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Clubs

The club is a pervading image among British institutions. Parliament is a club, and when they discuss the Commonwealth* or the Common Market** members always like to talk in terms of clubs. The Conservative party has always been bound up with a small group of clubs. The Whitehall bureaucracies*** all have clublike ideas of corporate solidarity: and the London clubs are themselves an intrinsic part of the life of Whitehall. "No formal arrangements of committees or staffs," wrote Professor Beer of Harvard,**** discussing the Treasury,***** "could quite free the British Government of its dependence upon the common rooms and lunch tables of the clubs of Pall Mall."

* (Commonwealth - (here) the British Commonwealth of Nations.)

** (the Common Market set up in 1957 by the "Six" (France, Italy, W. Germany, Belgium, Holland, Luxemburg); Britain was the last to join it.)

*** (Whitehall bureaucracy - see note to p. 26.)

**** (Harvard - Harvard University, U. S. A.)

***** (the Treasury - in the U. K. the government department responsible for collecting and expending national revenue.)

Viewed from the outside, the clubs have an air of infinite mystery. Every lunch time, the taxis and government Numbers* draw up outside the palazzi** of Pall Mall, and bowlers and umbrellas disappear through the great stone doorways, acknowledged by reverent porters. Through the big windows you see men reading The Times, hailing each other, exchanging surreptitious conversation with special clubman's gestures - the pat on the shoulder, the grip on the forearm, the steering from the back. When an hour-and-a-half later they all emerge again, they have the look of having changed the world.

* (Number - the make of a car.)

** (palazzi-pi. of It. palazzo - palace, mansion, residence.)

Clubs are an unchallenged English invention. [...] The point of a club is not who it lets in, but who it keeps out; and few things can provoke more anger, than the non-membership of an English club. The club is based on two ancient British ideas - the segregation of classes, and the segregation of sexes: and they remain insistent on keeping people out, long after they have stopped wanting to come in. At their worst, they are havens of humbug.

After the war the London clubs, like so many institutions, seemed on the verge of collapse: the tables were half empty, the entrance fees were high, it was hard to find staffs to maintain the palazzi. [...] But as prosperity returned and expense-accounts mounted, so clubland came back into its own: businessmen, solicitors, advertising men, salesmen, all found clubs an ideal field for operation, and the buildings, rich with associations of Regency gamblers* and Victorian giants,** were an invaluble status-symbol. Meanwhile the clubs, like successful flirts, have maintained an aura of exclusiveness while welcoming almost any new member. Very few clubs, in fact, have a waiting-list and only a few have black balls:*** but all of them convey an atmosphere full of the dread of rejection.

* (Regency gamblers - reference to the most famous regency of British history, that of the Prince of Wales, afterwards George IV (Prince Regent 1811-1820, during his father's incapacity) who was "a bad son, a bad husband, a bad father, a bad subject, a bad monarch, and a bad friend"; the nation paid his gambling debts and financed his debauchery and extravagance (including the Royal Pavilion at Brighton).)

** (Victorian giants - prominent public figures of the longest reign in British history, that of Queen Victoria (1837-1901).)

*** (black balls - balls used for voting against a candidate.)

The mystique of clubs was encouraged by Harold MacMillan,* who during his premiership belonged to six clubs (the Carlton, Turf, Pratt's, the Beefsteak, Bucks and the Athenaeum) and frequented all of them. (This is far from the record: Lord Mountbatten belongs to fourteen.) Eden** and Churchill*** were not clubmen - though Churchill did found his own. Attlee**** in the war used to dine night after night at the Oxford and Cambridge (an extraordinary portrait of him, sitting at one end of a big desk, hangs in the dining-room); but he was not a gregarious clubman. Harold Wilson belongs only to the Athenaeum. [...]

* (Harold MacMillan - Prime Minister 1957-1964.)

