Sunday, October 5, 1986
The Gentlemen’s Clubs of London
Written for Northwest Orient in 1986; re-published by Forbes-FYI in 1993
Nothing is more English than the Club. When Phileas Fogg, that imaginary London gentleman, set off around the world in eighty days, he started from the Reform Club. Just around the comer, in St. James Street, Britain’s finest young men used to while away an afternoon after a club lunch by playing golf, teeing-off and holing-out from the steps of one club to the next. Trollope scribbled away in one, as did Dickens, Thackeray, Stevenson, Burton, and Kipling. Lord Glasgow threw a waiter through the window of his club and ordered him “put on the bill.” The father of the current Duke of Devonshire, ill-tempered late in life, filled the end of his walking-stick with lead and terrorized the shins of fellow-members of Brooks’. As Dr. Johnson wrote, “A man is good for nothing unless he is clubbable.”
If the idea of the British Empire begins at Camelot, then the origins of the gentlemen’s clubs lie in the Round Table. At the turn of the century, London’s West End (principally Pall Mall and St. James) could boast two hundred such clubs, exclusively male. Now, with the Empire in tatters, most of the forty surviving clubs admit wives for lunch or dinner: Britannia waives the rules. Though today’s clubs are financially better-run than before, the waiting lists shorter and membership fees higher (averaging about $900 a year), the character of these “mausoleums of inactive masculinity” has not changed much. The dream of Empire still lives on within.
They began as coffee-houses in the 18th century, gathering-places where the politically like-minded could discuss politics freely, read a paper, hear gossip, perhaps gamble, and fuel up for the stagger or horse-carriage to the next. (Some of these coffee- and chocolate-houses became literary, lawyers’, or merchants’ clubs instead; one became Lloyd’s of London.) “We now use the word ‘club’,” wrote Pepys, ”for a sodality in a tavern.”
Many clubs took their names from the servants who started them, like Boodle’s, Brooks’, or White’s (the oldest gentlemen’s club in London, named for an Italian, Bianco, who founded it as a very exclusive chocolate shop in 1693). Some clubs were militarily inclined, like the Guards’ and the Cavalry, which merged a decade ago. Some, like the Beefsteak, were originally so secretive and private that a team of unknowing bobbies could raid it mistakenly as a brothel and find seated at an upstairs table the Lord Chancellor, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Governor of the Bank of England, and the Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour.
According to V. S. Pritchett, in London Perceived (1962), it was only in the late 19th century, when industrial wealth took hold, that the clubs (like the public schools) became pretentiously exclusive. The fashion was to be a member of more than one. To somebody like Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s brother, the club could be relied on as a home away from home, where a man might spend the day eating, drinking, reading, and sleeping, with a night valet to turn him over and make sure he hadn’t died in his armchair. Men returning back from the farthest corners of Empire could instantly catch up in their club. For the aged it was a solace; one old duke passed his days seated in the high box-window of Boodle’s whenever it rained because he so loved “watching the damned people getting wet.”
And there is some strain in the English gentleman’s soul that does not love a wife. As one wag put it, “The French and Italians seek solace by taking mistresses. . . the British retreat into a world of leather-bound misogyny.” But the history of the clubs is more a full-blooded charge than a retreat. A Victorian lady noted in her diary, “We have now been married exactly a year during which time my husband has dined with me but once. Every other night he dined at Mr. Brooks’ club.”
What the wives could not have understood—because they were never allowed in—was that in their clubs gentlemen could behave like schoolboys, grumbling and shouting and throwing food at the waiters and each other. “London is made for males,” as Pritchett puts it, “and its clubs for males who prefer armchairs to women. . . The boredom that hangs like old cigar smoke in the air is a sad reminder of the most puzzling thing in the sex war: that men like each other, rather as dogs like each other. The food is dull, but a point the ladies overlook is that the wine is excellent and cheap.” It took a Frenchwoman at the turn of the century to say the unsayable: that, obviously, so many gentlemen’s clubs exist because English women are unbearable.
The literary anecdotes are legion. Swinburne was asked to resign from his club when, not being able to find his top hat in the cloakroom, he jumped on all the others until a porter reminded him he’d come hatless that evening. Evelyn Waugh, grumpy as ever, violently dressed down a club employee who couldn’t get him a taxi in the rain. It was in Trollope’s club that he was persuaded to kill off the character of Mrs. Proudie by overhearing two clergymen complain about his overuse of her.
