TT: How to Wield a Club

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering? Page back one and hear about my recent signing trip to California. Then come back and join me and Alan as he attempts to explain the intricacies of actual club membership to me.

JANE: Last week when we were chatting about the gentlemen’s clubs, I realized that I still didn’t know enough to effectively use one as a setting in a story. The clubs I’ve come across in literature often have odd names and bizarre rituals. Is that reflected in real life?

Pureeing an Orange with a Club

Making Orange Fool

ALAN: Yes, it is. Perhaps the most peculiarly named club is Boodle’s, which was founded in 1792. It was named after its head waiter, one Edward Boodle. It is by far the most prestigious of the gentleman’s clubs and everybody who is anybody is a member. It is world famous for serving a dessert called Boodle’s Orange Fool.

JANE: A “fool”? What’s that?

ALAN: The essential nature of a fool is pureed fruit and sugar stirred into whipped cream (though cheaper versions may use custard). The name comes from the French verb “fouler” (for those of you who don’t speak French, that’s pronounced “fool-eh”) which means to mash or to press. And that’s exactly what you do to the fruit before mixing it with the base. Boodle’s Orange Fool is a particularly elaborate variation on this basic dish. It incorporates sponge slices and orange and lemon zest to intensify the taste.

JANE: Hmm… Sponge? Like what you use to wash the dishes?

ALAN: No, not quite. I imagine that kind of sponge would taste rather too much of soap and might rebound off the teeth in a somewhat disconcerting manner. I actually meant sponge cake…

JANE: I’m glad. That was a singularly disgusting image.

Now, you were about to reveal some of the bizarre rituals… I’m prepared to take notes!

ALAN: I’m not sure if the clubs have rituals as such, but some of them definitely have some rather eccentric rules.

JANE: Darn… I was hoping for something really juicy that I could use in a story. Well, I’ll settle for rules.

ALAN: The Caledonian Club (based in London) requires all its members to be of Scottish descent.

The Traveller’s Club insists that membership is only open to those people who have travelled out of the British islands to a distance of at least 500 miles from London in a direct line. I’m not sure whether or not this implies that the members believe in the concept of a flat earth, but they do seem to be ignoring the more subtle ramifications of spherical geometry…

JANE: I really like the image of the club rules being updated to allow for the curve of the planet. Or maybe someone could write a science fiction story where the rules of the club are interpreted literally, and various people go through great trials to succeed. There would need to be some incentive… Maybe the club has a lot of money or something…

But I digress. Writers are good at that! Give me another example.

ALAN: Damn you! Now I want to read that story. Go away and write it at once. But before you do that, let me tell you about the Reform Club, which was founded in 1836 with the avowed intention of promoting acceptance of the Reform Act of 1832 – whatever that might be. Even today, members of the Reform Club are required to declare their support for the Reform Act, though I would not be surprised to learn that few, if any, of them have any idea what that entails. Certainly I know nothing about the Reform Act – but on the other hand I have never been proposed for membership of the club, so I lose no sleep over my ignorance.

JANE: These rules do have story potential. However, I’m still puzzled as to the logistics of club membership.

In some stories, when a character is going up to London from elsewhere, he’ll often say something along the lines of “I’ll be staying at my club.” Does this mean that clubs are boarding houses?

ALAN: Very much so. It was (and presumably still is) very common for young men who had moved to London for the first time to live at their club for two or three years while they settled in and searched for more permanent accommodation

JANE: Well, that would make life easier.

One thing I’ve always wondered is how all of this is paid for. Is there a flat fee that covers everything or do you pay a club membership fee and then the meals, drinks, rooms, and all the rest are extra?

ALAN: The clubs charge very high fees which means, in practical terms, that membership is generally restricted to the very wealthy. Consequently, particularly in the older, more traditional clubs, the members all tend to come from the upper classes.

JANE: So everything is free after you pay the membership fee? That could be a good deal, actually.

ALAN: I don’t understand what you mean.

JANE: Right! Let me give an example, using a couple of Agatha Christie’s characters.

Tommy Beresford comes up to London from the country village where he and Tuppence are currently residing. Since Tuppence is staying in the village to keep an eye on the suspected German Spy, Tommy decides to stay at his club.

A room is available, so he leaves his bags, then goes down to the bar. There he sees an old friend, Colonel Whatsis, who also belongs to the club. Over drinks, ordered by Tommy, they discuss the ramifications of a new submarine plan. Colonel Whatsis departs and Tommy – tired from his journey – decides he’ll just dine at the club, rather than going out.

He does so. In the morning, he goes back to the club, picks up his bag and…

Here’s where my question comes in. Does Tommy owe anything more for the room, the drinks, and the dinner or is that all covered in his annual club membership fee?

