The Journo and the Oligarch

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I called up a terribly upmarket Estate Agent I know. Average sale £7m, he doesn’t sell flats, he sells ‘residences’. In fact he doesn’t ‘sell’ at all, he merely gives hand-picked potential buyers an opportunity to buy. I needed a favour, a very serious journalist wanted a potted tour of the super-rich lifestyle in London. Could we have a poke around some of his fancier listings? We will be terribly well behaved, I promised.

Hmm, he mused, my clients are terribly discreet people, they wouldn’t want a journalist poking around. However he offers me a couple of South Ken basements that were empty. Oh please! I exclaimed, we need some serious bling, not an Arab students damp homework pad.

Well, I suppose if the journalist didn’t speak, didn’t write specifics and you pretended they were a colleague, I may be able to show you a £30m Oligarchs den… Bingo, I feel clever!.

We met on a Knightsbridge street corner. Agent suited, booted and silk handkerchiefed. Journalist in duffle coat, Clarks shoes and carrying a practical shopping bag.

We rock up at a very swanky building. The immaculate porters are Gucci clad and muscles bulge through the perfect cut. These are no ordinary porters, there are no smiles. They wear the look of men who can kill with one Mr Spock hand movement. Our Agent answers security questions and then takes us to the centre of the cavernous marbled foyer and whispers ‘I shouldn’t be doing this’, there is sweat on his upper lip, ‘ there are some things you need to know… when we get into the lift there is video and audio surveillance. When you are in the apartment, ditto. Everywhere you go you will be on camera and on audio. YOU SAY NOTHING!’

‘AND’ he flushes ‘I have just been told the owner will be in’ – he turns to me. ‘You will probably be interrogated’. He then briefed me on what I would say. Apparently I have a very wealthy client, I am to be as vague as possible because this particular Oligarch has far more enemies than friends. If he gets the slightest hint that my ‘client’ is from the wrong group of Oligarchs, THERE WILL BE TROUBLE.  On the bright side, he chirps, they have switched off the retinal scanning entry thingy.

He turns to the journalist and says ‘What is your name? she squeaks ‘can I be Mrs Smith?’. That’ll do, he says.

I try to wipe thoughts of container ships headed to Murmansk out of my mind but Journo and I look at each other, now not feeling at all clever and both wondering if we should leg it.

Nevertheless, we enter the lift. Not a sound is uttered and we all stare at our feet and I wonder how the hell I got myself into this.

Lift opens and we sink our way through carpet two inches deep to double mahogany doors. The retinal scanning apparatus blinks at us but the doors are opened by a wizened old Babushka who ushers us in. The owner is waiting for us. Piercing eyes and a charmless demeanour. The words ‘never smile at a crocodile’ pop into my head.

I am introduced, as is ‘Mrs Smith’. Oligarch wastes no time on pleasantries. ‘Who is your client?’ Oops, wasn’t expecting quite such a closed question, major wriggling is called for. I inform him that my client is a young Muscovite but for discretion’s sake I must withhold their name at this stage. WRONG ANSWER. His eyes narrow and he turns to the Agent. ‘You know I insist on the names of all potential Russian buyers – I am disappointed’. Ooh blimey, you really don’t want to disappoint this chap and the thought of him twigging I am poking around his residence with a national newspaper journalist makes me feel faint. The Agent visibly colours and I wonder if they make Tena’s for men but he suggests they discuss later and could we have a look around. Gruffly he concedes and we start our tour.

Frankly, neither the Journo or I gave a toss about a tour at this stage but we went through the motions. Black silk bedding. Tick. Half naked pics of the latest wife. Tick. Personal spa with massage tables and white robes. Tick. And so on. However, Journo and I just shuffled through each room miserably, concentrating on saying absolutely nothing and avoiding even the most furtive of glances under the Big Brother spotlight.

Having allowed the minimum polite amount of time, I say with faux cheerfulness, ‘We mustn’t inconvenience you anymore than we have already’, but as we all stand uncomfortably in the mortuary like kitchen, the Russian isn’t having any of that. Mr Oligarch wants to chat. Oh God.

He wants my name, my company name, where’s your card? where do you live? Journo’s eyes are wide with a semblance of terror.

Sod it, I think, ‘I have another appointment, must dash’, I say in a rather pleading manner to the Agent. Finally we are ushered out through whence we came.

Remember Michael, says Oligarch with wagging finger, I want names.

We reach the lift rather faster than on arrival, in fact I contemplated taking the fire escape for speed.

We stifled our giggles of relief until past the Stasi porters and out of terror firma.

I turn to the Journo. ‘I like to see my name in print as much as the next media tart but never again, NEVER BLOODY AGAIN’… She nods furiously.