Henry James lived for over twenty years at the Reform Club and had his bedroom drilled with a spyhole (still there) so the night porter could be sure not to disturb the Master in his sleep. “The Club question has become serious and difficult,” James wrote in his notebooks. “A club was indispensable, but I had, of course, none of my own. . . At last, I forget exactly when, I was elected to the Reform. . . This was an excellent piece of good fortune, and the Club has ever since been, to me, a convenience of the first order. I could not have remained in London without it, and I have become extremely fond of it, a deep local attachment.”
All clubs were rivals, usually over which had the worst food—one’s own always had the best members. A Guards’ clubman who’d been given hospitality at the Savile was asked what he thought of them. “They were quite decent little fellows,” he replied. “No trouble there. Make their own trousers, of course.”
Architecturally the great surviving clubs are of a type: their façades of Italianate palazzi, so popular in the early 19th century; the enormous interior staircases, morning rooms, drawing rooms, and classical libraries. The dining rooms tend to resemble those of the public schools, which is hardly surprising. Sometimes they have been used as literary settings, from P. G. Wodehouse to Graham Greene (The Human Factor) to one of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories (The Queer Feet), in which the crime rests upon the singular fact that the particular club insists that its waiters and gentlemen dress identically. This sounds like sheer fantasy, but in Pratt’s all the waiters are called “George,” and at the Beefsteak, “Charles.”
A short list of illustrious clubs might include the Athenaeum, Boodle’s, the Garrick, the Travellers’, and Whites. All avoid publicity of any sort, and admit to admitting between one thousand- and fifteen hundred-odd members. Only the Travellers’ agreed, very courteously, to show me around.
The Athenaeum (founded 1824) has never been known for its fine cuisine. Sir Ralph Richardson, a member, suggested bringing a box-lunch; Sir Edwin Lutyens criticized “a piece of cod which passeth all understanding.” Years ago, the chef of the French Ambassador, learning that his master was going to the club for dinner, murmured, “Alas, we shall never see him again.” The Athenaeum is esteemed, rather, for intellectual dignity, grave silence, an enormous library, and for being the haunt of many a peer, aristocrat, and archbishop. Members are expected to be “established” professionally, so much so that in Nöel Coward’s Present Laughter, when a character is accused of becoming pompous after having joined, he replies, “I’ve always been too frightened to go into it.”
Kipling described the Athenaeum as like “a cathedral between services.” A more recent visitor portrayed it as full of fogies who “hobble from room to room muttering about the decline of The Times.” Like most clubs, it has a dozen-odd bedrooms for members who come down to London for several days’ business. In the mid-19th century it was so difficult to get in that there was a sixteen-year waiting list of prospective members. But, as one member complained at the time, “They crept in unseen at the doors, and they crept in under the bishops’ sleeves, and they crept in in peers’ pockets, and they were blown in by the winds of chance.”
Boodle’s (founded 1762), in the good old days, used to iron the newspapers and boil the shillings and pence before bringing them to members. Servants wore black knee-breeches, in what the writer R. S. Surtees called its “proverbial serenity.” Another Victorian described it more affectionately as “a sweet old mahogany and wax candle kind of place.” The popular story within was that if a servant in the smoking room called out, “Carriage for Sir John!”, a good portion of the members present would glance up. It is famous for a painting by Stubbs and a membership of country gentlemen, knights, the late Adam Smith, and Beau Brummel. Churchill used to smoke his cigar at the bow window. It is still considered perhaps the most tranquil and discreet of all the clubs.
Ian Fleming, who usually lunched at Boodle’s, made M.—the head of Her Majesty’s Secret Service in the James Bond books—a member and frequent luncher, fictionalizing the place as Blade’s. (Fleming had left White’s “because they gas too much”; he wanted a dull club.) In The Man with the Golden Gun M. eats “his usual meager luncheon—a grilled Dover sole followed by the ripest spoonful he could gouge from the club Stilton. And as usual he sat by himself in one of the window seats and barricaded himself behind The Times. . . .” The head waiter guesses some game is afoot, for as “father confessor to many of the members, he knew a lot about all of them and liked to think he knew everything, so that, in the tradition of incomparable servants, he could anticipate their wishes and their moods.” M. ignores what Fleming soberly calls “the finest cold buffet on display at that date anywhere in the world.”
