Heartsick, mashed up, exhausted and alone, I was in no fit state for a romantic break to one of the most beautiful places on Earth. I sat in the departure lounge, business class, on my own, writing to him, expecting the plane to fall out of the sky, (he says: ‘name it and it won’t go down.’) Spilt tea over the floor, (not believing in this charm,) and waitresses dressed up as Emirates hostesses, with pretty box hats and veils, cordon off the spillage as if it’s an accident scene. On the plane, I switched to proper drinks, and drank so much I forgot to sleep (having too nice a time with the neverending champagne, forgetting we were in the air) only to land and stagger off to find another plane I’d call Zinedine Zidane. We touched down, as the sun rose, in the gleaming, empty airport of Mattala. (His advice proved sound – I pass it on.) And I watched the carousel go round and round, with no suitcase of mine, found myself unequal to describing exactly what it looked like for a beautiful lady in a sari (plastic, patterned, pink – the ugliest thing in Dubai) and then felt distinctly sick in the back seat of a car, racing down a six lane motorway the Chinese built for invisible cars, to the southernmost tip of Sri Lanka. Hambantota.
The Shangri La hotel chain has built its reputation on knowing exactly how to look after their customers, and I am booked for the full VIP experience… So the welcome team squints at me for half a second before curing all my ills. They sit me down and hand me some juice. Then they promise to track down my things and have them with me by morning. Escort me to the gift shop and let me pick out a sexy swimsuit and summer dress – for free. Then they show me to a pristine suite with ocean view – where it is cold enough to sleep – to get on with my hangover. And when I wake up, half-new, I find that one member of staff has volunteered to act as my dashing Sengalese boyfriend for the duration. Ashan Ranansinghe (an auspicious name, for future planes) meets me for a slap up meal at the first of three excellent restaurants, and compliments me for heaping all the Sri Lankan curry on my plate. God it tastes good. He tells me my hair looks fine when it is blatantly standing on end in its all time worst tantrum. He asks me about books and says he reads Dostoevsky; suggests excursions we might enjoy for the next five days. Shows me all three swimming pools and leaves me to have a think about it.
And I decide, yes, as a woman apparently sane, I’d like to get up before sunrise, and have him drive me to see leopards (maybe leopards, or maybe not leopards, leopards are hard to predict) but certainly elephants and buffalo and deer. And yes I would like to walk to the temple at sunset and listen to the Buddhist prayers on the breeze. And yes I’d like to scale a rock and have my photo taken with the ocean. And yes I’d like to pose in a tuk tuk and go for a ride. But in the meantime, I sit on a sun lounger under an umbrella and burn my shoulders swimming. Later on, I beat the specialist French golf instructor in a rigged game of pitch and putt, who sped me around in a golf buggy to show off a course of exquisitely sculpted, very green grass where 10,000 coconut trees were felled and elephants no longer roam.
There is a war going on between Hambantota and its wildlife. When I got home, bucked up and started acting like a journalist rather than a girl who sat on a sun lounger and stared at her thighs every afternoon, I began to think south Sri Lanka odd. The empty airport – which cost $209 million – services one flight a day, with a footfall of 10 to 20 passengers. The empty motorway spreads out to a deep sea port and an international cricket stadium – also empty. All three, it turns out, are named after Sri Lanka’s former President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who wanted to transform the place he was from into Sri Lanka’s second most prestigious city. The airport alone, the Sri Lankan press reports, is ‘a largely redundant vanity project’. Its terminals have been used for storing rice and its runways for parking unused jets. Last year, a plane engine was destroyed because a peacock flew into it, and the government deployed 350 troops armed with firecrackers to clear 150 deer and 50 wild buffalo which had been trapped after an electric fence was set up to prevent other wild animals running riot. Deprived of their jungle, elephants now trample over human settlements. But what is bad for locals is, undeniably, great for tourists. And if you’re searching for peace and quiet – go. Go now.
I should have left the hotel, walked down the winding drive, and found that out first hand. But I didn’t because living a life of luxury paralyses the imagination and the will. I needed Shangri La to chaperone me and they did a first class job. The best day was when Ashan and I got up before dawn to visit the nature reserve at Yala and see a wild elephant taking a bath. It was damned hot, in Yala (without the dry wind that blows so fast in Hambantota the resort feels cool when it ought to be sticky as hell) and the cavalcade of jeeps stopped to let tourists walk out on the sands. I sat in the meagre shade, eating special sandwiches, under a rusty sculpture which was put up to commemorate the height of the waves that swept Chinese tourists away in the tsunami that hit a decade ago. Ashan pointed to new huts that are being built, as the tourists venture back, and then to a rock which used to be full of monkeys. The monkeys walked in land before disaster hit and never returned. On the drive back I had my only sight of the real Sri Lanka – where streets are so bright and colourful, full of daredevils riding mopeds without helmets or shoes, where pots and pots of buffalo curd are sold outside homes. When we get back to the hotel, Ashan has booked me a spa treatment, in case the jeep shook me up. The masseuse wraps me up in a silk sheet and treats me like something precious.
