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  1. Wealth
December 21, 2010

Keeping Up Appearances

By Spear's

You never miss your Bolly till your well is dry. But don’t panic it’s still possible to entertain in style during a recession, says Anne McElvoy

You never miss your Bolly till your well is dry. But don’t panic — it’s still possible to entertain in style during a recession, says Anne McElvoy
WE ARE SITTING down together in a country house. Champagne has been brought in vintage coupes, the labradors doze by the vast open wood fire and all is as it should be in the land of privileged living. Only when dinner is served does the first inkling dawn. No more lovely potted shrimps or wild salmon to start. It’s strictly goat’s cheese with some leaves and walnut dressing. Main course is a risotto, which is very tasty, but somehow I was hoping for the fabulous game and beef we’ve had on previous visits.

It bears all the hallmarks of an RP event. Recessionary Posh is what you get when people who used to enjoy flashing the Château Batailley and foie gras on the canapés suddenly start serving something that isn’t quite Meursault and decide that pâté really is delicious. The champagne is a craftily disguised supermarket brand (the telltale sign is the white napkin wrapped very tightly around the label) — adieu, Bolly. A struggling author friend hands round Waitrose chocolate truffles on salvers, on the grounds that people notice the plate and assume the chocs must be tippy-toppy, too.

Our RP dinner is served by two harassed staff instead of the usual four, and when I ask for an extra glass of water one snaps: ‘Didn’t I just fill you up?’ because the tiny staff is run off its feet: not that we’d dream of showing we notice by getting our own. There is no choice of red or white wine at these new economical gatherings, which means less waste when people do that maddening thing of accepting a full glass then switching. Confined to one colour, all but the most alcoholic guests get bored after a while and drink a lot less.

The truly skilled RP hostess collects leftovers afterwards to slosh into a stew (when no one is looking) and lingers in the dining room to blow out the candles after the guests go through to coffee. She also keeps her expensive scented candles in the fridge so that they can burn more slowly.

Afterwards, the hostess confides, she’s taken to serving risotto with porcini ‘because they smell lovely but no one can eat very much rice, so it’s extremely economical’. She says she refuses to give up on having regular dinners, even when her husband’s career in finance came to a slump-related halt. ‘We live in the middle of Suffolk — it’s the only social life we’ve got in winter.’ But she freely admits she now gets two dinners for the price of one by economising on what she serves. Smaller champagne glasses are her tip. ‘Old coupes are great. It’s a fraction of what you get in a big glass flute — people only notice how many refills they had, not how much was in them.’ And don’t let the guests linger too long over pre-dinner drinks.

I ask Virginia Howard, the interior designer, if she’s noticed changes. ‘People who are used to living well won’t give up on things that make them feel good,’ she says, ‘But they’re spending a lot on comfort things like lovely curtains, rugs and sofas, probably because they’re spending lot more time at home.’

The RP life means adjusting rather than sacrificing, since standards must always be seen to be kept up, even if everyone’s saving like mad. Successful, smart people have made small adjustments to how they live. Tim Steel, a former investment banker and Policy Exchange donor, says he still travels first class, ‘but only after 10am — it’s a lot cheaper’.

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On the big-ticket items, expensive winter destinations such as the Maldives and Seychelles are replaced by cheap and cheerful Egypt with an excuse ready: ‘We so wanted Ticky to see the ruins at Luxor before she leaves Marlborough, and Justin’s so bored by the beach.’ Possibly not as bored as he’s going to be by a week trundling round the ancient stones, but even the young are adapting to leaner times.

Gap years, until recently round-the-world tickets bought by the Olds to enable offspring to go clubbing in Java, are now linked to voluntary work, so the little darlings get paid, or at least sustenance, while working on irrigation projects. ‘It’s so important that they learn to appreciate the value of money,’ says Father.

