No Longer With Us: Mark Birley

Mark Birley became a friend after I interviewed him in 1990 for my collection of interviews in Singular Encounters.

He was the only son of Sir Oswald Birley, the portrait painter, and had a background of Eton, Oxford and national service done in the Intelligence Corps. He became well known in the nightclub business, and founded three notable watering spots in London’s West End: Annabel’s in Berkeley Square (named after his then wife, who later married Sir James Goldsmith), Harry’s Bar and Mark’s Club, all of which became fashionable institutions to wine and dine in.

Many regarded Mark as a bit of dark horse, not easy to fathom, but none could deny that he had a formidable charisma. On the international scale, he seemed to have the knack of knowing anyone who mattered. He was also accepted as an arbiter of good taste, a man meticulously obsessed with the fine things in life, always aiming for the highest standards in any enterprise he undertook or acquired. His establishments were run with autocratic precision; but he was loved and revered by his staff and his wishes were certainly what they lived by.

He had always turned down any request to talk to the press, and it was hard work to get him to agree to see me. Finally, after I had told him about my plans for Singular Encounters, he said he would take part. We fixed a date, but then he fell ill with flu, and as fate would have it, I started to run a high temperature on the same day. Nevertheless we agreed to go ahead, despite being indisposed. I was afraid, knowing his aversion to interviews, that any postponement would mean the chance never happening again. I therefore rose from my sick bed and took a stiff dose of codeine tablets before staggering round to his house. As I entered, he met me with a glass of champagne. We completed the interview in our mutually feverish states, and managed to communicate with an openness beyond anything I had hoped for or expected.

In the years that followed, he regularly invited me to lunch at Harry’s Bar or Mark’s Club, and whenever I sought to reciprocate, he agreed on principle ­ but then, on the appointed date, phoned with all manner of excuses to say he expected me to come to him instead. Next time, he promised, it would certainly be my turn. In fact my turn as a host never materialised.

I felt that he had a soft spot for me, probably after opening out in the interview, and I became his confidante. The last time I had lunch with him was at Harry’s Bar a few weeks before his death. He was by then very ill and in a wheelchair, and it was clear his memory was fading. This did not stop us having our usual conversation and I was glad I saw him then. I will always remember Mark with the utmost affection, and will miss his company and his contagious love of the best that life can offer. The interview that we did together follows, and seems well worth reading for its rare moments of self-examination in a man who resolutely guarded his privacy.

Any question about my relationship with my mother is rather hard to answer. It must have had some kind of lasting effect. It wasn’t so much a strange relationship, more the absence of any normal relationship. To her credit she was very keen on my taking an interest in everything artistic, including music and the ballet – she had been one of the original supporters of the Diaghilev ballet – but I was not musical. I think we got on better in her later years because there is nothing left to disagree or argue over. An absence of affection, that was the point. We were rather a divided family: my sister and I, my mother and my father. It was a pretty good mess.

I suppose the fact that my father was 50 when I was born must have made for some remoteness in the relationship there. I was extremely fond of him, but he was almost like a grandfather. We were sometimes rather united about Mama. The age gap was wide between them as well. I always got on pretty well with my father, but there were too many people pulling in too many different directions in the family: my mother saying one thing, my sister another and my father trying to get on with his work and painting and wanting a bit of peace and quiet occasionally. You can hardly blame him.

I never really thought of my nanny as being a kind of surrogate mother figure, but in a sense I suppose that is what she was. She’s still alive today at 96, and quite extraordinary. She has had every kind of stroke and should have gone but hasn’t. She has moments of rather brief lucidity. I was devoted to her as a child. Frankly I was glad to leave that period of my childhood behind me, although I’ve wiped my mind pretty clear of all the bad things that happened. I expect it was Annabel who told you I detested Eaton. I didn’t detest it at all. I was relatively happy there, the thing about the place being that you had your own room and felt you were a bit grown up as soon as you arrived.

I do admit to having many regrets about wastage of time. I certainly didn’t work hard enough during my only year at Oxford. At that stage I lacked any sense of direction and didn’t know what I was going to do afterwards. Not that may people do know, but I think I was more lacking in purpose and direction than most of my contemporaries. I had certain artistic ambitions at one point because I was born with a talent for drawing. Had I worked at it, I probably could have done something with it, but I grew bored. I didn’t know what I wanted to be, but I knew I didn’t want to be an artist, though that, in any case, was a time when artistic talents were being treated rather contemptuously. Had I been born in France, things would probably have been quite different.

The point where I first came into my own was, I think, when I opened a sort of advertising office, some years before Annabel’s got going. At least the agency represented independence and I had it for quite a few years. Looking back, it was really great fun. Afterwards I had the Hermès shop in the corner of Piccadilly Arcade and Jermyn Street, but then I came to think that what I wanted was somewhere bigger and better, probably in Bond Street. Annabel’s was just starting, however, and so I sold out, having decided I wasn’t after all really interested in embarking on a larger shop which would only have taken up much more of my time.