Later, Ashan treats me to a five course meal designed for men flourishing engagement rings. It took him a long time to pop the question – ‘would you like to try some buffalo curd?’ and naturally, I said yes. (It tasted disgusting). For months afterwards, he dutifully Whats App’d me until he got tired – as all men do, in the end. And I hope that he has moved onto a real girl, who he’s not paid to proxy-date, in steamy Colombo.
On the last night, I went out by myself, preparing to be alone again. I walked along the beach, where the waves crash madly. (To be unloved is not so bad when one’s naked toes are so passionately pursued by the Indian ocean.)
All political careers end in failure — it’s the dynastic death throes you want to watch. The leader departs with a wave and a whimper; the acolytes slither in blood and guts and gore. And so it was with David Cameron. While he made a dull speech in the drizzle outside Downing Street and his wife wore a nice dress, the Chumocracy he had presided over for 20 years and more tore itself apart behind the scenes. Gove knifed Boris — and botched it so badly that he died of self-inflicted wounds.Theresa May traipsed over bloodied corpses, defenestrated the rest, and by all accounts relished hacking apart theChancellor of the Exchequer.
The Chum-ocracy was dead… long live the Chum-ocracy! ‘Governments of chums won’t die off,’ onenotorious Westminster insider claims. ‘May has appointed her own in Damian Green and Alan Duncan. But with Cameron it was more extreme — he emerged through all three institutions that breed British prime ministers: Eton, Oxford and CCO [ConservativeCentral Office]. Wheneveranyone new was appointed to his staff, the lobby’d look up his name in the back ofFrancesElliot’s biography and find that whoever it was had been at Dave’s stag party or on one of his villa holidays.
‘There was a very telling archive clip that played on the news when Cameron resigned which showed him out-canvassing for the first time as a parliamentary candidate in Witney: he was accompanied by Ed Llewellyn, who’d been a friend since Eton, and was his chief of staff when he resigned. Cameron has always turned to his friends for help. When he needed money to fund the Conservative party he turned to Andrew Feldman — the same chap who’d raised the money for his college ball. What made Cameron a good friend also made him a bad politician because he never asked if there was anyone better for the job.’
To understand Cameron’s Chumocracy, I started to plot out his relationships on a piece of paper:starting with the friends he made at Eton, then at Oxford, through his PR career and life at CCO, on to Notting Hill, Westminster and No. 10. I started out drawing clear lines linking schoolmates to flatmates, Bullingdon buddies and policy wonks, but pretty soon exactly the same people started popping up in new guises — as fellow MPs, cabinet colleagues, party donors — and the lines started to veer into ever more deranged spirals as everyone turned out to be linked, several times over, to everyone else. Even their pets were connected, most notably in the marriage that took place between the bichon frises of George Osborne and Michael Gove. Snowy and Lola’s union may well have ended — like the friendship between their owners, according to the Sun — in bitterness, recrimination and muchbarking, but once upon a time everything was bliss. ‘I have thepictures,’ Mrs Gove, a.k.a. Daily Mail and Spectator Life columnist Sarah Vine, boasted at the 2014 Westminster Dog of the Year contest. ‘There was a ceremony with flowers.’
Canine union may have been an aberration for the Cameroons, but christenings were common and were used in much the same way as marriage in medieval Europe — to seal nascent political alliances. Rachel Whetstone, long-term partner of Tory strategist Steve Hilton, stood as godmother to David and Samantha’s eldest child, Ivan. At the time Whetstone worked for Michael Howard. Some time later she had an affair with Samantha’s stepfather, leaving an irate Cameron towonder if godmotherhood could, retrospectively, becancelled. Sam Cam is also, by all accounts, on non-speaks with Vine —godmother to her youngest child. Their husbands had once been the closest political chums, so they’d spent New Year and half-terms together. But when Mrs Gove gave herself a makeover as Brexit’s Lady Macbeth, Samantha was furious and Westminster insiders say they’ll never kiss and make up.
