Claridge’s is a toff sanctuary and one of the best hotels on earth. It specialises in its own myth, which is easy when Winston Churchill fell into a suite at the end of the war, and missed Dwight Eisenhower running the other way. Eisenhower was not afraid of the Axis, but the soft furnishings at Claridge’s felled him utterly and he fled to Kingston-upon-Thames like my mother did. The kings of Greece, Norway and Yugoslavia also spent the war at Claridge’s, in a sort of unlucky king convention. There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that Yugoslav earth was laid under the Yugoslav queen’s bed, not because she was a vampire, which was what I thought, but so the heir could be born on Yugoslav soil. Toffs are weird.
The present Claridge’s was opened in 1898 by the theatrical impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte, who also built the Savoy hotel and theatre; his piano is in the royal suite, although Arthur Sullivan is dead, and cannot play it. It was designed by C.W. Stephens — he also made the ludicrous Harrods, an ornamental castle for scarves — and financed by the profits of The Pirates of Penzance. If Claridge’s looks like a stage set of a red-brick dolls house with cast iron balconies, that is precisely what it is.
Inside, there is a shining hall with a chequered floor, a sculpture of a hunched nude, which is placed in such a way as to make the drowsy tourist place its hand upon the arse — it should be swiftly removed — and Art Deco loos staffed by women who turn the taps on for you, should you be too decadent to turn on taps for yourself. Is there a world beyond taps? Or are these women the equivalent of Oxford scouts, who exist not to protect the students from the college, but the college from the students?
There is a restaurant called Fera (it means ‘wild’ and it is a cave with a Michelin star) and a famous tearoom, calm and gold, hung with an enormous chandelier — a collection of glass snakes — and photographs of incongruent visitors: the Duke and Duchess of Windsor; Yul Brynner; Audrey Hepburn; Princess Margaret.
I am here on the pretext of eating the Wimbledon-themed tea. Wimbledon is unfashionable — I would know, I was born there, in a nunnery — but it is the tennis championships this week, so why not eat a tennis ball in honour of a sport I cannot play and don’t wish to see played because I can only think of football? My days as a schoolgirl lurking outside the All England Club for tickets discarded by debentures are over, although I did see Pat Cash destroy Ivan Lendl in 1987. So I pass the idiotic pants shops of Bond Street, the stupidest of which is Victoria’s Secret, which isn’t secretive enough for me; I would have it so secretive it only sells its stupid pipe-cleaner underwear in North Korea. But I love Claridge’s. I once went to a Daily Mail Christmas party here — the Mail is elitist, but secretly, for fear its readers would flee — which featured a chocolate fountain so large neo-liberalism could hide behind it, and probably did.
Here in this tearoom I eat English tea of the finest kind: long, rectangular, crust-less sandwiches (chicken, egg, cucumber, salmon); scones delivered with an essay, but I can taste the provenance; pastries like small, jewelled ships; and the ‘reveal’ — a chocolate tennis ball which you hit with a spoon and devour, knowing you will never be a world-class tennis player, but happy all the same. It’s only tangentially connected to the tennis champion-ships, but I need no pretext to come to Claridge’s. I want to collapse into a bed upstairs, with or without Yugoslav earth, and dream neo-liberal dreams.