TT: A Mysterious Locale

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering? Page back one for an update on our plague of grasshoppers, highly destructive hail, and a few new things related to the release of Artemis Awakening.

JANE: Hey, Alan, remember when you asked me questions about high schools in the U.S.?

Different Clubs

Different Clubs

ALAN: Oh yes – that was 21st June 2012. We had a discussion that we ended up calling “Bizarre Education.” That raised so many questions that we followed it with several weeks of tangents as we tried to pin down the peculiarities.

JANE: Well – just as you were able to read and enjoy American fiction in a high school setting without necessarily knowing what a yearbook or a letter sweater was – as we discussed Wodehouse, I realized that I’ve read a ton of British fiction without precisely understanding a setting that occurs over and over again.

ALAN: What is it? I’ll be happy to explain if I can. Just let me unpack the oars for my Delphi Coracle…

JANE: Ouch! A subsidiary Omniscient Transportation LTD, no doubt.

What I was wondering about was the omnipresent club.   Clubs seem to be a major part of the social life, but I really don’t understand how they work – or maybe I should say “worked,” since I’m not sure if they still exist. Let me give a few examples…

Bertie belongs to The Drones. Other Wodehouse characters belonged to other clubs. I seem to recall an Explorer’s Club being mentioned. Oh, yes, and Eustace and Claude are quite eager to get into the Seekers, even though they are already, apparently, members of the Drones.

Mycroft Holmes belonged to the Diogenes Club, but I don’t recall Sherlock ever mentioning belonging to a club. Watson might have, though…

Whenever Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion’s rather mysterious biography is mentioned, his clubs are always included. I believe he belongs to at least three, one of which is the Junior Greys. Therefore, apparently it’s possible to belong to more than one club.

So what is a club? I have a feeling that there’s more to it than just a few people with similar interests choosing to hang out together – like our local SF club or something.

ALAN: Essentially a club is a gentleman’s home away from home where he can meet likeminded people, relax from the stresses and strains of everyday life, perhaps do a little informal gambling and gossiping, some eating and some drinking. And where he can read The Times, a gentleman’s newspaper if ever there was one.

The gentleman’s club has long been a mainstay of upper class society. The oldest of the clubs is White’s which was founded in 1693 and which is still going strong today. If you look up the details of the lives of wheelers and dealers of the English world in Who’s Who, you will find that they always list the clubs to which they belong.

JANE: Sounds good! How do you join a club?

ALAN: Paradoxically, you don’t – at least not directly. A current member has to propose you for membership. Once proposed, you will be introduced to the committee and other club members. You will spend some time with them socially. Eventually, the committee will vote on your proposed membership and if you are deemed acceptable, you will become a member.

Traditionally, the vote is a secret ballot. Those voting will be in possession of two clay balls, one white and one black. A white ball is a vote of acceptance, and a black ball is a rejection. With most clubs, a single black ball is sufficient to reject a proposed membership. Should the proposed member be blackballed, the member who proposed him will often be forced to resign his membership on the grounds that he had introduced unsuitable elements to the club.

JANE: Dear, lord! That’s rather harsh, isn’t it?

ALAN: Indeed – but things seldom reach that stage. Generally, the member who proposes an unsuitable candidate will be spoken to informally long before the vote is taken and the membership proposal will be withdrawn so as to avoid embarrassment all round.

JANE: I can see why they’d want to handle it that way. With all the stress involved, it seems astonishing that someone would want to belong to more than one club. However, such seems to have been common.

ALAN: Oh, it is. The world record seems to have been held by the late Earl Mountbatten who claimed to have belonged to nineteen clubs. And membership is still an important social force – if you are a member of the aristocracy or a politician, club membership is pretty much de rigeur.

JANE: That makes it sound as if these clubs still exist.   Are they still important?

ALAN: They do still exist and they do still have an important social and political role to play.

JANE: Really?

ALAN: Yes, really. Prince Charles held his stag night party at White’s. Then, six days after Charles’ marriage to Lady Diana Spencer, White’s celebrated the wedding with a party to which members were allowed to bring women as guests, the first time that women had been allowed to cross the threshold of the club since 1947 when White’s had held a similar party to celebrate the wedding of Charles’ mum, the then Princess Elizabeth.

JANE: Are women still not allowed to enter Whites?

ALAN: As far as I can tell, the party to celebrate the royal wedding was the last time a woman set foot in White’s. To this day, it remains exclusively a gentleman’s establishment. However, many other clubs have embraced the social changes of the late twentieth century and do now allow women on to their premises. Some have even taken the extraordinary step of allowing women to become members of the club! I can almost hear the curmudgeons hiding behind their newspapers and muttering, “Country’s going to the dogs, I tell you!”

JANE: I hear them even now… Smell the reek of their ever-present cigars, which has permeated the aged oak beams.

These clubs sound like great places for networking. I noticed that, when I asked you for a definition of “club,” you immediately segued into “gentleman’s clubs” as if they were one and the same. If women weren’t allowed in to the gentlemen’s clubs, did they have clubs of their own?

ALAN: Some women’s clubs were formed in the nineteenth century, but none of them have survived, at least not in their original form. There are several women-only organisations such as the Soroptimists which is actually an international volunteer group that seeks to improve the lives of women around the world, but that kind of thing is really rather removed from the original idea of a club.