Annabel’s arose out of my friendship with John Aspinall. When gambling became legal, he was looking for suitable premises. I already had an idea for some kind of piano bar somewhere, something on a relatively modest scale. No. 44 Berkeley Square had then been empty for about 12 years, and after Aspinall saw it himself, he told me I ought to take a look. Of course, the basement to the house was very small, but we had the garden dug out and we connected up the whole building. I needed to persuade people to invest in it since I didn’t have any money myself just then.

When Annabel’s was being built, I was trying to gather a little team around me, and even then I realised that the key person was going to be the manager. I knew perfectly well that, unless I had the right person, I would be in every kind of trouble because I didn’t really know how to do it myself. I remember calling at the Mirabelle and saying to Louis, the manager there, ‘I’m looking for a manager. If you can think of anyone you think might be suitable, please let me know.’ It simply didn’t occur to me that he would want to come to me, but it was just at the time when the Mirabelle was being taken over and its staff were a bit unsettled. Louis said he thought he might be interested himself, and of course that was my lucky break, because he has been with me ever since and without Louis the story could have been very different. Then Mabel, whom I’d know at the old Wilton’s, came to run the ladies’ room, and still does, and George Hobart, whom I’d known at Jules’ Bar, was barman, though he has since died.

I know there are a lot of people who think I’m very difficult about a lot of things. Who’s put you up to asking? I suppose it is true, yes, because I want to get people to think the same way as I’m thinking straight away, and if I can do that, then everything’s fine. With Louis, for example, we mesh well and we’ve hardly had a cross word in the last 27 years. The fact that I insist on my staff always addressing me formally doesn’t indicate a lack of friendliness or camaraderie or anything of that kind, it’s just that I feel that degree of formality should be maintained. When you’re not working, it’s a different matter altogether, but I don’t really like the American system where everybody’s Jim and Bob and goodness knows what, and everything’s wonderful, except on Monday, when it’s, ‘Bob, you’ve done a great job but we need your desk.’ That’s all superficial.

I’m not good on committees. One of my failings is a lack of patience, and when I feel I’m right about something and that everyone else is wrong, then the whole process of listening to all the arguments makes me rather impatient. I’m used to taking my own decisions in my business without reference to anybody else, obviously within the constraints of what is possible. That rather autocratic way of running things has advantages and disadvantages, but one of the main advantages is that it makes for speed and makes your employees happier, I think. They like somebody who can say yes or no.

Speaking of management really does hit on one of the problems. I find that aspect very difficult. I suppose I’ve got about 200 staff now, and one of the difficulties occurs in part because my headquarters in Hays Mews is exactly the same as it was when I started 28 years ago and I can’t make it any bigger. Another office, in Charles Street, deals with the accounts side of the business, but the businesses are actually managed in quite an unorthodox way. It is still all a bit of a one man band. The latest effort of building the Baths and Racquets Club has put a great strain on the office, because it took a great deal of time and effort. The new club’s been open about a year now, and I still have endless problems with water leakages, builders and staffing. It needs a hell of a lot of everyday attention.

Management is a simple reason why I remain reluctant to take Annabel’s across the Atlantic, though people keep suggesting I should do so. The usual concept behind this operation is to pick it up, put some paper round it, get on Concorde and dump it on a corner of Fifth Avenue. Yet I couldn’t very well stay in America for a year or so and leave everything here in London to get on with itself. It would never work out.

I’ll give you an example. Harry’s Bar in Venice is owned by Arrigo Cipriani, who inherited it from his father as a kind of license to print money. He wasn’t content with that and he had to go to America and get involved in a great shemozzle in New York, transporting all the key staff from Venice to New York. Of course, the bar in Venice started to go downhill. Who needs these headaches? He certainly didn’t need the money, so what was the point? Nobody is content nowadays to do what they do and stick to it. It was the same with Geoffrey Vennison, who was very well known as a wonderful antique dealer before he became an interior decorator and did so much for Annabel’s and Mark’s Club. He also became a very great friend, and was a splendid raconteur as well as a bit of a snob. Well, whenever Concorde tickets arrived from all these very rich ladies in New York who said, ‘Will you come and advise us on our cushions?’ Geoffrey couldn’t resist it, and off he had to go. It killed him, you know.

It’s not so much perfectionism I’m after in the way I run Annabel’s as the way I think things ought to be. This is not necessarily the same as perfection. I just want to get everything right in the way I think to be best. Of course, it is a matter of going on and on for years and staying interested enough to try to improve things.

In some funny way, Annabel’s has managed to satisfy people’s needs. It’s a place they really like to be in. If you asked a selection of people to define their ideal nightclub, they would all answer with different specifications, but probably none of them would answer truthfully because they will all have little secrets which their not going to disclose. But I think I happen to know what some of these secrets are, and Annabel’s incorporates a few of them. Since I launched Annabel’s, quite a number of other clubs have sprung up, and every time a new one comes along there’s a fresh wave of excitement. I know perfectly well that a lot of people will go rushing off there, but equally I’m pretty certain that they’ll be back. I strongly believe that, if you do your utmost to look after people properly, they will remain loyal.

