INDEPENDENT 2024-02-13 12:03:55

RIP VIP: Is good behaviour killing off the private members’ club?

As much as we might hate to admit it, we all love to feel a bit superior on occasion, don’t we? Like when you’re given a special shout-out in an exercise class. Or given a free coffee by your barista. Or let into the club ahead of the rest of the queue. There’s something deeply reassuring about knowing that you’re somehow separate from everyone else, that you’ve earned a special privilege, that you’ve been allowed to watch others from behind the velvet rope. Hence why many people regularly spend thousands of pounds each year to do just that.

But the private members’ club, a once much-sought-after stamp of societal approval, seems to be on the decline. At least, that’s the impression you get from the latest news about Soho House, the exclusive, arts-centric members club founded by restaurateur–about-town Nick Jones in 1995. Over the weekend, a spokesperson issued a rebuttal to a report by GlassHouse Research that suggested the brand had expanded too quickly and left members experiencing a “decline in service quality”. In December, the chain announced it would stop accepting new members in London, New York and Los Angeles following complaints that the clubs were becoming too busy.

According to an article in The Times, Soho House members have had issues with service for some time, with one person claiming to have cancelled their membership as the chain had “let in so many new members” that the clubs were becoming “overwhelmed”. Meanwhile, another ex-member who joined a decade ago told the publication that overcrowding at the bar in Babington House, Somerset, had become “mob-like”.

Membership to one local club starts at £850 a year but stretches to almost £3,000 a year for global access to the chain’s 41 clubs, which are stationed everywhere from Mexico and India to Turkey and Amsterdam. Frequented by the likes of Taylor Swift and Rita Ora – and the venue of choice for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s first date – Soho House has long been associated with high-end, celebrity clientele. It also appears unbothered by the latest headlines, saying in a statement to the New York Stock Exchange that it is “confident in the strength of its business and is focused on executing its strategy”.

But the GlassHouse report indicates that the once-prized members’ club format could be falling out of fashion in general. While new venues are opening all the time – see The Twenty Two in Mayfair and The Pavilion in Knightsbridge – many are clinging on for dear life, if not already defunct. In 2021, The Conduit’s Mayfair venue was seized by Metro Bank over unpaid debt – it soon announced plans to open a new venue in Covent Garden. That same year, the 130-year-old Chelsea Arts Club emailed its members asking for “voluntary financial support” in light of lockdown-imposed strains. According to a report in the Financial Times, out of 103 members’ clubs in London in operation during the pandemic, seven had since shut down.

And yet, more continue to open each year. I’ve lost count of the number of times friends have suggested meeting at a “new trendy members’ club” they’ve just joined. What started off as a sexist, classist institution for men – gentlemen’s clubs reserved for those in the upper classes began popping up in the 18th century – has become a ubiquity in cities around the world. Offering access to the upper echelons of whichever industry it’s appealing to (clubs tend to focus around specific workplaces), often with the option of food, accommodation, and even a gym and a bustling nightlife, the modern-day members’ club is certainly appealing. But is it exclusive? And how could it be when there’s a new one opening every week? (Trust me: I receive the press releases.)

All the recent furore around Soho House begs the question: in 2024, what is the point of a members’ club? If you live in London, it’s arguably much harder to get into some of the best restaurants than it is to wrangle your way into a private members’ club. Hotspots like Sessions Arts House, Rita’s, Mountain, and The Devonshire are practically fortresses unless you know somebody who knows somebody. And if your incentive is to be somewhere other people aren’t, you’re better off trying to get into one of those places than a members’ club.

It seems to me that some of the established clubs such as The Groucho, which opened in 1985, represent a relic from another, more debaucherous era. Frequented by famous party-goers such as Kate Moss and the Gallagher brothers, clandestine bacchanalia used to be synonymous with the members’ club. But I’m not so sure that exists any more, particularly when you look at the branding around some of the latest members’ clubs opening in London today.