JANE: I agree. The Soroptimists sounds more like the sort of clubs I’m familiar with here in the U.S.: Kiwanis or Knights of Columbus or suchlike. There is certainly a social aspect to these, but they also raise funds for Causes of various types.

You said that the British gentlemen’s clubs also had a political role to play. Let me guess… Is it something like the proverbial smoke-filled room where secret deals are made?

ALAN: Very much so. The clubs are an ideal setting for politicians to hold discreet, informal meetings away from the public gaze. Political friends and political enemies who wouldn’t be seen dead together in public, but who all belong to the same club, can thrash out their differences in private and reach some kind of consensus. A surprisingly large number of political decisions have been taken in this way, though it’s hard to give chapter and verse because of the tradition of confidentiality.

JANE: The phrase “have been taken” rings oddly to my American ear. We would say, “have been made” or “have been reached.”

ALAN: That’s interesting. On my side of the pond you can “make” a decision and you can “take” a decision and both phrases are used interchangeably. However “reaching” a decision sounds a little clumsy to me. It’s not an unheard of thing to say, but it’s a rare construction and I would certainly never use it.

JANE: I wonder why the difference evolved. I mean, a decision is like a journey. You go through the process examining the alternatives, rather like stages in a journey, then “reach” a decision. Makes sense to me!

ALAN: I strongly suspect a European influence here. Personally I blame the French with whom we have had an uneasy linguistic relationship for the last two thousand years or so. Certainly in French one always takes a decision (“prendre une decision”) and that may be why we still use the phrasing and you don’t.

JANE: Ah! Voila! Revelation! <grin>

ALAN: Back to the gentlemen’s clubs and their political influence. In a formal sense, some clubs deliberately organise political debates and conferences on public affairs. The Commonwealth Club is particularly fond of doing this, and the heads of state of several Commonwealth countries have spoken there.

JANE: So, some clubs have a public identity, as well as a private one. That makes sense – while complicating the issue. But I will admit that I have more questions buzzing in my brain. Next week, perhaps…

5 Responses to “TT: A Mysterious Locale”

  1. Peter Says:

    At some point in the mid 19th century the gentleman’s club spread to South America. I remember a student of mine in Chile, a young lawyer, being thrilled when he was invited to join the Club de la Union, which he saw as a major accomplishment professionally.

  2. Paul Says:

    Dorothy Sayers published a novel in 1928, “The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club,” a rather staid gentlemen’s club where one of its elderly members died in his armchair and nobody noticed.

  3. Heteromeles Says:

    Around here, “Gentleman’s Club” seems to be a euphemism for a strip bar, which shows how many ways the terms can be used. I know there’s a Commonwealth Club in California, but I don’t know if it’s connected to the one Alan mentioned above. They also hold debates and lectures.

    So far as I can tell here in the US, Jane’s right, the function of the British Men’s clubs is taken by the Masons, Rotarians, Elks, Oddfellows, and similar (such as the California version, E Clampus Vitus). I suspect this goes back to the Revolution, since most of the Mason’s lodges I’ve been in prominently display a picture of George Washington wearing his Mason’s apron. It probably also comes from America’s polyglot nature, since many of the “fraternal” groups we have now originally were created as self-help/benevolent societies for immigrant groups trying to make their way here.

    I wonder how far back the British tradition of gentleman’s clubs dates, and whether British monarchs in centuries past ever stayed awake wondering what was being plotted in those rooms.

    Good to know the (or an) origin of someone being “blackballed.” I’d always assumed it came from Stevenson’s Treasure Island, which shows how ignorant I am.

  4. Louis Robinson Says:

    I have to differ with Alan on women’s Clubs: the University Women’s Club, AFAICT, is still going strong after 130 years. If he were to ask around Auckland, he’d probably find that there is one there as well, although it may not have all the traditional facilities. I know that the University Women’s Club of Toronto has left its old digs and moved in with the Faculty Club, so there are no longer rooms available where members can stay overnight. [My MiL was a member, or I might never have heard of it.]

    As for gentlemen’s clubs in the US, I believe that there are, or have been, a few such establishments in East Coast cities since I’ve seen references to them here and there. There certainly are up here, but they keep themselves quite private – there _might_ be a brass plate beside the door, but it’s pretty small. I’d expect the clubs in New York or Washington to be similarly low-key. However, organisations like Rotary or Kiwanis are not at all similar in nature, purpose or operation, so I wouldn’t say that they take over the function of gentlemen’s clubs. The latter exist solely to serve their members.

    Interestingly, there are clubs in the US, and Canada, formed to serve a wider purpose, that certainly do have their equivalents in the UK – where the term ‘club’ isn’t used to describe them. I’m thinking of organisations like the Explorer’s Club in New York and the Royal Asiatic Society in London, both of which serve to promote the scientific exploration of the world, or at least a large part thereof.

    • Alan Robson Says:

      I’d never heard of the University Women’s Club until you mentioned it. So I went and looked it up, and you are quite right, it is a thriving women’s club along the lines that Jane and I were discussing. It’s a relative newcomer, dating as it does from the late nineteenth century. But it definitely is a club! Thank you for the info.


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