** (Anthony Eden - Prime Minister 1955-1957.)

*** (Winston Churchill (1874-1965) - Prime Minister 1940-1945 and 1951-1955.)

**** (Clement Attlee - Prime Minister 1945-1951.)

What does the influence of clubs amount to Like most things in Britain, they are not what they seem: in the first place, many of them are very unsociable. Clubs can be firmly divided into those where you are expected to talk to your neighbour and those where you are not. The big anonymous clubs favoured by the civil service - the Oxford and Cambridge, United University, or the Union - are places to get away from people, not to meet them. They are deliberate extensions of Oxbridge;* the United University Club, for instance, refuses to admit members from London University (United ngainst Universities might be a more appropriate name). They have huge libraries with deep and solitary armchairs; and they have book-rests on the lunch-tables where under-secretaries can devour cold pie and The Times undisturbed. The most hotel-like club is the Royal Automobile, founded by hearty motoring men in 1897, which has three dining-rooms, twelve thousand members and a swimming pool once much frequented by Bernard Shaw.** No one at the RAC*** appears to know anyone else, except in a small and boisterous bar upstairs, full of seasoned drinkers.

* (Oxbridge - the name is used when both Oxford and Cambridge universities are referred to (cf. Camford).)

** (Bernard Shaw - George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), an outstanding British (Irish) playwright, sociologist and critic; his plays are remarkable for the use made of brilliant dialogue in discussion of politics, religion, morals, economics, science, social problems. He visited the Soviet Union in 1931, and was a true friend of our country.)

*** (RAC - the Royal Automobile Club.)

But other big clubs, while leaving scope for solitude, provide a useful venue for intrigue. Two of the most active are the Reform and the Travellers, next to each other in Pall Mall - the haunt of the Treasury and the Foreign Office respectively. Membership qualifications for both are equally stringent. For the Reform you must subscribe to the Reform Bill of 1832; for the Travellers you must have travelled at least five hundred miles from London (though the entry marked "travel" in the candidates book offers scope for showing-off).

The Travellers was founded in 1819 with the support of the Duke of Wellington,* whose portraits clutter the walls. It is very conscious of its dignity: it has a special handrail on the staircase, put up to help Talleyrand** up the stairs. It has tall West Indian waiters and menus with a silhouette of Ulysses.*** Diplomats, with their careful arrogance, set the tone, and the lunch-room is known as "the Foreign Office Canteen"; A few apparently friendly men are crammed into an underground bar; but the chandeliered dining-room and coffee-room are full of supercilious second secretaries. (The food is said to have improved; the club secretary has written a cookery book.) The contrast in clubs becomes apparent in the summer holidays, when they share each other's premises: the Garrick,**** where members are expected to speak to each other, shares with the Travellers, where conversation with someone you don't know is virtually forbidden.

* (the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) - a British commander and politician; the victor of the battle of Waterloo; nicknamed The Iron Duke.)

** (Talleyrand - Charle Maurice Talleyrand (1754-1838), French politician and diplomat, French ambassador to the Court of St. James (i. e. the court of the King of England in London) 1830-1834.)

*** (Ulysses - Odysseus, in Greek legend - king of Itaca, a wi$e and crafty leader in the Trojan war, who devised the wooden horse by means of which Troy was captured; Homer's Odyssey describes his long journey home.)

**** (Garrick - David Garrick (1717-1779), a great English actor.)

But the most august of the big clubs, of course, is the Athenaeum, with its big stucco building, behind the gold goddess Athene, facing the United Service Club (The Senior) in Waterloo Place. It is, in many respects, the most unsociable and uncomfortable of all: "Where all the arts and sciences are understood," said G. W. E. Russell* in 1906, "except gastronomy"; and of its cavernous dining-room the same could still be said. Even outside the Silence Room, which is the real heart of the club, a sense of solitude prevails. Old men wander alone up and down the broad staircase (they always walk up the right-hand staircase, one scientific member pointed out: they have to change the carpets round from time to time to wear both down equally). [...]

* (G. W. E. Russell - George William Russel (1867-1935), Northern Irish poet and a leader of the Irish literary revival.)

A more sociable and arrogant group are the eighteenth- century clubs, with their elegant facades down St. James's Street. The most sedate is Boodle's, with its big bow window, from which one eighteenth-century duke used to enjoy watching "the damn'd people get wet". Boodle's was originally known as the "Savoir Vivre,"* famous for orgiastic feasts; it is now more demure, with a hard core of old country members who can be seen snoozing in the window, but there is a Ladies Annexe in the adjoining Economist's tower, full of gold lame,** debs,*** and decor.****[...]