There’s The Other House in South Kensington, which has a major wellness focus – there’s a “vitality pool”, for example. Surrenne, a new opening from the Maybourne Hotel Group (which owns Claridge’s and The Connaught), boasts a “longevity clinic” and a swimming pool that includes a sound system for in-water mediation. Even though the newly opened Upstairs at Langan’s boasts a gorgeous bar with a small dance floor, the whole thing shuts at 2am on the weekends. Isn’t that when the party’s supposed to get started?

It’s hard to say what the future holds for the not-so-humble members’ club. Will our wellness-obsessed society stamp out the hedonistic hideouts from the past? Is it only a matter of time until the hottest private club is actually a juice clinic, or a fasting retreat?

It seems like we’ve come a long way from the purpose the members’ club was designed to serve. Gone are the days of looking to buy your way into some dark corner to do darker deeds with impunity. You might be able to get away with more in a private club than in, say, your local pub. But is there much point in trying to keep anything behind closed doors when all people are doing on the other side is, erm, getting an LED facial? We have beauty clinics for that.

Then there’s the mere proliferation of it all. Sure, we all want to feel something when we flash our member’s card at a haughty receptionist, watching their hostility switch to pseudo-warmth within seconds. And I’m sure there will always be those who are willing to part with their cash to validate the fact they think they’re special. But you have to ask just how special it is to be a part of something that is rapidly expanding, giving everyone the illusion of superiority without actually making anyone superior at all.

Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz reveal 2024 challenger

Ferrari unveil their 2024 F1 car on Tuesday morning at their base in Maranello.

Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz are expected to be present at the launch event alongside Ferrari team principal Fred Vasseur. The event is expected to get underway at 11am (GMT).

Lewis Hamilton may also be watching on with interest, given he will join the Scuderia from Mercedes next year. The Silver Arrows launch their own car on Wednesday, with world champions Red Bull revealing their car on Thursday amid much interest given the investigation into team boss Christian Horner.

But today, all eyes are on Ferrari as they look to produce a car capable of winning races this year and challenging Red Bull.

Follow the 2024 Ferrari F1 car launch here with The Independent

Much like Prince Harry and Meghan, needs to work a bit harder

I realise that I may well be in a minority here, but I find myself rather more taken with Leicester City’s second-tier clash with Sheffield Wednesday this evening than the somewhat hyperventilated reaction to the Sussexes’ new website.

I’ve had a look around, and I have to say I’m at a bit of a loss as to what the fuss, in some quarters, is all about – or, indeed, what the website is all about, aside from it being nothing to do East Sussex County Council.

Rather like the lives of the sort-of ex-royal couple, it’s all a bit amorphous, free of focus and unreal. It’s quite classy looking, verging on minimalist, though that may be a reflection of what little is actually going on in their lives since they signed their Netflix deal. Others have noted how the rebrand leans heavily on their regal status – from the new URL down… – but doesn’t once mention the monarchy.

They’ve only cashed in on their sort-of ex-royal status a bit with their latest online presence. There is the slightly archaic use of their ducal Sussex arms and their actual names, which, to be fair, can’t really be avoided. They haven’t, on this site, talked about their royal roles (because they haven’t got any) – and nor have they published lots of new photos of them with the King, the Queen and the Prince and Princess of Wales, because there aren’t any.

Their increasing alienation from the British royal family, and I’m leaving the blame for that to one side for now, has forced them into trying to redefine themselves. The less they see the old Firm, the less they are actively associated with it and, frankly, the less material there is available to them. They aren’t going to be able to mine many more royal secrets, or reveal their traumas, if they don’t know much about what’s been going on and there haven’t been any more upsetting incidents. This is probably just as well, for all concerned.

But it does leave the Sussexes without much to say. There’s a link to the now-defunct site, which I always thought sounded like it was to do with the Potato Marketing Board, where their careers in public service on behalf of the Queen are celebrated, but that’s definitely all archival, in every sense.