Contrary to what one might suppose, there haven’t been many appalling scenes in Annabel’s. There really haven’t been any big fights, though we’ve had lots of drunken behaviour. Geoffrey Keating, who used to be in charge of public relations at BP and who helped to promote Montgomery’s reputation when he was on his staff during the war, used to sit there as if he owned the place. Whenever things got too much, after he’d insulted whole parties of Arabs and so on, we had a procedure for getting him out. One of the doorman used to walk him home through Berkeley Square, and as he passed the J. Walter Thompson Building, he would stop, undo his flies and pee into the letterbox with great accuracy all over J. Walter Thompson’s expensive stationery. After that he would be quite happy. He was like a lamb once he’d been lead home. The stories of Geoffrey in Annabel’s are absolutely legion. I used to have frightful rows with him, but I adored him. He was one of my greatest friends, and was never frightened about the consequences of his behaviour, drunk or sober.

Perhaps I do have a slightly withdrawn personality, though it depends on the circumstances. I’m the opposite to extrovert, I suppose. I need to have people around me, but I don’t need a lot of people. People think I’m a melancholic because I’m not forever grinning at everybody. Nowadays everybody is expected to wear a permanent grin from ear to ear.

I find it perfectly easy to have close relationships, but I also find I’ve reached a point in life where I’m probably not going to make, or don’t particularly wish to make, many more close friends. Certainly there are a lot of people I love to see and who are going to be friends, but I’m not going to make anymore very intimate friends. We all know hundreds and hundreds of people and it all becomes too much. The assumption of a lack of warmth on my part springs from an attitude of, oh my God, this restaurant owner really hasn’t been to charm school, has he? I’m expected to remember everybody’s name from either side of the Atlantic, and to say all those things people say when they’re 21. That’s not my style. One of my strengths at Annabel’s and the clubs is that, when I’m there, I think of myself as a kind of customer and so get a detached feeling about it. This is very helpful. If you allow yourself to grow too close to it all, you can only attend to detail and you can’t see the thing whole.

If Louis says that I have a wonderful sense of humour, then all I can tell you is that Louis’ idea of a good sense of humour is so awful and disgusting that the girls in the office have to be trained to listen to the stories he produces. As for being happy, I think it all depends. I don’t know that you can exist in a permanent state of blissful happiness, though you go through periods of happiness. If you are too happy too much of the time, it seems to imply some kind of complacency that is rather unattractive. I realise I have a reputation for being a misery. I can become unhappy for all kinds of reasons, but to call me melancholic is to aim wide of the mark. If people say I find it difficult to show affection and to trust on an emotional level, there is maybe some truth in it. You’ve been doing quite a lot of research, I must say.

No, I wouldn’t consider that the British have good taste. If we’re talking about the post-war years, I would say most definitely not, and in fact they’ve been swayed in the opposite direction in hundreds of different ways. Architecture is the most obvious example. I’m one hundred per cent behind Prince Charles on that one. The whinging of architects who feel they shouldn’t be criticised by anybody unless it’s by another architect seems quite extraordinary. It’s such a pity we don’t have a Lutyens around today.

My own passion for collecting is a sort of acquisitiveness, I suppose. I can get caught up in a new interest at the drop of a hat. If I had the time to go round all the salesrooms, there would be no end to the stuff I could get interested in. At Sotheby’s recently they had the most beautiful old picnic baskets which I wanted to buy, but I didn’t manage to go.

I once had the most frightful disaster, bidding for some drawings at Christie’s. My secretary is very good at bidding – very quiet about it where I get over-excited. Here in the office that morning I told her I wanted her to bid for 10 drawings and that when I wanted her to stop bidding then I would shake my head. Simple. The trouble was that we went separately to Christie’s and I couldn’t find her when I reached the salesroom. When the lots came up I thought she’d disappeared off the face of the earth, so started bidding myself. Just as the items were being knocked down to me, the auctioneer said, ‘Ah, a new bidder at the end of the room,’ and on the bidding went again. When I got out of the salesroom, I found my secretary and asked, ‘Where the hell have you been?’ She replied, ‘Well, I couldn’t find you, but luckily I managed to buy one or two.’ By bidding against me, she had managed to pay the world record price for one drawing.

I see quite a lot of Annabel, and yes, she is a most important person in my life. Getting married to her was the most important thing that happened to me, and Annabel, when all is said and done, probably shaped my life more than any other person, though without being particularly aware of what she was doing. The thing that you say she said to you, about me being the true love of her life, is reciprocated. Though if Jimmy Goldsmith walked into this room now, I’d be perfectly pleased to see him.

