Robin Birley wouldn’t speak to me because journalists always want to ask him about Annabel’s and his supposed feud with Richard Caring, but I was invited to his club, 5 Hertford Street, shortly before its first birthday.
The night I went was the height of ‘swivelgate’: Tory backbenchers were in a state of sulphurous revolt because David Cameron’s tennis partner had reportedly suggested they were captives of swivel-eyed lunatic activists. I was sitting in the airy smoking terrace, decorated with candles and peonies, chewing this over with an old Tory friend, when who should lope into view but Norman Tebbit.
Now, you expect to see the old Chingford skinhead on television at Baroness Thatcher’s funeral, or blogging away in the Telegraph about the idiocies of Cameroonian conservatism. But you do not expect to see him walking through the heart of Mayfair’s most happening members’ club when it is packed with the rich, beautiful, entitled London elite and their elegant, leggy consorts necking really rather good champagne.
Intrigued, I followed him under a magnificent chandelier up the stairs to investigate, and almost collided with Liam Fox, another Tory who is not exactly part of the Cameron inner chumocracy. Sadly there was no sign of Adam Werritty, his indispensable adviser who cost him his job as defence secretary. Possibly he had already gone downstairs to bag a good table at Loulou’s, the basement discotheque catering for the club’s younger crowd.
Eventually I track down Lord Tebbit to the club television room where he is discussing, one assumes, robust conservative politics with the proprietor. Birley is thumpingly right-wing, a past supporter of General Pinochet and the Mozambican rebel group Renamo, and he ran for the Referendum party in the 1997 general election.
Birley is as languid and as long-limbed as the pair of whippets that invariably accompany him around his domain. His manner is clipped and personable, while his face still shows the scars of a boyhood accident when he was mauled in the tiger enclosure at John Aspinall’s zoo.
That night’s crowd at 5 Hertford Street reflects how social life in the capital has changed in the past half-century. It’s not conspicuously flashy, a mixture of ages from thirties through to sixties, a majority of men but many more women than you would see at the Garrick or Savile, and more hedge-fund people from Mayfair offices than established City types.
Within weeks of opening last summer, Birley’s venture had been endorsed by visits from Daphne Guinness, Mick Jagger and Kate Moss. More importantly for the financial well-being of the club — which has yet to publish detailed financial accounts of its performance — was the £5,000 cash tip left by an Indian billionaire.
If it is not full of toffs it’s for simple economic reasons: ‘Let’s be honest,’ says one member, ‘not many aristos bat at the top level in Mayfair these days.’ Rather, 5 Hertford Street is staking out ground where the information/communication elite intersect with the world of politics and finance.
Lords Peter Mandelson and John Browne are regulars, as indeed are Norman Lamont and Lord Rothermere, who has even been known to lure Paul Dacre away from the backbench of the Daily Mail for a bite and a few drinks. So there is an element about 5 Hertford Street of the Conservative party in exile. It may be significant that the Cabinet member spotted most regularly here in Mayfair is Michael Gove, who is increasingly seen as the most effective Tory performer and a potential future leader.
5 Hertford Street exists and marks its first anniversary this summer only because Robin’s father Mark Birley founded Annabel’s around the corner exactly 50 years ago, and named it after his wife who was later to move on to marry Jimmy Goldsmith. Annabel’s opened in the summer of the Beatles, Mary Quant and the Pill, and the launch was a sensation.
Among the guests squeezed into the basement of 44 Berkeley Square that night were, in no particular order of precedence, the Devonshires, the Douglas Fairbankses, Stas and Lee Radziwill, the Somersets, the Cazelets, Evelyn Rothschild, Rupert Lowenstein, the Tennants, Andrew Parker-Bowles, the Maharaja of Jaipur and many more. Such was the crush that Lady Annabel almost caused an international incident by ordering David Bruce, the US ambassador, to leave the premises, mistaking him for a gatecrasher.
Mark Birley had dug 6,000 tons of London clay out of the basement of a derelict Mayfair townhouse and created, in the words of one awestruck American journalist, ‘the place where you find the prettiest girls in the greatest clothes. Their hair reaches down to their bottoms and their dresses reach up to them.’
Until the Birley revolution, London clubs were still based on a pre-war model with execrable food and a live band playing Cole Porter medleys. Birley blew that notion away with Annabel’s, putting the emphasis on style, good food, and hot female disc jockeys in miniskirts running the cramped dance floor.
