The Flair and The Spirit
Our Mayfair denizen, surrounded by ongoing work as developers stake their claims around him, ponders the unquenchable flair of Bohemianism and spirit of the individual
Column by Guy Shepherd
Watching the fabulous Victoria Coren Mitchell in the closing episode of her series about the Bohemians recently, I was struck by many of the questions she posed in conclusion and it set my mind thinking about the relative relations between individuality, expressionism and the places we celebrate them. I have long waxed lyrical about the death of Bohemia in our little microcosm here in Shepherd Market, a bastion of ill behaviour and two fingers to the establishment for so very long but now rapidly becoming neutered by property prices and the big brand takeover. Creatives flee in droves. I was not surprised, but nevertheless saddened, by her retrospective about the artistic types that now just haunt Soho as the same monster manifests its selfish head and greedy body there too.
But I grumble when Bohemia and Establishment have already coexisted in name for a couple of hundred years and in spirit for thousands. Surely our celebration just morphs and moves? My Mayfair street groans with building trucks and empty units but the spirit of insouciance continues inside our boutique as we turn our backs on that horror and transform the space from traditional goldfish bowl shop to private salon for those in the know. It is also during these summer months that we burst forth beyond our working environs and scream our individuality on holidays and by attending festivals. Whether tyres at Goodwood, bridles at Ascot, oars at Henley or notes at Bestival, there is an event tailored to each of our acute senses of liberty and personal taste.
Sometimes beautiful individuality can shine forth despite the regimental tradition and fixed framework of some long standing institutions. The most exciting example, that I have twice attended, is the Fiesta de San Fermin in Pamplona. Take many thousands of people, dress them identically in white, with splashes of red around neck and waist, then release a stampede of bulls through the narrow streets and laugh or cry at the ensuing carnage. It is a matter of intense pride for the local Basques to rise early in the morning and be able to report back to their village a few hours later having sprinted sufficiently close to the taurine juggernaut to whack the animal on the nose with the local rag, the ‘Diario de Navarra’.
The same paper is also testimony to the hospital injuries (and deaths…) that are sustained on the day before. Spanish names are rare but comments such as, “It is with Honour that I lie here today. This year the bull triumphed. Next year, he will not”, are typical. The rest of the list consists mainly of Antipodeans, with a smattering of North Americans and Europeans. Bruce from Darwin is a more likely contender to report in these pages with a comment like, “I was skull drunk, having not been to bed, I was seeing double so just dodged the wrong bull.” Bohemians and bulls don’t mix terribly well but my own pride was swollen by a friend’s successful attempt, despite a pinned leg after a motorbike accident, to swot the beast with our own nation’s newspaper that he had brought along especially. Or in his own words, “I bashed the blighter on the beak with my Torygraph”.
I know not whether it has changed but, after three visits some fifteen years ago, the most perfect expression of individuality for me en masse was the Burning Man festival. Situated on a gigantic salt flat desert in Nevada, it is an almost entirely non-commercial event (you could buy coffee and ice only). One must be entirely self-sufficient with food and drink to survive a week in one of the most naturally inhospitable places on our planet. Or you trade. For my part in commerce, I took a tiny bag of diamond chips, offcuts from the cutting process, which I swopped for tequila daiquiris in bars that sprayed a fine mist over the gyrating dancers in the sweltering midday sun. What a fabulous collection of far thinking souls I met, year on year.
Never in my life have I continuously experienced such wonderful and original passion for art and excitement than on the “Playa”, as this seemingly limitless beach is named. Projects and camps can cost individuals or groups enormous sums of money and take months to prepare, transport to the desert and assemble. And this art, whether others or your own, is there for a week and then the site is destroyed, packed away to leave absolutely no trace (the ticket price goes towards this commitment to the nature reserve, along with the day to day hygiene amenities during the event). And what art. What expression of individuality. What utter Bohemianism. Words cannot express my emotions experienced when first inspecting the intricate carvings of a sixty foot high temple then, sobbing into the arms of new friends, as I watched it burn to the ground in a matter of minutes on the final night. The beauty of this nihilist attitude will be etched onto my brain for eternity whilst the reality had just lasted days. Incredible.
I did once brave the Behemoth that is Glastonbury. I know many friends and clients (please don’t take our jewellery) love to attend but, I’m afraid, my own experience was resolutely disappointing for two reasons. Firstly, I felt that I was a pawn in a huge commercial machine, being told and pushed in a conveyor belt of conformity towards the popular band of the moment. There was no revolution there for me. The second reason was the rain. OK, I admit, turning up to and leaving a quagmire on a 900cc two wheeled piece of Italian exotica was one of my stupider moments. Thinking that motorcycle boots and leathers would be sufficient protection against the elements was another. Not bringing a tent was a third. Thinking that Bohemian excess was a viable solution was indeed one more. Being trampled into the mud at the Blur crescendo was a further low point. The only ‘high’ was awakening in the morning. The previous night, my friend and I had very cleverly found a compound that contained a stack of brand new concrete drains and had crawled inside to sleep. We were greeted, far too early the following morning, by approximately 50 police officers who offered congratulations for our ingenuity, plus our total lack of respect due to our successful invasion of their site headquarters, before they moved us on.
Guy Shepherd is contributing writer and Sales Director at Mayfair jewellers Guy and Max.