In a rich man's world

For a £10,000-£30,000 annual fee, Revo250 offers its members access to supercars, yachts and other fabulously wealthy people. Is it simply a poser's paradise? Top jet-setter John Walsh reports
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The Independent Online

Come with me on this little journey. You wake at 6am to a bleak, anaemic dawn light creeping unenthusiastically over Dulwich. A low grumble of rustic complaint emanates from the malcontents on Radio 4's Farming Today, as your radio alarm clock from Currys switches itself on. In the bathroom, you marvel at the bags under your eyes (overweight designer bags in the luggage compartment beneath your eyes), and are brushing your teeth when the doorbell rings. The minicab takes you through unlovely bits of London - Herne Hill, Brixton Road, the scrubby parkland beside the Oval, the concrete nowheresville beyond Elephant and Castle - and in the cold light of 6.35am deposits you at King's Cross Thameslink, one of the least prepossessing stations in Europe. The train is devoid of heating and smells of musty pee. St Albans station wheezes into view, and glamorous Harpenden and finally, the awful majesty of Luton Airport Thameslink.

Come with me on this little journey. You wake at 6am to a bleak, anaemic dawn light creeping unenthusiastically over Dulwich. A low grumble of rustic complaint emanates from the malcontents on Radio 4's Farming Today, as your radio alarm clock from Currys switches itself on. In the bathroom, you marvel at the bags under your eyes (overweight designer bags in the luggage compartment beneath your eyes), and are brushing your teeth when the doorbell rings. The minicab takes you through unlovely bits of London - Herne Hill, Brixton Road, the scrubby parkland beside the Oval, the concrete nowheresville beyond Elephant and Castle - and in the cold light of 6.35am deposits you at King's Cross Thameslink, one of the least prepossessing stations in Europe. The train is devoid of heating and smells of musty pee. St Albans station wheezes into view, and glamorous Harpenden and finally, the awful majesty of Luton Airport Thameslink.

The wasteland surrounding the station is broken by huge retail warehouses. The coach carries ads urging you to cram in as much shopping and fast-food as you can until the plane takes off. It's 8.30am when you reach Luton airport. The sun is a disappointed sphere in the heavens, the colour of weak orange squash. The airport is no more grotty than any other airport, but the fried All-Day Breakfast leaves you queasy and dyspeptic (I think it was the black pudding). On the easyJet plane, you squeeze your 6ft 1in frame into what must surely be a child's seat, buy some bitter coffee, and snooze across the Channel, dreaming of a London with tumbleweeds blowing along depopulated concrete parks...

Then everything changes. At Nice's Côte d'Azur airport, the air glows with Mediterranean warmth and gentle zephyrs. The lady with the sign bearing your name, as you whizz through passport control and customs, is also warm. Lara from Beirut is tall, brown-haired, ironic and laughs like an old girlfriend. "I've brought the Ferrari," she says matter-of-factly, "would you like to drive?" Well, yes, I would, very much, but one look at the sexy blue Ferrari 360 Spider in the airport car-park and I think it might be better not to tempt fate.

Lara negotiates the blue dream along the Promenade des Anglais in dazzling sunlight with the top down. Beside us, the sea is five shades from sapphire to baby blue. One curving golden beach gives way to another. Sleek cabin cruisers bob at anchor, dwarfed by huge white ferries like Olympian wedding cakes. Passers-by look at our foxy car (and its wildly attractive occupants, ahem) and beam approvingly. We are heading for St Jean Cap Ferrat, to have some champagne on a yacht. But wait a moment - Lara gets a call on her mobile. There's been a change of plan. Her boss is too hungry to wait for aperitifs, so we'll meet for lunch at Villefranche instead. When one is a Riviera rich guy, a hefty slice of one's day is spent making these crucial policy decisions. Not this, but that. Not the Bentley, but the Lamborghini. Not cocktails on the galley, but Pouilly-Fuissé at La Mère Germaine.

And there, in the best fish restaurant on the Côte d'Azur, I meet the core of Revo250, a new social club for extremely wealthy people. It's the brainchild of John Llewellyn, a former racing driver, and its operation is simple. Club members pay a huge yearly fee, for which they get to drive the fanciest cars around the Riviera, cruise around the coastline in handsome modern yachts, and meet other fat cats at lunch parties organised by the club every three weeks.

