Bruce Anderson

The romantic king of clubs

Robin Birley is a figure straight out of Byron’s ‘Don Juan’

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We were discussing romanticism, with me arguing that it should be confined to the boudoir, the bedroom, the library or the stage. When it escapes into public affairs, disaster often ensues. This led to us reminiscing about romantics we had known, and one of our number denounced the late John Aspinall, who, he said, would have liked to pass as a romantic but was really a society card-sharp. The animus was understandable. This chap would have been significantly richer if his great-uncle had never found his way to Aspers’s gaming tables. Aspers led on to Jimmy Goldsmith, undoubtedly a romantic and charismatic figure, but a consistent political menace — and thus to Jimmy’s nephew by marriage, Robin Birley.

He is a romantic figure, straight out of Byron’s ‘Don Juan’. When he was still a schoolboy he was nearly killed by a tiger at John Aspinall’s zoo. Aspers believed in recycling the plunder from card-sharping into the preservation of rare animals. Heedless of risk, he liked to disport himself with them and encouraged the zoo staff to do the same. That sometimes had consequences. The animals enjoyed the best of everything in the way of diet and could never have complained of hunger. This did not stop them having the odd chomp of keeper. Aspers’s zoos were heavy on keepers.

One day, while Robin was in hospital recovering from the tiger’s attentions — which needed several operations — a lawyer arrived at his bedside and started asking questions. Robin asked him what this was all about. ‘Well, I’m gathering the details we’ll need for the legal action against Mr Aspinall.’ ‘No you won’t. There will be no action. What I did was my responsibility, not John Aspinall’s.’

In one respect, Robin is very un-English. He is passionate about glamour, style, elegance. In an Englishman that would normally mean someone who danced at the wrong end of the ballroom: nothing like that about Robin. Glamour is in his lineage. His father Mark started Annabel’s, while his grand-father Oswald was a good painter. He is often referred to as a society painter, but the stress should be on painter. Like James Gunn, he is currently underrated. Robin has already established one club, 5 Hertford Street, which has a chic reminiscent of Annabel’s a generation ago, when it was known as Mabel’s and seemed to be full of Guards officers and debutantes. These days it is being refurbished and its name will be broadcast in neon lights. That will disturb the night-ingales in Berkeley Square.

Now he is expanding, with a new club in Albemarle Street to open in February, named Oswald’s (the nickname will inevitably be Mosley’s). Its main focus will be on wine. After a stiffish membership fee, patrons will be able to drink excellent bottles at retail prices, or bring their own with no corkage charge. If they have a case but only want to drink some of it, the club will sell the rest for them.

I was treated to the sort of bottles Oswald’s might offer. We started with a Puligny-Montrachet Premier ’13 Champs Canet from Domaine Jacques Carillon: excellent. Then the star, an ’89 Léoville-Barton: a superb wine of first-growth quality. Thank goodness I was not asked to identify the year, because I would have confidently plumped for 2000. Then we drank a ’90 St Emilion, from a property that is no longer producing wine: Château Magdelaine. It was outshone by the Léoville-Barton — but almost any other bottle would have been, too. In Oswald’s, those clarets might sell for a little over £100 a bottle. These days, that is a bargain.

We finished off with a first-rate Calvados, the perfect accompaniment to a couple of cigars. Though the lunch may not have been a romantic experience, it was certainly a mellowing one.