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Old Boys' Clubs

Jolee Edmondson
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

(continued from page 1)

The gentlemen's club has evolved into the ultimate sanctuary for a good smoke. But there was a time, in the mid-Victorian era, when tobacco was taboo. In 1866, a momentous smoking dispute erupted. The Prince of Wales, a devoted cigar buff, expressed his desire to join White's, subsequent to which a meeting was held to better define the club's smoking policy. The younger members proposed that smoking be allowed in the drawing room, a motion bit-terly opposed by their elders, who triumphed. The future King Edward VII was so miffed that he rarely used the club. The final in-sult came when he was scolded (by a servant, no less!) for lighting up one day. He stormed out, taking 20 percent of the membership with him. Eventually, he helped to establish a new club, the Marlborough, where smoke wafted freely throughout.

In Clubland's glorious past, it was the fashion for men to join more than one club. The current economy precludes such luxury for most, but Anthony Lejeune maintains that multiple membership is still the ideal. "You need to belong to at least three," he observes. "You need the Beefsteak to go to for lunch, Pratt's to go to for dinner and somewhere to sleep in the afternoon--Brooks's has lovely bed pillows in the library."

A hallmark of London's male havens has been the loyal and long-term staff that serves them; continuity is cherished among clubmen. Alas, the hall porter, assuredly the most pivotal club servant--acting as a sort of butler who looks after guests and handles sundry urgencies--is no longer the permanent fixture he once was. With a trace of wistfulness, Lejeune recalls a particularly devoted hall porter: "Newman died about 10 years ago. He'd cycled up from Cambridge as a youth of 17 and became a page boy at Brooks's. He was there his whole life. And that, of course, is what you want, but it's extremely hard to achieve nowadays. When I first joined Brooks's 35 years ago, I found Newman reading the ID band on my stick on the hook in the hall. He didn't want to ask me my name. I thought that was awfully good."

Nothing else so completely reflects the fixed mind-set of Clubland than the food it features. Ultratraditional English dishes prevail. At Buck's, the menu revolves around what Capt. Peter Murison, the dapper and urbane club secretary, calls "nursery food"--lots of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and spotted dick and treacle tart. At the Traveller's Club, a dinner staple is roast saddle of hare with Port and chestnuts. At the Savile Club, the lunch special is an old favorite called Lancashire hot pot. Years ago, Pratt's borrowed cooks from the barracks of the Queen's Guard. Today, the clubs are inclined to hire young chefs straight out of culinary school, many of whom like to experiment and sneak in the occasional exotic delicacy. But the members will have none of it.

At the turn of the century, Clubland's golden age, there were more than 200 gentlemen's clubs in London. Many of the 40-odd remaining bastions find themselves clinging to life, now and then bending their ancient rules just to stay afloat. Only recently did Clubland accept credit cards ("those horrible bits of plastic," grimaces Captain Murison) as a means of payment. But the most earthshaking modification has The crumbling of club barriers regarding women has as much to do with changed attitudes among Britain's young men as it does with feminism. Indeed, a key impetus behind the admission of females has been to attract younger male members. Many of today's prospective club fellows are married to career women whose company they actually enjoy, at home and away. Fast receding is the era when men holed up at their clubs to flee the wife.

Quite simply, contemporary blue bloods don't feel the same passion for club life as their fathers. For one thing, they're too busy. Britain's recent recession sparked a new labor incentive; people began working harder. Even the upper crust could no longer afford their usual ritual: a long, three-Scotch lunch at the club followed by a snooze and a 4 o'clock return to the office to scribble a few notes before going home.

The decline in club usage is also attributable to modern technology. Faxes and computers have made it easier for men to stay at their country homes, rather than regularly commute to the city to do business. Although most gentlemen's clubs still offer bedrooms for members who wish to spend the night, vacancies are common.

But the most pressing concern in Clubland is the youth void. Laments Captain Murison, "The older chaps are falling off the perch and there isn't a sufficient number of new members to replace them." Intensely mindful of the challenge before them, the gents' clubs have launched a full-fledged campaign to recruit fresh blood. Enticements include substantially reduced subscription fees. At the Savile Club, for example, a mature London member pays £685 (about $1,095), while his under-31 counterpart pays only £245 (about $390). Adds Nicholas Storey, the club's good-humored, rosy-cheeked, 30-something secretary, "We also schedule events that would appeal to the younger set, such as blindfolded wine tastings and special dinners where young members are guaranteed that they'll dine with people their age."

Shorter waiting lists are another draw. In high-Victorian times, a candidate for membership had to bide his time for 20 years. Now the lists run from three months to eight years, and existing members are heartily encouraged to introduce their sons and other young gents as applicants.

While top-drawer lineage is certainly a plus when it comes to being considered for membership, it is no longer the acid test. Some of the clubs remain stiffly snooty about pedigree, but overall there has been a significant relaxation of social requirements since the days when only the bluest of blue bloods were deemed fit to enter the portals of Clubland.


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