Conspicuous and Inconspicuous Consumption

The Holborn Restaurant, circa 1890. Photo from ‘Decadent London’ by Antony Clayton.

ERNEST: ‘What would you like most in the world?’
MARTHE: ‘I want nothing more than to eat a fine dinner with fine people at a brightly-lighted restaurant’.
An exchange between impoverished bohemians marooned in Catford, circa 1900.

‘Jesus, who are these people?’
A Master of Wine commenting on the wines drunk by ‘The Barclays Five’ at Petrus in 2001.

There is a story doing the rounds and it goes like this:

It is a lovely evening in spring and we are in a fine London restaurant. At our elevation we can see all of London and all the surrounding counties through the panoramic plate glass window. An attractive young couple are being shown to their table, its place settings flecked with gold from the sun that is setting somewhere beyond Reading. You might not know it to look at them but they are on a first date. The young woman is excited and a bit nervous. They have already had a couple of drinks at the bar. She is in a celebratory mood and offers to buy the wine to go with dinner. She has just passed her medical exams, she has qualified to be a doctor. ‘Let’s push the boat out!’ she says. She studies the wine list. She studies it without her reading glasses. She leaves her glasses in her bag because she is on a date.

Cut to later on: the meal is drawing to its close. The romantic tenor of the evening is still in play and the food and drink have been superb. The bill arrives. There is some confusion. Queries are raised, the wine list is fetched, reading glasses are retrieved from a handbag, the maitre’d telephones the manager … Those three bottles of wine, the ones costing £500 a time (‘the wine’s on me, I’m celebrating!’), they are five thousand pounds each. The junior doctor has arranged a repayment plan with the restaurant, gradually paying back the fifteen grand (plus interest) she accidentally dropped on her big night out. And she has not seen that Tinder date since.

It’s not true of course – and I say that as one who was taken in by this story and contributed to its spread. In my defence I should say that this story is, like many urban myths, superficially plausible because it draws on a kernel of truth that reflects the tenor of the time. So today we are looking at the phenomenon of necking statement wines (or, if you like stunt wines) as a form of celebration or display. The quote at the top was the reaction of a wine expert to the list of vintages consumed by one table in a London restaurant over the course of a single evening in July 2001. The restaurant was Gordon Ramsey’s Petrus, 33 St. James’s Street, the party was a group of six investment bankers celebrating their bonuses, and this what they drank:

1 x Petrus de Pomerol 1947 @ £12,300
1 x Petrus de Pomerol 1945 @ £11,600
1 x Petrus de Pomerol 1946 @ £9,600
1 x Chateau d’Yquem 1900 @ £9,200
1 x Montrachet 1982 @ £1,400
… & a few Kronenbourgs @ £7 (that’s when the Master of Wine lost it).

The total came to £44,007 (Ramsey gave them the food for free, that saved them £400). I wonder if they noticed what the wines tasted like, or if they even bothered to finish drinking them. The vintages in question are, in fact, considered to be ‘the finest wines available to humanity’, and are of incomparable depth, complexity and intensity. But, obviously, the actual content of the bottles was irrelevant: it was their price tags that mattered. The aim was to splurge cold, conspicuous cash on the rarest and most evanescent of commodities. This kind of thing makes a nonsense of the idea of fine anything; it’s like the decadence of Carthage in Flaubert’s Salammbo, the nihilistic super-consumerism of Terry Southern’s The Magic Christian, or Terry Jones’s Mr. Kreosote. It’s hosting a paintball party in a medieval barn – or buying a vintage Bentley for use as a dune buggy.

The late, great Terry Jones as Mr. Kreosote, enjoying a momentary lull between courses.

Ultimately, this blow-out caught up with our bibulous Masters of the Universe: news of the meal leaked out immediately and shortly afterwards their identities became widely known. Even though they paid for the wine out of their own pockets, their bosses at Barclays Capital took a dim view of their employees’ lurid extravagance. In the messy aftermath the party even attempted to sue the restaurant for breach of privacy, which was a bad idea: bankers blaming a caterer for their own hubris isn’t a good look. (And Petrus asked for no money for the wines up front; good judgement on their part but running a restaurant at this level must be a bit like managing a casino.) Ultimately all six fine diners lost their jobs with Barclays; this seems unfair on one of the party, a teetotaller who felt somehow obliged to pay nine grand for wine that had not passed his lips.

