In 1986 the small town of Otorohanga in New Zealand changed its name to Harrodsville. This was a nod to Europe's biggest department store, Harrods, but the nod was not a friendly one. On hearing that Otorohanga businessman Henry Harrod had had the audacity to name his business Harrod's Family Restaurant, then-owner of the London Harrods, Mohamed Al-Fayed, let fly with legal threats. Otorohanga's answer was to change the name of every single one of its business enterprises to Harrods — sticking up two solid gold digits to the Egyptian mogul.
The 'Harrodsville' gambit worked; Al-Fayed was made a laughing stock and the threats were dropped. But the story perhaps sums up many Londoners' perception of the department store — a louche palace for the bolshy, where money talks and the hoi polloi can go do one. Yet Harrods is a London institution too. And when it bears the motto Omnia Omnibus Ubique (All Things for All People, Everywhere), can it really be such a bad place?
The first thing to whack you around the chops as you walk in is the Egyptian Escalator. Since 1998, this meaty bit of ersatz Luxor has formed Harrods's spine. It'd be easy to shrug it off as a pricey piece of Vegas tat (a vain one at that — Al-Fayed's face is resembled in some of the busts), but that's missing the point. All looming sphinxes with headdresses aglow, pudgy pillars etched with hieroglyphics, and a slow ascent to a celestial ceiling climaxing at the Salon de Parfums — if the sense of theatre doesn't dazzle you, the accumulating cloud of Estée Lauder surely will. Once when we were here, there was an opera singer trilling from a balcony overlooking the escalator; the pure melodrama worked somehow. The escalator also apes those previous times London fell in love with Egypt — after the Battle of the Nile, and again in the 20s — and though it might be no Carreras Cigarette Factory, we're going to say it: this is one of London's great staircases. Any chance of getting one on the tube?
Treat this place as a museum or a cabinet of curiosities, and it can be a hoot.
From the escalator you can splinter off and explore 4.5 acres of retail space, over seven floors and 330 departments, each offering up its own kind of lavish loopiness. In the Millionaire Gallery — presumably called because it sells stuff for the person who has everything — Marilyn Monroe's autograph is on sale for £16,000, Gandhi's for £25,000. Further exploration around Harrods's upper decks reveals a silver plated Millennium Falcon flash drive, BB King's guitar, and a box of six Christmas crackers for £499 (the socks stuffed inside may be cashmere but they're still socks).
The madness continues in a Buckingham Palace department (relations must have thawed since Al-Fayed sold up in 2010), where there are official Palace towels and room scent. The royal connections don't stop there of course; Harrods, has not one but two memorials to Diana and Dodi. At the time, they were an eerie touch — they're still eerie now — but have melted into the fabric of the building, part of its nuts history.
Harrods is a slice of London's history in its own right; Charles William Stephens's consumerist palace was built after the previous one on this spot burned down in 1883. Though the store has almost continually been tarted up, you can still take in many original features; the glazed tiles in the food halls, the lifts with their bulbous 'up' and 'down' lights. And, unlike Selfridge's, you can explore the back staircases with their wrought iron railings — a subtler alternative to that escalator. Here's the thing: treat this place as a museum or a cabinet of curiosities, and it can be a hoot.