Secret retreat in a terrified London

28th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Travel writer John Ryder visits an old friend at one of the British capital's most exclusive addresses.

London is in a darkness. It's almost like the smog has come down again. People huddled against the cold, collars up, moods down.

This isn't merry old England anymore. It's a depressed area, almost a no-go zone. Even the attractions don't hold much attraction.

Look at the London Eye turning as slowly as a nagging doubt. A year ago it was seen as brash and exciting, now it's half empty - and those that are brave enough to pay their tenner to go on it don't look like they're having fun — they just look vulnerable.

The London Eye has become a landmark
on the south bank of the Thames

Armed police are everywhere. A mile away on Horseguards Parade they are showing their colour but under police guard. The atmosphere around Number 10 Downing Street bristles like a nuclear arsenal and the lanes of Westminster resemble a motorway pile-up, vehicles pulled over to the side of the road, stopped on the central causeway, police scurrying over them like yellow-backed ants.

Fears of terror have almost turned Britain in to what we have always fought against: a police state. And it is on a devastating alert.

It's falling apart! Even in St James's Park the police are coming in two by two. In the past mugging was the biggest worry, or that somebody might poke a resident pelican in the eye with a stick. Now the real fear is wholesale murder.

People don't even seem to stop to feed the squirrels. The warmongers of all complexions have evicted us from our lives.

Glamour of London only a few weeks ago

I don't want to be here — but I have to see a friend. Her name unfortunately has to be guarded as closely as the Crown Jewels. But she is rich, talented and flash. And she wants to be as famous as she was two decades ago.

She is a singer, an American and on the wrong side of 40 — but despite that, she normally embodies all the glamour and energy that was this part of London only a few weeks ago.

She'd invited me to her apartment to 'brainstorm' her future. Usually we meet in a restaurant or 'slum it' in a bar.

But she wasn't being Greta Garbo when she told me over the phone: "I don't want to go out, I don't want to see anybody at the moment."

It can cost a million pounds a year
to live at Buckingham Gate

 This place is a two-minute walk from Buckingham Palace, and is just about one of the best-kept secrets in Britain. Rocks stars and world leaders aspire to 51 Buckingham Gate.

And that's where my friend is, refusing to face the world at a time she wants the whole world to know about her.

She is a victim of this impending war.

Fortress for the stars

I am stopped at the massively ornate iron gates that could resist a small army. Behind them is a sentry box, behind that a crash barrier and behind that the guards. They are polite but insistent as they quiz me. Then they make a phone call and five minutes later my friend meets me in the garden.

It is enchanting as she is: the centrepiece to the marbled square is a massive tiered fountain.

It can cost up to a million pounds a year to live here. As she takes my arm she shows me why. She walks me round the square pointing out with pride the hidden stories of this seven-storey building of Edwardian marble, girdled by a frieze of Shakespeare's works.

As Sergio Gibeni, her head butler, greets us, she turns and points back to the street. "Look, it's like this all the time — that's why I don't want to go out. It's just too frightening."

A convoy of riot-police vans are parked half on the pavement, half off the pavement, in a back street, masking the front of an Italian restaurant which has closed surprisingly early.

The front door to her apartment is pretty impressive. A replica of the most famous door in the world: Number 10. We are in the Prime Minister's suite.

Almost 20 rooms in all, enough for your entire entourage and your War Cabinet.

Not bad for a one-time Eurovision Song Contest winner.

She shows me the guest book at the entrance. Names like Donald Trump, Dame Shirley Bassey, the prime minister of India.

They've all sought privacy here at more - but never imprisonment.

The place is owned by the Tata family of the Taj hotels dynasty, and they are respecters of both people and money.

So, apart from the butler and the maids, they leave her alone to get on with her isolation.

From hotel to bank

It seemed like a good idea to get her out of here for a while, get her back into the real world.

I suggested the Bank Westminster a two-minute walk from her opulent - but ultimately borrowed — front door. Reluctantly she agreed.

The Bank Westminster has the longest bar in Europe and at GBP 5 (EUR 7.50) straight for a G&T served by a performing waiter, you feel like you've put a down payment on it when you buy a round.

This is one of the places to be seen if you are rich, famous or simply on the make.

It is normally heaving with beautiful people; tonight there are gaps along the bar.

Well, me and my friend down G&Ts like money is no object and I recoup some of my losses by sucking on free olives.

And it's doing her good - she talks expansively of her plans for her comeback. There's a new album in the mix and the chance of a musical in the provinces. The album is bluesy and romantic, she says with pride: "More Janis Joplin than Doris Day," she laughs.

I know my friend is dramatic, theatrical - and I have watched as she becomes more and more distracted. Something through the window is drawing her attention. And now she is close to tears.

As I turn a youth - thin, hair as short as alopecia, and sullenness that speaks of mindless violence - walks past, looking pointedly in our direction.

"He's been past five times in the last few minutes," she tells me.

She's close to tears because she's angry, angry on all sorts of counts. She's angry with the youth for looking at her bag instead of her.

She is also angry with him for intimidating her - she is angry with him for his total disregard for her civil rights. She is angry with him for his intention to invade her territory.

She is also angry with the convoy of police less than 60 metres away who have bigger fish to fry.

She is angry with the terrorists, the bombers, the poisoners, the suicide angels. And she is angry with the world leaders who are selling England by the pound of artillery and human might.

She is angry with them for building a human shield against a perceived aggressor.

She is angry with all the powers that have conspired to spoil her paradise.

Powers that have turned London into one hell of a place to be.

February 2003

John Ryder stayed at 51 Buckingham Gate, London, SW1E 6AF. Tel: +44 20 7769 7766, Email: Prices range from GBP 199-1500 (EUR 300-2250) per night.

Subject: Travel

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