At the table sits Llewellyn, a tall, rather irritable Englishman, about 60, in a pink sports shirt and matching suntan. Nearby sits his girlfriend Jilly, who during the week works in London at Accenture, the City accountants, but is off-duty today and relaxing in a startling leopard-skin décolletage and fly-away shades. She has a thrilling, Martini-generation laugh and makes risqué jokes to roars of male approval. Across the table is Bill McGowan, a New Zealand businessman whose courier company operates in 13 countries, and Peter, an English pharmaceuticals genius whose company is about to go international. Completing the group is Lara, the Beirut bombshell, plus, some way below the salt, your humble scribe.

I'm being allowed into this starry gathering for a privileged glimpse of how the rich live - or how certain very rich English people think life should be lived. I've just had the James Bond experience - the airport pick-up, the Ferrari, the brunette, the Promenade, the restaurant. Later will come the yacht. I'm suddenly in the middle of what is called a jet-set lifestyle. Like Swiss Toni in The Fast Show, I feel a yearning to offer the company some Belgian chocolates and to remark that piloting a yacht is like making love to a beautiful woman; but I quash it. No point in turning into a jet-setter so fast. These things take time.

John's male companions are an interesting contrast. Bill is an enthusiastic Revo fan, spends a fortune on his subscription to the club and acts like a genial advertisement for it. Peter has yet to make up his mind to join - or has yet to be properly invited by John - and contributes inscrutable little stories, revealing himself to have a PhD and a lot of money. Unspoken between them is the question of whether he's a suitable person to join the club - and whether the club is suitable for him to join. The protocol baffles me. "All the members are specifically chosen," says Llewellyn. "You can't just ring up and join. You've got to be interviewed properly. So I make sure the right people drink the right wines. Teetotallers are not allowed." He allows himself a brief, militiaman laugh.

John and Bill discuss the wonders of the points system. You can be a Mistral member, an Esterel or a Soleil, depending how much you spend. The top end is the Soleil membership, which costs €45,000 (£30,000) and gets you 3,200 points a year, entitling you to daily or weekly use of one of 15 posh cars (from a BMW or Range Rover to a Porsche or Lamborghini), or up to 12 days on one of the company's nine yachts. The lowest membership costs you €10,000 (£6,300) and gets you 1,000 points, for which you get half an hour in a Robin Reliant - only kidding, you could get five winter weekends in a Porsche GT3 or three summer weekends in a Aston Martin Vanquish.

For your outlay of 10, or 20 or 30 grand, therefore, you get to drive sprauncy cars, muck about in yachts and meet people who like to do the same. Isn't this just a poser's paradise? Isn't it like those San Tropez onanists who hire the back of a boat for the afternoon so they can sit, pretending to own it, sipping cocktails and trying to impress passing girls? Llewellyn's face furrows. "No, it's not like that, totally not. These people are motoring enthusiasts who may not want to own a bright-green Lamborghini Murcielago - but would love to drive one for two or three days, to have the experience of doing so. We've got 40 of the best supercars in the world. You get the keys to the garage and can choose any one you want." Because they have the racing star Jensen Button as their front man, they can get any new model of car they like in the first week.

John used to be a Jensen. After spending years racing saloon cars, he got into corporate hospitality, wining and dining executives at sporting events. His company came to the attention of Wembley, the leisure group that owns Wembley stadium, which was looking for a hospitality firm with a ready-made clientele. Llewellyn's company was worth, he estimates, "about £5.5m". He sold it to Wembley for "nearly 10 million" and retired. He was soon back, working for a private club called PI fronted by Damon Hill, before leaving last year to start his own. He now has 30 members and will allow no more than 250 into his exclusive gang. And he has ambitions. 'The company is growing tremendously in other parts of Europe," he says. "Marbella and Geneva and Malaga. There'll be 10 Revos by Christmas this year, then six or seven more by this time next year." There are no premises, but the company will book swanky hotels for its members to enjoy. All there will be, in Geneva etc, will be the cars, the yachts and the meetings of true minds. It's quite alarming, to think of Europe beingoverrun by hordes of modern semi-millionaires and jet-setters manqués, storming along coast roads in Bentley Turbos and Porsche Cayennes, inviting their friends from Millwall and Harpenden to come and spend the weekend on their yacht.

