David Tang

Mark Birley: a man who was right in everything

Mark Birley really knew how to live

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We had arranged to see Mark Birley at noon on the day he died. But my wife Lucy and I were just too late. He had suffered a stroke that morning. We missed him by a couple of hours and now, forever. I heard confirmation of the terrible news as I boarded a plane for Hong Kong. Not a good time to be pensive, as stewardess after stewardess interrupted my memories of the man with silly patters and wash-bags and pyjamas. Mark would have appreciated the incongruities. He had a Saharan sense of humour, especially when travelling on commercial. Even when he was confined to a converted bedroom on the ground floor of his divine house opposite the Brompton Oratory, he remained funny. I had asked him where he was going for Christmas.

‘I am going home,’ he announced.

‘But Mark, this is your home,’ I said, not letting him get away with being either silly or Alzheimeric.

‘No, I am going home,’ he insisted.

‘Look, Mark,’ I persisted, pointing out of the window. ‘You see the garden out there. That’s your garden. This is your home.’

He then triumphed with a classic: ‘Nobody tells me anything anymore!’

I could only laugh. And laughter was what I shared a lot of with Birley. We would meet regularly. When he was fit (and I often saw him pumping iron at the Bath and Racquets), we would always lunch at Mark’s or Harry’s or George. And we would tell endless jokes and poke fun at the maximum number of friends we had. He never went anywhere else. He simply wasn’t interested in anything outside of his Mayfair quintuplet. When Nicky Kerman eventually got him to lunch at his new Mirabelle, Mark brought along his largest Alsatian, because he knew Kerman, in his bourgeois sense of hygiene, would not allow a dog. They ended up at Harry’s Bar, where Mark had pre-booked a table.

So Mark was mischievous. After he and I swam with dolphins off the island of Baru in Columbia, I asked him what he thought. ‘Slimy — but I enjoyed it,’ he said. ‘Just like a few of our friends.’ He always carried with him a sardonic sense of wit, usually coupled with a cutting condescension for others, especially in matters of taste. He was fastidiousness personified. When we went on holidays with him, he would take his beloved and dedicated factota, Elvira and Mohammed, and a cook, and all his tableware and crockery and cutleries and vases, so that he would have all his usual perfection surrounding him. If he had been at the feeding of the 5,000, he would have complained that there was no lemon for the fish. That’s how spoilt he was. But ultimately, he was right in everything. Who would have thought of filling up the walls of the sumptuous Harry’s Bar with an army of cartoons, or subjecting Annabel’s to a basement of low ceiling (certainly for a man of 6ft5), or cladding ostentatious onyx all round each of the showers at the Bath and Racquets, or creating Mark’s Club from a windowless rectangular room? Yet they all work, and work beautifully. And that’s what made Mark Birley remarkable — his eyes and hands. There are fine painters and writers and sculptors and composers who make an enhanced difference to our lives. Mark Birley did so with his clubs and all the rituals that went with our insatiable demand for eating with comfort and luxury.

Yet with all his occasional charm and attractiveness, he was also infuriatingly stubborn and grumpy. His sarcasm, rooted in his general disdain for hoi polloi, was sulphuric. He must have made a lot of people, family, friends and strangers, scream out loud in despair. When he tried to light up a cigar in his room at the Cromwell Hospital, the nurse was reduced to tears. As she stormed out, Mark muttered after her, ‘And don’t go sneaking on me!’ But that was the price for his eccentric joie de vivre. I wonder if he is now not trying to start all his clubs again in heaven. I can just imagine him telling God how to get lunches and dinners right. Mark wouldn’t hesitate confronting God. And I daresay he would give short change to Margaret Hungerford who thought ‘beauty is altogether in the eye of the beholder’.

Nonetheless, Mark was upstaged at least once in his life. It was at Harry’s Bar in the early days when mobile phones were introduced. He noticed a member using it at the other end of the room. He summoned Mario, the maitre d’, and asked if he could ‘kindly find out’ from the member to whom he was trying to speak on the ‘vulgar’ mobile. Mario came back and bowed, ‘Mr Birley,’ he reported, ‘Mr Moran was trying to ring the bar to find out when the f*** his bellini was coming.’ It was a very rare ‘touché’ for Mr Birley.