London was always a place to wander around. You were never alone there, and yet, in another way, you were always alone. London was both welcoming and completely uncaring. Most of all, though, it was danger. Sparkling, dirty danger. Perhaps that was why I was drawn to it. It was history beneath your feet, with a backdrop laid right out for you by generations of the greatest set designers. It was yours, to do whatever you could with. (Which, admittedly, in most cases, was nothing. But still, the chance was there.)
I was born and lived outside the great old city but was close enough to be in central London inside an hour, cash and time permitting. I can say that the thrill of thinking about going there, planning it, and imagining what events might occur, never left me. Perhaps I even saw it as a foretaste of things to come: the hopefully not-too-distant days when my destiny would be fulfilled, and I'd be a key inhabitant, one of the new history makers. No, not perhaps. There was no perhaps about it.
I've always felt that you only have to hit the target once. That one time, be it so magnificent, original, notorious, eccentric, or even risible, was your entry to the high table. That would drag everything else you'd ever done - or ever would do - into perspective, into context. You just had to make that initial breakthrough. Well, that was where I was at the time — pushing for that breakthrough.
I thought I looked pretty sharp, too. That was certainly part of the deal. I'd just bought this blazer in a shade that I've never thought of buying a blazer in since. You'd have to vaguely term it 'plum.' It sounds worse than it was. The cut, though, was definitely much worse than I thought at the time. (Certainly, if you'd told me then that it would eventually end up in a charity bin in Istanbul, I would have been offended and nonplussed in equal parts.) Under that was a cream polo neck. The trousers would have been grey. The shoes black.
Lacking anything better - actually anything else - that became my uniform of the time. Not so formal. Just smart enough. You couldn't place me in any particular profession. You couldn't label me as belonging to any particular tribe. And this was just as well because I had no profession and belonged to no one and nowhere. If I looked like anything - and here I feel the need to be objectively harsh - it would have been this: an absolute ponce.
It wouldn't have been the first time I was out and about looking like a ponce. And it wasn't the first time I found myself in the Mayfair area, basically just loafing around. To be truthful, Mayfair's not the ideal area to loaf about. It's not a place for anyone who's on the fringes and not at the centre. And even more so in the winter, in the darkness, early on a Saturday night.
On other occasions, I would have just gone to Hyde Park Corner tube station and left. Always, though, with some measure of regret. Because what I really wanted to do was to go inside one of the grand hotels. The Connaught. The Lanesborough. The Dorchester. The Dorchester. Where Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor had occupied suites and even whole floors and filled them with poetry, booze, and passion.
On this occasion, I could be thwarted by no manufactured excuse. (I thought) I looked presentable. It was neither too early in the day nor too late. I had just about enough cash on me to cover any moderate emergency or misunderstanding. So it was that I found my feet pointing towards the door of that august establishment. (Which was a joke in itself, as who arrives at such a place on foot?)
There was a top-hatted doorman in green guarding a revolving door. He didn't exactly approve of my entrance, but he didn't oppose it either. Part of me felt a little disappointed in him, it must be said. Nevertheless, I didn't have time to bathe in disappointment. I had a door to negotiate. A roulette wheel which might spin me in the direction of fortune, dismay, or embarrassment.
Luckily, I secured my objective and landed in the lobby on the first attempt. Then, perhaps the worst moment for a highly self-conscious outsider: where to go next? I had absolutely no knowledge of the interior of the hotel. However, I knew that I wanted to drink and needed to find a bar in order to achieve it. What you should do, of course, is to ask. There's nothing at all wrong with asking. But that was the last course of action I was willing to take. If necessary, I would have toured the place, been met with utter failure, and then retreated backwards rather than stop a staff member and just ask a simple and very reasonable question.
But would you believe, for perhaps the first time in my directionally dyslexic life, the place I wanted was more or less right in front of me? Or left in front of me, to be precise. The Whatever-It-Was-Called Bar (if indeed it had a name, and I haven't been back since to check) was offering me an escape route and a sense of purpose, all in one.
It wasn't like my local pub, I'll give it that. Not like one of those manky wine bars that had been springing up for a while, either. This was the real deal. A large space and the widest, most glittering bar I'd ever seen. I wanted to stand there and just gawp. But the kind of person who did that surely wasn't a patron of The Dorchester. And, whatever else I did or didn't do that night, I wanted at least to be taken for a patron of The Dorchester. So I had to get a drink.
