The recession has been no respecter of rank, and charity balls, like royal palaces, reflect this. In the foyer leading to the Grosvenor House Hotel's ballroom a group of young men and women bent over a table plan spattered with treble barrels and sprinkled with titles. 'Just look for the longest name - it's the quickest way,' sighed a young woman. Another cluster came up. 'It looks like more than a hundred,' said one of them. 'Someone phoned in desperation a few days ago: 'Please come] There's only going to be a hundred there]' '
A mere three weeks ago the Rose Ball, one of the social events of the season, had sold only 150 tickets. By Thursday night, after some hard selling, they had sold 509. The recession, along with two other events on the same night, the Red Cross ball at the Dorchester and a private ball in the country, had hit the guest list of an event which, in pre- slump days, used to pull in up to 1,200.
A young man leaned on the balcony. 'I asked why so few girls had become debs this year,' he said. It seemed girls from good families were no longer volunteering. 'The wrong sort of people were becoming debs. Too rich. New money.' If that was ever a genuine problem, it does not seem one likely to persist. Many fortunes made in the Eighties have gone as rapidly as they were accumulated. That day Lloyd's insurance market had warned of losses in the latest trading account of up to pounds 2.8bn, and another possible pounds 1bn to come. The losses are hitting old and new money alike. 'Just about everyone has been affected by Lloyd's,' said Rebecca Churchward Viggers, as she made her way around Lady Grade's table.
A few score waiters began to flit around the tables. The chandeliers shone down. In 1953, when the Rose Ball began to raise funds for charity in memory of Queen Alexandra, a host of diamonds would have returned their fire. Since then the ostentation has seeped from events such as this. Most jewels were cheerful fakes: most frocks had seen long service. Upstairs was one more sign of change: on a stall of prizes waiting to raise funds for Queen Alexandra's charity lay a book about her descendants: Diana Her True Story.
Gillian Greenwood, director of the charity Alexandra Rose Day, sighed, sat down and began to eat her melon, her first food of the day. It is hard work, raising money in the present climate. As she ate, waiters ran to and fro from her chair with whispered inquiries. What was to happen when the half bottle of wine per head ran out? Were the Pinstriped Highlanders Band receiving their essential pre-piping dram? A few chairs away sat Peter Townend, Tatler's social consultant, indignantly rebutting the idea that his kingdom was shrinking. 'The number of debs is up this year,' he said sharply. 'I'm sorry to disappoint you. About 150. They're the most beautiful and lovely girls and delightful mothers.' Lloyd's? He looked more disapproving than ever. 'I read the names of the people they mentioned in the paper as being affected by Lloyd's and I didn't recognise any of them.'
Music began. The pipers played. At the door Susannah Ireland, 9, and Ella Clay, 10, had been part of a small troupe of girls from Putney High School practising the hard sell on incoming guests. 'Please will you go into that corner?' they pleaded, pointing to the Guess the Weight of the Cheese competition at pounds 1 a go. Now they went around the tables, asking the guests to enter the draw by writing their names on a pounds 10 note. It is on such sideshows that charity balls raise much of their funds.
Dancing began. A distinguished figure invited Lady Grade, joint deputy chairman, on to the floor. It was Prince Mohsin Ali Khan, originally from Hyderabad in India, whose family's princely splendours had shone during the British Raj. 'Nowadays I live in Britain and Switzerland,' he said. 'One has to be flexible.'
The dancers swayed and swooped. They seemed willing to forget they were living in flexible times although, upstairs, in spite of the fact that she had turned up half an hour late because of unforeseen traffic delays, the clairvoyant was doing good business. Some jived, some danced a variation of the waltz. Clare Carey, in a tartan skirt, was one of the best. 'I learnt from him,' she said, pointing to her partner. 'And he learnt from his mother's French au pair.' Dominic Tayler had retired from the floor to contemplate the prize he had won in the draw: a floral apron. 'He'll look lovely in it and he cooks a very good dinner,' said a passing girl. But Mr Tayler's thoughts were on more serious things. 'This is not elitist,' he said. 'It's a way of raising money for charity. That's the main point. And if you can have fun at the same time . . .'
Last year the Rose Ball raised around pounds 25,000, around pounds 40 for each guest. This year all the cash raised, from the cheese, the clairvoyant, the diners and dancers, goes to children's hospices. The Rose Day collection alone raised pounds 400,000 last year. The appearance of elitism, which had raised the ire of the passing man as the ball began, is deceptive. Like the new model Buckingham Palace, the Rose Ball welcomes all comers willing to write a cheque. Still the dance-floor spectacle sparkled. At midnight the crowd still whirled. 'Mind telling me when it finishes?' the cab driver had asked. 'Might mean I have a busy night for a change. Business has been terrible since Easter.' He was not the only one. At the edge of the dance floor a man in immaculate black tie looked on, and smiled a wry smile. 'I got a special prize for being a Lloyd's underwriter,' he said.
Reservations for next year's ball and information on the charity from Alexandra Rose Day, 1 Castelnau, Barnes, London SW13 9RP (081-748 4824).
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