House of Crooks – SW1A 0AA

aka Used and Abused in Uganda (Part I)

 

Diplomatic Passport(rev)

Despite the now faded smell of urine and filth, I have a very soft spot for this old friend.

Let me tell you a story…

It was the summer of 1986, a hot August day and I’d been invited to a jolly by my long-time friend and insurance broker, Gordon.  The Speaker’s Regatta, an annual event where MPs and their staff mess around in boats on the Thames and generally have a good lark.  All good-natured fun, of a very British kind.

Guests were hosted on the members’ terrace of the House of Commons, very appealing to the upwardly mobile of the day, elitist even, in the modern jargon.

I arrived around 10:30 and it was already hot.  The Terrace was a hive of activity with no shade, not even a token umbrella.  There were already jolly gapes going on, down below in and on the water.  My friend greeted me and offered me a drink.  He gestured to the Beefeater Marquee set up at the end of the terrace and announced that we had a choice of Gin, with or without tonic.  I accepted mine with, it seemed the wiser option, given the hour of the morning.

And so it continued throughout the day.  We were all having a fine time, watching those respectable members pushing each other into the murky waters of London’s largest sewer, laughing and screaming with delight as they did so.

The TerraceI remember the enormous bulk of Cyril Smith who stood for seemingly hours, sentry-like at the entrance from the House onto the terrace, engaged in conversation with various folk.  He was wearing his trademark brown, broadly pinstriped, three-piece suit and as I watched the rivers of perspiration running down his face, I couldn’t help wondering how desperately uncomfortable he must feel.  It wasn’t a pleasant sight, at all and this was well before any of us knew about his aberrant pastimes.

I do recall there was a buffet-like snack available but there wasn’t so much eating going on, just a whole lot of drinking.

By mid-afternoon I found myself perched on the end of a trestle table, the end nearest the Palace, away from the water.  I’d just finished a chat with someone when this fellow ambled past seeming, it must be said, by the nature of his gait and by the garbled sound of his voice when he spoke, a little the worse for wear.  “Dja wanajdrink?” he asked, good naturedly and smiling inanely.  I might not have cottoned on but for the fact that he had paused his steps and held out a brimming tumbler in my direction, at arm’s-length.  I noted it was full, which I found reassuring (you never know where these people have been) and glancing at my own, that it was empty and so I replied, “Why thank you, don’t mind if I do!”

We saluted each other casually, he stumbled on and I reflected cheerfully on the good timing of the encounter, raising my new glass to refresh myself in the hot afternoon sunshine.  I didn’t so much recoil, when the taste first hit my tongue, but I definitely winced a tad, thinking, “Boy! That fella likes a strong G&T!”

Some while later, my glass being empty yet again, I wandered down to the only refreshment offering available, the Beefeater Marquee, and joked with the bartender.  “Ooh, what should I have?  Perhaps a nice Gin & Tonic?”

Beefeater“‘fraid not”, said he, “We ran out of tonic an hour or two back, only gin now. Plenty of ice though!”  It dawned on me, as in the light bulb moment, that the tall tumbler of strong G&T I’d just downed was, actually, just G with absolutely no T whatsoever.  In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought.  “Well I’ll have a nice long glass of your finest gin and a little ice, then, please!” I ordered. I have absolutely no idea how many times I might have repeated that process and I remember nothing more about the afternoon’s events on the terrace until it came time to leave.

This was the ’80s, I must remind you so I should not be embarrassed to refer to the fact that I had arrived carrying my “man-bag”.  I shouldn’t be but I am, still.  I had left it on a chair by the entrance door where there were various other personal items that guests had rested down, probably with the traditional “keep an eye on that for me, won’t you?” request that one makes in such situations, naively.

It was still there.  I retrieved it and my friend and I went on our very jolly way, feeling on top of the world and ready for a night out on the town.  The evening was young, the sun still shone and we were healthy thirty-somethings with constitutions like the proverbial oxen. I don’t know what made me think to check but, in any event, I did and slipped my hand into a pocket in my bag to make sure my passport was still there.  It was the blue, hardbacked kind so very easy to recognise by touch.  In those days I always carried my passport with me, everywhere, because I was forever jumping onto aircraft at the drop of a hat to jet off somewhere, usually some part of the world where civilisation is, shall we say, not as we’ve come to know it.  My passport wasn’t there.  I panicked, I had a trip coming up in two days’ time, adding to the anxiety which filled me and I frantically emptied out the bag’s contents on the pavement, outside the members’ entrance to the HoC.  It wasn’t there.  I stuffed everything back inside, told my friend to wait there for me and dashed off back to the terrace to interrogate the staff.  They were politely useless but, in fairness, what could they do?  If, as they implied, I was dumb enough to leave my passport, in a bag on a chair in what should be one of the safest places on earth – what did I expect?  HoC stands for House of Crooks, they told me.  How right they are, still.

Resigned to the situation and determined not to waste a perfectly good summer evening in London, I re-joined my friend and we happily trotted off along the embankment, wondering where to stop for a drink, as you do.  That’s when we spied The Hispaniola, moored adjacent Hungerford Bridge, along the embankment. It was quite a novelty back then but has since become an intrinsic part of the scenery in that part of London.  We stood up on the top deck and had a couple of drinks before we headed off again, up Northumberland Avenue, where we spied the Sherlock Holmes pub.  It was full of after office drinkers and, I dare say, quite a few tourists like ourselves and we had a couple more drinks…..

