Friday, 15 July 2011

Not a clubbable man

It's the big dark one
Not long ago I met up with a colleague who works in the publishing arena. 'Why don't we meet at my club?' he said. Before you could say 'What ho, Jeeves?' I was rolling up at the unmarked front door of the Reform Club in Pall Mall.

It was certainly an experience, remarkably like the sort of thing you see in a period TV drama. The elaborately suited lackey on the door (after relieving me of my bag, which was rather riskily left in a 'help yourself' pile) took me to the person I was meeting. We sat in low leather armchairs, seemingly designed for snoozing. And at the press of a bell push, a waiter turned up to serve tea and teacakes. ('Not coffee, sir, coffee is outside.')

I can sort of see the appeal, but in some ways it was restricting. It seemed inappropriate to talk at anything more than a low pitched murmur, we weren't allowed to take our jackets off, and I couldn't demonstrate something I was talking about on a phone or iPad because, of course, such things were not allowed in those hallowed halls.

It was an interesting experience, but I'll be honest, it's just not me. Ever since I graduated I get occasional reminders from the Oxford and Cambridge Club that I can join, and how it makes an excellent base when up in town. The thing is, I've got an excellent base on every street corner, called a coffee shop - I don't need to tramp across town to an expensive single location. And in a coffee shop I can take my jacket off and use technology as I want.

If I really did want a more substantial pied-a-terre, as a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), I have access to the RSA House in John Adam Street, where I can get hold of a meeting room, relax in the library or bar or entertain in the restaurant. But I confess I've only been twice. It's just not something I often need. If I have a business meeting it is usually at my client or publisher's office.

The other problem is I don't think I'm very clubbable. Don't get me wrong, I was delighted to be invited by my friend, who clearly revels in the environment, but it's just not me. I don't really want to go regularly to somewhere that won't let you in if you aren't wearing a jacket and tie. As I've mentioned previously, I hate black tie, but frankly wearing any tie is something I don't do these days. Weddings and funerals is about it. Why I would want to do it for something I'm supposed to enjoy, I don't know.

To make matters worse, the dress code specifies no jeans. Now I have plenty of trousers that aren't jeans, in the sense that they aren't denim, but many of them do have rivets or other jeans-like features, which means I thought it best not to wear them (I don't mean I didn't wear trousers, just had a very limited selection to choose from), as the kind of person whose job it is to check if you are wearing the right clothes doesn't get much job satisfaction beyond being picky.

It was an interesting glimpse into the past and into a passing world. Frankly I will be surprised if many of these institutions survive in their current form for more than a couple of decades. They have had their day. It's a different world now, and I, for one, am glad.


  1. I had trouble at the IOD as I had a guitar. I could see the doorman getting ready to rugby tackle me - I presume he thought I was a busker!

  2. What a good post, Brian. I had to meet an editor at his club once, and even though it was a funky modern one, it still made me feel odd. And poor. And a bit working class.

  3. " still made me feel odd. And poor. And a bit working class."

    That, I suspect, is the point.

    I agree with all the comments above. Clubs seem to be there for two groups of people. Those who have grown up in that environment and are a bit scared to go outside - they use its safety and predictability as a crutch. And some who have not grown up in that environment, aspire to greater social status, and think the club is a way of getting that if they can't earn it on merit.

    Oh dear, that sounded harsh.

  4. Thanks for the comments:

    @Peter - he was probably worried you'd go all rock and roll and throw a telly through the window

    @Angela - I know exactly what you mean, Angela. Like it or not they are very much about saying 'There's us, and there's them...' Of course this isn't just true of London clubs - the same goes for a nightclub or a shisha bar, I suspect. You have to fit to feel comfortable.

    @Leigh - Yes, just a bit harsh. While there certainly are the two types of member, the old brigade and the Johnny-come-latelys, I don't think it's particularly negative if someone enjoys that kind of environment. Just not really my thing. It's a bit like not minding people who fuss about choosing the right wine with a meal when you (as I do) often prefer to have a beer. Each to their own!

  5. There are clubs and clubs. My late boss John Maddox belonged to the Athenaeum, which is full of sciency types and strikes me as a bit less uptight than one might expect. I' quite like to join it as I could do with a regular place to rest my head when staying over in London.

  6. I had a similar feeling to Brian's when I went to a learned society subcommittee meeting held at a London club several months back (one of those on the subcommittee is a member, and the meeting room at the learned society's HQ was booked)... It all felt a bit... dusty. And I could have done without having to drag a shirt with collar, a tie, and a jacket (all garments I have not worn for several years) to London, as well as having to forsake my preferred combat trousers. Though we were allowed to take our jackets off once we were inside the room.

    To add a further surreal note, there was a noisy building site outside, and periodic bouts of pneumatic drill meant we were unable to hear anything anyone said for several minutes at a time.

    Anyway, it was interesting to see the inside of such a place, but I can't imagine myself ever being a member.

    Oddly, I had precisely the same feeling on a more recent visit to an Oxbridge Senior Common Room. The atmosphere, and even the furnishings, chimed precisely with that at the club... I had the definite feeling that Oxbridge SCRs and the clubs formed a continuum.

  7. Combat trousers? Combat trousers? And to think, they make fun of my crocs.

  8. This blog is officially combat trouser and croc neutral. We welcome all modes of dress.

  9. I've got a rather stylish pair of crocs, part olive drab and part black, that nicely match my combat trousers, Henry. Though I wear the Crocs mostly for gardening.