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London Bridge

Gordon Campbell Gray, the dapper provocateur behind London's remarkable One Aldwych, talks about his hotel, his city, and the connection between the two.
"I've hardly ever stayed in a modern hotel I liked--hardly ever, " laments Gordon Campbell Gray, owner of one of the world's most successful modern hotels, London's One Aldwych. "Designers have a strong sense of image, but not of luxury. Luxury doesn't mean lots of tra-la-la. It just means comfort. It comes down to a basic thing: generosity.

Campbell Gray's four-year-old One Aldwych is indeed unswervingly welcoming, comfortable and serene--an impression borne out by occupancy rates that are among London's highest. Yet, you may wonder, how much can the owner of a superdeluxe hotel really know about generosity? Well, in Gordon Campbell Gray's case, a great deal. 

His biography starts conventionally enough. He spent his childhood in the countryside near Glasgow then went on to hotel school and jobs "in all the big hotel companies." He was "a fanatical traveler since the age of dot," planning trips around a single night in a legendary hotel, stays he invariably found disappointing. ("I was always wanting to sing that Peggy Lee song 'Is That All There Is?'") But in his mid-twenties, he heard about the Save the Children fund and dropped everything to offer his services. After five years of setting up child nutrition centers, schools and orphanages, and acting as an overseas director for projects in Bangladesh, Morocco and Nicaragua, he came back to Britain to continue where he'd left off. Not surprisingly, his vision had broadened. When, as deputy manager of a famous London hotel, he peeked at his confidential appraisal and read "Tends to be insubordinate to superiors," he wrote on it in red pen "Please define 'superiors,'" and quit. "And that was my last job working for somebody else." 

What Campbell Gray did next, in 1982, was set up The Feathers. Located in Woodstock, in Oxfordshire, about 60 miles from London, it was one of the first luxury hotels outside a city, and its success accounted for the buzz that attended the One Aldwych opening. But along the way Campbell Gray had to fight. "If six banks turned me down for financing The Feathers, 67 turned me down for One Aldwych. I had an impeccable record, but it was going to be different, and no one wanted to risk it." 

One Aldwych was "going to be different" because it was founded on Campbell Gray's unique philosophy of hospitality. "The art of giving service and pleasure applies to everything," he explains. "There's no downside. There's no loser. Everything should be tainted with generosity." It is not a philosophy, he says, in evidence at most grand hotels, where inattention to detail in such matters as disobedient thermostats is ubiquitous. "My most hated thing is a hot bedroom," he spits. "So that's the first thing I took care of at One Aldwych. In our bedrooms, we've got the Rolls-Royce of temperature-control systems." He also took care of the other "starting essentials" for success: "total blackout, total silence and a comfortable bed. Oh, and a good reading light." 

To spend time with Campbell Gray is to be privy to his many opinions, most of them entertainingly iconoclastic. For instance, he hates the new Tate museum: "I like the building [by Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron]--it's the art I don't like." Campbell Gray purchased every one of the 400 contemporary pieces at One Aldwych himself, many of them from his favorite London dealer, the Blue Gallery. The collection is eclectic, amusing, outstanding and devoid of overexposed YBAs (young British artists), like Damien Hirst. The first thing that strikes you on entering the bustling, cathedral-ceilinged lobby-bar is André Wallace's bronze of a vexed-looking rower, his 50-foot oars upright. On checking in, you're greeted by Justine Smith's life-size dog covered in comic strips, and, over your pan-roasted beef filet with potato rösti at Indigo, the mezzanine restaurant, you see Tracey Davidson's huge canvas of 192 slices of burnt toast. "I select art purely for pleasure, never as an investment or because it will impress," Campbell Gray says. 

Evidence of his eye is everywhere at One Aldwych--in the art, yes, but also in the snappy pale gray suits the door staff wear, which the very dapper Campbell Gray orders bespoke from his own Savile Row tailor, Richard James. ("I have almost everything of my own made there," Campbell Gray says. "Often I spend more time picking the lining than the actual material.") Then there's the underwater Bach in the pool, the house-made marmalade on the breakfast tray and the complimentary fruit. Ah, the fruit! Generally, hotel fruit arrives only to VIPs, and then it's a bloated tower with rock-hard pears and an unsuitable pineapple. At One Aldwych everyone gets a tray with three perfect specimens, in season, replaced daily. Horrid fruit and wilting flora are two of Campbell Gray's bugbears. "Yes, if there's one dead head on any flower stem..." he declares, not needing to finish the sentence. "But if I carried that into my private life, I'd be an anal-retentive prat. Oh, I'm so untidy. You've no idea. I can rush into my flat and change for dinner, and you'd look in after and say 'Oh my God! You've been burgled!'" 

That dinner he's rushing to might well be at London's hottest restaurant, because Campbell Gray loves to know all about what's new. But lately he hasn't been impressed with much and has preferred to revisit his two standbys. One is Nobu, for Nobu Matsuhisa's new-style sashimi. The other is the classic, subtly glamorous Le Caprice. "I go there at least twice a week," he admits, never tiring of dishes like the creamy leek-chanterelle soup. "Every time I try someplace new, I say, 'Why didn't I just go to Caprice or Nobu?'" There are a few others he likes, though. At Axis, the second, more serious, One Aldwych restaurant, he enjoys light, modern English dishes such as Vietnamese spiced quail with tangy papaya salad. He's also fond of Clarke's, both the bakery and the California-influenced restaurant, and--his latest love--Hakkasan, "a fabulous space," which serves what he's fairly sure is the only authentic Chinese country cooking outside Asia: dishes like stir-fried beef with cracked black peppercorns and fried lemon chicken. 

As much as he's out and about--he's on the fund-raising committees of two theaters and sponsors a third--most of all he loves to stay in and read. "As a family, we give only books," he says. "It can be a paperback or the most lavish book on palazzos. All that matters is that it's been well considered." He haunts the John Sandoe bookshop. "My cousin placed her wedding list there. I think that is magnificent." He adds, "I utterly detest receiving a glossy bag with a thick box inside wrapped in ribbon, in which you find some silly trinket from some well-known luxury-goods shop. I find it so wasteful and pointless." 

Campbell Gray is as shocked by the greed motivating too many in his business. When he admits he's been offered phenomenal sums to "take One Aldwych and do 40 around the world," his expression registers incredulity and dismay. One Aldwych is quintessentially London. It doesn't translate. "It's not money we're driven by," he adds, "but we are keen to expand at the proper pace." And--here's a secret--his next hotel is "highly likely" to be opening in Copenhagen. He's also working on a book, a sort of anti-greed screed, "alerting people to the folly of the corporate world." 

"You see, I want to make people think," he says, summarizing his approach. "I'm not really a hotelier. They're so boring." 

One Aldwych does make sense of its owner's seeming contradictions. "Every evening I look out over the lobby," he says, "and there are two secretaries having a glass of wine, and a motorcycle messenger in battered leathers--who probably heads up Sony--and two people in black tie, and I think, Yes, this is a success: It's a snob-free zone. I can't believe they keep coming. I'm so touched they keep coming." 

Later, needing his e-mail address, I dig out his card. I turn it over, and printed in small capitals is the essence of One Aldwych. Where the address should be, there are only these words: just don't take it all so seriously. 

 

Published May 2002
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