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Watering holes

Ash Ditta on the drinking dens of power.

4 December 2003

There are many ways to know a man: by the fruit he bears, the company he keeps, the ink on his fingers, and the way he copes with a long and serious illness.

But nothing, not even finger-ink, is more revealing about a person than the bar he frequents. A thousand ways there are for him to reveal himself: his attitude at the bar (is he abrupt? courteous? invisible?) – his mode of consuming his liquor (gentle sipping / angry quaffing / clumsy spilling) – and of course, most revealing of all, his choice of bar snack.

For example: if I asked you what figure from history liked to mix dry-roasted and salted peanuts together in the same bowl, and used to suck the soft inside bit from his pork scratchings and chuck away the crust, you would have no hesitation in saying (and rightly) that it was Stalin.

Where elbows are raised, guards are dropped. And so what better breed of person to observe in a casual bar environment than a politician, the most guarded of all God’s creatures? All I would have to do is find out where they drink, observe the species’ behaviour, and bingo – the time-old question of who the hell these power-crazed imbeciles really think they are would finally be solved.

I headed to The Red Lion on Parliament Street, known to the locals as the vote-clincher, a nickname earned by its staggerable proximity to the Houses Of Parliament. However, the only politicians I saw there were a bunch of Ulster Unionists singing ‘Danny Boy’ to a family of terrified Japanese tourists.

At Storey’s Wine Bar I noticed some ruddy complexions and deeply furrowed brows – aha! Backbenchers! – but no, they turned out to be a group of managers from Connex South West Railways avoiding their own cattle trucks in the commuter rush hour.

The wine bar’s private wooden booths were tailor-made for illicit meetings between MI5 spooks and high-ranking civil servants, or potentially scandalous affairs between Cabinet members and young civil servants. However, it seemed the cellars once patronised by Churchill and Palmerstone consuming vintage wine and big cigars had been usurped by Dave and Debbie necking Smirnoff Ice and Marlboro Lights. I had to up the class of venue.

The Atrium at 4 Millbank is a huge chasm in which drinks and food blend seamlessly with suits and stockings. “Any politicians in tonight?” I asked. The Maitre D’ looked me up and down. My suit, receding hairline and protruding belly marked me out as a potential Gilligan and I was shown the door.

The Cinnamon Club was my last shot. The oldest library in London, once frequented by great statesmen, is now a spice-influenced eatery. The library’s original bookshelves, on which Gladstone’s memoirs sit comfortably next to Len Deighton and Harry Potter, circle the bar. I knew that if the politician existed, it would be here and to my absolute delight, standing right in front of me, fleshy, irritated and very very real, there it was in its finest form. Keith Vaz. He made a brief noise, then disappeared (not for the first time in his life).

I tracked him down to a huge rectangular table covered in food and surrounded by others just like him. It was like the Newsnight Green Room: politicians of all persuasions sharing food and drink and pissing it up with those that they would later destroy on television. A kind of British version of WWF wrestlers, laughing at the stupidity of the audience as they counted their cash in the bar.

So can one truly judge a man by the bars in which he drinks? If so, then the politician is a once great establishment which, on the outside, still maintains a certain gravitas and sense of decorum, but which, on closer inspection, is unquestionably more bottled beer than vintage wine.

Happy spotting!

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