Far be it from me to denounce the British for having lost interest in their heritage — they have embraced multiculturalism, deny the good their empire once brought the world, have banned fox hunting — but when it comes to changes that directly affect me, it’s time for action. Especially when the change is based on a silly agreement made 26 years ago. Let’s take it from the top: Mark Birley is known the civilised world over as the numero uno upmarketclub/restaurant/ nightclub owner, the so-called Nijinsky of the catering world, a perfectionist like no other, and the proof is in the pudding, as they say in Kansas. His four clubs, Annabel’s, Mark’s, Harry’s Bar and George, are the best-run, most perfect retreats imaginable, offering not only the best food, wines and atmosphere by far, but also the best service. The last is important.
In the years that I’ve been dining and clubbing my nights away, I don’t think I have ever left a Birley establishment with the slightest complaint. In fact, one of the pleasures of my life is entering Mark’s places. The ever-smiling staff greet one by name, you’re shown to your table at once and with courtesy, and then the fun begins. Now as everyone knows, London is full of over-the-top expensive restaurants run by rude, supercilious, glorified waiters, who think a customer is there to be robbed, looked down upon, and told to wait while some rich yob bores all and sundry over coffee about how much money he’s made lately.
Not in Birley land. Reservations are honoured and tables are kept empty, waiting for those who reserved them. Harry’s Bar is a particular favourite of mine. Just the decoration is worth the price. The L-shaped room is full of priceless posters depicting a bygone era when manners meant more than money and the beautiful people were not oik celebrities but truly beautiful with manners to match. If only St James’s clubland were run like Harry’s. But things are about to fall apart.
When Mark began the club, following the great success of Annabel’s and Mark’s, he took as a silent partner James Sherwood, a man I’ve never met and, as things are going, hope never to. Mark had a 51 per cent stake and Sherwood 49. The latter was a hands-off partner who has done extremely well by keeping his hands off. For the past three years, Mark’s children by Annabel Goldsmith — Robin and India Jane — have been helping run his clubs as he has been in failing health. Mark naturally would like to hand over the management to Robin and Jane as they have already proved themselves by reviving Annabel’s (it’s now full of young people) and making George an unqualified success. What more natural than to hand over to one’s children?
Oh, no, you don’t, says old Scrooge, in the person of James Sherwood. The original agreement said that if either partner ceased to be involved the other had the right to buy the remaining shares. Now as any fair-minded person understands, this was meant more or less to apply when the club was started in 1979. And it made sense. Back then. Now that the club is a London institution, and the two Birley heirs have played a major role in keeping it that way, it is, in my not so humble opinion, simply nitpicking on Sherwood’s side. Less charitably, it is a greedy scheme to take over someone’s else’s achievement. To call it ungentlemanly would be like calling the London bombers dissidents.
Unlike most hacks, I will not bother to declare an interest. I have been praising the Birley establishment since the beginning. Not because I am a very close friend of his children, nor because I regret I did not invest in him rather than in the ones I did. But because he and his family have that rarest of qualities. They do not settle for anything second-rate. Sherwood, I read, is into Sea Containers and owns the Cipriani in Venice. I don’t know anything about his containers, but the Cipriani certainly ain’t what it used to be. If Sherwood succeeds in taking over Harry’s Bar, I for one know what I will do about it. I will never set foot in the place again, and will advise my friends to follow suit.
The Birley business has always taken the long view. The culture of a club like Harry’s Bar is incompatible with that of a public-listed company like Orient- Express Hotels Limited. If Scrooge wins, he’ll have to find new clients. Harry’s members will be taking their business elsewhere.