“Je t’aime,” I whisper to the stranger.
A grin explodes across his face on hearing the party password. “Oh, but darling,” he rejoins, flapping me over the threshold, “we’ve only just met!”
This is David Carter, and I am going to a party at his house. He owns a boutique hotel in Stepney called ’40 Winks’, and likes to throw story-telling evenings for small crowds. The catch? You’ve got to wear your pyjamas.
On Wednesday night, I have a frantic sniff-test before choosing my most conservative pyjama set. Snowy nights and fear of the gas bill mean that I haven’t been in my chicest bedwear recently. But I can’t turn up in horror knitwear, damp-smelling joggers and grubby hiking socks. It’s going to have to be Marks & Spencer, all the way. I dither over the more risqué aspects: lipstick survives the cut. But a mask, I think, is a bit too Eyes Wide Shut. At the back of my mind I hope it’s not that kind of sleepover…
Once I’m in the door, one of David’s assistants leads me to the master bedroom. We wind up the stairs of the four-storey townhouse to the top floor. The place dates back to 1717 and has been decorated from pantry to powder room by the host. Every room is decorated in opulent chenilles and embroidered linen, lit with a few antique lamps and emptied of all modern touches. There are no televisions, ironing boards or ugly white radiators. The most banal object I see all night is a vintage Fakir floor polisher. I feel like I’m spending the evening at a Vogue photoshoot. I change into my party outfit and, with one last tug on my dressing gown bow, I pad down the stairs bare-foot.
Before the story-telling begins, we are sent down to the kitchen for cocktails in tea cups. Every party-goer is in the same state of undress, which makes it easy to chat. Although the lights are low, it’s difficult to miss the clothesline of Fashion Week invites hanging over the old fireplace. Luxury brands are conspicuous all over the house – Benefit in the bathroom, Hendricks in the kitchen, sponsored goody-bags and a dressing table crowded with Givenchy perfumes. The clientele this evening are mainly women, save the handful of tag-along boyfriends, and there is a subtle undertone of marketing in the air. I meet a spirited group of girls working as psychiatrists in King’s Cross – and within half an hour of mingling, David nominates one of them as the evening’s resident agony aunt.
At 8.15pm, half the party goes up to the Music Room to meet the first storyteller. Xanthe Gresham is dressed in a coffee-coloured silk slip. She takes breaks between stories to play us songs on the accordion. Like children, we sit on scatter cushions at her feet while she mixes Greek mythology with folk tales about skeleton brides and devilish strangers. It is a kind of theatre.
But it is nothing like going to the National in a smart frock with the crowds to see the latest hot thing. This is storycraft. This is a one-woman show with all the intimacy of a bedtime story. Like a parent, she asks what kind of stories we would like and whether we want more. Her voice and posture shift from character to character – she has all the innocence of a parent performing to his or her own devoted audience. I even feel a twinge of upset when she tells us we’re on the last story.
Gresham has been storytelling for fifteen years, and remarks that there has been a steady increase in events aimed at adults over the last three years. Now there are regular events and festivals around the practice – although, she adds, we’ve let the habit die out. It’s nothing compared to, say the Persian readings which draw huge mixed crowds.
At the end of her tales, David comes in to make sure we’ve thanked his guest. He says his favourite story of hers is the one about the dancing devil with the riding crop. And, to punctuate this remark, he brings in his very own brass-handled switch, and gives the storyteller a gentle whack or two. The guests titter nervously. They’re still not sure if he was joking about the post-party orgy.
After a short interval, it’s time for stories in the Opium Den. Wearing a green carnation as a tribute to his first author, Patrick Morely sits in a battered brown armchair and reads from old hardbacks. A short story of Oscar Wilde’s, ‘A Model Millionaire’, was chased with part of a novel by a Victorian child author called Alice Ashford. Morley’s voice, like buttery Madeira, flowed over the group with stories of gold sovereigns, riverboats, viands and muslin dresses. But by now, we sleepy children were lolling our heads on the velvet divan, and drifting off in the red glow of the Chinese lanterns.
– By Art & Music Magazine blogger Ellie Broughton
40 Winks Hotel40 Winks Hotel40 Winks Hotel40 Winks Hotel
Storytelling evenings (£25), organised by Carter and ‘Curator of Tales’ Rachel Rose Reid, are held regularly at 40 Winks. Places are limited, however, to 25 and it’s advisable to book a month in advance. There are also erotic life drawing classes and pampering days. Full listings can be found via Time Out, and you can book by phone and email.
Telephone: +44(0)20 7790 0259 / +44(0)7973 653944 Email:email@example.com
109 Mile End Road, London E1 4UJ
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“Je t’aime,” I whisper to the stranger.