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The invitation read: "The Master and Wardens of the Worshipful Company of Solicitors of the City of London request the pleasure of the company of ...''
And there was my name in perfect, rectilinear calligraphy. I was being invited to a livery dinner.
A livery company is a form of association descended from medieval trade and crafts guilds. The livery dinner of The London Solicitors' Company (a lawyers' association that, at 110 years old, is a comparative newcomer) was to be held at Carpenters' Hall, which is maintained by the centuries-older Worshipful Company of Carpenters.
This would obviously not be a sneakers and jeans sort of hop from my home in New York City to London. That was where my personal assistant, who shall be referred to simply as Ms Moneypenny, took over with her usual charm and copious efficiency. And so, I ended up joining - because she signed me up - the Leaders Club of the luxury hotel collection known as The Leading Hotels of the World.
When I arrived at my favourite quarters in London, The Milestone Hotel, I thereby received an upgrade to a room so refined, it had an internal entry stairway. Sitting across the street from Kensington Gardens, The Milestone feels more like a private house than a hotel; indeed, whenever you come in, a staffer will often greet you with "Welcome home''.
The next morning, there was my familiar, patient server, Magda, ready with my eye-opener of orange juice and Darjeeling tea. It turned out that, strictly speaking, Leaders Club membership entitles you to two continental breakfasts, and if I were to press that point, I could argue that The Milestone's breakfast being the treat that it is, I should indeed qualify for a pair of them, but Magda soothed my ambitions with egg whites with kale.
An online test I had just taken had, in only 30 questions, correctly concluded that I had learned my manners in Louisiana - back where knowing what is proper and expected still very much mattered. I was not going into a new social situation, therefore, without adequate preparation.
First: good grooming. Ms Moneypenny had helpfully booked an appointment for me at Geo. F. Trumper, the barbershop that has been serving London gentlemen since 1875. I went to the original shop, in Curzon St. (There is a second location relatively nearby.) The decor is woody and refined: a men's club with sinks for all-comers.
I said, "When I was young, my hair was so thick, my barber had to struggle to get it pruned in half an hour.''
On my way to the men's room - where, worldwide, all truths are told - I explained to another customer that I was simply trying to look my best for a livery dinner. "Relax,'' he said. "Now you certainly do.''
Scrolling through my new loyalist club perks, I found that a member hotel, the One Aldwych, had a Basque restaurant called Eneko - and because I had never been to a Basque restaurant, it seemed like a worthy next stop.
The hotel is larger than The Milestone and serves famously inventive cocktails in its tall-ceilinged Lobby Bar, where I started the evening with a smouldering delight called The Origin (whisky, Champagne, cherry liqueur, chocolate bitters and fruit flavours). Preparation at the table involved giving me a virtual reality headset for a video about the Scotch while I inhaled the scent of burning pinewood.
Eneko, downstairs, has an open kitchen presided over by the ever visible, necessarily personable chef Javi Blanco. My server helped me through an unfamiliar selection, including a rack of lamb that had been cut into segments, the sauce-bearing ribs reclining against each other like sleeping puppies. The waiter strongly recommended, correctly as it turned out, that I try the Basque txakoli sorbete, which is a sorbet served half-frozen in a glass of txakoli, a Basque low-alcohol, slightly sparkling white wine. My culinary experience this evening was intriguing: there were elements of what I understand from Spanish cuisine, some bits that seemed French-influenced, and a refined presentation rather Japanese in appearance.
The next morning, preparations for the livery dinner moved into high gear. Shortly after Magda did her magic with breakfast, I was back on Savile Row, the street celebrated worldwide for British bespoke (that is, custom-made) men's tailoring. My sartorial sanctuary on "The Row'' is Henry Poole & Co. I arrived to find that the shop had weathered a basement flood; weighty ledgers from when Dickens, Disraeli and Buffalo Bill were customers stood neatly stacked in the sitting room inside the entrance.
Relying on Mr Parker's alternate role as my sartorial sage, I asked, "Is there anything special I should know about putting it all together for a livery dinner?''
