London Corners – Clubland
Are there still such things as clubbable men? Indeed there are. Despite the proliferation of reinvented private clubs that chuck out the chintz in favour of pounding beats, the traditional old clubs of London do still exist.
Yesterday I gave a luncheon talk at the Authors’ Club, now happily returned to the National Liberal Club in Whitehall. Upon my entry the doorman checked my shoes and trousers with only the vaguest hint of disapproval, then admitted me to a sanctum of calm, civilised gentility and very, very high ceilings. This is a gentleman’s club that equally allows women, founded in 1882 by William Gladstone on firm Liberal traditions which are still in place today.
The club enjoyed a reputation for radicalism (its full political history is fascinating). It lost its main staircase in the Blitz and was blown up during the IRA campaign of 1973, but worse was to follow.
During the 1960s and 1970s, all London clubs were in serious decline. The club fell into in a serious state of disrepair, its membership dwindling, its finances losing a thousand pounds a week. In 1976 the Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe handed over the club to Canadian businessman George Marks, styling himself His Serene Holiness the Prince de Chabris, who turned out to be a con-man.
De Chabris claimed to be a multi-millionaire willing to pour cash into the club, and moved his family in rent-free, running several fraudulent businesses from the premises, paying for a sports car and his children’s private school fees from the club’s accounts.
He fled owing the club £60,000, even emptying out the cash till of the day’s takings as he went. He’d also sold the club a fraudulent painting. Even worse, he flogged off the National Liberal Club’s Gladstone Library (which contained the largest library of 17th-to 20th-century political material in the country, including 35,000 books and over 30,000 pamphlets) to the University of Bristol on the pretext that the club could no longer afford to pay the Librarian’s wages. This was the finest club library in London. The collection is still housed at Bristol today.
Having introduced a con-man into the club, Jeremy Thorpe had troubles of his own, surviving an allegedly establishment-biased court case in which he was accused of hiring a hit man to shoot his male lover, who missed and shot an alsatian called Rinka.
There are many other clubs still with equally colourful histories;
The main ones are Whites (founded 1693, the original gentleman’s club to which only one woman – the Queen – has ever had entrance), Pratt’s (where all the staff are called George), Brooks’s, the thespian Garrick, the Carlton, Boodles, the Reform (where Phileas Fogg began his trip), the Athenaeum, the Beefsteak (where all the staff are called Charles), Bucks, the Oxford and Cambridge (where women are only allowed in certain parts), the Traveller’s (the original qualification being that members must have travelled 500 miles in a straight line from London), the RAC and the Pall Mall.
The difference between these and such modern London clubs like the Soho House chain and The Ivy Club (the only club to which I belong) could not be more pronounced. Mayfair’s venerable Arts Club, with its grand staircase and garden, decided to modernise by bringing in Gwyneth Paltrow and Mark Ronson to bling the place up and make it a mecca for partying princes. But the rest remain oases of silence and elegance at the heart of London life geographically if not socially, where members can go to drink and think.
How does one join such places? A quick trawl around their websites reveals that you don’t. You have to be asked. The sites are anonymous and filled with sang-froid. Candidates for admission have to be proposed and seconded by current members of the club, having direct personal knowledge of the candidate, and then in some cases you may be considered by the electoral board.
As I left the National Liberal Club I passed an elderly gentleman bending over the leather-bound volumes in a sadly depleted bookcase, searching for something, and had a momentary image of Arthur Bryant shunning Google to do it the old way, with possibly better results.