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On this week's virtual ramble across the capital, Diary meets cat burglar Peter Scott, conman 'Bang Bang Charlie' and Peter Pan creator JM Barrie

01 May, 2020 — By The Xtra Diary

Sophia Loren became one of Peter Scott’s many famous victims as she worked on Peter Sellers film The Millionairess

OFF we go again! Keep up, keep up!

As regular perusers of this column will by now know, we’re on a virtual foot-padding tour of Westminster, a gander through deserted streets from the comfort of our easy chairs, reminding ourselves of why this great, silent city is the best in the world.

We finished up last week in Albemarle Street, so from here let’s head a tad north a couple of blocks and stop in Bruton Street, the former home of the celebrated Lefevre Gallery, which sadly closed its doors in 2002, citing too much competition from auction houses.

Set up in the 1920s by well-connected dealers Alex Reid and Ernest Lefevre, it was the place to go for Impressionism and Modern Art during those heady times. Reid had lodged with Van Gogh during a spell in Paris, and the list of those who displayed shows his impressive contacts: Matisse, Renoir, Cezanne, Dali, Bacon, Degas – and Picasso.

And it was from the Bruton Street Gallery that Picasso’s Tête de Femme was pinched in 1997 and led the famous cat burglar Peter Scott to have a day in the Snaresbrook Crown Court dock.

Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens. Photo: Chmee2

Scott’s career was impressive: he was known for his athletic daring and his penchant for pilfering the jewellery boxes of the wealthy. He once stole a £200,000 necklace from Sophia Loren as she worked on the Peter Sellers film The Millionairess; Lauren Bacall, Zsa Zsa Gabor and the Shah of Iran were also victims. He said those who he stole from were the “real meaty jugular vein of society”, but also sometimes came away empty-handed. After raiding the homes of Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor and Shirley Bassey, he complained they “didn’t own anything worth stealing”. He’d been straight for years when his collar was felt for the Picasso heist, having worked as a gardener at a King’s Cross church.

At his trial, he claimed he was just a go-between for the real culprits and a buyer, before changing his plea after being caught in a sting operation where he was found with a carrier bag full of cash.

Now, to Curzon Street, which reminds us of another old ’un on the wrong side of the law – Charles Curzon. A conman who earned 579 convictions, he was nicked for armed robbery aged 72. He lifted £271,000 over a 10-year period and became known as “Bang Bang Charlie”.

With a love for well-cut suits, he was described as an old rogue by the press – a moniker he hated. “I am a successful effing bank robber,” he retorted.

In 2000, he was asked by a reporter if he had any remorse for the scare he had given those he waved a gun at. He replied: “Some may have been mentally harmed, but there you go. Plenty of quacks around to sort them out.”

Marble Arch

Stroll to the bottom of Curzon Street, swing right and you’ll soon find yourself in Marble Arch. It is a regularly repeated urban myth this is London’s smallest police station – though it was used by the Old Bill as “accommodation for six single men” in the 1800s. It was during this time the phrase “if you ever want to know the time, ask a policeman” was coined. It has nothing to do with coppers being reliable – in fact, exactly the opposite. In the mid-Victorian period they were renowned for hassling street drunks, and as they did so, skilfully filching their pocket or wrist watches.

We’ve not headed westward much on our weekly journeys, so let’s go along the Bayswater Road.

Its name dates from at least the 1300s, and was originally called Bayard’s Watering Place – which suggests thirst-slaking ponds for horses.

Bayard is the name of a nag that stars in an ancient French “chansons de geste” (folkish songs that tell of derring-do). According to the songs, Bayard could speak French and would change size to suit the number of riders it wished to carry. Owned by the four sons of Duke Aymon, it could take the siblings about the place, and was a present from their magic cousin, Maugris.

The poor brothers are forced to hand the horse over to Charlemagne, who then weighed it down with rocks and bunged it in a river. But Bayard was having none of it. He smashed the stones with his hooves and escaped into woods to live happily ever after.

Let us look, from Bayard’s road, into Kensington Gardens and admire the Victorian-built Italian gardens, complete with fountains. It is here JM Barrie would stroll and create amusing tales, one of which was Peter Pan.

You cannot, I am afraid, jump into their cooling waters (unlike Colin Firth and Hugh Grant, who use it for a punch-up in the film of Bridget Jones’s Diary), but to refresh ourselves and feel like kids again, we can spin a short skip northwards to Porchester Baths in Porchester Road.

Here, we shall involve in a touch of “schmeissing”, a lovely Yiddish word that describes stripping off and getting thwacked about the torso in a steamy room with a raffia “besom”.

The ornate Turkish Baths were built in 1923 by the architect Herbert Shepherd. Schmeissing was introduced to Londoners by East End Jewish immigrants and continues there today.

It makes the skin tingle and the pores sweat – a great way to live a long and happy life, according to regulars.

It is also good for the libido as you get older, they claim – though one frequenter, when telling friends sex now lasted an hour and 20 minutes, admitted under cross-examination that it included 19 minutes of prep work and an hour to sleep afterwards.

And on that note, we wish you a safe and rested week.

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