Knightsbridge Naffness

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Horns:
You heard it hear first. Horns everywhere you turn. Stuck on walls protruding from some decapitated beast. Pointing up from chairs.  Lone horns polished and silver plated to cover where it was ripped from some (I hope) lop-sided wildebeest and of course the 666 stuff.

Arco Lights
Arco lights, generally positioned for guaranteed head banging. No London bachelor flat is without one of those. Size is a direct correlation to owners testosterone level. Always in the way and flaming useless unless your goal is a little spot of light illuminating the rug.

White leather furniture.
Cold, uncomfortable, clinical and makes quite impolite noises if you readjust your bottom. Add some synthetic shag pile rug (most do) for a DIY Austin Powers pad.

Bogs of bling.
There has been a strange proliferation of fancy bogs too. Ones which provide services that I trust no one has experienced since nappy days. They involve buttons, warm air, warm water, warm bums and warnings of the dangers of misuse. Ablutions shouldn’t require that degree of intellectual input.

Wallpaper.
Interior Designers are always going on about ‘texture’ and it seems they have hit pay dirt and are running with it with the emergence of the sandpaper wallpaper. It is actually cork with spangly bits and it seems to be Knightsbridge’s latest answer to the B & Q feature wall. I almost prefer peonys.

Bijoux Bakerys
The Hummingbird bakery. So what if you can feed an African village and dig a well for what fits into a little bijoux box. I feel like whispering to the ladies who prance out with their offerings.
“it’s just fat, sugar and carbs luv”.

Orla Kiely
Eurgh. We still have Cath Kidston lurking malevolently but it’s Orla who is splashing herself on everything these days. You can’t walk into John Lewis without the depressive sensory overload of drab ugly faux-fifties kitsch pattern on everything. Did I mention it was ugly?

Technology.
Gone are the days when you pulled the curtains, whacked a CD into a ‘player’, flicked a light switch and a dimmer was state of the art. No more tranny’s in the bathroom (don’t titter) you’re nowt without an in-built telly and mood lighting. In fact you’re nowt if your entire home isn’t controlled from an iPad.  You will of course need to pop down to Imperial College and borrow a geek with a PhD every time you want to close the curtains.

Chandeliers.
In the kitchen, I’m not joking. Where you find kitchen chandeliers you will be sure to find an oven with cardboard inside and the freezer will only have vodka. Less style over substance, more style over subsistence.

I have visions of interior designers giggling together in their coven as they plot the latest abomination to inflict on the unsuspecting purse of a millionaire. Almost makes you nostalgic for last years cow skin rug. What? You’ve only just got one? Sorry but it has to be zebra this year.

Fly on the wall in a Knightsbridge Estate Agent’s.

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W.A. Ellis, the Knightsbridge Estate Agent founded in 1868 and dealing with some of the most prestigious addresses and clients in the world think my blogs are funny, which is nice. They want me to write one about them. ‘Only if it’s warts and all’ I warn. I don’t want people thinking I have moved over to the dark side. ‘Warts and all is fine’ they say. I really hope they mean that and I really hope I am not going to have to spend an entire day with roaring ‘Ruperts’.

I arrive at their Brompton Road office. A cavernous labyrinth covering many floors, housing nearly 50 property pro’s and belied by the subtle shop front. If Estate Agents did Tardis’s…

Leila on reception greets me. She’s a born and bred Londoner, a nice change to your standard London EA receptionist, who are generally chosen for inside leg measurement, blondeness and the ability to speak English is an after thought.

Simon, my ‘charming as they get’ host for the day arrives. ‘Lift or stairs?’ he asks. ‘Stairs’ I say and emerge panting on the sales floor eyrie in the Knightsbridge treetops.  I can see down to a square which has been a temporary home to Bill Gates and Woody Allen among many, I may know this but I suspect W.A. Ellis couldn’t possibly comment.

The sales team greet me warily, they know I am writing a blog, some even know what one is. I feel like Katie Price infiltrating the Royal box.

Simon has calls to make, so I tuck myself into a corner with a steaming mug of Earl Grey. Hate the stuff. I attempt invisibility but with flapping ears.

Graeme, an 18 year old recruit to WAE ‘quite a few’ years ago is on the phone. ‘We’re not going to start this if you’re not going to finish it’ he booms at what I picture as an increasingly squirming buying agent. “I won’t have my client messed around’. I warm to Graham.

Receivers are covered as questions get thrown to the floor.. ‘What’s current best square foot price for a 1st floor Cadogan?’ ‘Anyone seen anything good on Egerton..?’ ‘Whats the chance of demising that roof terrace on Walton Street?’ A neat summary of the complexities of buying in London.

