Letters From London

An Evening Out

Though New York now has its own Soho club, it’s London where the eating club has its roots, though only in recent years for celebrities with hungry noses.

My wife and I are on the fringes of Mayfair, where antiquarian bookshops and upmarket boutiques give way to countless tiny stores selling tartan-clad teddy bears and cashmere-based products to eager tourists. Tonight’s venue is Sketch, a members’ club and restaurant that is, according to media consensus, just cresting the wave of fashionable adulation, not quite ready to start its long descent into the void, where it will be free from flashbulb-popping doorsteppers and the oxygen of column inches. We’re here for a film and book launch, the debut of a glossy new architectural tome, intrigued by the venue and by the invite—a mocked-up airline ticket. The launch starts at the racy (yet inconvenient) hour of 11 p.m., promising close-up glimpses of the inhabitants of London’s glamorous netherworld but requiring us to drive into town—and forgo the helpfully fuzzy halo of alcohol.

Sketch follows the skewed economic logic of the London members-only a bit too enthusiastically: Buy big, spend large, and watch the novelty factor pull in the punters for a year or so before moving on and doing it all over again. The club was a serious investment. After starting life in 1779 as an elegant town house built by James Wyatt, the building was recently converted to a global pleasuredome at a cost was rumored to be in the region of 10 million pounds (on top of what one presumes was an astronomical purchase price: Former occupants include Christian Dior). Wyatt was the Richard Meier of his day, a society architect who became a minor celebrity amongst members of the Georgian establishment. His most endearingly strange commission was Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire, a gargantuan monument to the vainglorious pursuits of one man, William Beckford. This Gothic fantasy culminated in a 300-foot octagonal tower, then one of the tallest buildings in the world. The foundations were slender, corners were cut, and after several structural failures, the edifice collapsed for good in 1825, leaving a pile of fashionably picturesque ruins. It was never rebuilt.

It would be too easy to call Sketch the Fonthill of clubland, but there’s still an unmistakable aura of grand folie about the whole enterprise. At 11 sharp, we are unfashionably early. The publisher’s PR agent looks equally uncomfortable, snubbed by the regulars, for whom being approached with a clipboard is a personal affront. Somehow—call it true British honesty—we make sure our names are down. Breezing past, head held high, is just not an option.

Once we’re legitimately inside, all seems muted and discreet; it’s only when we spy the curiously spattered grand staircase, an artfully applied stain of thick brown paint cascading down from the second floor, that the extent of the artful—fashionable—additions becomes clear. Everywhere we look, indifferent artworks hover in corners or dangle from ceilings. The upstairs bathrooms are rumored to be encrusted in the finest Swarovski crystal. None of this came cheap; indeed, Sketch has come to our notice for a reason far baser than opulence: expense. The restaurant is renowned as one of London’s most expensive places to dine. The average meal in the upstairs Library restaurant will set a single diner back around 150 pounds (it’s rumored that the restaurant charges a cancellation fee of 30 pounds, so even backing out at the last minute is a costly option)—one deep-pocketed gastronome managed to spend 750 pounds on a meal for two without, it seems, going crazy on the wine list. The food, we are told, is excellent.

‘Yes, I know,’ I say to a nice lady who is telling me about her chronic shyness and dislike of crowded social occasions. ‘I never know what to say either.’

The interiors impress, in an over-the-top, sci-fi expo kind of way. Stylistically, Sketch is a neo-baroque, post-post-modernist fantasyland, the physical manifestation of the louche bachelor-pad style of illustration that found favor about five years ago, filtering down first from lifestyle magazine spreads onto club fliers, advertising, then record and book covers, and finally to greeting cards and stationery. Like all depictions of a fleeting moment in fashion, such looks evaporate like cotton candy; the fashionista has no desire to see his likeness on a range of snappy Post-it notes or files pitched at teenage schoolgirls. The ultra-hip crowd moves on quickly, mainly because they don’t really want to pay for anything and once the free ride of a big opening is over, it’s time to find fresh places to feed. After this, money moves in: a different, less self-conscious crowd that channels all social activity through spending.

For us empty-pocketed interlopers, the Sketch experience is as stripped down and functional as possible. This glamour was lent, not given. Four clunky cardboard tokens, sponsored by someone or something we’ve never heard of (‘Seriously’), snare us cocktails of the basest simplicity, a grapefruit/cheap vodka concoction stacked up on the glass-topped bar. Two glasses are pushed disdainfully in our direction after I covertly transfer the little cardboard squares into the barman’s palm.

Beside me, a man literally flexes his wallet before extracting 20 pounds for two skinny glasses of champagne. The club usually turns members-only at 6:30, so the regulars must find this sudden influx of goggle-eyed unfamiliars rather disconcerting, especially as there is a certain aesthetic standard to maintain, burnished skin tones and sculpted features suggesting an over-familiarity with the surgeon’s knife. Earlier, the PR agent had told me that hiring the space before 11 would set the publisher back 50,000 pounds—which we’d imagine is a decent total budget for commissioning, researching, writing, printing and distributing this kind of book, with a few cheap drinks thrown.

We are merely flying economy. The West Bar would once have been a perfectly proportioned salon, a social space in which we (with memories warped by costume dramas) can imagine starchy figures strutting about expounding on social niceties. Now, it’s just uncomfortably noisy, overfilled with oversized furniture, and largely populated by gawkers. Like us.