The Garrick (founded 1831) is famous as the most bohemian and the least misogynist of the old clubs, and it reputedly possesses the finest dining room, candlelit and decorated with old theatrical prints that portray a membership traditionally favoring writers, actors, and directors. It is also said to have the finest dinner conversation and, not surprisingly, the most women guests. Princes Charles joined a few years ago, leaping ahead of the others on the ten-year waiting list to sport the salmon-and-cucumber striped tie. One of the more financially secure clubs, the Garrick lives off the royalties of the late member A. A. Milne. As long as Winnie-the- Pooh collects honey, the Garrick is safe.
The Travellers’ Club (founded 1819) began as a kind of explorers’ society—only gentlemen who’d journeyed at least 500 miles in a straight line from London were eligible, though members of foreign diplomatic missions were received as honorary visitors. Both these precepts still hold today. There is an apocryphal story about an African guest indicating a glass of fly-catcher (a poisonous syrup thick with dead flies) and saying, “Bring me some of dat.” It is a fact that when, in 1825, a member stole the club candlesticks, his life was spared by the King and he was deported instead (thereby, perhaps, increasing his eligibility).
Most great travelers are great readers, and the Club library is enormous and well-tended. At the top of the great stairs a plaque honors “members and staff who fell in the Great War” in a democracy of the dead. In mid-afternoon the husbands and wives are just coming, arm in arm, from the Coffee Room, past clicking clocks and 18th century foreign landscapes. Another lunch done. Over the years there have been two suicides, both by gunshot in the Billiards Room. One was a member who’d lived many years in Japan; this officially explained his “characteristic indifference to life.” The Travellers’ Club chairman at the time, a Colonel Baring, stated firmly, “I’ll take damned good care he never gets into any other club I have anything to do with.”
White’s (founded 1693) is probably still the stuffiest and snobbiest of the clubs. Anthony Lejeune, in The Gentlemen’s Clubs of London (1979)—a careful, authoritative, adulatory work, many of whose entries now read as obituaries—calls White’s “the archetype and model of what a gentlemen’s club should be.” He goes on to point out, though, that Swift described it as a “common rendezvous of infamous sharpers and noble cullies.” Its members tend to be friends of Royals if not royalty themselves, like the Dukes of Kent, Edinburgh, and York. A club historian four decades ago referred to it as “an oasis of civilization in a desert of democracy.” Kirn Philby and Evelyn Waugh were both members; I was unable to determine whether Philby was asked to resign when he resigned, in a sense, from London itself. (One assumes he continued to be a gentleman.) White’s is responsible for my favorite story of club exclusivity: a would-be clubman inquiring how to apply for membership was told, “This is not a discotheque, sir.”
If the gentlemen’s clubs seem antiquated and a bit dismal, they are healthier today than a decade ago. Many clubs collapsed: members stayed in the suburbs, or quit; the eligible young men weren’t interested. In 1974 the IRA bombed ths bar of one club and machine-gunned the facade of another. Now they seem to be back in style and gaining, their appeal on the rebound for a terrorized younger generation in a terrorist age. As Jonathan Raban wrote in Soft City (1974), “Suddenly, through the swing doors of the club, I am a Gentleman; I have things I had forgotten. . . an old school, an awkward nodding bonhomie, the gentleman’s ducklike walk, waddling over swathes of maroon carpeting.”
And the clubs are increasingly run not as gentlemen’s kingdoms but as business establishments, with smart management and computerized bookkeeping. The Reform recently rented itself out for a series of nude shots with a female model disporting all over the historic leather armchairs and upright marble columns.
In a conservative age, then, the ideal of the Club should gain strength and favor again. Thus the eloquent description of the Perfect Clubman in Ralph Nevill’s London Clubs (1911) may yet prove contemporary:
“The life of such a man, as has been said, is centred in his club, and he sees members cane and go, hears of their prosperity or ruin, marriages or deaths, with imperturbable equanimity; indeed, it would require an invasion or an earthquake to make him effect any change in his habits.
“So he lunches and dines, dines and lunches, till the sands of the hourglass have run out, and the moment comes for him to enter that great club of which all humanity must perforce become members.”