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28 August 2023

London’s charming India Club is closing, and I feel bereft

A modest candle of quirkiness and affordability has been snuffed out, so the capital can have another luxury hotel.

By Nicholas Lezard

This week and subsequent weeks will be weeks of mourning, of a kind that has become all too familiar. This time, though, there is an extra, savage twist: and in it we see not only the usual curses of greed and philistinism but a dash of old-fashioned colonialism. And by colonialism I mean another word that begins instead with “r” and may be actionable. So I won’t say it.

You may not have heard of the India Club, or the restaurant above it, for it was not on most Londoners’ radar. When I found it, I felt as though I had dropped into a fold in time, and in reality as well: behind an elegantly crumbling facade on the Strand, signposted so discreetly as to be almost invisible, and up two flights of stairs, was a room that could have been preserved from the 1930s – largely because it was.

The white-jacketed waiters delivered delicious and astonishingly cheap Indian food to a range of types: students, lone oddballs, writers, bohemians, political exiles, and, infrequently, me. It was like being in a Graham Greene novel. There was no passing trade: you went there because you knew about it already. There is no space to describe its roots with the India League, the pre-war pro-independence movement: let’s just say that if you were Indian, it was special. That is, even more special.

[See also: At five foot nothing and ex-SAS, P— was considerably more menacing than his height]

Modern capitalism hates anachronisms unless they can be monetised, and the club and restaurant were not money-making machines, if their prices were anything to go by. If you were on a tight budget and craved a curry in town, it was where you went. But by the end of September it will be no more. The Telegraph India has noted the “historical, cultural and emotional attachment” of the India Club to Indians, and reports that Marston Properties, the freeholder, intends “to gut the place and put up a luxury hotel”. The paper actually went a bit further than that, but I’ve been advised that it would be best not to quote its more incendiary phrasing; suffice to say that this is a battle that’s been going on a while.

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I wrote to Marston Properties, informing them that I was going to be writing about the restaurant, asking it if it had any comment or clarification to make before I filed. I had no reply. To tell the truth, I wasn’t really expecting one. We’re – and by “we” I mean anyone who thinks there is more than a sufficiency of luxury hotels in London – not worthy of serious consideration. I had a look at the company’s website. The first words that greet you are “Creating spaces for you to live and work, since 1895”. That makes it sound rather lovely, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not. In the case of the India Club, the word “destroying” is rather more apt, I think. (I long ago learned to be very wary of any company whose mission statement begins with a verb ending in -ing. Come to think of it, I am very wary of any company with a mission statement at all. It is as if it have erected a huge sign saying “Here be bullshit”.)

This kind of thing has been going on all over the world for ever, but in London these days it’s turbocharged. Property developers often see history, charm and utility as contemptible obstructions to their desire to do nothing but make a huge amount of money. (I mention in passing the extraordinary coincidence which saw the Crooked House, the pub in Staffordshire, mysteriously burned down a week or so after it was sold. Another piece of history gone for good.) It’s the main reason I was forced to leave the city that my family had lived in for centuries. And that’s just about property. But it’s the disappearing restaurants that get me upset: that is, the really good-value restaurants. For some reason this hurts more than anything, as London is hollowed out to become a vacant playground for the wealthy.

[See also: An eight-hour lunch puts the passing of time in perspective]

The Hotpot had a couple of branches in central London where you could, amazingly, get the best crème brûlée in town for a fraction of the price that other places who knew how to cook it properly charged; at Chez Victor in Wardour Street you could get an affordable three-course French meal; “Le patron mange içi”, it said over the door, and he did, because the food was good, and I would try to impress girlfriends by manfully and endlessly chewing on my tripes à la mode de Caen because it made me look like a man of the world (OK, north-western Europe. But you know what I mean).

So there we are. Another modest candle of quirkiness and affordability has been snuffed out. And once these places go, they can never come back. But who cares? London will have another luxury hotel.

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This article appears in the 30 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Tax Con