My God, do you have that typed out: ‘Difficult to have as a lover, but, once the affair is over, the most wonderful friend?’ I’m sure the first statement is absolutely true. I’m not aware of being so difficult, but I suppose whoever told you must be right. I feel very comfortable in the company of women. By today’s standards, I should think I probably discovered women pretty late. It was after I left school, I suppose, when I was up at Oxford. They have been important in my life, but none more so than Annabel, you know. But if I have never remarried, it’s not because I consciously avoid long-term relationships. I have been with the same person now for quite a long time, and I don’t know whether we’ll get married or not. We probably will.

In respect of possessing patience, I probably made a very bad father. I should have gone to my children’s school more often, but I think they probably forgave me for not doing so. I remember one awful sports day, pouring with rain, when Rupert found a pavilion, and said, ‘Pup, don’t you worry, you stay in here. I’ll go and get you a glass of brandy.’ All the other parents were busy doing something constructive around the place, talking to the masters or whatever, but I hated it. The children were certainly very much closer to their mother at the beginning and, to be truthful, probably are still, but we got on with each other well now.

When you look at your children, I think you look to see whether your own worst characteristics are emerging, but Robin, for example, is much more mature at 30 than I was at his age. He has a better aptitude for business; he’s extremely hard-working. He gets up very early in the morning, a thing that I have always found very difficult to do. My daughter is the only one who has really inherited my artistic ability, and now she fully understands that talent needs to be combined with a lot of hard work to produce results. She is a good artist. I sense she’s going to do great things. She is enormously talented and is working hard; she paints in oils, she draws. She has always drawn since she was a child, but now she has a very disciplined pencil. Her first exhibition was a great success and she’s going to have another. John Ward, whose opinion I respect, thinks highly of her.

It is rather difficult to know whether one of my children will take over from me when I retire. I think Robin would eventually be quite interested, if for no other reason than that it could be a hell of a launching pad for something else. Rupert was far more literary. He would have liked to be a writer. When I asked him what benefit he thought he had derived from Oxford, he said it was the ability to write. When he came down, he found it quite difficult to get a job. I’m all for people going to university, but I think that too many sons and daughters go up to Oxford and Cambridge and are promised by their tutors that the world is theirs if only they get a decent second in PPE – Philosophy, Politics and Economics. It’s not necessarily the case. I felt that Robin could have gone up to Oxford quite easily, but part of the strength of his position today is that he did not do so, but started work instead. Things have been difficult for Robin for various reasons, mainly because of an accident he suffered in childhood, when he was only 11. He was mauled by a tiger and the injuries were very serious. The lower part of his face was crushed in the tiger’s jaws and he came within an inch of death. Luckily there was a hospital which dealt with motorway accidents and urgent cases only two or three miles away. They got him there very quickly, he was operated on and they managed to save his life.

The boys absolutely adored each other, though I would say that Rupert was the closest to me. I’m sure he could have become an accomplished writer, but unfortunately he wanted first to prove to all his contemporaries that he wasn’t just some vague scribbler, that he could actually make a success in business too. So he went to Togo. I don’t know if you’ve ever been there. I hope you never have to go. All I can say about it is that it is a bloody miserable place. Even the American ambassador to Togo apologised to me for just being there. Rupert didn’t exactly like it either, but he managed to make friends in a most extraordinary way. Everybody adored him. When I got out there after the accident, the warmth of feeling I found for him was quite extraordinary.

I did discuss with Rupert whether he would ever want to take over from me, but he was very sensitive and didn’t want to be given anything on a plate which he felt he hadn’t rightfully earned. He also felt that that would be unfair from Robin’s point of view, so he was rather confused about what he should do. But quite certainly I think that he would’ve come into the business eventually.

On the subject of tragedies in my life, I’ll tell you something. I really hate people who wear their emotions on their sleeves. I simply don’t want to show how I feel sometimes, and if I can manage to conceal it, so much the better. The spectacle of a man breaking down in front of people, in public, is always rather a sad thing to witness. I’d rather it wasn’t me. In Rupert’s case, at least there was something I could do. I was sitting out on my balcony having a cup of coffee before going to the office when my secretary rang and said she had someone from Togo on the line. I absolutely knew at that second that the news was bad. All they could tell me was that Rupert couldn’t be found.

There was no reason at that point, or even after we got out there – Robin came with me – to assume he was dead. There was certainly no time to sit and mope. The question of abduction arose and we felt we had to get to the truth of the matter. I called in a firm of investigators, which deal mostly with kidnappings, and I must say they were very good, very thorough. At all events, we satisfied ourselves that there was no question of an abduction. Rupert used to go swimming at a particularly horrible beach where the currents were strong and you could easily be dragged out. There had been quite a number of other cases where people weren’t recovered, and this is what almost certainly happened with Rupert. It was a very great shock to us all. Robin was absolutely marvellous. I had to have awful phone calls with Annabel, who used to sit by the telephone in London waiting for me to ring in the evening. I went back to that bloody God-forsaken place to or three times. I think Rupert was the only white man who ever went out there through choice. I miss him terribly.

