(Photos: Chris Bethell and Bekky Lonsdale)
It's a strange place, London: a city that doesn't really seem to function for the majority of people who live there. Stroll past the barren luxury flats, artisanal kitchenware studios and appointment-only candle shops, and you'll see it's certainly not for you. Watch as rents rise faster than house prices and the idea of "home ownership" becomes a funny little thing people reminisce and laugh about, like shag bands or how we used to put asbestos in walls, and realise you do not belong.
But if there's one clear-cut reminder that London is not for you, it's the density of private members' clubs in this city. Those tastefully-lit, expensively-furnished places of refuge for the world's elite. Somewhere you can sip a negroni in peace, without the risk of encountering some satellite town pleb asking to pinch a filter.
The thing is, of course, that I very much am that satellite town pleb, and so have always wondered about what luxury lies behind the doors of these places. Problem is, there are certain barriers to me ever finding out: my Midlands accent, my muddy Converse, my lack of an actual membership to even one private members' club. But you know what? I'm not going to let any of that stop me. Instead, by hook or by crook, I'll finally find a way in.
Okay, so getting into a private members' club is basically just finding a way to get past the doormen, right? Which really can't be that hard. I've seen Daniel Craig pout his way into enough places in the last few Bond films to know that. So my first ruse is a simple one: pretend to be a flower deliveryman.
One backwards cap, a bouquet and a pair of denim shorts later, and I've got a one-way ticket into Shoreditch House, a private members' club in east London aimed so directly at media types that there's a no-tie rule, because exactly nobody who works media wears a tie.
I strut through the lobby, whistling absentmindedly and looking down at my clipboard.
An "Excuse me?" rings out, hitting me like cold water down my collar. "Can I help you?"
"Sure, I've got some flowers here to deliver to the upstairs bar for a… Simon?" The lobby guy's face folds in on itself.
"We've got hundreds of Simons. Do you not have any more information?" I shake my head. "What company are you from?" I feel my temples tighten.
"'That's Flowers?' Okay cool. Let me google them." Fuck. "Nothing – that's weird. Can I have a word with your boss on the phone?"
"Sure, let me just grab my phone out of the car."
Within seconds I'm barreling down Brick Lane. No matter – let's bin that one. Next up:
IF YOU CAN'T BEAT THEM, JOIN THEM
Who do members' clubs have in mind when they're deciding which cut of tuna to include on their sashimi platter? You know the types: the guy who plays squash before work; the woman who takes clients for three-hour afternoon tea sessions at Claridges; the trust fund kid who's developed a cocaine habit in lieu of a personality. And the reason clubs roll out the red carpet for them is simple: they smell the hot wad of Queen Elizabeth's face in their pockets. What I'm saying is: this isn't a matter of tiptoeing through the back door. This is a case of putting on my best suit, stealing some hair gel, filling my wallet and blowing the bloody doors down.
So I look one million bucks. But I don't have one million bucks – I have £20. And how am I going to tip the doorman, the manager and the concierge with that? I need to somehow turn that amount into more. But how?
Yowza! Read it and weep: 7,200 Hungarian forint. Now it's time for me to make my name known at one of London's finest business-oriented private members' clubs, The Devonshire Club.
Swaggering up to the door, I wink at every businessman I see to get me in the mood.
"Good evening, sir!"
I offer my hand and slip the doorman a 500 ft note. We maintain eye contact, shaking hands, and he takes my umbrella from me. This is going to be easy. I'm led down a lowly-lit hallway, through to a lobby where a man offers me a warm towel. A woman calls me over.
"It's fantastic to have you this evening. May we take your jacket?"
"Quite a chill on out there, isn't there?" I'm rounding my vowels like John Cleese.
"Absolutely! And what is your name?"
"Your second name? Just so we can check against our membership lists."
"You see" – I lean over the counter – "I didn't think that would be necessary." The woman's eyes shift from side-to-side, and I continue. "I'm not a member, but seeing as I just want a quick sip of something before I head to a gala dinner nearby, how does 500 sound?"