Even private moments such as bath time were grist to the Camerons’ social milieu. ‘My wife and I were once invited, with our children, to “dinner à quatre”, at the Camerons’ Oxfordshire home,’ recalls one guest. ‘When we arrived, as an opening salvo, we were asked if our kids would like to share a bath with their kids — who were then in one. It was like that bit in E.M. Forster’sA Room with a View when Mr Beebe was highly entertained because Freddy greeted George with, “How d’ye do? How d’ye do? Come and have a bathe.” With Cameron, everything was socialising. It’s a trait of English upper-class life that everyone else finds hard to understand. He wanted to look around him and see all nice people and good eggs.’
Of course, outsiders — oiks and bathtub refuseniks — were rarely permitted a glimpse of the Cameron clique. Occasionally, though, they had to be auditioned, such as when Cameron was searching for a potential chum in a trade too grubby for his natural allies to thrive in — journalism. His media advisers, Andy Coulson and Craig Oliver, were both appointed after passing muster at Sunday lunch. And, as my perfectly placed source points out, such intimate tests did pay off. Unlike the Blairs, about whom each successive home-help — from Alastair Campbell downwards — competed to share details ever more humiliating than the last,Cameron’s employees have kept schtum. Even after going to prison, Coulson has stayed loyal to Cameron, never spilling the braised beans.
Nick Clegg, however, is still smarting from his involvement with the Cameron project. A Westminster old boy, he initially seemed like Dave’s kind of chap, so at their first meeting in Downing Street he was honoured with helping Dave assemble an Ikea cot. Next, Clegg and his wife Miriam were put to the Sunday lunch test, where Mrs Clegg disgraced herself by sneering at Sam Cam’s offer of roast chicken with Hellman’s mayonnaise.Miriam absolutely refused to be drawn into the Cameroon set and her frostiness may or may not have contributed to Cameron’s decision to reallocate the deputy leader’s grace-and-favour home to his long-term and ultimate ally, Chancellor Osborne. ‘This is terribly awkward,’ Clegg recalls Cameron saying, when raising this vexatious issue. ‘The thing is… George has for so long had his eye on Dorneywood… He’s very close to me…’
Yet for all such canny manoeuvring, it was the social niceties that did for Cameron in the end. Just as Boris Johnson’s leadership ambitions failed because he took the weekend off to play cricket with Earl Spencer (incurring the ire of Gove), Cameron’s relaxed approachcompletely ruined him when it came to the Brexit vote. Dave had carefully curated a coterie of yes men ever since he was eight years old (which was the last time anyone told him what to do, according to his late father). He was so cut off from the rest of the populace he could not foresee imminent doom: relying not just on the utterly hopeless pollster Andrew Cooper, but all the smug Remainers to whom he later gave gongs. As bloodymesses go, the Chumocracy’s was not the first, and it certainly won’t be the last — but it is, perhaps, the one that gives rise to the most schadenfreude.
In the heart of west London, there is what is thought to be a hidden paradise. Private gardens, surrounded by white stucco mansions pristine as wedding cakes, where children roam through landscaped lawns and pampered pooches piddle against the trees. Where pop stars puff through their exercise routines out of sight of the paparazzi and, by night, the ghost of Hugh Grant attempts to scale the iron railings, muttering ‘Oopsidaisy’, with all the other plebs who can’t get in.
In reality, though, it’s hell. Notting Hell, to be precise: a place where homeowners sitting on a pile worth merely £5 million battle with those whose homes are worth more than £20 million. Here, dingdongs signal not the doorbell, but all out war — between parents and pet owners, party animals and pedants. It’s bankers vs billionaires, Brits vs Yanks: All struggling, tooth and nail, to acquire the biggest house, build the largest basement, raise the brightest children, enjoy the wildest sex, and throw the party to end all parties.
‘A communal garden is the ultimate house trophy, an unambiguous symbol that you have “made it” — especially for the Americans,’ explains the author of the Notting Hill Yummy Mummy blog. ‘They infuriate the native Brits because they drive the prices so high only the richest can afford to live here. And once they get here, these hedge-funders and finance guys don’t just compete at work; they compete at home, too. They have to own a “wow” house, with the absolute best swimming pool/Jacuzzi/slide/aquarium/zipline/cinema set-up.’
Alas, even the most spacious Georgian villa rarely comes with room for a frigidarium — a posh name for a cold spa — so incomers dig deep into the clay beneath their homes to build what are known as ‘iceberg’ basements. Trophy wives battle yummy mummies, and vice versa, over planning permission — with Filipina maids caught in the crossfire. The conversions, which often take years, bring builders, trucks, dust and noise, interrupting morning mindfulness meditations and ever more exhibitionist yoga routines.