There are other, more charming, stories of encounters with fine wines in public places. In May 2019 a couple at the Manchester branch of Hawksmoor were mistakenly served a Pomerol (a 2001 Chateau le Pin) worth £4,500 but the restaurant didn’t discover its mistake until after the couple had left. The couple had ordered a 2001 Chateau Pichon Longueville Contesse de Lalande, which happened to have a very similar label to the Pomerol, but was a mere £260 a pop. Thankfully, this joint did the right thing: they tweeted the incident and said that they hoped the couple had enjoyed such a splendid bottle of wine. The PR value of such a charming story far outweighed the loss of a common-or-garden Pomerol, even if it did cost as much as, say, a low-mileage 2014 Ford Focus.

But in the current lockdown, in the interminable imprisonment in our own hutches, these stories have acquired a fresh lustre of myth and legend. The idea of going into a bar, to dine out with friends … forget the plutocrats’ super-wines, a bar-service round of Kronenbourgs is The Holy Grail of our time.

Stomping At The Savoy (Part Two)

The Savoy from the Embankment,1900; Claude Monet might or might not be standing on one of those balconies.

A few weeks ago I was going on about Savoy Palace, Savoy Chapel and Bob Dylan’s co-option of same as a location for a Modern Art statement. Of course, Dylan only chose that spot as he happened to be staying at the Savoy Hotel, so let’s wander over there now and see if they’ll give us a room …

The Savoy Hotel was built in 1889, an essay in cutting-edge Victorian hospitality: electric lighting, electric lifts, private balconies offering majestic views of the Thames (put to good use by Monet, who painted fog-shrouded Waterloo Bridge from his), Cesar Ritz as its first manager and Auguste Escoffier its first chef. An early and enthusiastic patron was Oscar Wilde, who proceeded to run up large bills entertaining the likes of Bosie Douglas and an assortment of rent boys, several of which testified against Wilde at his trial for indecency. At Oscar Wilde’s first trial, the following exchange took place between prosecution witness Charles Parker and prosecutor Charles Gill:

PARKER: Subsequently Wilde said to me. ‘This is the boy for me! Will you go to the Savoy Hotel with me?’ I consented, and Wilde drove me in a cab to the hotel. Only he and I went, leaving my brother and Taylor behind. At the Savoy we went first to Wilde’s sitting room on the second floor.

GILL: More drink was offered you there?

PARKER: Yes, we had liqueurs. Wilde then asked me to go into his bedroom with him.

Another prosecution witness was the Savoy’s own ‘professor of massage’, who testified that he saw a boy sleeping in Wilde’s bed as the dramatist was dressing, and a former chambermaid who described sinister stains on the bedlinen. Thirty years after Oscar and Bosie scandalized Victorian society by hustling rent boys in and out of the hotel, there was another Savoy scandal in 1923 when one Marguerite Fahmy killed her husband, an alleged Egyptian prince. This was a quintessentially Twenties murder case, ticking all the right boxes: mysterious royalty, money, a good-looking victim, a doe-eyed murderess, bisexuality, sodomy, dance band music, all sprinkled with a generous dose of racism. The crime fed the English public’s fascination with/suspicion of all things ‘oriental’. Marguerite was put on trial at the Old Bailey where she was defended by Edward Marshall Hall, one of the great advocates of the era. Her defence was that her husband had pestered her for ‘unnatural’ sexual relations, so she shot him. Feeding the jury’s prejudices, Marshall Hall loaded his summation with racist tropes and portrayed his client as practically a victim of the white slave trade .Marguerite was duly acquitted, and there were official complaints from Egypt regarding Marshall-Hall’s astonishingly racist closing statement. Marguerite went back to Paris where she was seen, less charitably but perhaps more accurately, as a high- class escort who’d conned and killed a gullible young man. Whatever the truth, she didn’t inherit any of the prince’s money and lingered on as an exotic Parisian recluse, finally expiring in 1971.

