Originally published on Blue Ant, August 31, 2015.
Victorian English literature is filled with angst about what chaos lies behind proper and unassuming exteriors. In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Marlow says Brussels always reminds him of a “whited sepulchre,” a biblical reference to hypocrisy by which things “appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.”
William Gibson’s London puts a psychedelic twist on this notion, with all manner of sinister weirdness lying in wait behind plain facades. This is most true in Cabinet, the hotel and private club that serves as home base for our heroes in Zero History.
Cabinet is “(h)alf the vertical mass of an eighteenth-century townhouse, one whose facade reminded her of the face of someone starting to fall asleep on the subway,” with the interior decor “ragingly, batshit insane.”
In Hollis Henry’s room:
The two largest pieces of furniture in the room were the bed, its massive frame covered entirely in slabs of scrimshawed walrus ivory, with the enormous, staunchly ecclesiastic-looking lower jawbone of a right whale, fastened to the wall at its head, and a birdcage, so large she might have crouched in it herself, suspended from the ceiling.
Descriptions of Cabinet are classic examples of Gibson’s rewarding prose, descriptions you can tear apart and hold in your bare hands to look at the pieces one at a time. The club is a smaller version his world, full of puzzling things that get more puzzling the closer you look at them.
Since Zero History first published, people have wondered whether Cabinet is real, as places in Gibson’s fiction sometimes are, and this one even described with close to an address, in Portman Square.
Readers suspected an odd club close to thereabouts in London, and Gibson confirmed in a Twitter exchange that it’s “obliquely” based on Home House Private Members Club (all photos except the last two are from Home House).
Home House is described in the membership materials as “London’s most exclusive private members’ club, fusing 18th century splendor with 21st century style.” Before you get too worked up, it’s not quite as bonkers as Cabinet, but it is extremely ornate and each room is uniquely designed, including multiple bars, restaurants, lounges, and private rooms.
The club is more expansive than Cabinet, too, encompassing three units, Nos. 19, 20, and 21 Portman Square. The building originates in 1773, when Elizabeth, countess of Home, commissioned famed neoclassical architect James Wyatt, who was later fired and replaced by rival Robert Adam. It’s considered one of the greatest surviving townhouses of Adam’s with its grand reception rooms and stunning central staircase spanning the height of the building.
Over the years it was owned by various royals, and was home to an institute of art for about 60 years. After being vacant for most of the 90s, a group of investors bought and restored it to its current state.
The restaurants and drawing rooms have their own old world charm, but the bars are stunning and kind of alien. You’ve got “The Vaults,” the late-night party rooms with animal prints and warm lighting. The House Bar has a bizarre, freestanding bar that looks like molten metal.
One phenomenon you see in Gibson’s fiction is he’ll get a grasp on something weird, and before long it sort of mutates and fragments. It’s that eventual, even distribution of the future. I feel like this has happened to the fever dream figment of Cabinet, with the rise of short-term, personal rentals. Consider these airbnbs, for example.
In the past five to ten years, the oddity of Cabinet has splintered into thousands of small, private clubs, in which the right online fund transfer can land you access to the inside of a castle, a clock tower, a water tower, a tree house in the redwoods, a funhouse of mirrors in Pittsburgh. There’s a cabinet of curiosities on every block.