"People join to be part of a networking club," says the owner equably. "A lot of English people are moving here for financial reasons and don't know anyone; their families are mostly at home. By joining Revo, they can go to events and meet like-minded people." Like-minded people? You mean the extremely rich? "No, no, definitely not," he says. "Just a guy who's here a lot, or lives here, a guy who likes cars, likes boats, it makes financial sense to him to enjoy it without worrying about maintenance. He can just come to the airport and have a car delivered by the lovely Lara..."

The conversation turns to depreciation - how quickly the value of a yacht plummets shortly after you've bought it. (You know how that is, don't you, darling? Of course you do.) "A yacht like my Manhattan drops about €400,000 a year. And trying to find a mooring down here is impossible," says Llewellyn sadly. "You can't buy them any more. I bought one here, three years ago, for £250,000; now it's worth £750,000 and I've got 17 years left on the lease."

"What I like about going on a Revo yacht," ventures Bill laconically, "is that you don't get charged for the food and the booze. Every time I've chartered a boat, I've had to pay whenever I had another croissant or another bottle of wine." Oh dear. On Revo yachts, everything is included in the price. "One other thing," says Llewellyn. "Down here you get a lot of French and Italian and German crews, who don't speak your lingo and don't know the waters so well. All our crews and stewardesses are trained by us. And if you want a different boat two weeks later, you can have the same crew. If you've got children, they might say, Daddy, can I go on that boat with the nice stewardess again? Of course you can."

How terribly old-fashioned is the English millionaire's notion of how to spend money. In the Mère Germaine restaurant's archival handbook, you can find signatures from visiting British celebrities such as Noël Coward, David Niven, Rex Harrison and Trevor Howard; the Revo attitude to wealth enjoyment is similarly stuck in the Fifties and earlier. The rich loner driving his Bentley Continental round the Côte d'Azur? Why, that was Max de Winter in Rebecca (1938). The yacht as symbol of over-the-top playboy glamour derives from Some Like It Hot (1959). The spectacle of rich British people descending on the French Riviera to swan about in posh hotels, bully and patronise the locals and bring their culture with them, ready-packed, has been renewed for decades. Reviewing a new history of the azure coast, the Francophile Graham Robb wrote, "The Riviera's great contribution to humanity, it seems, was to collect the world's greediest, least imaginative millionaires in a gilded ghetto where they could act out their puerile fantasies without bothering anybody else."

This is too harsh a judgement to apply to Mr Llewellyn and his clubmen, who seem neither greedy nor puerile, but Llewellyn does exhibit some valetudinarian traits that wouldn't have seemed odd to the Duke of Windsor, that other stalwart of the azure coast. He boasts about his passion for eating roast beef and Yorkshire pudding in the South of France. He and his friends raise eyebrows and tut with distaste as a ferry-load of day-trippers crosses the bay near their yacht (my dear, they're letting just anyone in now). He is a stalwart Little Englander when it comes to employing foreign johnnies to crew one's yacht. But he's also a considerable organiser, a deviser of systems and juggler of expensive bits of machinery; a hundred years ago, he would have been cowing the locals and building bridges in obscure bits of the British Empire.

It is, of course, absurd to carp about the iniquities of the rich while drinking their rosé wine (which we did around teatime on the Manhattan Sunseeker, as it pulled out of Villefranche-sur-mer and purred expensively north to Cap Ferrat). It's hypocritical to say, this is all fake, this attempt to buy glory by association, it's like one of these seaside promenade attractions where the sign says "Your Face Here", and you put your face through and find yourself being photographed as a circus strongman or saloon-bar tart - or a yacht-owning fat cat. It's impossible to sustain a note of contempt and fury at the conspicuous consumption of the wealthy when you're being driven by Lara at 150kph from Antibes back to Nice airport in an Aston Martin DB9 with Frank Sinatra singing "Strangers in the Night" on the sound system.

Zoning in to the jet-set lifestyle should leave you sneering about the boringness of the rich, their deadly conversations about value for money, the details of yacht management, or how early you can be at your desk when starting from Cannes. Instead, you're left with a different emotion, one that eats away inside you quite soon after you step out of the Aston Martin, and flourishes into a full-scale bilious attack by the time you get to Harpenden - long, long before you get to King's Cross station and start looking for a night bus to take you home.

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