Mr. and Mrs. Charles Chaplin atop the Savoy.

Other 20th century guests included Fred Astaire, who danced on the hotel’s roof, Marlene Dietrich, John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, etc., etc. Personally, I’m most intrigued by Charlie Chaplin’s fondness for the hotel. Chaplin seems to have taken a particular satisfaction in revisiting the locations of his deprived childhood. The photo above shows Chaplin and his implausibly young wife Oona* on the roof of the Savoy at some point in the 1950s, the grand old man of cinema pointing south, presumably dilating upon the haunts of his youth. In Hollywood, Chaplin refashioned traumatic events from his deprived boyhood landscape (his early films featured detailed recreations of ghastly rooms in Kennington and Brixton, rooms he had lived with his alcoholic mother) and created cinema’s first global hero. When he returned to London as world-conquering star, Chaplin based himself at the Savoy and liked to venture, incognito, into south London, then a land of poverty and bomb-damage. But Chaplin would run for cover if recognised; he once ended up catching a boat from Embankment Pier to Greenwich to escape a pursuing crowd, only to find that they’d all got on the next boat to follow him downriver.

[* Perhaps a bit off-topic, but Oona was the daughter of American playwright Eugene O’Neill, who was very unhappy about her marriage to Chaplin. Also unhappy was the young J.D. Salinger, who had once courted Oona and who referred to the 54 year old Chaplin as ‘an old prostate gland’. After Oona married Chaplin (in 1943, when Oona was just 18), Salinger conjured an image of their marital life that is so repulsive that I can’t resist quoting it: ‘I can see them at home evenings. Chaplin squatting grey and nude, atop his chiffonier, swinging his thyroid around his head by his bamboo cane, like a dead rat. Oona in an aquamarine gown, applauding madly from the bathroom.’]

The Savoy is a shrine for cocktail fanciers, its place in drinking history assured by Harry Craddock‘s 1930 masterpiece The Savoy Cocktail Book. Craddock learnt his trade as a barman in the US, returning to England at the start of Prohibition and assuming control of The American Bar at the Savoy. Craddock is credited with inventing a number of cocktails and ‘codifying’ the recipe for the classic dry martini. A later barman, Joe Gilmore, became known for creating ‘event’ cocktails in honour of visiting toffs. One Gilmore original is the ‘Missouri Mule’, consisting of bourbon + Campari + Cointreau + Applejack + lemon juice. That concoction was invented in honour of Harry S. Truman. What effect this beverage had on the Anglo-American Special Relationship is unrecorded. Rather poignantly, he also came up with a cocktail to commemorate Britain’s entry to the Common Market – which of course became the European Union – in 1973. This calls for equal measures of ingredients from all member states, so you’ve got Cherry Brandy (Denmark), Noilly Prat (France), Orange Curacao (Netherlands), Dry White Wine (Luxembourg), Coffee Liqueur (Ireland), Carpano (Italy), Schlichte (West Germany), something called Elixir d’Anu from Belgium, and Sloe gin (Britain), all shaken with ice, strained into a cocktail glass, and thrown in Dominic Cummings’s face.

Portrait of Harry Craddock from The Savoy Cocktail Book 1st edition.

Some Fleet Street Killers

John Strype, Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster, 1720: Adjoining to St. Dunstan’s Church, Eastwards, is a small Place of two Houses, which bears the Name of Hen and Chicken Court. And near unto this Court, Fetter lane falleth into Fleetstreet. Flower de lyz Court, or rather Alley, being long, narrow and ordinary, with a Freestone Pavement; hath three Out-lets, two into Fetter lane, and another into Three Leg Alley. This Court is of very small Repute, being but meanly inhabited; the Buildings are on the East side, the West being the back Yards to the Houses in Fetter lane. It is of some Note for the Mousetrap House, being the Receptacle for leud Persons.

