One detail stands out. As I am being shown around a £40million house in Swiss Cottage, a marble-covered mansion nestled on more than 11,000 square feet of land and boasting seven bedrooms, a swimming pool, a cinema room and a separate bedroom and bathroom for its live-in staff, there is a feature that stays with me long after I have left. In the bathroom on the ground floor – one of at least four toilets in the house – everything is made from mother of pearl.
To the estate agent, dutifully giving us a tour because my friend and I are pretending that I am rich enough to buy the house, a mother-of-pearl toilet isn’t remotely amusing. Why would it be? If you are so rich that you can afford nine members of staff to follow you around the world and to every new property that you buy, you deserve to sink your moneyed posterior on to a toilet bowl made from the inner shell of a mollusc. Why else would you have become so fabulously wealthy? What else was it all for?
We continue our guided tour of the colossus. Chandelier in the entrance. Chandelier in one of the dining rooms. Chandelier in the living room. My heart racing as she asks me where I am currently living, I realise that the estate agent has the power to smell authentic wealth – and her nostrils ain’t picking it up on me, a supposed property developer with Asia Pacific Investment Partners. All right, she’s saying to herself. These bellends don’t have £10k between them. Let’s get this over with. (Earlier, as if deliberately sabotaging my own ruse, I commit a tell-tale faux pas: instead of putting the protective house-viewing foot bags over my shoes, I put them over my socks. Utterly pointless.)
As the multimillion mega-mansion spirals on and on, its opulence beginning to become embarrassing, the following is clear: this is not a world for us, two twentysomething chancers paying off their student loans.
But who is it for?
“There’s no poor person on The Bishops Avenue,” Trevor Abrahmsohn tells me as he shows me around Huxley House, a £22m ‘double-fronted home in the Victorian style’ on the street known as Billionaires’ Row. “These are people that value the majesty of space. They don’t want a twee house; they want a small hotel.” Abrahmsohn is managing director of Glentree Estates, a real-estate agency with a line in palatial north London properties. Sixtysomething with a silver bouffant, a South African lilt and a suit two sizes too large for his small body, Abrahmsohn has “broken world records for the sale of any single property four times”. I ask him if he himself is a millionaire. He says he doesn’t feel comfortable divulging that kind of information. I tend to think people who aren’t millionaires feel comfortable telling you they’re not millionaires.
When you are admitted through the security gate and over the threshold of a property like Huxley House, the instinctive response of anyone on a modest income is the same: you let out a breathy scoff and shake your head. It is impossible to imagine living in a place this vast. “You wouldn’t buy a property of £22million unless you were worth a few-hundred million at least, if not a billion,” Abrahmsohn says as we stand in one of the spacious ground-floor rooms.
After pausing to spend seven minutes explaining his stance on Brexit, Abrahmsohn leads us to the basement swimming pool and sauna. Struggling to turn on various lights, he shows us a chute that he thinks dispenses ice. “You don’t need to go anywhere,” he says. This comment is more revealing than he intends it to be. Isn’t this the awful thing about living in what is essentially your own hotel – that you never see anyone? “The ones that feel it’s important to connect will connect, no matter where they live,” he says. “And the ones that don’t want to connect will not connect, deliberately, wherever they live.”
Nonetheless, on The Bishops Avenue in particular, this reputation of isolation (The Guardian revealed in 2014 that many of the houses were unoccupied or derelict) is not doing the street any favours. Camilla Dell, founder of Black Brick Property Solutions, tells me she thinks the street is soulless and says that “Nigerian oil barons, sheikhs or Russians” own many of the houses. For many of these people –for whom a London home might be one of four or five across the world – an immense mansion appears to be a deliberate statement. No one but a travelling circus needs that much space or that many toilets. An unkind person might say that the owners are over-compensating for something. When I put this to Charles Curran, principal and market data analyst of Maskells estate agents, he – like the other agents I interview – sympathises with the buyers. “It’s your life and you only get one of them. If someone says, ‘Do you really need 15,000 square feet?’, well, maybe your passion is swinging dumbbells at the end of five-metre-long ropes, and you may need the space.”
On my strolls down The Bishops Avenue I see no airborne dumbbells, but we do see one billionaire walking his dog. Abrahmsohn returns Richard Desmond’s wave, having been friends with the media mogul for 35 years after bumping into him at lots of “Conservative dos”. (Knowing he owns at least one property on The Bishops Avenue, I had already emailed Desmond to ask if he could give me a tour of his house. “No way,” he wrote back.) Grant Alexson, formerly of Knight Frank and now head of GA Residential, admits that The Bishops Avenue is full of statement houses owned by UK residents whose permanent home is outside the country, or non-doms who don’t necessarily live in them. He would not want to see London going the way of East Asia, where almost entire cities’ worth of tower blocks are built, bought, and abandoned. “We want communities,” Alexson says. “We want people to actually function.” In addition he admits that the luxury features of some of the properties he sells are a bit much even for him: “Some of it I would apply the word ‘bollocks’ to.”
