Thirty Thousand Streets

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Johnny Wilderness

I introduced you to Johnny Wilderness - real name Johnny Silverstein - last year. Founding member of The Awkward Squad. You remember the one. Johnny’s super-wealthy father - known in the red-top press as the Merchant Prince, on account of the rags-to-riches story of his going from door-to-door salesmen to multi-millionaire business tycoon with a majority share in a number of the world’s largest accountancy firms - had been engaged in a very specific real estate project since the late 50s. Every time one of the terraces (what Americans call rowhouses) became available on Pericles Road in West Hamsptead, just around the corner from my new digs on Shoot Up Hill, he bought it.

In 99 Silverstein Senior died, and Johnny Wilderness took over the project. I don’t know how much Johnny got his immaculately-manicured hands on, but Zoe reckons it ran into 8 figures.

A couple of months later, the last of the houses on Pericles Road went on the market at a cool £900K, and the estate agent knew not to bother phoning anyone else. Johnny made an offer that very afternoon at 15% above asking price. Three weeks later he’d exchanged contracts. He now owned the entire row - 24 individual Edwardian terraces running south from Mill Lane. He celebrated by opening a bottle of Krug Clos Du Menil 1995 with an 18th century Prussian cavalry sabre, and injecting a small quantity of heroin directly into the tearduct of his left eye.

Next morning he took a shower, swallowed a raw egg and called architects Gallant, Kobiyashi and Flük. The project, conceived four decades earlier by his father, was to knock the terraces together - take out the walls that divided them from one another, and the ceilings, and create one vast room, curving almost 150 meters along the west side of the road. It was an insanely difficult thing to do. Supporting columns had to be placed at stress points to prevent the ceilings from simply caving in. The logistics almost drove Kobiyashi insane, and Flük took over, bringing a dispassionate Scandinavian eye to the project. Windows and doors were left in place, and the individual terraces had their own colour schemes for guttering and front door. Indeed, the facades and the gardens were left in different stages of maintenance and repair, to give the impression from the outside, to the casual observer, that the houses were still discrete, individually-owned and -inhabited units.

It took the best part of a year, and a substantial proportion of the funds Johnny had at his disposal to acomplish it, but accomplish it he did. Pericles Parties in the long, curving corridor became legendary. But the real pay-off for Johnny - the culmination of his dad’s plan - was when door-to-door salesmen called. As I said, that was how Silverstein senior had started life, humping a suitcase full of bow ties, monkey wrenches, teddy bears and alarm clocks from street to street in North West London in the late forties as an austere sun sunk behind the roof tiles. There was a legend amongst the street hawkers back then that if you got a sale at every one of two dozen doors in a row, the company would pension you off to salesman heaven. Impossible? At any rate, no-one had ever managed to pull it off.

But now, almost sixty years later, if your beat happened to be the west side of Pericles Street, NW6, something wonderful might happen. If Johnny was in, and not too wasted, he’d answer your knock at number 1. You’d make your pitch to this lantern-jawed toff, who’d wink at you and rummage in the pockets of his Armani suit trousers for his wallet. First sale of the day, you’d smile to yourself. And you’d march out of the front garden, and try the next house along.

Johnny would answer that door too.

It only worked a couple of times, of course, before word started getting around and every salesman in London beat a path to NW6. But I saw him do it, one of the early ones, before anyone had clocked what was going on, and it was lovely to be there at the punchline of a joke that had been building for forty years. Just a shame the old man never got to see it.


comes_out_in_the_wash said...


The Eyechild said...

Thank you for your kind words, sir!