I find myself a bit RP about clothes, too, these days. As a serious frockoholic, I’d never give up on good labels, but the thought of playing full price for them now fills me with horror. So it’s Bicester village shopping outlet for Diane von Furstenberg coats and cut-price Amanda Wakeley dresses once a year, and vintage evening wear in between, preferably acquired out of London. Upside: I can wear my fabulous white fake-fur 1970s jacket bought in a Newcastle second-hand shop for £30. Downside: the stylish necklace that went with it turned out to be held together by peeling glue and a bit dropped off in the soup just as my neighbour was admiring it. ‘That happens with base metals,’ said the classy jewellery designer sitting opposite. Not altogether kindly.

The online habitat of RP woman is Vente-Privée, where you can pick up Elle Macpherson underwear and designer towels for a snip without having to rootle around in TK Maxx.
THE QUEEN OF Recessionary Posh is Lady (Carla) Powell, who has run grandeur on a Manolo shoestring in Bayswater and her Italian hideaway since anyone can remember. She recommends ‘lots of coloured glasses on the table: it always cheers people up. I get my wine piped over from a tank on the local farm for €5 a litre — but who cares if it’s in beautiful glassware?’ Lady P initiated me into the ultimate RP treat, the Thomas Goode winter sale (brace yourself, ladies), with lovely odd assortments of fine china at knockdown prices. Just claim you ‘always hated matching crockery’ and you’ll come across as a chilled creative Boho instead of a mere thrift-seeker who couldn’t afford the matching set.

There is, however, an RP backlash, led by — who else? — Nicky Haslam, the designer and cabaretist. When I mention the word ‘recession’, he makes a face a bit like Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey and tells me, ‘I don’t accept this recession thing at all. I can’t see it anywhere. Where is the recession? My invitations seem to get grander and grander — there was one etched on glass the other day.’
Haslam has just one tip for anyone who thinks they might be suffering from a bout of RP: ‘Don’t double over the loo paper. No one needs two pieces at once.’

There’s an odd idea that the wealthy aren’t affected by recessions, but they are, relying on regular cash injections from investments and exposed to the vagaries of currency fluctuations and the uncertain aftermath of the crash. The RPs are lucky enough not to feel the sharp end of unemployment or have to worry about mortgage repayments or repossessions, but a lot more have the sinking feeling they can’t go on as before. I meet yummy mummies travelling miles across London to hunt down music and sports scholarships. One whispers that we should start playing ‘the oboe or a brass instrument’ because there’s less competition than in strings for the scholarships.

Even without that sort of pressure, discreet re-prioritising is under way. Annabel Heseltine tells me she’s selling up her elegant townhouse in Kensington and ‘looking for somewhere big and rambling in the country, near some good schools’. The days of keeping large houses in two places are over for all but the super-wealthy. Strutt and Parker says it’s doing ‘a roaring trade in small properties in lovely places’.

‘Cottage chic’ is a lot easier to manage, as long as you don’t mind gardening yourself and swapping the labradors for a (small) cat to swing. You can also downsize your BMW or thirsty Range Rover and claim to have been afflicted by a guilty eco-conscience. Sam Cameron’s friend, the designer Anya Hindmarch, says she ‘quite likes a recession, weirdly. It puts everything back in place: cost-cutting, careful management and looking after your customers.’

The same goes for social life. In times of plenty everyone invites you to just about everything, because they can. When strings tighten, we work out the social links that really matter to us, whether it’s accompanied by a risotto on the table or Chateaubriand. Still, it’s something of a relief to pitch up at a gathering where they just don’t do recession, thank you very much. The sight of lavish canapés and as much champagne as you can politely swill gladdens the heart in these days of canny austerity rations.

After Rupert Murdoch gave his Thatcher lecture at Lancaster House and invited the guests to champagne, the FTSE 100 woman behind me whispered: ‘Thank God for that — I’m so bored with Prosecco.’

The RP life can be lived with style and grace. But once in a while, the joys of plenty remind us of the good times past — and hopefully, the ones to come.

Illustration by Maggie Li

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