So the “exploitation” of their royal links isn’t much evident on this revamped website. There is quite a bit of uplifting stuff about their charitable causes, but much less about where the money is coming from. Indeed, one of the more disappointing aspects is the absence of any attempt to get the casual visitor to the website to fill out a direct debit (“£15 a month can keep a Sussex prince in nappies”), or hire one of the pair for a personal appearance at your local Rotarians’ next Ladies Night, shall we say.

The pages related to the Archwell activities – or “Arentchawelloff”, as Private Eye styles them – are notably bare. What you do get is endless supposedly life-affirming mottos, like you get on greetings cards or on those signs you’re supposed hang up in the kitchen, words that sound profound but in fact are either meaningless or sadly untrue, such as: “Each of us can change our communities. All of us can change the world.”

If that were true, then Harry and Megs, and indeed the rest of us, could have sorted out all the nastiness going on in Gaza, Sudan and Ukraine by now. But we haven’t because it’s cobblers.

I’m sorry to say that worthy as much the content is, and it’s mostly well-meaning guff, I’d have much rather that were jam-packed with the kind of royal gossip and trivia that made Harry and Meghan the celebrities they are today. Where are the clips from the Oprah interview? The more salacious bits from the Netflix documentaries? The exclusive new material about the way they were crucified by the press and the latest legal actions?

There’s no mention of what they think about Piers Morgan, Queen Camilla, Thomas Markle or Jeremy Clarkson, no extracts from the autobiography Spare, nor even some new video of the pet chickens. Not even a section headed “the Best of Suits”.

The pair, whose finances are carefully left unexplored on, will need to do a bit better than this content-free effort if they want a bit of traffic and some sponsored revenues. At the moment they’re just like any other celeb couple with aristocratic connections looking to make a living in this tough old world, coping with being overshadowed by the likes of Taylor Swift.

Which may be, on the other hand, the kind of life they’ve always wanted but never realised it. Digitally, at least, they have found freedom.

Shipwreck hunters stunned by discovery at bottom of world’s largest freshwater lake

Shipwreck hunters were stunned to find a ship that sank in Lake Superior, the world’s largest freshwater lake, that dated back to 1940.

The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society and shipwreck researcher Dan Fountain announced Monday the discovery of the 244-foot (74-meter) bulk carrier Arlington in about 650 feet (200 meters) of water some 35 miles (60 kilometers) north of Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula.

The Arlington left Port Arthur, Ontario, on April 30, 1940, fully loaded with wheat and headed to Owen Sound, Ontario, under the command of Captain Frederick “Tatey Bug” Burke, a veteran of the Great Lakes.

But as the Arlington and a larger freighter, the Collingwood, made their way across Lake Superior they encountered dense fog and then a storm after nightfall that battered both ships. The Arlington began to take on water.

The ship’s first mate ordered the Arlington onto a course to hug the Canadian North Shore, which would have provided some cover from wind and waves, but Burke countermanded and ordered his ship back onto a course across the open lake, the discoverers said.

Early on May 1, 1940, the Arlington began to sink and the ship’s chief engineer sounded the alarm. The crew, “out of fear for their lives, and without orders from Captain Burke,” began to abandon ship, they said in a statement.

All crew made it safely to the Collingwood except for Burke, who went down with the Arlington. Reports indicate he was last seen near its pilothouse, waving at the Collingwood, minutes before his ship vanished into the lake.

The shipwreck society said in the statement that “no one will ever know the answer” as to why Burke acted as he did before his ship was lost.

“It’s exciting to solve just one more of Lake Superior’s many mysteries, finding Arlington so far out in the lake,” Fountain said in a statement. “I hope this final chapter in her story can provide some measure of closure to the family of Captain Burke.”

The Arlington was discovered thanks to Fountain, a resident of Negaunee, Michigan, who has been conducting remote sensing in Lake Superior in search of shipwrecks for about a decade, said Bruce Lynn, executive director of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society.