I would describe myself as being more heart than head. I am perhaps a little on the cynical side sometimes, but hard-headed, no. I am vulnerable to failure, or when I lose a friendship, and I dare say self-esteem comes in there a little bit. But I am hyper-sensitive, not thick-skinned at all, and I very easily get hurt.

We’ve all got regrets, mostly about things we didn’t do rather than things we did. Timing is also important. I would like to have done everything a few years earlier. Probably we all feel like that. I expect I would live my life differently if I had the chance again. One often thinks, if only I was 25 years younger and knew what I know now. It would be like putting a bull who had already had one fight into the ring. I’d have been a much better student and everything else. In those days the dividend, if there was one, seemed far too remote to be worth bothering about. On top of that, schools were then very different. Boys nowadays look forward to going back to school after their holidays because they have much more fun. They have more freedom, they’re more grown up and, of course, they travel. I was at school during the war years, and went abroad only in 1946 or 1947 for the first time, when I was 17. I know children nowadays who have been absolutely everywhere by the time they’re 12.

I am not unduly apprehensive about the future. In general, I feel reasonably confident and optimistic. I am not planning to take on a lot more work. I think I’d rather work a bit less fairly soon, though I don’t see that I can retire. Anyway, what is it one would retire to? A kind of blank day.

Any question about my relationship with my mother is rather hard to answer. It must have had some kind of lasting effect. It wasn’t so much a strange relationship, more the absence of any normal relationship. To her credit she was very keen on my taking an interest in everything artistic, including music and the ballet – she had been one of the original supporters of the Diaghilev ballet – but I was not musical. I think we got on better in her later years because there is nothing left to disagree or argue over. An absence of affection, that was the point. We were rather a divided family: my sister and I, my mother and my father. It was a pretty good mess.

I suppose the fact that my father was 50 when I was born must have made for some remoteness in the relationship there. I was extremely fond of him, but he was almost like a grandfather. We were sometimes rather united about Mama. The age gap was wide between them as well. I always got on pretty well with my father, but there were too many people pulling in too many different directions in the family: my mother saying one thing, my sister another and my father trying to get on with his work and painting and wanting a bit of peace and quiet occasionally. You can hardly blame him.

I never really thought of my nanny as being a kind of surrogate mother figure, but in a sense I suppose that is what she was. She’s still alive today at 96, and quite extraordinary. She has had every kind of stroke and should have gone but hasn’t. She has moments of rather brief lucidity. I was devoted to her as a child. Frankly I was glad to leave that period of my childhood behind me, although I’ve wiped my mind pretty clear of all the bad things that happened. I expect it was Annabel who told you I detested Eaton. I didn’t detest it at all. I was relatively happy there, the thing about the place being that you had your own room and felt you were a bit grown up as soon as you arrived.

I do admit to having many regrets about wastage of time. I certainly didn’t work hard enough during my only year at Oxford. At that stage I lacked any sense of direction and didn’t know what I was going to do afterwards. Not that may people do know, but I think I was more lacking in purpose and direction than most of my contemporaries. I had certain artistic ambitions at one point because I was born with a talent for drawing. Had I worked at it, I probably could have done something with it, but I grew bored. I didn’t know what I wanted to be, but I knew I didn’t want to be an artist, though that, in any case, was a time when artistic talents were being treated rather contemptuously. Had I been born in France, things would probably have been quite different.

The point where I first came into my own was, I think, when I opened a sort of advertising office, some years before Annabel’s got going. At least the agency represented independence and I had it for quite a few years. Looking back, it was really great fun. Afterwards I had the Hermès shop in the corner of Piccadilly Arcade and Jermain Street, but then I came to think that what I wanted was somewhere bigger and better, probably in Bond Street. Annabel’s was just starting, however, and so I sold out, having decided I wasn’t after all really interested in embarking on a larger shop which would only have taken up much more of my time.

Annabel’s arose out of my friendship with John Aspinall. When gambling became legal, he was looking for suitable premises. I already had an idea for some kind of piano bar somewhere, something on a relatively modest scale. No. 44 Berkeley Square had then been empty for about 12 years, and after Aspinall saw it himself, he told me I ought to take a look. Of course, the basement to the house was very small, but we had the garden dug out and we connected up the whole building. I needed to persuade people to invest in it since I didn’t have any money myself just then.

When Annabel’s was being built, I was trying to gather a little team around me, and even then I realised that the key person was going to be the manager. I knew perfectly well that, unless I had the right person, I would be in every kind of trouble because I didn’t really know how to do it myself. I remember calling at the Mirabelle and saying to Louis, the manager there, ‘I’m looking for a manager. If you can think of anyone you think might be suitable, please let me know.’ It simply didn’t occur to me that he would want to come to me, but it was just at the time when the Mirabelle was being taken over and its staff were a bit unsettled. Louis said he thought he might be interested himself, and of course that was my lucky break, because he has been with me ever since and without Louis the story could have been very different. Then Mabel, whom I’d know at the old Wilton’s, came to run the ladies’ room, and still does, and George Hobart, whom I’d known at Jules’ Bar, was barman, though he has since died.