ALAN: Yes, he still has to pay for his room, the drinks, and his dinner. The membership fee only gives him right of access. Everything else must be paid for. I vaguely recall reading stories of financially embarrassed members desperately playing hide and seek with angry bar managers waving overdue bills…

JANE: Right! Hmm… Especially in the case of dinner or drinks, this must have been a nightmare for the managers. If Bertie orders a whiskey and soda for himself and an orange juice for Gussie, who pays for the orange juice? Gussie, is, after all, a member and presumably can pay his own bar bill…

But I am thinking like a writer again… And I suppose it wouldn’t matter too much, since most of the members knew each other and if Gussie hit Bertie up for too many orange juices, Bertie could speak with him.

ALAN: And Bertie would have no problems with the speaking of severe words to Gussie if the occasion arose. Bertie and Gussie would certainly have known each other since their early childhood and therefore would not be at all backwards about coming forwards in such matters.

Because club members generally come from the same class, most of them would have attended the same public school and gone to the same university. And, socially speaking, their families would have mingled, mixed and inter-married for centuries. So one way of thinking of a club (particularly if it is one of the older, more hidebound and exclusive ones) is as a formal clique almost deliberately designed to exclude the hoi-polloi!

JANE: I can see why that would trouble someone who wasn’t born into that “set.” I’d like to say there’s no such thing as financial exclusion here in the democratic U.S. but, of course, there is. It takes different forms and possibly can be broken through more easily – after all, if a gentleman’s club’s rules insist you must have attended a certain school, there’s no way around that – but it exists.

ALAN: Yes, and because it is the nature of such organisations to attract movers and shakers (whether by right of birth or right of riches) it’s easy to see why these clubs have such an influence on the world at large. I’m pretty sure that something similar (though perhaps not quite so formal) must exist in most countries.

JANE: I’ve been trying to think if there is anything like the British gentleman’s clubs in the U.S. The only one I can think of off the cuff is the Skull and Bones at, I think, Yale. People always talk about that as a place where important people (including presidents) network, but I’ve never been certain if this is “for real” or conspiracy theory gossip.

ALAN: It certainly sounds like the kind of thing we’ve been discussing and it does seem to suggest that the clubs are not a purely British phenomenon. Though perhaps the British variations are more eccentric than most…

JANE: Certainly they’re quite eccentric, but when I think of the Shriners in their funny hats or what I’ve heard about Masonic lodge rituals, I don’t know if you folks have a lock on eccentricity. What you do have is a much longer tradition and one that seems designed to perpetuate those traditions – good and not so good – as long as members are willing to pay the dues.

I appreciate the clarifications… One of the difficulties about writing anything set in another culture is figuring out what “everyone knows,” so no one explains.

ALAN: I know about the Masons, we have those too. One rolled up trouser leg, funny handshakes, and far too much influence with high ranking policemen. But what on earth is a Shriner?

JANE: I honestly don’t know, except that they sponsor a circus that raises money for various charities. Maybe our readers can fill us both in. I’d be grateful!

12 Responses to “TT: How to Wield a Club”

  1. Peter Says:


    The Shriners are actually a Masonic off-shoot. I’d say that while fraternal organizations like the Masons (and specialized clubs like the Honorable Order of the Blue Goose, which most people have probably never heard of) have some surface similarities to the British-style club, the “elite” universities and colleges are probably a closer American cognate in a lot of ways.

    • janelindskold Says:

      The typo has been correct! So your comment may puzzle future readers.

      • Peter Says:

        Any day on which I both catch a tyop and confuse future generations can only be a good day. (No, I don’t think there’s anything odd about my priorities, why do you ask?)

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    Actually, the things I see as different are that the British clubs as described are basically hotels, with rooms, food, and places to hang out and conduct business. Unlike hotels, though, they have strict entrance and membership requirements, and the admittance fees probably help keep them open when there aren’t a lot of members paying for food or accommodation.

    That probably wouldn’t work in the US, at least where I live (in a city only about 150 years old). Taxes on hotel rooms are a major source of municipal income, since the voters decreed that the government had to cap the property taxes it could charge. Keeping a private, members only hotel/club open would be a huge financial and social headache, as it would basically be an underutilized hotel, where the rest of the operating expenses are paid by the membership fee, it doesn’t pay “its fair share” of room axes, but it attempts to have an undue influence on local politics by giving its wealthy members a place to hobnob, where an enterprising paparazzo can see them coming and going. Trying to get one of these up and keep it running while giving members privacy would be tricky. Doable, but I’m not sure it would last as long as some British clubs have. Speaking of which, I wonder what the newest British club is?

