A few months after Freddie Mercury died, my mother took me and my brother to his house in Logan Place, Holland Park, to pay our respects. The Edwardian mansion, built in 1908 for the painter Cecil Rae and his sculptor wife Constance Halford, stands behind a high wall which reveals nothing of what’s inside. At that point, in the early 1990s, the wall was covered in graffiti, much of it from Italian and Spanish Queen fans. In the years after Mercury died, at least in my experience as a teenager, Queen weren’t in the conversation much despite their huge commercial presence and obsessive fanbase. A subtle but undeniable arm’s-length policy hung around them, the legacy of a far less subtle antipathy in the British music press and years of tabloid homophobia. Up there, amid the ivy, was the small bathroom window through which the Sun trained a long-lens camera while Mercury was dying. This mews was where paparazzi camped out, 24 hours a day, till 24 November 1991.
Mercury lived at Garden Lodge with his cook, Joe Fanelli, and his gardener, Jim Hutton, who was also his final partner – the former died of Aids, the latter lived with HIV until his death from cancer at 60. By the time I stood outside the house at the age of 13, the person living inside was Mary Austin, his best friend and first love, to whom Mercury had left everything. Soon the graffiti was scrubbed off and the wall covered in plexiglas: a process she repeated again and again down the years. It didn’t seem like a generous gesture at the time, but you suppose the graffiti was just another intrusion. You pictured her in there in the subsequent three decades, Havisham-like, among his things – the huge collection of Lalique glass, the Matisse prints, the catsuits. Now she has decided to sell them all off in one go. By way of explanation, Austin, a woman of few words, simply says, “It’s time.”