She looks at the note, then up at me, and then back at the note. I raise my eyebrows.
She doesn't accept the note. I say I'll "sort it out", and then pretend to speak on the phone for at least ten minutes. Sweating and running out of ideas, I give up and make my escape.
Next, my final ruse – and the one that has to come off:
GRANT + ME = THE PLEASURE
Bounding through central London, stinging from the cold slap of failure, I'm pulling my hair out. What do members' clubs actually look for? Who can they simply not refuse? Eureka: celebrities! Of course! Finding an A-lister to roll up with is all that's standing between me and sweet success. And within 45 minutes, I've got my man. My key to the city of London. A priceless asset, for the cost of £300. Meet:
HUGH GRANT! Or Simon. Simon is a Hugh Grant impersonator, who, like Hugh, was prolific in the 90s, but has been a little quieter since. Until tonight.
The plan is simple: we're going to trick Soho's finest members' club, The Groucho, into thinking Hugh Grant (Simon) and his PR (me) have shown up for a quick drink. Trouble is, Simon has a thick Essex accent, so he needs to let me do the talking. And for added effect, photographer Chris is going to pretend to be a pap, desperate for a picture of the Love Actually star.
Sunglasses on and with Chris waiting around the corner, it's show time. We spin onto Dean Street and the flashes begin. Chris lunges out abrasively. I shield and protect my client.
The door lady lunges into action, swinging the portal open, ushering us in.
"Can we help you?" the receptionist asks.
"Yes," I reply. "We'd like a table."
"Okay, do you have a membership name?" I feign shock.
"I'm with Hugh." I look over my shoulder, back to Simon, who is staring into a roaring fire. "Hugh Grant."
The receptionist's jaw drops. Soon, we're being led through into the lounge. I order a beer for me and a gin and tonic for Hugh. They take my card and hand over some pretzels. This is good. This is a win. But I want to see how far I can push it. I tell Simon to look pissed off.
"Hugh is a little bit uncomfortable down here. Do you have anywhere quieter?" I ask the barman.
"Of course, sir."
Up the stairs we go, until the man opens a concealed door and smiles.
Simon and I dance and clink glasses in our very own private room. For a bit. And then we get bored. Private members' clubs aren't really that great, are they? As far as I can see, they're just well-decorated pubs that you have to pay hundreds of pounds a year to get into. Enough of this – time to get out of here. I ask for the cheque.
"Oh, you're going?" asks the man. "Is it something we've done? Because we can make this right if it is?"
"Well," I feel a lightning bolt go through my body. "Perhaps two glasses of champagne would do it?"
"Of course!" He stops. "But can I come deliver them myself?" I feel a rock in my throat.
Turning back up the stairs, I wonder if I've gone too far.
Yep, I have. I definitely have. I explain this to Simon, who immediately panics. We switch seats so his back is to the door, and cross our fingers. In the guy comes. We fall silent. Placing the glasses down, he turns to Simon. "Hugh," he smiles. "I hope you've had a good evening."
Feeling very bad about what I've just done, I feel it's time to go. We drink up and I text Chris so he's poised and ready to pap.
Coming out the door, the flashes are mightier than ever. I almost yell at Chris, telling him to stop, but this is not Chris. This is not Chris at all. This is a man clutching a camera the size of a mortar, rapidly firing flashes as bright as the sun into our eyeballs.
"Had a fun game of tennis this morning, didn't you, Hugh?" he cackles. Initially stunned, we start pacing down the street. "Hey Hugh!" the gentleman prods. "Had a few drinks tonight, have you, Hugh?"
Ducking into a bar and taking a seat, I try to make sense of what's just happened. Is this the price you have to pay for being the kind of man who storms into private members' clubs and demands champagne? Is this treatment why Hugh Grant always looks miserable? Simon and I look at each other, wide-eyed, and start laughing. I slap his shoulder and he smiles back, looking at me warmly and saying:
"Can I go home now?"
I hand him his money and he leaves.
Today has cost me £361, £11 more than an annual under-30s membership to the Groucho Club.
Fuck you, Simon, and fuck you, London.
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