Communal gardens were invented to provide oases of calm in the middle of the city — but the mania for building below ground has unleashed chaos.
One long-term resident irked by all this is the novelist Rachel Johnson, who grew up in Notting Hill, and whose neighbours include celebrities such as Rita Ora and Ruby Wax. In 1992, Johnson bought a ‘falling-down semi-detached house off Elgin’ for £385,000 and now sits pretty in a house worth more than £4 million, simply by virtue of never having moved.
‘Five householders at the last count were putting in double basements in Elgin Crescent alone,’ Johnson complained in Harper’s Bazaar. ‘My husband says that when you live in a place that you can’t afford to shop in it’s time to move. But I won’t.’
Still, it makes for comic material and Johnson has now spent eight years eviscerating the vulgarities of the super-rich in her Notting Hellseries of novels. The latest, Fresh Hell, opens with a murder in an iceberg basement.
‘It’s all fiction!’ bellows an exasperated Johnson, when I ask her about how she gets her inspiration forher fabulously pulpy books. ‘How dare you ring me up like this?’
So, alas, no actual lesbian sex scenes chez Elgin like the one depicted in Fresh Hell, which is hotly tipped to win Johnson an unprecedented second Bad Sex Award. (‘My whole body was buzzing, as if I’d run away from a charging bull and hurled myself over an electrified fence only to find myself at a cheese-rolling event…’)
But there’s no shortage of real-life shagging, according to Notting Hill Yummy Mummy. ‘Due to all the building work, many women spend far more time with their workmen than their partners,’ she says. ‘This causes a lot of affairs. One woman got pregnant by her architect and initially tried to pass the baby off as her husband’s.’
The French contingent is typically relaxed when it comes to les liaisons amoureuses. Russian oligarchs, meanwhile, like to keep their friends close — and their mistresses around the corner.
Gossip is rife. Aberrant behaviour is closely monitored — and stamped on — by a network of residents’ associations. (The TV producer Peter Bazalgette was living in Kensington Palace Gardens when he launched Big Brother, which no one thinks a coincidence.) Barbecues and ball games are strictly verboten.
Elderly residents can be particularly crotchety when it comes to screaming infants and yapping puppies. They remember the bad old days: when Jimi Hendrix overdosed at 22 Lansdowne Crescent and you’d step outside expecting to get shanked, rather than pistachio cronuts. One of the most contentious issues is tree-felling. Typically, residents of houses that are south-facing prize the beauty of the ancient trees, while those in the north-facing ones rant about the lack of sunlight.
One garden square somewhat lacking in more hysterical shenanigans is Stanley Crescent. Its residents’ committee, stuffed with energetic, enthusiastic Americans, not only throws a convivial annual fireworks party — to which plenty of outsiders are invited — but permits (horror of horrors) football. It is so child-friendly that when the Obamas moved into the White House and wanted a really good set of garden swings, they copied the one in Stanley Crescent.
It is believed in these parts that the number of children you have indicates how much money you have, since the bigger your brood, the more you have to fork out on private education. So there are a lot of children in Notting Hell. With several birthdays every week, the fiercest rivalry of all is reserved for children’s parties. Parents outdo themselves to create the costliest, most original extravaganza.
Bouncy castles are erected, private pony rides laid on, gardens are transformed into fairgrounds complete with Ferris wheels and candy floss machines. Every-thing is outsourced, so there is an arms race for the best children’s entertainer. Magicians, clowns and face painters are passé — what you really need is a troupe of acrobats, or the ‘insect man’ to awe children with creepy crawlies. One celebrated birthday party had the young guests dress up as knights to embark on a quest around the garden to find and slay a dragon — the dragon being a giant piñata.
Party bags — which used to consist of a piece of cake, a party popper and a pencil sharpener — are now bags of loot to rival the ones they hand out at the Oscars. They contain gifts that in less affluent areas of the country would be given as main birthday presents: Barbie dolls, stuffed animals, a Play-Doh kit or a Disney character. The parents must also be taken care of, with champagne and canapés.
Still, whatever jealousies seethe in garden squares, there is no shortage of people desperate to get in. Houses cost 25 per cent more if they come with access to a communal garden. And one day soon the residents may even forget their squabbles and unite to counter a greater threat to their lifestyle. Kensington & Chelsea council periodically mutters that more access to these sacred spaces might be granted to people who live locally but who can’t afford the adjoining homes. When this was last raised in 2008 it was a suggestion repelled most vigorously. Paradise might not mean a garden, these days — but letting the oiks in? Well, that would be hell on earth.