Philip Hensher: The super-rich just aren't ostentatious enough

They ought to be commissioning architects to build mansions of rock crystal and platinum
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The Independent Online

If I had £25,000 to fritter away, I might have the loft converted. Or I might buy a good Indian miniature, or a grand piano. Or I suppose I could finally buy a car and learn to drive. I might simply take six months off.

One thing I feel pretty sure I wouldn't spend £25,000 on, however rich I was, is a weekend in a hotel in Moscow. A new hotel, the Ritz-Carlton, opened a couple of days ago on Tverskaya Street, on the site of the famous old Intourist hotel. Its room charges go from £500 a night for a basic room to £8,000 for the presidential suite, including a bullet-proof dining room. I suppose you could stay there for one night, though I don't know what you would do to get your eight thousand pounds-worth - run round the suite screaming and touching all the walls before stealing all the luxury shampoo, I expect. A more reasonable three-night weekend will work out at £25,000, or so.

The absurd gestures towards luxury, or rather towards expenditure, go on. You could more than double the cost of your weekend by having a bottle of 1961 Chateau Petrus with your dinner one night - £34,000. The hotel provides, too, a luxury breakfast including champagne, caviar, and an omelette with truffles in it, for £350 a go.

The luxury breakfast is the moment where you start wondering. Who on earth would want to eat a meal, at any time of day, consisting of champagne, caviar and a truffle omelette? It sounds perfectly disgusting as a combination, particularly at eight o'clock in the morning. You might as well eat seven £50 notes between slices of Mother's Pride.

The truth about luxury, in the end, is that it's not that nice. My only encounter with luxury on a truly obscene scale was once spending a night on a tropical island for the purpose of a travel article. It cost, I think, £4,000 a night. The toiletries, tiled acreage and servility were beyond compare; my suite had a gorgeous view. But on the other hand, in the bar you had to put up with a piped arrangement of "Strangers in the Night", the food tasted of nothing, and halfway through dinner, a large rat ran through the dining room.

There is, clearly, a market for this sort of thing, despite the obvious fact that above a certain level, there are only quite marginal improvements to be observed by the consumer. If you want to give a restaurant an extra £1,000, they will only grate truffles and scatter caviar over everything, which is not necessarily much of an improvement.

At these prices, customers, or, more likely, their shareholders, are paying for two entirely conflicting things. They want to be highly conspicuous in their expenditure. They also, however, want to pay such sums to be kept safe from the public gaze. There is no point in eating a disgusting breakfast of caviar and champagne in privacy. No one would see, and no one would care. On the other hand, the only real point of charging colossal prices to indulge such vulgar ostentation is to ensure exactly that privacy from the envious gaze.

There is an ancient economic defence of vulgar ostentation, first put forward by John Mandeville in his 1714 "Fable of the Bees", and given unforgettable lyric statement by Pope in his "Epistle to Burlington". A rich man's desire to show off his money, whether through his dress, his behaviour, or his houses is not to be deplored, since it benefits so many people, Mandeville thought. Expenditure on vulgar personal display has an unintended social benefit, Pope said, since "hence the poor are cloth'd, the hungry fed/ Health to himself, and to his infants bread/ The labourer bears..."

But Pope and Mandeville were thinking largely of boastful monuments, the building of palaces and landscaped estates. It's difficult to see how paying £8,000 a night for a hotel suite, £700 for a breakfast, will filter down, or encourage the spread of skills. A chambermaid, a waiter or a chef will be paid very much the same, whatever the customer pays to enjoy their labours. That is just the nature of the service economy.

It has been widely remarked that many of the immensely rich of today, compared to the rich of a hundred years ago, lack a civic, philanthropic sense. That is only partly true; some, like Bill Gates, definitely do, though it's hard to imagine others endowing a new library or art gallery. What would be more consistently true is that the super-rich, these days, don't necessarily splash their money around in helpfully ostentatious ways.

Instead of staying in ridiculous hotels, the very rich ought to be commissioning architects to build really obscenely ostentatious mansions out of rock crystal and platinum. They ought to be commissioning sculptors to fill their acres with elaborately ugly abstractions. They ought to be paying composers to name symphonies after their country houses, and remodelling their gardens every other year.

Of course, some of them do all this already, but, after direct philanthropy, it is rather the duty of the very rich to support the trades and the arts through patronage. There is a proper notion of luxury, and a use to be made of consumption. What many people find puzzling, and ultimately repulsive, is that the sort of money spent at this new Moscow hotel won't make any impact on a country where the average monthly wage is around £250.

But when you spend your money, in effect, on nothing at all, then nothing at all can be expected to benefit.