"In your Poole dinner jacket, you will be the best-dressed man there,'' he replied with London grace. (In New York, that would probably come out something like, "Dude, chill''.) Part of the softly spoken code of gentlemen's tailoring is that it is about something more consequential than clothing: it is about building confidence.
Further to doing just that, I stopped off at the bespoke department of my shirt maker, Turnbull & Asser, on Jermyn St, which is the shirt-making counterpart to Savile Row. There I was assured by young, dapper George Atanasias that the dress shirts they had made for me to work with the Henry Poole dinner jacket (I had brought along both) were fitting just right. To add a note of good luck after hearing that latest voice of assurance, I ordered another in a different cloth but with the same tall collar.
My arrival confirmed my suspicion that you do not make a New York entrance - that is, you do not saunter into a livery dinner, smile at the society photographer and ask for a Diet Coke with lemon. I ascended a formal stairway lined with cadet soldiers, each of whom greeted me, after which I was announced to all by a man with an operatic baritone heard three counties over.
There were officers in full-dress uniforms, including a modern major-general who wore a single strand of pearls above her red tunic. Unlike New York black-tie events, where the host can only hope just this once for 90% compliance with the dress code, every male civilian wore his dinner jacket - no exceptions. Everything I was wearing was indeed spot on. (Thank you and bless you, Mr Parker.)
We were all at long tables. As indicated with precision in the programme, I sat opposite Stephen Sidkin, the distinguished Fox Williams intellectual property lawyer, who had so graciously cast aside caution and invited me. This would not be London without a measure of custom and ritual, and so we all rose for the Loyal Toast - to her Majesty, the Queen. (Cheater's note: I had practised at home with a YouTube video.) Following that were toasts to the Royal Family, the Lord Mayor of London, and on down the list. I managed it all fairly well until it got to the toast to "the honoured guests'', when I had to be coaxed back into my seat because they were referring, in part, to me.
With verbal cues from my neighbours, I worked my way through the ancient Saxon ceremony of the loving cup. A veritable punch bowl is passed with bows and thanks down the row of guests. Each accepts a drink, wipes the rim with a white napkin (thoughtfully provided) and, after handing it to the next taker, literally turns around to watch his back as he drinks. The original idea was to stand guard lest anyone do in the recipient while he uses both hands to hold the capacious vessel. Sanitation standards having improved since the Norman Conquest, I was cautioned not to "share DNA with the assembled solicitors of London''; a feigned sip would do just as well as an actual one.
There was nothing more of importance to do on my visit than to proceed, the next day, to the toy department at Harrods, to hunt down necessary things for my 9-year-old son. Ascending a grand staircase from the main floor, I heard the attractive young woman ahead of me say, "I can't walk up those stairs in these shoes'', thereby prompting another young woman nearby to turn her way and in a perfect upper-class accent reply, "Oh, come on, yes you can''. She smiled and went off with the tall man accompanying her.
My final dinner was at Evelyn's Table, which had been recommended by an epicure back home. There is no sign outside, and you are not announced in operatic tones. You enter a pub and, as if heading to a 1920s speakeasy, find someone with whom to give your name; you are then led down narrow back stairs to a basement where you sit at the kitchen counter and watch your meal being prepared. I had tagliatelle with braised beef shin (a justifiably popular dish made many times that night as I watched) and a fragrant rib of veal served with spinach soubise and a rectangular and rather sweet potato cake.
The next morning came my final perk as a member of the loyalty programme Ms Moneypenny had contrived for me to join: a complimentary ride back to Heathrow Airport in a Range Rover. "Did you have a good trip?'' asked my affable, grey-haired chauffer.
"Very good,'' I replied. "Candidly,'' I continued, "do people in London ever fret about doing things right in public?''
"Some worry a bit,'' he said, then added quickly, "I can't see the value in it.''
Back in New York, if you should perhaps need a friend or even a stranger to agree with you that something will go wrong, quickly and completely, a commiserating voice of negativity will comply. But if you come to London and try your best, even if you think you cannot manage it at first, there is always someone on hand to give you tips or simply to encourage you onward. I could get used to that. - TCA