Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective was busy sleuthing in the era between the First and Second World Wars, a refugee in an age of indulgence for privileged high society. A time when travel was glamorous: trains were fitted out in rosewood and smart upholstery; ocean liners were glorious symbols of modern technology, influencing everything from architecture to sculpture with their streamlined forms, sexy curves, mirrored glass and gilt. Winter cruises to warmer climes were popular, a tan became a status symbol and the exoticism of the world beyond one’s doorstep had an irresistible draw for those with the time, money and inclination to explore it.
Thus, the settings of Poirot’s murder mysteries tended towards idyllic English country estates and the historic routes of the Grand Tour via atmospherically augmented London. It was a time when one always dressed for dinner and men who wore waistcoats and watch chains stood when a lady joined the table. Hotel lounges were the height of sophistication for cocktails, and tea was served in delicate china. Lipstick was determinedly red, evening gowns were sensuous and by Schiaparelli and Vionnet, fur was de rigueur and furnishings were louche and luxurious. In short, the stuff of my dreams.
In particular, I love to muse on the elegance of old-fashioned train travel. The symbolism of steam. Restaurant cars. Proper luggage. Porters. Hats and gloves. Beautiful shoes. Travelling slowly. Paper tickets and leather-clad passports. Hence my absolute joy at last year’s Louis Vuitton AW12 show: my reveries made real with a wardrobe to match. One day I shall dress accordingly and take the Orient Express to Istanbul, then stay at the Pera Palace hotel, which I first visited about a decade ago. Then it was the height of faded grandeur, all shafts of sunlight illuminating the dust within the grand hall. Its history was palpable, its walls resonant with memories. It’s been renovated now though, and I hope it hasn’t changed too much. If the train can survive a murder mystery, I sincerely hope the hotel can aspire to more than modernisation.
You see, for me, that’s the downside of modernity, with its unrelenting stampede towards the constantly updated new: on the one hand, the built-in obsolescence that is so prevalent in products today; and on the other, the loss of romance, a word that no longer connotes the magnificence it deserves. Instead, the news incessantly shrieks of death, anger and destruction; there is a seeming global preoccupation with speed and selfishness over mindfulness; commuters huff and puff when platform indicators declare a one-minute delay, and yet no-one has time to stop and smell the roses. And this is what Poirot represents to me: a temporary escape into another more beautiful world where politesse is applauded, appropriateness revered, and an acute observation of the details of life respected. I watch and learn, for Christie has much to teach us beyond how to do away with inconvenient others.
First published in June 2013 ELLE Decoration UK