Thursday, 1 July 2010

Clubbing the Pall Mall way

The English are notoriously clubbable, in the sense of creating formal groups rather than being beaten with a stick, no matter what one thinks of the national football team. Other nations are naturally also keen to club together, the French and the Americans spring to mind. But what stands out is the enthusiasm of the English for creating a home for their club and then encumbering it with rules some of which are perversely designed to head off any efforts at conviviality. I was drawn to think about this by a convivial visit to the Eccentric Club last week. A Society that has kindly (or foolhardily) extended membership to the bearded one.

Main room at the National Liberal Club.

The physical results of English clubbability reach their apopheosis in the grand Gentlemens Clubs scattered through Mayfair. However whilst clubs like the Reform or the Garrick make a to-do about membership lists and one may have to wait for someone to die before joining the MCC generally it appears that many traditional Gentlemen’s Clubs are in decline. Yet having undertaken the lightest of researches it appears that the solidity of buildings such as the Travellers belie the state of flux such clubs have always existed in. They close, they merge, they diverge and sometimes they, Pheonix-like, are resuscitated several times. The recently reformed Eccentric Club is an example of the latter.

Groucho Club

True the old clubs are saddled with a reputation and an expense that exclude many, often quite purposefully. But I have had a good time at all the clubs I have visited, particularly the Liberal Club where I enjoyed a good meal in good company with friendly service. So why should some London Clubs be struggling to recruit younger members? It is not as if young people don’t want to join clubs, there are long waiting lists for fashionable places with less facilities and uglier buildings and interiors, such as the Groucho. I can think of some issues that really do put people off joining:

Opening hours. Traditionally GC’s (as I will henceforth call them) were in little demand at the weekend when members would return to the country. However the potential members of Clubs at the moment require their services largely during the weekends. Therefore any club that does not open fully at the weekend is fairly useless. Many don’t and justify this by stating they are booked for weddings and so forth. The very worst habit is pushing your membership out to make way for such events, the In and Out we were once made to sit in a ghastly business suite and fetch our drinks halfway across the building.

Drinks. Bars in private clubs should stay open at the weekends until the early hours. This will not attract drunkards but rather those avoiding drunkards. The prices of drinks should be the same or lower than those in a public house. Many wealthy Londoners join clubs such as Soho House to be able to do just this. Also I cannot see why at least one bar cannot be made a bit ritzy in a 20s/30s way. The hotels have wised up to this as have the newer membership clubs. A bit of glamour please, especially as the GC’s have the spaces and rooms to provide this with very little effort.

Room at the Landsdowne Club.

Gender. Any establishment that does not allow women to use it is foolish. Single sex night outs are becoming very rare, and those that are popular (stag nights, sports dinners) are hardly the type most clubs would welcome. Several times a group of us would have gone to a friend’s club, but since this would involve discarding half of the party this has been rapidly ruled out. The atmosphere of the Oxford and Cambridge club has not been adversely affected by it’s admission of female members.

Membership. I am sure the committees of all these clubs want to preserve the atmosphere and tradition of their institutions but often do so in a stuffy and unfriendly way. Most clubs should be doing what the Fine Arts Club does to some degree with the Eccentric Club. Allowing smaller institutions to use a section of the club or have a certain time slot. It annoys me that they will rent the place out to anyone with the dosh but will suddenly become sniffy if someone from an associated club or who is a guest leaves their designated room or tries to have a look around. This is not the way to garner new members. Also these club rooms are fantastic, but empty they risk looking like room sets from a National Trust property. When the rooms are full, someone is plinking on the piano, others are holding forth and the wine is flowing these spaces become more decadent and stylish than any of the newer supposedly more bohemian establishments. Small clubs such as the Eccentrics or The New Sheridan Club should be asked to use the rooms on weeknights. The places need to be busy and full. Zoning is the way to deal with the varying demands of members not exclusion and rules a go go.

Dover Street Fine Arts Club.

Money. People need to be given the choice of paying on account or by cash. Guests of members need to be able to buy a round, or their own food. No one, including the wealthy, routinely just puts everything on their account. It is a nuisance and again puts people off holding their events, drinking or dining in these establishments. The joining fee that many charge is nonsensical and subscriptions should be payable on a monthly basis.

There are newer trendier clubs that people willingly pay a fortune to join so they can be jammed into a crowded room decorated by some post-modernist terrible iconic Swede and then drink with loud media types. The customers at Croydon’s Buddha Lounge are more stylish. But people turn up for the comparative privacy, the late drinking and the food on request. London’s old clubs knock the socks off them for décor, style, élan and character. But they are so morgue-like and they stop serving food at nine which is just plain uncivilised. They are overly quiet, lovely in a library or reading room. Horrid in a bar. If GC’s would just bite the bullet and provide the amenities they would be better used. Many are, in fact, even as they stand good value.

I personally believe in enjoying a variety of social environments ranging from dives and dark corners (the lamented Colony Room Club was a favourite) to the brittle and new. But ultimately being a good vintage chick the G.Cs do it for me every time. I’d much rather be a member of the Travellers than the Groucho. But the Travellers would never let me in…it’s the boobs you see. Makes all the difference….

Home House Club, trying a bit too hard?


Springheel said...

There is great wisdom in what you say. I hate those trendy grouchoesque clubs, no doubt to the relief of their membership who would detest me.

Traditional clubs are much more to my taste but they are unsuited to the life of those of us forced to w*rk for a living. Weekend closing is particularly vexatious. If one is being asked to shell out c. £800-£1000 a year (and the same again as a joining fee) one expects to be able to use the bloody place when one is actually at liberty...

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