Amidst the twisted tapestry of massaged stats, misinformation and denial, one concrete casualty of the catastrophic Government approach to combating Covid that can penetrate the blind spots of even the most committed lockdown fanatics is the wholesale destruction of the hospitality industry. You can’t avoid it; the cold, hard evidence is there whenever you stroll along any urban parade. When it comes to businesses that have been laid waste by the illogical laws, rules and regulations rushed through and imposed without any evident care or consideration for the economy, cafés, clubs, bars, restaurants and – most visibly of all – pubs have arguably suffered more than any other outlet patronised by the public in 2020. Of course, many pubs were already struggling long before any careless Chinese scientist dropped a test tube thousands of miles away; they’ve been vanishing at a record rate due to various factors over the past decade, beginning with the smoking ban of 2007. But that most traditional (and though I detest the phrase I’ll use it) ‘community hub’ of these islands has been discarded this year with a casual criminality by the powers-that-be that makes a mockery of the faux-Blitz Spirit that the fatuous ‘we’re all in this together’ guff seeks to generate.
Ironically, one way – and the worst possible way – that the ‘we’re all in this together’ slogan actually rings true is in the across-the-board massacre of an industry that employs millions; the humble taverns in the town have been brought to their knees, yes – but so have those higher up the food & drink chain. Yesterday it was announced that London’s prestigious Café de Paris would not be opening its doors again, just four years short of celebrating its centenary. If ever proof were needed precisely how much of a leveller the nihilistic policies drummed-up by public health ‘experts’ drunk on power have proven to be, the closure of such a legendary venue with such a rich history is it.
Naturally, it’s easy to play the yardstick measurement game and regard the demise of a classy nightclub situated in the capital as not being worthy of sympathy when lined-up next to a small provincial business that was utterly inclusive and affordable and provided its proprietors with their sole income; indeed, how can a club in the ownership of a notable restaurant group be remotely comparable a tragedy? Well, for one thing, the Café de Paris wasn’t staffed by robots. It closure means more numbers are added to the unemployment figures, and if you’re made redundant it makes no difference if your P45 came from the Café de Paris in London or Roy’s Rolls in Salford – you’re still out of work.
The moving of time’s goalposts has already seen what used to be referred to as ‘the Naughty Nineties’ rebranded simply as the 1890s both because there’s nobody left alive to recount just how naughty they were and those of us left alive have since lived through another 90s; and now we’ve reached the third decade of the 21st century, will ‘the Roaring Twenties’ suffer a similar fate? The generation that made it out of the First World War in one piece and the one too young to have experienced it first-hand famously shook off the shackles of lingering Victorian conformity and were determined to have a party – those that could afford it, of course. Corsets were cast aside, hemlines rose, cocktails were consumed, cigarettes were smoked, and a frenzied new music called Jazz soundtracked the hedonism. Yes, it all came crashing down along with Wall Street in 1929, but it must have been fun while it lasted. The Bright Young Things that Evelyn Waugh observed and satirised saw various night-spots spring up to cater for their extravagant tastes, but the one that lasted the longest – almost by a full century – was London’s Café de Paris.
Opening in 1924, the Café de Paris was an instant magnet for the It Girls and Boys of the age, one specialising in ‘cabaret’ when that word evoked images of Art Deco-draped decadence most famously associated with the Berlin of the period rather than the naff ‘chicken-in-a-basket’ connotations it later acquired. The Café de Paris swiftly garnered a glamorous reputation as an epicentre of movers and shakers when the playboy Prince of Wales became a regular patron and Hollywood icon Louise Brooks introduced the Charleston to these shores on the venue’s dance-floor. Just as the Swinging London of the 60s was enjoyed by a small group of affluent youngsters, the Swinging London of the 20s was reserved for a similarly exclusive set, if not more so, with the class boundaries far more rigid then than 40 years later. Things only relaxed during the Second World War when the club had no option but to introduce a more democratic door policy in order to remain in business; the premises also took a direct hit from a German bomb during the Blitz, an incident that resulted in over 30 deaths, but enabled what had previously been an elitist enclave to look the London beyond the West End in the eye.
Unlike the Windmill (‘we never closed’), the Café de Paris didn’t reopen until 1948, but even if the Jazz Age was over by then, it didn’t take long to re-establish itself as both a place to be seen and to perform; ‘cabaret seasons’ from the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Noel Coward, as well as performances by A-listers such as Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland, were regular attractions in a post-war era sorely starved of glamour. Changing pop cultural fashions and the eventual rise of a generation eager to establish its own night-spots left the Café de Paris as something of an irrelevant relic in the 60s and 70s. However, as is always the case, the circle eventually comes full and by the 80s the Café de Paris had acquired a certain retro hipness that resulted in a new role as an ideal location for shooting movies set in the recent past; both ‘The Krays’ and ‘Absolute Beginners’ made use of the venue’s charmingly faded grandeur.
By the dawn of the 21st century, the Café de Paris seemed to be in good health again; a postmodern, kitsch concept of cabaret became one of its weekly features and a refreshingly rare dress code was upheld that made the venue one of the few contemporary clubs to spare patrons the blight of the slob ensemble characterised by trainers and sportswear; ditto the fancy dress clichés of the shrieking hen party. One had to make the effort to pass through its doors – and why not? In its heyday, the Café de Paris had been the place for those keen to be seen on the cultural cutting edge; but in its later years it had offered an old-school alternative to the modern nightclub, trading on its past and reinventing itself as an oasis of antiquated sophistication. After WWII it was symbolic of the good life for those prone to dreaming of one in the bombsites of monochrome Blighty, and it could have served a similar purpose in the post-Covid bombsite we’ve all got to look forward to. Alas, it won’t get to perform that function for tomorrow’s dreamers.
The permanent closure of the Café de Paris is due to Maxwell’s Restaurant Group, the club’s parent company, going into liquidation with the loss of 400 jobs. The constant uncertainty surrounding all hospitality venues, the dramatic cutting in customer numbers on account of coronavirus restrictions during the brief spells when they sporadically reopen, and inevitable rent arrears on premises denied making money have all played their part in bringing to a sad end a chapter in the capital’s nightlife that was one of the few surviving links to an era now very much beyond living memory. Surrounded by the obliterations of livelihoods far lower down the social scale, many will perhaps regard the disappearance of the Café de Paris with a shrug of the shoulders and an opinion that others have got it far worse; but when depression hits, escapism and dreaming matter. And we’re going to need them more than ever in the years to come, for we won’t have much else.
© The Editor