‘Our Vendor’s just lost out on an Eaton Place, can we find one, £5-£9m?’ says Jamie, who started as a saturday boy and was then supported through a Real Estate Degree by the company… I bite my lip, dying to say ‘tell them to call me!’

It’s time to hit the road with Simon. We are street walking Knightsbridge style. Well he is. I am sporting Clarks comfort heels and blisters, he is in Gucci. First stop a pied a terre in South Kensington. It’s tenanted, (cue untidy) and has the added novelty of a snarling home alone Chihuahua.’It’s on webcam’ Simon informs me, ‘they watch it from work’. No kicking the dog then, I tell him.

First viewer is a glossy buying agent. ‘It needs gutting’ she proclaims. ‘Is your client happy to do that?’ asks Simon. ‘NO’ is the curt response. Oops, I look away and concentrate on my role of shooing dog from ankles. Another viewing and another buying agent lollops up the common parts. Simon talks through innovative ways to redesign layout. The buying agent has other ideas, dumb ones. I bite my lip. Onto the roof terrace, Simon starts a techy discussion on it not being demised and ways in which to mitigate that. It’s high up and we are surrounded by London chimney pots. If I had an umbrella I could be Mary Poppins but Simon is no Dick Van Dyke.. He’s more Ewan McGregor in Moulin Rouge, I think wistfully. I try to focus back on roof terrace demisings and not dwell on the unlikelihood of me being mistaken for Nicole Kidman.

Another flat, and £1m nicer. Tim is already there with a gaggle of even glossier buying agents and their uber-glossy clients. I look around trying to find fault then remind myself that today I am not a buying agent, I am an EA.. I need to project the positives. ‘It’s very light’ I say lamely. Tim and Simon classily avert their eyes from the wired glass views onto the dingy light well and say ‘Absolutely!’ I’ll stick to being a buying agent, I am so much better at being negative.

Discussions are on lease length, service charges and sink funds, as the common area’s are, shall we say, ‘very’. It gets very technical buying flats and the best agents spell out the good AND the bad at the front end. It save’s lawyer/buyer histrionics the day before exchange.

We trot back to the office and I grab a cuppa with Lucy Morton, the doyenne, the matriach, if not supreme commander of not only WA Ellis but most committee’s, boards and advisory panel’s worth listening to in the property world. In this world, at this level she’s as rare as hens teeth, she is a woman and a phenomenally knowledgable one. Her awards shelf competes with Ant and Dec’s. I comment on the longevity of their staff, many over 15 years and Jamie starting as a saturday boy. ‘Oh yes’ she says ‘He was so young when he started that I wouldn’t let him cross the Brompton Road’. I get a maternal twinge, then remind myself he is an Estate Agent.

I am told to talk to Charlie about the lettings side, they cover a large swathe of London from this office, unlike the multitude of offices I have to call when using ‘the brands’. Ah, the delicious Charlie. I force a lame News of The World style interrogation on him. ‘Tell me your funniest tenant story’. I am regaled with inebriated Polish girls, the quaintly phrased ‘birthday suits’ and Dan stuck in a lift “I was talking to his feet for an hour”.

A quick catch up with Katya, IT manager and Bill Gates’ most dedicated of Bulgarian disciples. She rules all things wifi and web with an iron curtain fist… and Louboutins, then it’s off with Jamie to see something in the teens of millions with the added bonus of a real-life buyer, not a buying agent. It’s an astounding chandelier hung Edwardian apartment overlooking the poshest of the posh London squares. Decor is a feast of 1980’s trompe l’oeil and rag roll paint effects but what the heck, it has a 30ft balustraded terrace with glorious black and white original tiling.’ Can we take those up?’ asks the prospective buyer. I have visions of decking, blue LED’s and Cargo tea lights, my intake of breath is audible. She needs a different type of decking. Lip is bitten yet again.

Back at the office I am flagging. We have walked literally miles, as no one was getting me on the back of their ubiquitous red scooters.

I finish off with the sales guys. Dominic tells me he has been in Lettings, Sales and the surveying department.. he is a chartered surveyor and his desk, littered with very funky spectacles points to a personality too. Another ‘hens teeth in the industry’ moment.

As I am leaving, the whole office ask ‘Have you seen Trevor Place, it’s a corker’. Genuine enthusiasm for a listing is a rare thing to hear from Estate Agents. ‘Yes, I have seen it’, I say, (it is £17m of delicious double fronted real estate), but there’s one thing I haven’t seen today’, I tell them…. ‘A Rupert’.

We do have one of them they say, a little crestfallen… but we keep him in Accounts.

Very pleasing.

 

..and if you would like to discuss me working on your home search .. there’s more information at BDI Home Finders or call me for a chat on 0845 603 6110