Evelyn Hofer in The London Column, Part One of Five

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25 July, 2011

Head waiter, Garrick Club, 1962. Photo © Estate of Evelyn Hofer

V.S. Pritchett writing in London Perceived*, 1962:

And what happens in square and pubs goes on in clubs, all the thousands of drinking clubs, the luncheon clubs, the dining clubs, the sporting clubs, the dance clubs, to the great clubs around Pall Mall and St. James’s. You are a Londoner, ergo you are a member. You are proposed and seconded; that done, you are among a few friends; you have your home from home. In none of these clubs is any utility of purpose frankly admitted. It is true that Bishops and Fellows of the Royal Society gather at the Atheneaeum; actors, publishers, and the law at the Garrick; the aristocracy and the top politicians at Boodle’s, White’s, or Brooks’s; that, following Stevenson and Kipling, a lot of bookish, professorial and civil wits are at the Savile, and professional eminences at the Reform, where Henry James had a bedroom with a spy hole cut in the door so that the servant could see whether the master was sleeping and refrain from disturbing him. (The hole is still there.)

Clubs change. London is made for males and its clubs for males who prefer armchairs to women. The great clubs are in difficulties. Their heyday was the Victorian age, when men did not go home early in the evenings; now at night they are empty of all but a few bachelors, sitting in the drying leather chairs. Some clubs have tried allowing ladies to dine in the evening, but the ladies, after the first riush of curiosity, in which they hoped to find out what happy vices their men were comfortably practising there, tend to be appalled by these mausoleums of inactive masculinity, even when they are elegant, and tend to be depressed by the gravy-coloured portraits on the walls. The architecture, gratifying to male self-esteem, does nothing for the sex, and 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 lie each other, rather as dogs like each other. The food is dull, but a point that the ladies overlook is that the wine is excellent and cheap.

How did this taste for clubs begin? Did it start with the witenagemot or the monasteries? Did it sprout from the guilds – for what are the Drapers’, the Fishmongers’, the Armourers’, the Watermens’, the Grocers’ companies, with their medieveal robes and seremonies, but medieval guilds turned into clubs for the Annual Dinner? The clubs start, as the whole of visible London does, except the Tower and Westminster Abbey, St. Bartholomew and the Elizabethan buildings in Staple Inn – the clubs start with the greatest of all london inventions: modern mercantile capitalism. They began with the coffee houses in the City. “We now use the word ‘club’”, Pepys wrote, “for a sodality in a tavern”. Lloyds was a coffee house, the place where one could read a paper and hear the news, and the more one sat about there, the more one heard. They were often started by servants – the most domineering of men – by the race of Jeeves, for the Woosters, the masters of the world; fashionable clubs like Boodle’s, Brooks’s, White’s take their names form the servants who founded them. The idea has the ease of Nature, and it is only in the nineteenth century, when industrial wealth came in, that clubs like the Public Schools, became outwardly pretentious and expensive.

* © 1962 and renewed 1990 by V.S. Pritchett. Used by permission of David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc.

[Special thanks in assembling this week’s feature are due to: Jim McKinniss; Mark Giorgione of the Rose Gallery in Santa Monica,  California; Andreas Pauly at the Hofer Estate; and Carl Scarbrough at David Godine. D.S.]