* ("Savoir Vivre" - (Fr.) good breeding, being at home in society.)

** (lame - (Fr.) material with gold or silver thread inwoven.)

*** (debs - pi. of debutante (Fr.), a girl "coming out" or being presented at court.)

**** (decor - (Fr.) all that makes up the appearance of a room or the stage.)

In a special class are the cultural clubs, all somewhat confused between a Victorian past and a commercial present. The most ponderous is the Garrick, founded in 1831 in memory of the actor, with a gaudy array of Zoffany* portraits up the staircase. Their early members included Trollope, Lord John Russel,** Gilbert and Sullivan,*** Dickens and Thackeray - who quarrelled there, later to be reconciled on the staircase of the Athenaeum. Thackeray adored "the little G" and called it "the dearest place in the world", but nowadays the Garrick, though it still has actors, is full of lawyers, editors and businessmen. [...]

* (Zoffany - John Zoffany (1733-1810), a British painter, became celebrated as portraitist, especially of actors, including Garrick.)

** (Lord John Russel (1792-1878) - a British Whig politician, Prime Minister 1846-1852 and 1865-1866.)

*** (Gilbert and Sullivan - William Gilbert (1836-1911) and Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900), British librettist and composer respectively; together they produced 13 comic operas.)

The Arts Club in Dover Street has had a sadder transformation. It was founded in 1863, for Art, Literature and Science, and it has a pleasant new building, with flock wallpaper, portraits of artists and a few men with beards: but it is now also concerned with the art of advertising and the science of public relations, and from the bar can be heard the braying sound of admen* on the move.

* (admen - advertising men.)

The least reticent of the artistic clubs is the Savage, which occupies a faded Regency house in Carlton House Terrace. It is an extrovert place, full of cartoons of famous men with big heads, and jungle fantasies about "Brother Savages" wearing straw skirts and shaking spears. There are no bowlers and few umbrellas: instead, lots of friendly comedian artists and actors, dumping large cases in the hall and striding into a small, overcrowded drinking den: the club is noisy with theatrical patter - "yes, he's a sweetie - and quite, a good actor too." The Savage is aggressively sociable, and not to be seen talking to someone provokes comment.

A more likely setting for secret influence might seem to be the smaller clubs, of the kind frequented by Harold MacMillan. The most exotic is Pratt's, in two basement rooms in St. James's;* it began its existence in 1841 as the kitchen of the Duke of Beaufort's steward, called Pratt, which became the Duke's dive. It still has a large kitchen dresser, and its small rooms are full of stuffed fishes, birds, bric-a-brac and surprising members. [...]

* (St. James' Square was laid out after 1660 as a fashionable residential quarter in central London.)

Or there is the Beefsteak, at the top of a dingy staircase off Leicester Square,* opposite a strip-tease joint: its motto is "Beef and Liberty". The Beefsteak is very sociable, and generates remarkable dialogues. Members have to sit wherever the waiters (all called Charles) put them on the single long table, and they like to tell the story of how before the First World War the police, seeing old men emerging happily every evening, assumed it was a brothel and began watching the club: one night they raided it, and found four men sitting round the long table. The conversation went something like this:

* (Leicester Square - a large square in London, laid out about 1665, later converted into a public garden; in the centre stands a marble statue of Shakespeare and around the garden are busts of famous Englishmen who lived in or near the square, which is now best known for its large cinemas.)

"And who might you be?" asked the policeman of one old gentleman.

"I am the Lord Chancellor."*

* (Lord Chancellor - president of the House of Lords.)

"Aha! And you, sir?"

"The Archbishop of Canterbury."

"Oh yes! And the next?"

"I am the Governor of the Bank of England."

"And I suppose," said the policeman to the fourth, "that you're the Prime Minister."

"As a matter of fact I am," said Arthur Balfour.* [...]

* (Arthur Balfour - Prime Minister 1902-1905.)