Fountain approached the group with “a potential target” near the northern tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula, and the Arlington was discovered last year. Lynn said.

“These targets don’t always amount to anything … but this time it absolutely was a shipwreck. A wreck with an interesting, and perhaps mysterious story,” he said in the statement. “Had Dan not reached out to us, we might never have located the Arlington.”

From Taylor Swift to Venice scandal: Breaking down the lyrics on Kanye West’s new album

Taylor Swift, Elon Musk, R Kelly, and Bill Cosby are all namechecked on the latest album from music’s most controversial figure, Kanye West.

The disgraced artist, who has caused uproar with a series of antisemitic outbursts in recent years, released his delayed new project Vultures, a collaboration with fellow rapper TY Dolla $ign, over the weekend.

Uncredited guest appearances come from Chris Brown and rappers including Travis Scott, Quavo, Playboi Carti, Rich the Kid, and Quavo. Timbaland and British electronic artist James Blake are among the record’s lengthy list of producers.

Here’s a breakdown of the album’s most prominent lyrical references to West’s tumultuous life, from his feud with pop superstar Swift to the notorious scandal involving a Venice boat and West’s wife, Bianca Censori.

Swift is mentioned on the album’s 12th track, “Carnival”.

West raps: “Why she say she sucked my d***?/ Then she say she ain’t sucked my d*** / She gon’ take it up the ass, like a ventriloquist / I mean since Taylor Swift/ since I had the Rollie on the wrist / I’m the new Jesus, b****, I turn water to Cris’.”

On the same track, he asks: “Elon where my rocket ship?/ It’s time to go home.”

He compares himself to R&B singer R Kelly and former comedian and TV personality Bill Cosby, both of whom have been convicted of sexual assault, along with P Diddy (real name Sean Combs) who was accused of sexual assault in multiple lawsuits last year. Combs denied the allegations.

“Now I’m Ye Kelly, b**** (Ha), now, I’m Bill Cosby, b**** (Ha) / Now, I’m Puff Daddy rich (Ha), that’s MeToo me rich,” West raps.

West and Swift seemed to temporarily mend the rift created after the rapper infamously crashed the pop star’s 2009 Video Music Awards acceptance speech to say that Beyoncé “had one of the best videos of all time”.

The pair were photographed together at the Grammy Awards in 2015, and Swift even joked about being West’s running mate when he said he was going to run for president.

In 2016, however, another feud between the pair erupted when West released his single “Famous”, which included the lyrics: “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/ Why? I made that b**** famous.”

After Swift denied that she had consented to West’s line, his then-wife Kim Kardashian leaked a recording of a phone call where the singer appeared to approve the lyric. The full conversation – which was released in 2020 – showed that she did not.

On the 10th track, “Fuk Sumn”, West appears to allude to a scandal last year in which he and his wife, Bianca Censori, were reportedly banned from a Venice boat company after allegedly participating in a lewd act while on board one of its vessels.

West was photographed with Australian architectural designer Censori, 28, while enjoying a boat ride in Venice at the end of August 2023. Paparazzi photos showed West with his trousers down and rear end exposed, while Censori appeared to be crouching between his legs.

After the images went viral on social media, the boat company shared a statement declaring that the couple were no longer welcome on future trips.

On the closing song, “King”, West backtracks on the apology he offered for his antisemitism in December, and instead declares that he’s “still the king” despite all of his controversies.

“Crazy, bipolar, antisemite,” he raps, per lyrics website Genius. “And I’m still the king/ Still the king/ Still/ They thought headlines was my kryptonite/ Still the king.”

Meanwhile, he makes light of the antisemitism row on title track “Vultures”, released as the album’s lead single last year, rapping: “I ain’t antisemitic, I just f***ed a Jewish b****.”

In 2022, West made a series of remarks, including a tweet that said he was “going death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE … You guys have toyed with me and tried to black ball anyone whoever opposes your agenda”.