I went to the bar and decided not to sit down. The stools were inviting. By crap, they were inviting. But I didn't want to limit myself. (If that makes any sense.) I now had another staff member to get past - the bartender. I'd already decided on my drink. Probably months in advance, to be honest.
"Gin and tonic, please." Well, it was a safe option.
The man nodded. He was short and distant. Maybe it was just the time of day - barely 8 - or maybe a response to the quality of his new customer, but he said little more than the price of the drink. There may have been a cursory "Thanks" in there as well. He certainly wasn't all over me, and that was a relief.
I took my drink and looked for a table, which wasn't a trial by any means, as the place was almost empty. I found a reasonably central spot that afforded me a decent view of the entirety of the bar and began to settle in. "The Dorchester, eh? Here I am!"
The glass was a lovely piece of crystal. Heavy. Certainly fit for the likes of Richard Burton. I dipped into the bowl of nuts in front of me and took up the copy of The Times, which was on the table. A broadsheet. Nothing better than a broadsheet to mask your real intentions.
I held the paper up, simultaneously checking the news and the other guests while only being interested in the latter.
Over to my left, sitting around a table near the bar, was a group of five or six young people. They were drinking and joking, not dissimilarly to the way five or six young people were probably drinking and joking in my local pub at that very moment. The only difference would have been their respective modes of dress and their tones of voice. And the pair of those really were quite a difference.
Slightly behind me, to my right, but still well within my eye line - come on, I chose my table well! - were a pair of finely attired old ladies. Well-dressed as they undoubtedly were, it was the style of another age. An age that, even allowing for the power of nostalgia, almost certainly wouldn't be coming back into vogue any time soon.
Passing me, on their way to the left corner, were various members of the band. Dinner-jacketed, they were setting up for the evening in an admirably quiet and unobtrusive manner, which I guessed - wrongly, as it happened - would be in contrast to their later performance.
In between all of these observations, I sometimes had to remind myself to turn the pages of the newspaper. I didn't have to remind myself to eat the nuts, however. Pretty soon, it was evident that the snacks would be finished long before the drink. This didn't evade the attention of one of the waiters, who was pretending to busy himself here and there. Wordlessly replacing the contents of the bowl, he gave me a suspicious look. Or did he? The problem was that I really couldn't tell with these people.
Just then, a man of South Asian appearance entered the bar with three blonde women. The women, in their twenties or early thirties, were as fit as the man, who must have been in his fifties, was unfit. They came, laughing, and sat down at a table near me, still laughing. The man was very much at the head of the group. He ordered drinks, and they carried on, oblivious to the customers around them and, you could say, to the existence of the place itself.
I tried, believe me, I tried, but I couldn't hear what they were saying or what the source of their amusement was. The newspaper was useful for covert operations, but it also had its limitations. Nothing short of rolling it up and employing it as one of those ear trumpets that you used to see in cartoons was going to help me now. To add to my woe, my drink was seriously depleted by this stage. There was currently more ice than beverage, which put me in a dilemma. I knew I was a customer and all, and I was in a place that I judged to be a little more discerning than my local boozer, but even here, there must be a point at which you couldn't just occupy a table. Soon I would be at that point. And that would be the point of no return.
What do you do? Go to the shithouse. Sorry, local parlance. The khazi. Sorry again. The toilet, for want of a better. The bathroom? The washroom? The restroom? Yep, they all sound more classy. Trouble is, none of those terms are fit for purpose. Anyway, whatever label you want to give it, you all know where I went.
It wasn't that I wanted to do anything there. Well, nothing other than nose around. I'd always intended to take a look before I left. I guess the bog (there I go again) is the measure of a place. So I just washed my hands. Slowly.
In walked the Birdman of Alcatraz. The Indian-looking chap. He went straight to the urinal, which, in the name of geography, was behind me. With the advent of company, I knew my time here was up. I went to dry my hands.
"Young man." I turned my head just a fraction. "What are you into: music or computers?"
Now where I came from, you didn't get into conversations with men in the gents. Not unless that was the reason you went there in the first place. So, for a moment, I hesitated. Then I remembered the three blondes and felt slightly assuaged.
"Well, mostly books …"
A discreet glance informed me that he was still pissing. And quite relaxed about it, he was too. Relaxed - or, rather, dishevelled of dress - and relaxed of manner and speech.
"What do you do?" he went on.
"I write," I said, not untruthfully.
He mumbled what sounded like an interested "Hmm" or an engaged "Ohh."