Membership was 12 guineas a year, five guineas for the under-25s, and everyone was handpicked and personally approved by Mark Birley. The same principle applies today at 5 Hertford Street, where his son Robin puts a red pencil through the names of potential members he regards as unsuitable.
Annabel’s was glorious while it lasted, but inevitably it fell out of fashion, until in the late 1990s it was joked that younger members avoided the place for fear of bumping into their own fathers with mistresses in tow. Robin Birley was brought in by his father ten years ago to perk it up, and for a while all was going well, profits were up, until there was a spectacular family rupture. Robin had used Annabel’s club funds to pay a rogue private investigator to look into the background of the lover of his sister, India Jane. Mark was enraged, and forced Robin out of the club.
Worse was to follow: Mark, increasingly erratic, and drinking heavily while taking long-term medication, entered into secret negotiations in 2007 to sell his stable of clubs, including Annabel’s, Harry’s Bar, and Mark’s, to the clothing tycoon Richard Caring, for just over £90 million.
Lady Annabel suggested her ex-husband give Robin and India Jane a substantial slice of the money, but he demurred, and when asked what he was going to do with his pile of cash, replied, ‘I’m going on a cruise.’ Robin’s friends were appalled, and saw the transfer of Annabel’s to Caring as a brutal illustration of the way financial power was shifting in London from old to new money.
Robin first stewed, then calmly planned his comeback with a brand new club of his own, backing on to Mayfair’s once notorious Shepherd Market. On opening there was, inevitably, a mass exodus of old Annabel’s hands towards 5 Hertford Street. Partly it was simple loyalty to the Birley name and heritage, partly dismay at the way Annabel’s was changing.
‘I was there one night and one of the new barmen said in my hearing to my dear friend Debonnaire Bismarck: “Goodness, you’re looking cute,” and I thought, that’s enough,’ recalls Taki, The Spectator’s veteran style helmsman.
He was at Annabel’s at the opening in 1963 as a young blade when Mark Birley cut him a cheap membership deal. He concedes the place had been going downhill during the latter years of Birley ownership, a victim of what he sees as the wider coarsening of London society.
‘Annabel’s changed again overnight when that vulgarian took over,’ he complains, unwilling to use Caring’s name.
Taki says he continues to lecture his old friend Robin Birley that there are too many ‘sleazeballs’ and new-money types in his new club, though concedes that on his now rare trips to London, he tends to spend every night there. ‘The problem with any club,’ he explains from Switzerland, ‘is never the staff, who are fabulous, but the members, who are shit.’
Unsurprisingly, Birley and the perma-tanned, pearly toothed, suspiciously smooth-skinned Caring are unlikely to be seen sharing a table at either club. When Birley said he was going to use his own name for his new venture, Caring sued, arguing he had bought the name along with his father’s clubs. As a result of the deal his father had struck with Caring, Robin Birley found himself unable to use his own name in business.
Caring once said of Birley: ‘What do we know about him? He put his head in a tiger’s mouth,’ a rather cruel jibe about a life-changing accident which required 57 operations on his severely disfigured face.
Jemima Khan, Robin’s half-sister, said of his need for facial surgery, it was ‘much like Caring, judging by the pictures of him’.
Caring, who is said to regret making the remark, has privately told at least one friend that he probably overpaid for the Birley clubs. He is unsentimental about the perceived loss of Annabel’s aristocratic sheen, telling one friend that ‘the sons of marquesses don’t spend any cash anyway’.
So much may be true. Even those who remain loyal to Annabel’s concede that, especially at the weekend, it can seem — as one regular puts it — ‘a little bit Essex’, with footballers’ wives and C-list celebs, and people, frankly, no one has ever heard of. The regular was shocked to drop in one evening recently and not recognise a single face.
Yet Annabel’s seems to be doing well financially, and feels like a little time warp of London before the credit crunch. In buying the club, Caring was not just securing the lease on a Mayfair basement and one of the most extensive wine cellars in London. The financial key was the long tail of annual dues of 7,000 paid-up members.
Annabel’s still honours the old principle of freezing annual membership dues at the rate at which you joined, so the very limited band of surviving founder members are still paying 12 guineas a year. For new members annual subs are £1,000, rather less than most Pall Mall clubs, and well below 5 Hertford Street, which recently hiked its dues to £1,500, to the annoyance of some members. Annabel’s members in their twenties pay only £250 a year, which makes it very affordable for young professionals who want to impress their friends.
