Man of mystery

OK. It is early 1964, the Profumo scandal has proved beyond reasonable doubt that...

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OK. It is early 1964, the Profumo scandal has proved beyond reasonable doubt that English men can also be swingers (and with women, to boot), and my friend Yanni Zographos and I have just had a big win upstairs at Aspinall’s and are taking the circular inside staircase that connects Annabel’s with the casino. Suddenly two nuns block our way. My first thought is a prurient one. Both nuns are great lookers. Then, out of the blue, one of them begins to undo Yanni’s fly and quicker than you can say Monica Lewinsky she services him. I am in my twenties, I am shocked and appalled that a nun would do such a thing, but all sorts of crazy ideas are fogging up my mind. What to do next? Not to worry; Louis, the great maître d’ for more than 30 years, starts up the stairs chiding the nuns and tells them the game is up. ‘You can keep the money but off you go....’

The nuns turned out to be hookers who knew that winners leave the tables and go dancing, whereas losers stay upstairs chasing after their loot. Dressing up as nuns gave them an extra kick. Soon after, I met Mark Birley. He wanted to know whether dressing hookers up as nuns was a particularly Greek perversion, or were we just innocent bystanders? When we told him we were the latter he almost smiled, a wintry kind of snicker which hinted at doubt more than anything. Welcome to England, studied nonchalance and, dare I say it, not a small amount of xenophobia. Yet until George opened (four years ago, I believe), Mark Birley had given strict orders that none of his clubs would charge me annual dues. His only request was that I keep it to myself, as other members would surely have complained. I never found out why. Perhaps it was because of how I wrote about his son Rupert’s disappearance in Africa in these here pages. But that was almost 20 years after Annabel’s was conceived. If I had to take a guess, it would be because the staff in all his establishments liked me a lot. When I’m drunk I’m a good tipper and back then I was drunk every night. Birley asked me to write the club’s story for Annabel’s magazine, marking its 20th anniversary in 1983.

A lot has been written about Mark’s style, his daunting good taste and his constant search for perfection. Very little is known about the inner man because he was a typical buttoned-up 20th-century Englishman, a man who would have preferred to have lived in the 17th, but with penicillin. He was greatly admired by American ladies-who-lunch types; they would swoon when his name came up. ‘Oh my God, does Mark have taste or what....’ His sister, Maxime de la Falaise, was married to my wife’s uncle, but the only thing Mark ever said to me about the French marquis — a great sportsman and ladies’ man — was that the man was French.

When Aspers and Mark fell out over Annabel’s affair with Jimmy Goldsmith, the inside staircase was removed — there was also a problem over who owned what in the Kent building, which housed the Clermont and Annabel’s — otherwise things remained the same. Those were the glory nights of Annabel’s, with Sidney and John tending bar, Louis taking care of the dining area, and Nando, the walking death machine, minding the door. It was back then that I spotted Muhammad Ali and asked him to spar right then and there. Two people expressed surprise, and both of them asked me the same question: ‘Do you think you could have taken him?’, as dumb a thing to say as is possible. They were Oliver Gilmour and Mark Birley.

And so it went, the annual Hanbury Cup, donated by Timmy after Sidney the barman had given false evidence that ‘Mr Hanbury never left the bar throughout the evening, sir,’ to the cops who were looking for the man who had hijacked a bus full of Japanese tourists while the driver was relieving himself in Berkeley Square. ‘Oi, mi Bus....’ (This entailed running one lap around Berkeley Square after 4 a.m.) Throughout all the hijinks Mark would sit inside smoking a large cigar, always with a new girl. Invariably the sweet young things looked frustrated. Mark did not particularly like to talk to the fairer sex. In fact, the word laconic could have been invented for him. The reason he never remarried, I believe, was his selfishness. He liked things his way, and women tend to move ashtrays and redecorate and commit other such crimes. The last two times I saw him was at lunch, once in his house with his son Robin, the other time at Harry’s Bar with Robin and David Tang. (Tang told one joke after another, cracking Robin and me up, Mark remaining stiff-lipped and worried about the sugar-cubes.)

The end was particularly sad, at least for me, because of his falling-out with his only surviving son Robin. To me it seems inconceivable to turn against my own son. No matter what he does. But then I’m not English. I believe that Mark Birley did not like the fact that Robin loved John Aspinall and Jimmy Goldsmith, his stepfather. When Robin committed a big faux pas, Mark remained unforgiving. It was sad, but then who knows what goes on inside a man’s heart. We all know about Mark’s taste, few know much about the man himself. Perhaps there was nothing there.