But clubland altogether is unrepresentative: a few names recur again and again, while the huge area of socialists, managers, scientists and technologists hardly appear at all. The Labour Party has always been pubbable rather than clubbable: there is no left-wing equivalent to the Garlton or White's, and even a Liberal club like Brooke's has ended up largely Conservative. "Clubland is as Conservative as the sea is salt," wrote G. W. E. Russell in 1906; and the ineluctable conservatism - both social and political - continues; English clubs progress in the opposite direction to African night-clubs: they begin by being disreputable, full of wild actors and poets drinking into the night, and end up with cautious lawyers toying with cold beef and rose* reminiscing about the wild old days. [...]

* (rose - (Fr.) a light French wine, pink in colour, hence its name.)

Two major invasions have troubled clubland since the war. The first has been business, which is anathema to the amateur spirit of clubs: many clubs actually forbid members to produce business documents. But while elute admitted more and more businessmen, the appearance of amateurism has become hard to keep up.

A more serious revolution has been the intrusion of women. The most formidable weapon of women has been to found, their own clubs - the Ladies' Alpine Club, the Women's Press Club, or the Sesame Club, for women explorers and pioneers. One by one the men's clubs have given way, either by inaugurating a ladies' night, or a ladies' annexe (often a converted billiard-room) - but hardly eyer by introducing lady members. Women are kept carefully segregated: At the Reform, "LADIES may be entertained for DINNER ON FRIDAYS and for LUNCH and DINNER ON SATURDAY in the East End of the Coffee Room." At the Senior the Admirals objected fiercely for years before the billiard-room was finally converted for ladies in 1921. The arrangement of ladies' annexes arouses fundamental controversy, for it raises the problem of the club's image, and all clubs are very image-conscious. Should clubs try to adapt their style to welcome women, or should they remain defiantly masculine? The clubs have reacted to the problem in different ways, but the favourite solution is the "Ladies' Annexe" -o a phrase which speaks volumes - where the club can present a different image without interfering with its old one.

A more drastic capitulation has been shown by - of all surprising places - the Army and Navy Club, in the heart of Pall Mall. It decided to pull down its old morgue, sell off half of it to a property company, and rebuild the other half with the profits, in a quite different form; it was opened in 1963, to the astonishment of clubland. It has a dancefloor, a buffet bar, an underground car park, and a big room designed for deb dances and weddings, as well as for regimental dinners. [...] The new Army and Navy has struck a deadly blow at the spirit of clubmanship; for while other clubs are designed as an escape from women, with porters, architecture and members all suitably chosen, this club has welcomed them into its midst.

In all clubs, perhaps, there is an element of imposture. Everyone, as he ushers his guest through those mahogany doors, becomes a slightly less real person, talks a bit louder, shakes hands a bit more heartily. The Arts Club has admen pretending to be artists. The Garrick has lawyers pretending to be actors, or vice versa. White's has ordinary men pretending to be eccentric. The Travellers is a Foreign Office canteen pretending to be an amateurs' drawing-room. Only the Athenaeum is completely sui generis* - there the bishops are being bishops, the professors are professors, the eccentrics are eccentric, and the dull, distinguished men sit in their deep leather chairs in the silence room, where no one can disturb them. And they hold to themselves the secret of setting themselves, ostentatiously, at ease, and leaving their interlocutors puzzled, embarrassed, gratified but obscurely discomfited.

* (sui generies - (Lat.) not classifiable with others, unique.)

Can clubs withstand the pressures of democracy and women? At lunch time they seem confident enough, but in the evenings, when the wife and family beckon, the loyalty of clubmen is tested. It is then that the crumbling of clubs is revealed. A few fiercely masculine clubs, like White's, succeed in drinking and gambling till late into the night. But in most clubs, only a handful of bachelors, grass widowers* or visitors inhabit the cavernous rooms. No doubt clubs will survive a long time, with their myths, their sites and their convenience, but the old misogynist zeal, which built the Empire and kept wives in their place - that has gone.

* (grass widower - a husband whose wife is temporarily away from him (cf. grass widow).)

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