"I'm writing a novel." (Also true. And it got finished. But it pretty much went the same way as the blazer.)
"You must be doing well!"
Well, I was certainly doing. But you wouldn't have called it well. Nonetheless, I didn't demur. Give a man some hope!
Finally, he finished his job. His tank must have been fairly full, either that or he was on a slow journey to a prostatectomy.
In the absence of any other suitable course of action, I'd waited for him at the wash basin. If there was any particular etiquette for this kind of thing, I didn't know what it was.
He quickly rinsed his hands, not bothering to dry them. "Come with me." He ushered me out. "Join me at my table."
We went back to where the three blondes were sitting. They were, in their way, quite as dazzlingly spectacular as the bar had been. Interestingly, they weren't all that surprised to see their friend (?), benefactor (?), emerge from the lavatory with a young stranger. They smiled, raised their glasses, and welcomed me with an impressive degree of warmth.
"Now, what are you drinking, young man?"
It was my chance to go nuts. No doubt I could have had a quadruple XO cognac or, at the very least, a glass of vintage champagne. But I flubbed it. My gin and tonic was still at the other table - albeit more of a chunk of ice by now - and I didn't want him to think I was trying to pull a fast one. Hence: "I'll have a G&T, please." He commanded the waiter. He also, seemingly, commanded the ladies to leave. It was just us.
"Good health!" (Me.)
He swirled his glass and appeared to ruminate. "A writer, you say …?"
"That's right …" I wasn't used to talking about it. Or even really addressing the actuality of it. But, technically, if you discounted the total lack of remuneration, it brought in and just took it to mean the activity that I occupied myself with, as well as it being what I wanted to devote the rest of my life to, then, yes, a writer was what I was.
"What about you?" I realised I'd said it with a little too much enthusiasm, and I quickly checked myself. "What … er … what do you do?"
"Oh, I'm in business." He didn't say which, and I didn't ask. "Lots of interests around the world and plenty of travel."
"Sounds good - you must be rich!" I blurted, regretting it even before the digraph had left my mouth.
Luckily, he erupted with laughter. "Of course!" I found myself chuckling, too. After all, wealth might be infectious. "But you know what I think? It's not about how much you've got in your pocket …"
Easy for you to say, I thought.
" … or what you've got in your bank …"
Well, whatever else you say about money, at least it buys a better class of misery.
"… or about how many garages full of Lamborghinis you've got." I don't know why, but I immediately assumed that he did have garages full of Lamborghinis. It just made sense.
"No, it's not about any of that. All of that can come and go in an instant." He made a gesture like a magician releasing a dove. "You see, richness is within." He patted the area he believed to be his heart. "It's funny, I said this to my servant only this morning - and you probably won't believe me - but I was happier back when I was only earning a hundred dollars a week."
Servant? He had a servant? And he admitted to having a servant? I didn't kid myself, then or now. I guess the whole point of this Dorchester visit was precisely to do with that old chestnut about 'seeing how the other half live.' But which half was this? And was that honestly the most sensitive thing to say to a servant? Or perhaps it was actually just an ingenious way of keeping their wage down and discouraging any dissent in the process.
After this, I was a bit disoriented, but my host wasn't. Instead, he was becoming somewhat wistful. "Probably, it was more to do with being young. Of having it all ahead of me."
But when it was all ahead of you, I thought you didn't know it was coming. Or did you?
He laughed again. "In fact, I was rather like you are now!"
Hopefully, the shade of red that I could feel my face displaying would be more attributable to the effects of drink, or a sense of natural modesty, than the total embarrassment which was its true origin. "Well …" I spluttered.
"Make sure you enjoy the journey. Because that's really what it's all about. I can see that now, but at the time, I was too busy running around everywhere, trying to make things work. Lots of things got lost on the way. Lots of people too." He finished his drink and took a moment to reflect. "But I don't need to tell you that - you're a writer! I'm sure you see all these things already." I'm not sure if he winked. He might have done.
Just then, the ladies burst back in and came towards the table. They remained standing, and the man rose to join them. "Young man, it's been a pleasure," he said. "It's not always easy to find someone to talk to." He extended his hand.
"Thank you for your kindness," I replied as I stood and offered my hand in return.
"Always keep moving - that way, you'll never get cold!" And with that concluding remark, he shuffled off towards the door with his lively entourage, leaving me with a drink to finish and a fair amount to ponder.
Richness is within …
In subsequent years, I can say that I became wealthy, too - though not in the way that I expected.
And was he right?