This is the attraction of the Annabel’s business model — the members’ subs pour in, about 40 per cent of them live overseas, and many only visit a couple of times a year, if at all. And when they come, the Russians and Arabs will glance at the wine list before splashing £19,500 on a double magnum of Château Latour 1982.
The margins are sensational and the latest financial figures show the club comfortably fighting through the economic headwinds. Turnover is up 4 per cent to £8.3 million with after-tax profits rising by about the same margin to £2.58 million.
As the directors note, the increase in profit suggests success in their ambition to ‘deliver a premier members experience of service and ambience’. One cannot imagine Mark Birley using such corporate language.
These returns were achieved despite the costs of hiring acts such as Lady Gaga (which one doubts Mark Birley would have approved). The single most expensive innovation — at more than £800,000 — was the creation of a rooftop cigar terrace out of an upstairs staff changing room. As Caring explained, you can’t have Annabel’s members nipping out into Berkeley Square for a smoke.
Annabel’s remains essentially a dining club and discotheque. It opens at eight in the evening, and closes about seven or eight hours later; by contrast, 5 Hertford Street is an all-day operation, a place where members come for business meetings, morning coffee, lunch, afternoon tea, early evening cocktails, dinner, then dancing.
This requires huge staffing, and space is tight. Many members use the club as a home from home and business venue, which is fine, but afternoon coffees and bottles of club claret do not in themselves recoup the vast start-up costs, which ballooned to £30 million after planning delays.
Birley raised a third of that by selling founder memberships at £20,000 to 500 of his closest friends. The Reuben property brothers and the Goldsmith family are also substantial investors. Membership is rising towards 2,000, with a very long waiting list, but even if the nominees meet Robin Birley’s strict criteria, he daren’t expand the base too far.
Some regulars already complain that the dining-room is cramped, and that it can be difficult to get a table, so it is hard to see, while the club is still ‘hot’ and new members are using it a lot, how Birley can have even a third of the number of members as Annabel’s.
Yet there is no doubting that with 5 Hertford Street, Birley has come up with a sensational riposte to the man who snatched his birthright around the corner in Berkeley Square.
It is very much his personal fiefdom — there is no general manager, for that role is taken by Birley himself, who has a flat on the premises the better to observe the operation. His club is beautifully done, and he clearly has the same eye for detail as his father: it is formal but not stuffy, the staff are professional but not fawning. There is an oyster and cigar bar, and the dining rooms by the Turkish designer Rifat Ozbek are exquisite.
For Caring, owning Annabel’s is much less of a calling, though he has set his youngest son, Ben, 33, to work at the club, thus maintaining the Birley hereditary principle of club management. Caring senior, answering questions by email, says Annabel’s lends his wider business group ‘a famous splendour’, which is another way of saying it is good for his global branding. ‘Few nightclubs will ever be able to say that the Queen of England was a guest,’ he says.
He reacts to my suggestion that he overpaid for Annabel’s by reminding me it is profitable, and asking ‘how you could put a price on something that is priceless?’ Annabel’s was not ‘tired’ when he bought it, though it lacked what he calls ‘forward motion’.
Caring does not say quite in which direction he is taking this jewel in his corporate crown, other than to say he is determined to maintain Mark Birley’s ‘eclectic mix’ of members. The snobbier type of Annabel’s refusenik would argue that not everyone shares Caring’s definition of ‘eclectic’.
Though he has not visited 5 Hertford Street since its opening, he seems anxious to put past rancour to one side, praising Robin Birley’s ‘great taste and originality’. He dismisses the notion that they are fierce commercial rivals, for they own ‘different clubs for different people in different walks of life who want to be entertained in a particular manner’.
Ben Goldsmith recently became a director of 5 Hertford Street, confirming his family’s total break from the club the children have known all their lives. He says it is where the wider Goldsmith clan gather when they meet lawyers and accountants to discuss the vast family trusts left by Sir James.
None of them goes to Annabel’s anymore, though, anxious not to breathe new life into the Birley-Caring feud, he diplomatically (though not wholly convincingly) insists: ‘I like and respect Richard Caring greatly.’
Mayfair is a different sort of place 50 years on. Then the rich and glamorous and high-born thought they knew ‘simply everyone’. That world, if it ever really existed as they remember it, is long gone, and the real surprise is that in these wretched economic times so many people are still prepared to pay so much money to keep that illusion alive.
Illustration: Brett Ryder