I know there are a lot of people who think I’m very difficult about a lot of things. Who’s put you up to asking? I suppose it is true, yes, because I want to get people to think the same way as I’m thinking straight away, and if I can do that, then everything’s fine. With Louis, for example, we mesh well and we’ve hardly had a cross word in the last 27 years. The fact that I insist on my staff always addressing me formally doesn’t indicate a lack of friendliness or camaraderie or anything of that kind, it’s just that I feel that degree of formality should be maintained. When you’re not working, it’s a different matter altogether, but I don’t really like the American system where everybody’s Jim and Bob and goodness knows what, and everything’s wonderful, except on Monday, when it’s, ‘Bob, you’ve done a great job but we need your desk.’ That’s all superficial.

I’m not good on committees. One of my failings is a lack of patience, and when I feel I’m right about something and that everyone else is wrong, then the whole process of listening to all the arguments makes me rather impatient. I’m used to taking my own decisions in my business without reference to anybody else, obviously within the constraints of what is possible. That rather autocratic way of running things has advantages and disadvantages, but one of the main advantages is that it makes for speed and makes your employees happier, I think. They like somebody who can say yes or no.

Speaking of management really does hit on one of the problems. I find that aspect very difficult. I suppose I’ve got about 200 staff now, and one of the difficulties occurs in part because my headquarters in Hays Mews is exactly the same as it was when I started 28 years ago and I can’t make it any bigger. Another office, in Charles Street, deals with the accounts side of the business, but the businesses are actually managed in quite an unorthodox way. It is still all a bit of a one man band. The latest effort of building the Baths and Racquets Club has put a great strain on the office, because it took a great deal of time and effort. The new club’s been open about a year now, and I still have endless problems with water leakages, builders and staffing. It needs a hell of a lot of everyday attention.

Management is a simple reason why I remain reluctant to take Annabel’s across the Atlantic, though people keep suggesting I should do so. The usual concept behind this operation is to pick it up, put some paper round it, get on Concorde and dump it on a corner of Fifth Avenue. Yet I couldn’t very well stay in America for a year or so and leave everything here in London to get on with itself. It would never work out.

I’ll give you an example. Harry’s Bar in Venice is owned by Arrigo Cipriani, who inherited it from his father as a kind of license to print money. He wasn’t content with that and he had to go to America and get involved in a great shemozzle in New York, transporting all the key staff from Venice to New York. Of course, the bar in Venice started to go downhill. Who needs these headaches? He certainly didn’t need the money, so what was the point? Nobody is content nowadays to do what they do and stick to it. It was the same with Geoffrey Vennison, who was very well known as a wonderful antique dealer before he became an interior decorator and did so much for Annabel’s and Mark’s Club. He also became a very great friend, and was a splendid raconteur as well as a bit of a snob. Well, whenever Concorde tickets arrived from all these very rich ladies in New York who said, ‘Will you come and advise us on our cushions?’ Geoffrey couldn’t resist it, and off he had to go. It killed him, you know.

It’s not so much perfectionism I’m after in the way I run Annabel’s as the way I think things ought to be. This is not necessarily the same as perfection. I just want to get everything right in the way I think to be best. Of course, it is a matter of going on and on for years and staying interested enough to try to improve things.

In some funny way, Annabel’s has managed to satisfy people’s needs. It’s a place they really like to be in. If you asked a selection of people to define their ideal nightclub, they would all answer with different specifications, but probably none of them would answer truthfully because they will all have little secrets which their not going to disclose. But I think I happen to know what some of these secrets are, and Annabel’s incorporates a few of them. Since I launched Annabel’s, quite a number of other clubs have sprung up, and every time a new one comes along there’s a fresh wave of excitement. I know perfectly well that a lot of people will go rushing off there, but equally I’m pretty certain that they’ll be back. I strongly believe that, if you do your utmost to look after people properly, they will remain loyal.

Contrary to what one might suppose, there haven’t been many appalling scenes in Annabel’s. There really haven’t been any big fights, though we’ve had lots of drunken behaviour. Geoffrey Keating, who used to be in charge of public relations at BP and who helped to promote Montgomery’s reputation when he was on his staff during the war, used to sit there as if he owned the place. Whenever things got too much, after he’d insulted whole parties of Arabs and so on, we had a procedure for getting him out. One of the doorman used to walk him home through Berkeley Square, and as he passed the J. Walter Thompson Building, he would stop, undo his flies and pee into the letterbox with great accuracy all over J. Walter Thompson’s expensive stationery. After that he would be quite happy. He was like a lamb once he’d been lead home. The stories of Geoffrey in Annabel’s are absolutely legion. I used to have frightful rows with him, but I adored him. He was one of my greatest friends, and was never frightened about the consequences of his behaviour, drunk or sober.

Perhaps I do have a slightly withdrawn personality, though it depends on the circumstances. I’m the opposite to extrovert, I suppose. I need to have people around me, but I don’t need a lot of people. People think I’m a melancholic because I’m not forever grinning at everybody. Nowadays everybody is expected to wear a permanent grin from ear to ear.