Hen and Chicken Court remains an actual address in 21st century London, a dingy survivor of ‘The Great Wen’ amidst gleaming corporate anonymity. Sadly, The Mousetrap House has vanished, so if it’s lowlife drinking you’re after you’ll have to go elsewhere. There are more than a few websites that list this spot as the site of Sweeney Todd’s barber shop, a joint where you risked getting turned into a savoury pastry for the sake of a shave. Sweeney Todd is, of course, entirely fictitious, a character created for a mid- 18th century Penny Dreadful called The String of Pearls. But the era didn’t need fictional killers, it had more than enough real ones.

Sarah Malcolm was a 22-year old laundress of Irish extraction who lived above a local pub and did laundry for various Temple residents. One of these was Lydia Duncomb, a rich 80-year old who lived in a house with her two maidservants. One morning in February 1733, Miss Duncomb and her maids were found dead, variously strangled or stabbed, and the house ransacked. Sarah was quickly connected to the murders by a stolen tankard and some bloodied clothing found in her room. At her brief trial (lasting all of five hours) she maintained that she’d only kept watch for the gang and hadn’t killed anyone, and said that her clothes were bloodied with her own menstrual blood. But in the absence of other culprits, she was convicted and hanged on the corner of Fleet Street and Fetter Lane. Days before her execution, Hogarth visited Sarah in Newgate Gaol and painted a celebrated prison portrait of her. She’s holding a rosary in the picture, which is significant: catholics weren’t too popular in England at that time. The great artist thought she was capable of any vice, although it seems that her hangman thought she was innocent. She maintained her innocence to the end (her confession became a posthumous bestseller) and was pitifully distressed that she was to be executed on Fleet Street, where her death would be witnessed by neighbours and acquaintances.

The Fleet Street/Fetter Lane junction had long been a busy venue for hangings, with a gibbet on the spot since at least the 16th century. Sarah was executed there in accordance with the convention that criminals hanged close to the scene of their crimes might be a warning to other likely offenders. But public executions functioned as a spectator sport, and the advent of the ‘bloody code’ in the 18th century increased the number of offences that carried a death sentence, offering greater opportunities for popular entertainment. At this time Temple Bar * was festooned with the decaying heads of miscreants stuck on poles and displayed as examples of justice exacted. Horace Walpole wrote in a letter in 1746 about seeing the ‘new heads’ on Temple Bar, ‘where people make a trade of letting spy glasses at halfpenny a look’. (* Christopher Wren’s elegant gateway, removed in 1878 as an impediment to traffic. It languished in the grounds of a brewer’s mansion in Hertfordshire until it was finally moved back to London in 2004. It now gleams white and pristine in the environs of St Paul’s cathedral, its associations with past horrors seemingly expunged.)

In 1767 a further address mentioned by Strype became associated with another notorious murder case. Mary Clifford was a fourteen year-old apprentice killed by her employer, Elizabeth Brownrigg, a midwife who lived in Fleur-de-Lis Court. Mary had been placed at Mrs Brownrigg’s establishment by the newly-established Foundling Hospital in Coram’s Fields, Bloomsbury. The Hospital was looking to find apprenticeships for the adolescent orphans in its care, but they were not bothering to vet the employers too thoroughly. Unfortunately, Elizabeth Brownrigg was a violent sadist who abused the three girls in her care in horrific ways: chaining them up and beating them, starving them, locking them in the coal cellar, cutting their tongues with pincers and so on. Mary was treated so badly that she died of her infected wounds. Mrs Brownrigg was tried and convicted at the Old Bailey and was duly hanged at Tyburn. This was a cause celebre in its day, highlighting the plight of orphans and the extent to which they were prey to slavery and cruelty, even when they were under the care of a charitable institution like the Foundling Hospital.

One final word on Sweeney Todd: the following Georgian news item has an eerie echo of the mythical barber …

The Annual Register, December 1st, 1784: A most remarkable murder was perpetrated in the following manner by a journeyman barber that lived near Hyde Park Corner, who had been for a long time past jealous of his wife, but could no way bring it home to her. A young gentleman by chance coming into his master’ s shop to be shaved and dressed, and being in liquor, mentioned his having seen a fine girl home to Hamilton Street, from whom he had certain favours the night before, and at the same time describing her person. The barber concluding it to be his wife, in the height of his frenzy, cut the young gentleman’ s throat from ear to ear and absconded.