtesy of Toonpool)
London’s Hammersmith, where I work, is full of what some might call ‘colourful’ characters. There’s the evangelist who shouts “are you a SINNER or are you a WINNER?” through a loudspeaker at lunchtime, the He-She who bums cigarettes off anyone who hasn’t yet encountered him/her, scoring a big, fat FAIL from those who have, plenty of teenagers with prams and pushchairs (they’re not babysitting), and your fair share of people of working age who do everything but between the hours of 9 and 5.
Most of the time, it’s okay working around here, but sometimes I really do wish I could transport my entire office to a quieter part of town. Take last week, for instance. I was having a typically busy time at work so I popped down to a local deli to pick up a salad box to munch at my desk. “Back in five!” I called to my boss. Little did I realise how optimistic that was.
As I was chatting away to the deli girls, a couple of cars screeched to a halt in true Dukes of Hazzard style across from the shop, their occupants jumping out and breaking into immediate violence. Shouting ensued, attracting our attention away from food (not so easy) and onto a couple of women laying punches into a third who’d been pushed off her feet. Had speech bubbles been hanging in the air around the trio, they would have read “Kapow!” “Whallop!” “Bang!” “Crack!”. Please note: these were NOT teenagers in some petty brawl, rather grown women of some proportion who were apparently quite skilled in the art of beating each other to a pulp.
As one of the deli girls called the police, we locked ourselves in, just in case the thugs ended up punching each other so hard that they landed on our side of the street. They didn’t, thankfully, but we stood, mouths agape, as a valiant passerby attempted to stop the fight, only to have the girl with the strong left upper cut round on him. The poor chap backed off from an unrelenting torrent of verbal abuse until the three women went back in the ring, so to speak, hurling one practised punch after another.
Next, the burly men from the two cars joined the dispute, punching each other, trying to drag the women off each other, then punching the women. That wasn’t enough for one of the guys, who marched up to his chief opponent’s car, punching the windscreen so hard that it shattered. Meanwhile, the singled-out woman was being dragged along the ground by her hair by the two other women, so hard that her trousers were pulled down by her weight. A flash of wobbly, white butt later, she was back on her feet, pulling up her trousers with one hand as she jabbed the air with the other in a continuation of her display of temper at all the others, both men and women.
At this point community officers had appeared in force, encouraging the men to retreat to their cars in an attempt to drive away, but the officers stood in front of the cars to stop them, in spite of the fact that they could easily have become road kill. Then the real police arrived, cuffing the men, one of whom had had his wife-beater vest ripped apart at the shoulder, revealing a very unattractive whale of a belly. These fighting folk were definitely not English; Albanian sprang to mind, as their reputation for domestic and other violence is renowned throughout Europe, but I couldn’t be certain. All I knew was that whatever it was they were shouting sounded Eastern European and one of the deli girls who’s Polish said it definitely wasn’t a language with which she was familiar.
In the deli, we stood glued to the scene outside. Had teeth flown across the street and struck the window, we’d hardly have been surprised, such was the violence playing out before us. In spite of police intervention, the woman who’d been dragged along the footpath was now trying to punch one of the men, the police struggling to hold her back. Sirens wailed, announcing the arrival of yet more uniforms. Before long, the group was under control. Ish. But still I hung back for a couple of minutes, just in case it all kicked off again.
Once back outside I could see that crowds had gathered to watch the unfolding of this real-life drama. Overhearing one bystander tell another that the argument concerned a watch, I hesitated, keen to find out more.
“Yeah, the guys were all shouting something about a watch,” he explained, eyes wide.
“A watch? What, in English?” Now I was confused.
“ No, not in English. Someone over there understood what they were shouting about and said it was a watch.”
Ah, a classic case of Chinese whispers. Unconvinced, I turned away.
“This is what happens when we open our doors to other nationalities,” said another man, stood in my path, nodding wildly,
“You wouldn’t see this on the streets of London if it weren’t for filthy immigrants like that!” he continued, gesturing at The Punch Bunch now being cuffed by police, forgetting that plenty of local crime is committed by born-and-bred Londoners. Just a couple of years back, a sixteen year old was stabbed to death in broad daylight, just down the street from our office, his youngest killers a mere 13 years old. They were Londoners. So were the Krays. Oh, yes, this Ranting Ronnie was doubtless a living, breathing member of the BNP, physical proof that such right-wing opinion is growing in this country. Lips firmly sealed, lest he twig my accent and tell me to go back to wherever it was I came from, I slunk away from the man, leaving two police cars, one police van and a lot of uniforms to get Mr BNP’s so-called filth off to the clink.
The whole episode made me shaky. Back in the safety of the office, I recounted the drama to my colleagues.
“Could’ve been Albanian,” commented one, “I knew a woman who was married to an Albanian once. He used to beat her all the time. Her kids were taken into care and then, years later, I bumped into her. ‘How’s your husband?’ I asked, wondering if she’d seen the light and moved on. ‘In a word? Dead,’she told me, ‘His uncle shot him.’ “
As it turns out, The Punch Bunch were all related, so what we’d witnessed on the streets of Sunny Hammersmith was the latest episode of a long-standing family feud. I can only imagine the amount of polyfilla stuffed into cracks in their walls at home, or how many gummy gaps they display when smiling. For a few days after the brawl, I found myself checking the footpath for leftover clumps of torn-out hair. After all, it’s not every day that you see a woman being dragged along the street by her long, black tresses. I’m only grateful to have escaped being born into a family like that, if you can call it a family…