I find it perfectly easy to have close relationships, but I also find I’ve reached a point in life where I’m probably not going to make, or don’t particularly wish to make, many more close friends. Certainly there are a lot of people I love to see and who are going to be friends, but I’m not going to make anymore very intimate friends. We all know hundreds and hundreds of people and it all becomes too much. The assumption of a lack of warmth on my part springs from an attitude of, oh my God, this restaurant owner really hasn’t been to charm school, has he? I’m expected to remember everybody’s name from either side of the Atlantic, and to say all those things people say when they’re 21. That’s not my style. One of my strengths at Annabel’s and the clubs is that, when I’m there, I think of myself as a kind of customer and so get a detached feeling about it. This is very helpful. If you allow yourself to grow too close to it all, you can only attend to detail and you can’t see the thing whole.

If Louis says that I have a wonderful sense of humour, then all I can tell you is that Louis’ idea of a good sense of humour is so awful and disgusting that the girls in the office have to be trained to listen to the stories he produces. As for being happy, I think it all depends. I don’t know that you can exist in a permanent state of blissful happiness, though you go through periods of happiness. If you are too happy too much of the time, it seems to imply some kind of complacency that is rather unattractive. I realise I have a reputation for being a misery. I can become unhappy for all kinds of reasons, but to call me melancholic is to aim wide of the mark. If people say I find it difficult to show affection and to trust on an emotional level, there is maybe some truth in it. You’ve been doing quite a lot of research, I must say.

No, I wouldn’t consider that the British have good taste. If we’re talking about the post-war years, I would say most definitely not, and in fact they’ve been swayed in the opposite direction in hundreds of different ways. Architecture is the most obvious example. I’m one hundred per cent behind Prince Charles on that one. The whinging of architects who feel they shouldn’t be criticised by anybody unless it’s by another architect seems quite extraordinary. It’s such a pity we don’t have a Lutyens around today.

My own passion for collecting is a sort of acquisitiveness, I suppose. I can get caught up in a new interest at the drop of a hat. If I had the time to go round all the salesrooms, there would be no end to the stuff I could get interested in. At Sotheby’s recently they had the most beautiful old picnic baskets which I wanted to buy, but I didn’t manage to go.

I once had the most frightful disaster, bidding for some drawings at Christie’s. My secretary is very good at bidding – very quiet about it where I get over-excited. Here in the office that morning I told her I wanted her to bid for 10 drawings and that when I wanted her to stop bidding then I would shake my head. Simple. The trouble was that we went separately to Christie’s and I couldn’t find her when I reached the salesroom. When the lots came up I thought she’d disappeared off the face of the earth, so started bidding myself. Just as the items were being knocked down to me, the auctioneer said, ‘Ah, a new bidder at the end of the room,’ and on the bidding went again. When I got out of the salesroom, I found my secretary and asked, ‘Where the hell have you been?’ She replied, ‘Well, I couldn’t find you, but luckily I managed to buy one or two.’ By bidding against me, she had managed to pay the world record price for one drawing.

I see quite a lot of Annabel, and yes, she is a most important person in my life. Getting married to her was the most important thing that happened to me, and Annabel, when all is said and done, probably shaped my life more than any other person, though without being particularly aware of what she was doing. The thing that you say she said to you, about me being the true love of her life, is reciprocated. Though if Jimmy Goldsmith walked into this room now, I’d be perfectly pleased to see him.

My God, do you have that typed out: ‘Difficult to have as a lover, but, once the affair is over, the most wonderful friend?’ I’m sure the first statement is absolutely true. I’m not aware of being so difficult, but I suppose whoever told you must be right. I feel very comfortable in the company of women. By today’s standards, I should think I probably discovered women pretty late. It was after I left school, I suppose, when I was up at Oxford. They have been important in my life, but none more so than Annabel, you know. But if I have never remarried, it’s not because I consciously avoid long-term relationships. I have been with the same person now for quite a long time, and I don’t know whether we’ll get married or not. We probably will.

In respect of possessing patience, I probably made a very bad father. I should have gone to my children’s school more often, but I think they probably forgave me for not doing so. I remember one awful sports day, pouring with rain, when Rupert found a pavilion, and said, ‘Pup, don’t you worry, you stay in here. I’ll go and get you a glass of brandy.’ All the other parents were busy doing something constructive around the place, talking to the masters or whatever, but I hated it. The children were certainly very much closer to their mother at the beginning and, to be truthful, probably are still, but we got on with each other well now.

When you look at your children, I think you look to see whether your own worst characteristics are emerging, but Robin, for example, is much more mature at 30 than I was at his age. He has a better aptitude for business; he’s extremely hard-working. He gets up very early in the morning, a thing that I have always found very difficult to do. My daughter is the only one who has really inherited my artistic ability, and now she fully understands that talent needs to be combined with a lot of hard work to produce results. She is a good artist. I sense she’s going to do great things. She is enormously talented and is working hard; she paints in oils, she draws. She has always drawn since she was a child, but now she has a very disciplined pencil. Her first exhibition was a great success and she’s going to have another. John Ward, whose opinion I respect, thinks highly of her.