As well as those buying from abroad, London was until recently home to more ‘ultra-high net-worth individuals’ per person than any other city on Earth. (These people are defined as those who own £21million or more in assets apart from their principal home.) Nick Yandle, policy leader at the National Housing Federation, explains that London has long been a secure place to invest: “You know the government isn’t going to randomly confiscate your property if you invest over here as an overseas buyer.” The Bishops Avenue has always been a bolthole for these wealthy foreign buyers. “And the prices here,” Abrahmsohn explains, “are a quarter of what they would be elsewhere in London, if not the world. You get more times better value for more product. I’m not sure if that’s a disadvantage. That’s a bit like saying, if you marry Elle MacPherson, what’s the downside?”
Walking past a 14-bedroom house that Salma Hayek is currently renting for between £10-20,000 a week, Abrahmsohn buzzes me into Buxmead, a new development of luxury flats. “It’s ridiculous,” he says, walking around the yellow and brown communal bar. “You shouldn’t be able to have this. This is beyond people’s wildest dreams.” I ask if people actually use the facilities – the table tennis, the pool table, the gym, the dining room. Abrahmsohn says that basically no one does.
Buxmead aims to restore the ‘soul’ that The Bishops Avenue is alleged to have lost. It sits on 2.5 acres of land, features a 25-metre Olympic sprint-length swimming pool, and had its own range of bespoke scents made by a cosmetic designer. (Alexandra Soveral, the designer in question, admits that “Buxmead is done in a different style and it doesn’t quite go with the rest of the street.”) Yandle explains that new developments – like Buxmead – are subject to section 106, a piece of legislation that obliges developers to devote a certain proportion of their buildings to affordable housing. The cheapest Buxmead flat is £6.5m. Developers can circumvent the need to build affordable housing by giving the equivalent money to the local council, who will use it for that purpose.
Buxmead’s brochure reassures its residents, “If something feels like a chore, let us do it for you.” Buy one of the flats and you automatically become a member of Ten, a concierge service that costs £300 a month. Its CEO Alex Cheatle tells me that people use them principally for travel, tickets and dining. “We hold tables for our members around London at the top restaurants. Were a member of the public to phone those restaurants, they’re full. The kind of people that live in somewhere like Buxmead are the kind that people want in their restaurants.” A Ten member in another part of London once wanted the company to source a fancy-dress costume for him. “That was extremely fun – to get exactly the right moustache and exactly the right look for him to look like a mid-forties Tom Selleck,” Cheatle says. Buxmead, and all of the accoutrements that come with services like it, are symptoms of a lifestyle proudly branded as ‘effortless living’. Reach a certain level of wealth, goes the logic, and you should be able to simply regress to an infantile existence and stop doing anything for yourself at all.
THE ROOT OF ALL EVIL
A few of the estate agents I interview are megaphones for Thatcherism, men who cut their teeth in the Iron Lady’s early reign. (Alexson describes himself as a failed public school boy: “I didn’t get my degree; and in the Eighties, what do you do? You become an estate agent.”) They tend to consider outrageous wealth an automatic mark of hard work. When I visit Neil Stone, managing director of high-end estate agents Bargets, he lays his Conservative credentials on the table. “If we’re all going to rely on the state,” he says, “well, who’s going to make the money?” Close your eyes and the voice could be Boris Johnson’s. “It’s good to aim high. And anyone who takes that away from you is feeding you negativity and actually envious in the wrong way.”
Charles Curran goes as far as to imply that in the UK there is a conspiracy against the rich: “If you have a field of flowers in the US and one flower is growing three or four feet higher than the other flowers, they would water that flower; they would nurture it; they would see how big that flower could get. In the UK, in a field of flowers with one flower too high, what we would do is chop it off to maintain uniformity.”
I would concede that my prurience about the super-wealthy was rooted in a type of envy. When I started this piece, I thought that living in a colossal fortress was a glamorous prospect. The more I learn about the houses, the people who buy them and the circles in which they operate, the less appealing it all becomes.
The myth that most of us fall for, whether or not we say it aloud, is that money does buy you happiness. In the Buxmead gym, Abrahmsohn levels with me. “I’ve been with some of the wealthiest people in the world,” he says. “With all their wealth invariably comes terrible sadness in a lot of other respects. I think these people, frankly, can’t help themselves. Money, power, avarice, is very intoxicating. Invariably they’re so fixated on this obsession, I don’t think they see the downsides quite as conspicuously as other observers looking on. The problem with wealth is it distorts values, it distorts principles. The old-fashioned, simple things in life get forsaken for all the glittery, innovative, new-fangled things.” And, crucially, mother of pearl doesn’t actually look that nice when it’s plastered absolutely everywhere.