OPINION: Marble Arch M&S saved from an act of self-harm

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OPINION: Marble Arch M&S saved from an act of self-harm

This is not just M&S; this is Oxford Street M&S: Alex Brummer reflects on the community's affection for the flagship West End store.

Alex Brummer is a Jewish News columnist and the City Editor, Daily Mail

M&S Oxford Street
M&S Oxford Street

The beating heart of London’s Jewish community may be moving ever further north to the pastoral idyllic of Hertfordshire, but its soul remains firmly rooted in the West End. 

It is the home to two great cathedral shuls. There is Western MarbleArch with its magnificent stained glass windows and vibrant morning minyan. And, just a few hundred yards away the West London Synagogue, the oldest Reform congregation in the UK, with its splendid 19th-century rococo interior.

There is much more than buildings and lively communities. Edgware Road nearby is now populated by Middle-Eastern cafes and restaurants. But not far away from the Marble Arch, remnants of the commercial Jewish West End and Mayfair stand proud. Among them The Arch, the insiders’ name for the flagship Marks & Spencer store on Oxford Street.

Alex Brummer

On Mount Street in Mayfair sits Scott’s restaurant with a heritage traced back to 1840. These days it is now a hang-out for celebrities. It was outside Scott’s in 2014 that Charles Saatchi and Nigella Lawson had an infamous spat which made it to the tabloids.

Scott’s, famous for its fish and Dover sole in particular, was the favourite meeting place of the property magnates who rebuilt post-war London.

My father-in-law, the late Saul L Magrill, worked nearby before and after RAF service at commercial agents Dudley Samuel. He recalled, on one occasion, being asked by his senior partner to sack Harry Hyams, who went on to develop Centrepoint.

As a young financial journalist I remember joining one of the powers behind British Land (BL), the late Cyril Metliss for luncheon. The atmosphere crackled with deal-making. It was in and around Mayfair %+that bombsites of 1950s and 1960s London were turned into today’s real estate gems by men such as British Land developer Sir John Riblat, Harold Samuel, the founder of Land Securities, and property magnate Sir Charles Clore.

Less elegant than Scott’s was the Lyon’s Corner House at Marble Arch, no longer there, but a favourite of my parents for its chocolate meringues. My grandmother Rachel Lyons was able to claim a family connection to the name over the door.

When Rabbi Daniel Epstein and his wife Ilana moved to Western Marble Arch from north London, among the first pictures they posted was of a visit to Selfridges just down the road. They sampled some of the chocolates on display: kosher of course. At one stage Selfridges was the jewel in the crown of Clore’s shoe and property empire.

Selfridges sits adjacent to that other great monument to Jewish enterprise, the historic Marble Arch store of Marks & Spencer – fabled throughout the world.

It is the automatic starting place for shoppers from the USA and Israel.

It has a special place of affection in the Anglo-Jewish community. The first shares likely to be brought by any family were in M&S. The firm has the largest number of private shareholders on its register of any non-privatised UK company.

What happens at M&S is of enormous interest. Of importance around the Friday night table are its Israeli produce, changes in the lingerie department, quality of the chopped herring as well as the recovering share price.

The current management of Archie Norman and Stuart Machin have been campaigning to demolish the Marble Arch store and put up a modern, sustainable glass and steel edifice in its place. Fortunately, that friend of the Jewish community, Michael Gove, has come to the rescue and says it must be saved. Machin has issued a veiled threat to close the store altogether.

As a landmark on Oxford Street, adjacent to the luxury venue of Selfridges, that would be an act of self-harm. The carbon footprint of demolition and rebuilding would in the end be greater than the alternative of a full refurbishment. In 2004, M&S regiments of private shareholders stood up and revolted against a takeover by Topshop retailer Sir Philip Green, fearing the character of the group might be forever altered.

Once again these private investors need to be heard. The Marble Arch M&S is part of the fabric of the Jewish contribution to the West End. It is too important to be sacrificed on the altar of modernity.

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