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.

Francis Bacon in The Colony Room

Francis Bacon and Ian Board (right) in The Colony Room, 14 September 1983. Photo by Angus Forbes.

A Day in the Life

by Angus Forbes

September 1983: the book publisher Malcolm McGregor is organizing A Day in the Life of London and the commissioning photographer Red Saunders wants me in. I tell Red I’ll cover legal London in the morning and the West End drinking clubs, of which at that time I was a frequenter, in the afternoon. On the day (Friday the 14th) I roll up at the Colony Room in Dean Street soon after opening, about half three. The lowering sun is reflecting off the buildings opposite and streaming through the first floor window; a lovely light. I’m a Colony member, so I tell the irascible owner Ian Board what I’m doing and would it be ok if I took some casual non-flash pictures. Ian’s in a mellowish state today and says yes.

It’s early for the Colony and people are just beginning to drift in. I take some pictures, nothing special, and am thinking of moving on when Ian says don’t go, Francis will be here in a minute. Francis Bacon. Of course I wait. By the time Bacon, John Edwards and team arrive, the drinkers are used to my Nikon-wielding antics and I ask Bacon if I can take some shots of him too. He does not demur. My scoop in hand I head for The Little House, another painters’ hangout in Shepherd Market, and sitting at the bar is Patrick Caulfield.

The next day Saturday I’m in my darkroom viewing the contact sheets. It occurs to me that by simple photocomposition I could combine my images of Bacon and Caulfield and drop Bacon into The Little House (which I know he uses as that’s where I first met him). A double-scoop. But before I take it even one step further, fresh permissions from all depicted parties must be sought.

I get to the Colony about 7. Ian and his barman Michael Wojas are the only people there and drink has already been well taken. I have with me three photographic prints: one is the shot of Bacon and Board in the Colony, another shows Caulfield at The Little House and the third is a mockup of the proposed photocomp. I show Ian the first shot and he likes it; Francis’ champagne glass is at the right angle, and Ian, his arm in a sling from some rough, looks suitably mad. Next shot, indifference. But when Ian Board sees the mockup of his Francis in a rival hostelry, all hell breaks loose.

So incensed is Ian by the image I’ve just shown him that he pitches forward on his stool and topples onto the cigarette-scorched, booze-sodden carpet of the notorious green boite with an almighty, clattering thump. When Michael and I manage to heave him back onto his throne, Ian’s right index finger is dripping blood. He grabs the mockup and starts jabbing at it, daubing it with dollops of his own gore. ‘It’s a disgrace! It’s an insult!’ shrieks Ian, lunging for the phone. He gets Bacon on the line. ‘Know what that cunt photographer wanker’s gone and done?’ Ian bellows, ‘He’s only put you in that fat Jamaican whore’s place with someone called Cauliflower or something!’ Ian thrusts the receiver to me, ‘Francis wants to speak to you!’ ‘The negatives must be destroyed!’ Bacon booms. He’s drunk as well and I’m gulping down the vodka like there’s no Sunday – this photocomp’s not such a good idea after all (if indeed it ever was). ‘Francis, I wouldn’t dream of publishing without your say-so. I just thought that as Patrick and you use the same place’ ‘Who?’, he interrupts. ‘Patrick Caulfield’ I say. ‘Never heard of him!’ Bacon thunders.

Later I relate the story to Gerry Clancy. He tells me that not long ago Bacon had turned up at an opening at Fischer Fine Art where Caulfield was showing miniatures. Francis had proceeded to walk around the gallery, waving derisorily at the works and muttering ‘Postage stamps! Postage stamps!’ Some time after the affair had subsided I see Patrick in the Zanzibar with John Hoyland. I repeat the Colony tale to them, including Bacon’s last remark to me. Patrick Caulfield bursts into tears.

Red Saunders uses my shot of Bacon, Edwards and Board in the Colony over a double-page spread in A Day in the Life of London. A decade later and all has supposedly been forgiven. Francis has been dead for three years and a framed print of my shot of him with Ian has been hanging in pride of place behind the Colony bar since it was taken. Board is on his usual perch and I’m on the next stool knocking back the tonic water. We’re having a desultory conversation about nothing in particular, no animosity, when Ian suddenly reaches behind him, seizes the framed print from the wall and smashes it over my head. A rivulet of blood runs down my nose and splashes onto the palm of my hand. I turn to Ian in astonishment.page36image3840288

‘Cunt!’ says Ian Board.

Quite.

Angus Forbes with his picture of Bacon, Dellasposa Gallery, 15 September 2020. Photo by The Drinker.

Photo and text © Angus Forbes. Angus’s photo is on display at The Dellasposa Gallery as part of Tales From The Colony Room, which also includes work by Francis Bacon, Patrick Caulfield, Lucian Freud, John Minton, R. B. Kitaj, F. N. Souza, Frank Auerbach, John Deakin, Daniel Farson, Bruce Bernard, Nina Hamnett, Isabel Rawsthorne, Sir Peter Blake, Eduardo Paolozzi, David Bailey, Sarah Lucas, etc.. The show accompanies the publication of Darren Coffield’s book and runs until 20 December. Highly recommended.

Julian and Dylan at The Wheatsheaf

The saloon bar of the Wheatsheaf was not large but cheerful, warm in winter and always brightly lit, good blackout boards fitting tightly over the windows of armorial glass and the floor spread with scarlet linoleum. It had mock-Tudor panelling and inset round the walls, squares of tartan belonging to various tartan clans. (‘Memoirs of the Forties’, Julian Maclaren-Ross).