This, we are told, is the lair of the music director, one Mathieu Massadian, whose house recipe includes ‘minimalist clicks and cuts.’ His choicest cuts pass us by: We’re too busy casting our eyes around the room, frantically trying to drink in the atmosphere, eyeball the more spectacular creatures and, most important of all, see the people we know before they see us, giving us a crucial few seconds in which to decide whether to cut and run. Conversation is reduced to a series of nods and grumbles.

‘Yes, I know,’ I say to a nice lady who is telling me about her chronic shyness and dislike of crowded social occasions. ‘I never know what to say either.’ We look past each other, each exhausted with the effort of sustaining a less-than-dazzling conversation partner, hunting for someone else to latch onto.

Through the West Bar, where an over-priced light installation skitters red lasers off the walls, we make our way to the Gallery. This is an altogether more pretentious affair, a video art space by day, mezze-style restaurant by night. Projected around the white walls is our raison d’être: the first showing of the architect Nigel Coates’s film Ecstacity. Someone, somewhere, in their infinite wisdom had decided that this temple of very contemporary decadence was the ideal place for the launch. Perhaps it’s a neat fit, especially when you consider Coates’s work has a rather showy, superficial, blank sexiness. The architect himself has a bona fide exotic extended retinue, flouncing and pouting in suitably starry fashion.

Insulated beats thud out of the speakers, making us cock our heads at jaunty angles to counter horrifically compromised directional hearing. A grand horseshoe staircase leads up to a plateau on which rest about 10 white shiny pods, a visual quote from 2001. These are the restrooms. Suffice to say that the thought of strutting up to a white plastic egg, nonchalantly clambering in and doing one’s thing, while a perfectly tailored lavatory attendant loiters outside, doesn’t appeal. The designers have created a space that’s part Stanley Kubrick, part Chris Cunningham, a sleek robotic insertion into a classical environment that’s spoiled only by the blind indifference of the bobbing Eurotrash. The architecture geeks—here for the launch—are crawling over everything, in miniature ecstasies of their own, whispering about overheard menu prices.

In amongst the music and raging babble of voices, no one really pays any attention to the waiters continuously rearranging the room. Shifting a table here, a barstool there, they battle valiantly against the gluey crush of the crowd, necks craned into their targets’ ears, eyes fixed on the other side of the room lest someone more interesting be spotted bearing down from afar. A black t-shirted waiter holds a table high above his head—it must be aluminum, I think. He swings it this way and that as he twists his torso to edge across the room. Then in one moment he lets it drop, the sharp edges of the base dipping swiftly beneath the wave of hats, heads, and hairdos.

The barrage of sound continues. My neck is aching from holding my head at such an angle, and now I’ve completely lost the ability to focus on the person I’m talking to. I hear perhaps three words of four—just enough to keep the talk flowing with the occasional nod or ‘yes.’ In the corner of the room, the crowd seems to thin. A dark-haired woman is clutching her head, her high-heeled legs placed apart, slightly pigeon toed. She glances down. A drip. Two drips. Dark blood spills between her fingers. The descending table leg has dug into her head—but with the noise, the lights and the crowd’s careful insouciance, it’s impossible to tell if it’s a scratch or a deep wound.

The table is hastily set down and the waiter rushes over, moving to hold her hand in place. The woman’s expression is one of shock, mouth open, eyes uncomprehending. It’s impossible to tell whether she’s silent or screaming. She is turned and rushed through the doors. A waitress with a fistful of paper towels crouches and mops up the little pool of dark blood. Most—practically all—of the surrounding guests have not noticed a thing. Or are they just too cool to react? The mood switches from kitsch 2001 to menacing Clockwork Orange, then back again.

One more turn around the Gallery, too bright for atmosphere, even at this hour. We turn round and push for the door, skirting the last few spots of blood on the floor, the cocked heads, spaghetti straps and endless, muffled beats.

Finally, a face I know. An editor, looking wide-eyed, in full party mode, supported by years of experience. We feel a little ashamed to be leaving so soon, but it’s nearly one. The obligatory air kisses are offered and dispatched, introductions made. There’s no time for small talk.

‘You’re leaving? Excellent. We have two more to get in,’ she says cryptically.

We’re frog-marched down the entrance hall and then practically bundled out of the door, exchanged like faulty goods for two eager, suspiciously wide-eyed punters who are waiting in line with skinny girls and wannabees. Vast, shiny-jacketed bouncers oversee this exchange, avoiding the pleading eyes of the waiting line. But now we’re outside, and what went on within suddenly seems a thousand miles away.

London is just getting going, traffic thick though fluid, the pavements full. From this spot in Mayfair we have probably a thousand entertainment options within five minutes’ walk: pubs, clubs, bars and lounges, down dark alleys, under stores, inside hotels, warehouses, tower blocks. We joke briefly about an improbable visit to such a place, each secretly grateful that the other doesn’t take up the offer.

It has been a flawed but perfect evening, rich in insights and confirmed suspicions. And now we’re heading home.


TMN Contributing Writer Jonathan Bell lives in South London. He co-edits Things Magazine and likes to write about architecture. More by Jonathan Bell