In a later appearance on Infowards, a show hosted by right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, West said he “likes Hitler” and insisted: “We’ve got to stop dissing the Nazis all the time.”

Sports and leisurewear brand Adidas cut ties with West after his comments, which wiped his billionaire status overnight.

In a statement at the time, Adidas branded the remarks “unacceptable, hateful and dangerous”, adding that they “violate the company’s values of diversity and inclusion, mutual respect and fairness”.

West has drawn the ire of rocker Ozzy Osbourne over Vultures, after allegedly sampling Black Sabbath’s song “War Pigs” without permission.

Osbourne claimed last week that West had been denied permission to sample the track due to his antisemitic statements. “He is an antisemite and has caused untold hurt to many,” the musician wrote, adding: “I want no association with this man!”

A Black Sabbath sample is still featured on the album, but it is a sample of the band’s 1970 song “Iron Man”, which is used on “Carnival”.

On “Back to Me”, West samples a moment from Kevin Smith’s 1999 film Dogma in which actor Jason Mewes declares: “I fell in love with you – we fell in love with you! Guys like us don’t just fall out of the f***ing sky, you know?”

The rapper later sings another quote from the same movie as a refrain: “Beautiful big-tittied butt-naked women don’t just fall out the sky y’know.”

The lyric is possibly a reference to West’s ex, Kim Kardashian, whom he also famously referenced while ad-libbing on his 2010 hit “Runaway”, on which he added the closing lines: “I need you to run right back, baby/ More specifically, Kimberly.”

West and Kardashian’s divorce was finalised in November 2022. They share four children together: North, Saint, Chicago and Psalm.

His last major release was his 2021 album Donda, itself a controversial project that included an appearance by Marilyn Manson, just weeks after the rock musician was accused of sexual and physical abuse by multiple women.

Unmissable New York State experiences

Time’s up, Mr Netanyahu – the war in Gaza cannot go on like this

According to NBC News, the president of the United States is running out of patience with the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu. Citing no fewer than “five people directly familiar with his comments”, Joe Biden is said to have called his counterpart an “a**hole”.

It is entirely believable, given the president’s salty way with words, and understandable, given Mr Netanyahu’s refusal to listen to Israel’s most loyal and powerful allies. Mr Biden has reportedly had enough of his “inability to persuade Israel to change its military tactics in Gaza”. He is not alone.

The question now is: what can the world do to make Mr Netanyahu think again, and to do so before a certainly horrific assault on Rafah? When it comes, it promises to be even more devastating than the levelling of Gaza City. Perhaps it will prove the most deadly of all the many tragedies in this merciless conflict.

What is happening in the Rochdale by-election?

The already heated battle for Rochdale (the parliamentary by-election to be held on Thursday 29 February) has been thrown into disarray by sensational allegations made against the Labour candidate, Azhar Ali, when remarks he made some months ago came to light at the weekend. Ali told a private Labour meeting after the attacks that the Israeli government had removed its border security to enable the Hamas atrocities: “The Egyptians are saying that they warned Israel 10 days earlier… Americans warned them a day before [that] there’s something happening… They deliberately took the security off, they allowed… that massacre that gives them the green light to do whatever they bloody want.” He also attacked Keir Starmer: “A lot of the MPs I’ve spoken to, non-Muslim MPs, feel that on this issue, he’s lost the confidence of the parliamentary party.” Ali has since apologised and retracted his remarks, indicating he fell for an internet conspiracy theory. But despite his apology, the Labour Party has withdrawn its support for Ali.

A parallel controversy has enveloped the Green Party candidate, as their candidate has stood down on account of Islamaphobic tweets from a few years ago. The energetic and divisive presence of George Galloway has only added to the chaos, with the controversial politician running an anti-Labour protest campaign as a candidate for the Workers Party of Britain. The irony is that, distressing as it may be, it may have little impact on electoral politics…