We were getting quite hungry by this time so when we left the pub and found ourselves back on Northumberland Avenue, we were wondering where we might go for a good meal.  Having made all the calls so far that evening, I said to Gordon, my friend, “OK, I’ll get the cab and you tell him where to take us?”.  Gordon signified agreement, so without further ado, I strode into the middle of Northumberland Avenue and held up my hand in front of a speeding cab.  As the cab screeched to a halt, inches from my outstretched palm, I’m sure the cabby was uttering a slew of foul language, in my direction but I didn’t stop to look. I thanked him and opening the rear door, stepped inside and took my seat as Gordon didn’t so much lean into the passenger side window as leer.  “Take us to a dirty restaurant, he slurred”.  I was taken aback but I burst out laughing and resigned myself to whatever the destination turned out to be!  At least the word restaurant held the promise of food and that was the main thing on my mind at the time.

GaslightThe cabby dropped us in St James’ and a doorman came and opened our cab door for us.  This, my friends, was not only my first (and last) ever visit to The Gaslight Club, it was my very first experience of a “clip-joint”.  A phrase I had heard many times on movies, growing up, but never once stopped to check what it meant.  Wikipedia now carries a very fine summary:

“A clip joint or fleshpot is an establishment, usually a strip club or night club in which customers are tricked into paying excessive amounts of money, for surprisingly low-grade goods or services — or sometimes, nothing — in return.”.  Couldn’t put it better, myself.

I should perhaps pause to explain that Gordon worked for his brother’s firm, his elder brother, who had always made him feel like a very junior member of the establishment.  Gordon was excellent at his job and, as far as I know, faithful to his beloved wife, as was I, more or less.  Not his wife, obviously, but I’d always been faithful to my own.  I digress.  Gordon was thus taking me on a company jolly, on company expenses but his brother kept him on a fairly tight leash.  On this gratis day, therefore, Gordon was insistent that he paid for everything and I felt it would be churlish to disabuse him of that privilege.  Unfortunately, that had its limitations, due to the fact that Gordon’s brother didn’t trust him to have a credit card, merely a cheque book and accompanying cheque guarantee card which, in those days, was limited to fifty pounds per cheque.  A very wise move on his brother’s part, as it turned out.

We descended the seedy stairway into the bowels of the club and were greeted at the bottom by a host and hostess whose job, collectively, was to greet you, check your coats and appraise your ability to pay.  That was enough of a warning sign right there and I smiled at his brother’s consternation when he saw the bill that was coming.  I was beginning to understand the meaning of “clip joint”.  They were extremely pleasant, right up until the time where Gordon announced that he didn’t have a credit card and showed them his cheque book, all the while assuring him that he had a cheque guarantee card, which he waved reassuringly.  They looked at each other and I detected it was a guilty look, as someone leading lambs to slaughter might feel.  Anticipating their dilemma, I assured them that I did have a credit card so there would be no difficulty.  They immediately relaxed and waived us on through, handing over our shepherding to one of the ladies in bathing-suits who beamed widely and seductively as she led us to our table.

Gaslight1We were soon joined by an exuberant twenty-something young woman who was equally scantily but tastefully clad (I remember thinking) and who apparently only drank champagne.  Well of course she did.  With each bottle delivered, a waiter appeared, with a bill to be paid, and Gordon wrote out a cheque, each one in excess of the £50 limit of his guarantee card.  Each time, there was a look of fear that crossed Gordon’s face as he hesitatingly signed the check and muttered something about the costs of the evening….and each time, I reached across the table and patted his hand and reassured him, mischievously, “Don’t worry, Gordon, your brother’s paying, not you!”.

Eventually, I had to cave.  They wouldn’t accept any more cheques, having already accepted several and each being completely outside the scope of the guarantee.  I offered my gold Amex card to the slaughter.

For some reason, it never occurred to me to check that they would be sensitive to their married customers’ needs and use some euphemism or other on the establishment name given to the credit card company.  That’s what I’d assumed, foolishly.  So I was a little taken aback, some weeks later, when I heard my wife call out in the office to Alison, our lovely and diligent book-keeper, “Alison, what’s the Gaslight Club?”

Oh god!  I was in the other office, close to the exit door, as it dawned on me that my wife was checking my credit card bill…..I leaned down low and peered around the doorway to be met by Alison’s quizzical gaze as she similarly had ducked below the divider between her desk and my wife’s – whom she faced and who had her back to me.  “What the hell do you want me to say?”, she was asking with her facial gesture.  I had no idea how to communicate an appropriate response in sign language and couldn’t speak for fear of attracting my wife’s attention to our “collusion” but I heard her say something like, “I think it’s a restaurant, or something….”

Then my wife’s unmistakable tones of disbelief: “One thousand, eight hundred pounds for a flaming restaurant!?!??”.

I have no idea what more was said, I was already out of the door and on my way to an urgent appointment.

But I was going to tell you about my incarceration in a Ugandan jail, or two, wasn’t I?  Well, that occurred after the Gaslight Club and before the bill arrived – see part two.

Before I leave the subject altogether though, I should talk about the day Gordon announced he was to become the Financial Director of, wait for it, The Gaslight Club.  Yep.  It was several years later when his close acquaintance, and one I’d rather forget but never can, bought the club…… mainly on the back of his prostitution racket…. yeah, the one he continued to run from the Governor’s office of Ford Prison, after he was banged up for mortgage fraud.  It’s been a very full life, what can I tell you.  And so, to Uganda…..

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