London never did café culture, that was Paris’s forte; but what we used to have was the writers’ pub. During the 1930s and 40s London’s own left bank was Fitzrovia, that archipelago of pubs and restaurants between Fitzroy Square and the bottom of Rathbone Place, where it slams up against Oxford St.. The queen of Fitzrovia’s literary pubs was the mock-Tudor Wheatsheaf on Rathbone Place. The stories associated with the Wheatsheaf are the stuff of literary cliché. If you walked in here one lunchtime during the 2nd World War, you would almost certainly encounter the twin popes of The Wheatsheaf bar, Dylan Thomas and the novelist Julian Maclaren-Ross, each with his own set of acolytes.

‘What will you have to drink Mr. Thomas?’ ‘Anything that goes down my throat.’

Whilst Dylan was versifying by the stained glass windows in the public bar, MacLaren Ross occupied the saloon end of the counter, from where he would broadcast his opinions on films or modern novels. You might see George Orwell on lunch break from the BBC, perhaps waiting to meet the glamorous Sonia Brownell who lived just around the corner. Sonia’s employer, Cyril Connolly, the pudgy aesthete and editor of Horizon review, might be there too, talking an incongruously beautiful woman into investing money in his magazine. Perhaps you’d notice a young woman who, on closer inspection, turns out to be Quentin Crisp in austerity drag. Or you might wonder about the demure ‘Sister Anne’, a prostitute whose quiet demeanour gave no indication as to her trade. And you’d also see the bar limpets of an older Fitzrovia: an ancient lady in Edwardian dress drinking Guinness over newspaper crosswords; or the venerable Nina Hamnett, a once feted artist and model, muse to Modigliani, Sickert and Gaudier-Breszka, but now well into her alcoholic decline. You get the idea. The Wheatsheaf was the real thing: the place where dreams, greatness and failure met.

John Banting’s cover illustration for Maclaren-Ross’s 1946 collection of short stories.

In the 1930s and ‘40s, Julian Maclaren-Ross was a ‘promising’ writer, his stories exploring the seedy, London-to-Brighton idiom pioneered by Patrick Hamilton (who used aspects of The Wheatsheaf in his monument to inter-war drinking 20,000 Streets Under The Sky) and the young Graham Greene. Like those illustrious practitioners, Maclaren-Ross described the furtive world of the travelling salesman, the cheap hotel, and the saloon bar – but Maclaren-Ross was living the material of his own stories to an alarming extent. He pursued his own ideal of how a modern man of letters should live, an experiment carried out in the teeth of aggrieved landladies, vengeful girlfriends, and exasperated publishers. He had a career-trashing habit of selling the same rights to the same unwritten novels to multiple publishers in return for a few quid to pay the next week’s rent. His occasional commissions were marked by a celebratory splurge of immoderate spending, the lavish dinners, benders and extra-long cigarettes somehow failing to mitigate the mounting bills and imminent (and occasionally actual) homelessness. One way of supplementing his shaky literary income was to lure the gullible into playing his ridiculous matchstick game ‘Spoof’ for real money, the bar of the Wheatsheaf offering him the ideal venue to fleece the unwary. And when the pub closed at 10.30, Julian would lead the hard-core drinkers a few steps up Rathbone Place to the Marquis of Granby, which – being in the borough of Marylebone – was subject to different licensing laws and didn’t ring time until 11. After that, it was back to wherever he was kipping that night; a Turkish baths, say, or the waiting room of Euston station, or – if his luck was in – a girlfriend’s flat in some distant suburb.

Meanwhile …

‘Somebody’s boring me. I think it’s me.’

Dylan Thomas, drunk again, the quote taken from a live radio broadcast for the BBC. Everyone knows Dylan Thomas; but in life, his burgeoning fame as poet and public figure offered no respite from the lure of the London pub. Although he was the prototype professional Welshman it was in London that Thomas cemented his reputation as a raconteur, mimic, and purveyor of his own patent brand of Welsh sentimentality. There’s a strangely touching story about him taking Henry Miller on a pub crawl around Soho and Fitzrovia and then on to a little dairy that sold sandwiches just opposite The Wheatsheaf. Miller was rather more far-gone than Dylan Thomas, as well as being very short sighted, and was convinced that he was in some kind of brothel, and Dylan was trying to stop him propositioning the startled waitresses. This is an unusual story as it casts Thomas in the unaccustomed role of (relatively) responsible adult, as opposed to the incorrigible man-child drunk that forms the bulk of his legend. It’s a more endearing image of Thomas than, say, that of him shacking up with Caitlin Macnamara, teenage mistress of the ageing Augustus John, a few hours after their first meeting in The Wheatsheaf.

The Wheatsheaf’s front door, July 2020; note (i) the blue plaques for Orwell and Dylan Thomas; (ii) safety tape on the pavement – to facilitate drinking in the time of Covid.

Literary drinking in Fitzrovia is a big subject and I will return to these characters in future instalments. But, for now, I will leave the last word to the Wheatsheaf’s most extravagantly dressed monument to squandered talent. Julian Maclaren-Ross’s conspicuous outfit (teddy-bear overcoat, green aviator shades, a carnation in his button hole, an extra-long cigarette in his cigarette holder and a silver-topped malacca cane in his hand) made him an occasional target for abuse. Towards the end of his stint as barnacle in chief of the Wheatsheaf bar, he was approached by a clutch of menacing youths who demanded that he ‘Say something witty!’ Maclaren-Ross peered at them and declaimed:

‘Noel Coward!’

(For those interested in Maclaren-Ross, I recommend the excellent biography by Paul Willetts, Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia.)