It is rather difficult to know whether one of my children will take over from me when I retire. I think Robin would eventually be quite interested, if for no other reason than that it could be a hell of a launching pad for something else. Rupert was far more literary. He would have liked to be a writer. When I asked him what benefit he thought he had derived from Oxford, he said it was the ability to write. When he came down, he found it quite difficult to get a job. I’m all for people going to university, but I think that too many sons and daughters go up to Oxford and Cambridge and are promised by their tutors that the world is theirs if only they get a decent second in PPE – Philosophy, Politics and Economics. It’s not necessarily the case. I felt that Robin could have gone up to Oxford quite easily, but part of the strength of his position today is that he did not do so, but started work instead. Things have been difficult for Robin for various reasons, mainly because of an accident he suffered in childhood, when he was only 11. He was mauled by a tiger and the injuries were very serious. The lower part of his face was crushed in the tiger’s jaws and he came within an inch of death. Luckily there was a hospital which dealt with motorway accidents and urgent cases only two or three miles away. They got him there very quickly, he was operated on and they managed to save his life.

The boys absolutely adored each other, though I would say that Rupert was the closest to me. I’m sure he could have become an accomplished writer, but unfortunately he wanted first to prove to all his contemporaries that he wasn’t just some vague scribbler, that he could actually make a success in business too. So he went to Togo. I don’t know if you’ve ever been there. I hope you never have to go. All I can say about it is that it is a bloody miserable place. Even the American ambassador to Togo apologised to me for just being there. Rupert didn’t exactly like it either, but he managed to make friends in a most extraordinary way. Everybody adored him. When I got out there after the accident, the warmth of feeling I found for him was quite extraordinary.

I did discuss with Rupert whether he would ever want to take over from me, but he was very sensitive and didn’t want to be given anything on a plate which he felt he hadn’t rightfully earned. He also felt that that would be unfair from Robin’s point of view, so he was rather confused about what he should do. But quite certainly I think that he would’ve come into the business eventually.

On the subject of tragedies in my life, I’ll tell you something. I really hate people who wear their emotions on their sleeves. I simply don’t want to show how I feel sometimes, and if I can manage to conceal it, so much the better. The spectacle of a man breaking down in front of people, in public, is always rather a sad thing to witness. I’d rather it wasn’t me. In Rupert’s case, at least there was something I could do. I was sitting out on my balcony having a cup of coffee before going to the office when my secretary rang and said she had someone from Togo on the line. I absolutely knew at that second that the news was bad. All they could tell me was that Rupert couldn’t be found.

There was no reason at that point, or even after we got out there – Robin came with me – to assume he was dead. There was certainly no time to sit and mope. The question of abduction arose and we felt we had to get to the truth of the matter. I called in a firm of investigators, which deal mostly with kidnappings, and I must say they were very good, very thorough. At all events, we satisfied ourselves that there was no question of an abduction. Rupert used to go swimming at a particularly horrible beach where the currents were strong and you could easily be dragged out. There had been quite a number of other cases where people weren’t recovered, and this is what almost certainly happened with Rupert. It was a very great shock to us all. Robin was absolutely marvellous. I had to have awful phone calls with Annabel, who used to sit by the telephone in London waiting for me to ring in the evening. I went back to that bloody God-forsaken place to or three times. I think Rupert was the only white man who ever went out there through choice. I miss him terribly.

I would describe myself as being more heart than head. I am perhaps a little on the cynical side sometimes, but hard-headed, no. I am vulnerable to failure, or when I lose a friendship, and I dare say self-esteem comes in there a little bit. But I am hyper-sensitive, not thick-skinned at all, and I very easily get hurt.

We’ve all got regrets, mostly about things we didn’t do rather than things we did. Timing is also important. I would like to have done everything a few years earlier. Probably we all feel like that. I expect I would live my life differently if I had the chance again. One often thinks, if only I was 25 years younger and knew what I know now. It would be like putting a bull who had already had one fight into the ring. I’d have been a much better student and everything else. In those days the dividend, if there was one, seemed far too remote to be worth bothering about. On top of that, schools were then very different. Boys nowadays look forward to going back to school after their holidays because they have much more fun. They have more freedom, they’re more grown up and, of course, they travel. I was at school during the war years, and went abroad only in 1946 or 1947 for the first time, when I was 17. I know children nowadays who have been absolutely everywhere by the time they’re 12.

I am not unduly apprehensive about the future. In general, I feel reasonably confident and optimistic. I am not planning to take on a lot more work. I think I’d rather work a bit less fairly soon, though I don’t see that I can retire. Anyway, what is it one would retire to? A kind of blank day.

One response to “No Longer With Us: Mark Birley

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