    Instead, we have these (cough, cough) lovely institutions called country clubs that substitute golf for the hotel, and otherwise do pretty much the same thing (and in fact, some of them do have hotels on the premises). They make extra money by serving the public and renting out their function rooms to meetings, weddings, and other events, but if you look around, there are lots of discrete places where people can hang out and have a little chat without being overheard. For various environmental reasons, I’m not a fan of golf, but people do insist on terraforming bits of the US (like, say, the Sonoran Desert in Palm Springs) to look like an abstract version of Scotland, just so they can play the sport, lack of water be damned. In its way, that’s just as peculiar as any British club ritual.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I hadn’t thought about Country Clubs, but you’re right… There are a lot of similarities. When you consider the really weird looking clothing some people wear to play golf, there’s another overlap!

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        And, for places where year-round golf requires bright orange balls, there are the various “winter” clubs, many of which are as exclusive as a high-end country club. Here, for example we have the Granite Club, and the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club. Those who follow skating will probably have heard of the TCSC: Brian Orser is Director of Skating, Yuna Kim trained there and Javier Fernandez is among the world-class skaters who still do. The quality of staff at the Granite Club – and the fee level – is suggested by the fact that it’s where Patrick Chan first trained. The Granite in particular is winter home to a lot of moving and shaking.

  3. Louis Robinson Says:

    Never heard of the Reform Act of 1832… the mind boggles! I guess our schools were better than I thought.

    The Great Reform Act was the first stage in turning Parliament into a true representative assembly. It eliminated the rotten boroughs and gave seats to all the cities that didn’t exist when Eddy 1th mounted the throne of England. Actually, come to think of it, I don’t believe there had been any significant changes to the list of Royal Boroughs since Edward the Confessor, never mind Edward Longshanks.

    It was a key step in turning the Supremacy of Parliament into the supremacy of the Commons, which was why it was so bitterly opposed for many years.

    IIRC, the Reform Club was also a major force in the repeal of the Corn Laws and other measures that turned the UK into the first modern economy.

  4. Chad Merkley Says:

    Okay, so about the Traveller’s Club and spherical geometry. If we consider a direct line, 500 miles long from London, passing through the interior of the earth to another point on the surface (making a chord of a circle), we can then compare that distance from that point along the perimeter of the circle back to London, and see how far off the Traveler’s were.

    I drew an arc of a circle, and two radii, separated by the known length of the chord. Wolfram Alpha tells me the average radius of the earth is 3956.4567 miles. If we bisect the chord, we’ve created a right triangle with known sides of 250 miles and 3956.whatever miles. A little bit of trig gives the angle as 3.6227 degrees, so the full angle from one end of the chord to the other is twice that: 7.2454. Divide by 360, multiply by 2 times pi times the radius, we get the arc length defined by the endpoints of this chord with a length of 500 miles.

    So at last, we can see how much those Traveler’s were cheating. Were they admitting people who shouldn’t have gotten in? Were they and their flat-earth measurements excluding those who should have been admitted? I’m assuming that their “straight line distance” meant surface travel–or along the perimeter of the circle. So by calculations, the actual surface travel distance needed to be 500 miles in a straight line from London is (drum roll, please)…500.329 miles.

    The rules as Alan described them state eligibility is open “those people who have travelled out of the British islands to a distance of at least 500 miles from London in a direct line.” It doesn’t say they have to have traveled that straight line, just to be at that distance by whatever route. So honestly, I don’t think anyone really cares that they should have been making people go an extra third of a mile or not (that’s about 530 meters, for metric people)

    Besides, what maps were they using? Did they have a list of specific addresses in certain cities that you had to go past? Or was the 500 mile thing just the written rule, while the unwritten rules were about “real travelers”? Would someone who had proof that they’d gone exactly 500 miles be sponsored? Or would it more like someone who’d just returned from India?

    Adding in air travel and altitude wouldn’t change things much, as commercial flights are only about 5 to 7 miles up. Space travel would be a different story.

    The 500 mile from London cutoff means Paris doesn’t count, but Marseilles does. Copenhagen counts, but not the west coast of Denmark. Berlin, Dresden or Munich all look good, as does the southern half of Switzerland. The Orkney Islands are more 500 miles from London, but I don’t think they count because they’re part of the British Isles. I’m unclear about places like the Shetlands and Saint Kilda.

    By the way, I did the math in the middle of the night while suffering from insomnia. I make no strong claims as to the accuracy of my maths or the rationality of anything else I’ve written here. Hopefully, now that I’ve figured this out I can go to sleep.

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      Actually, I think you’re off by .004% 😉

      I was thinking maybe I should discuss this with the OED. Turns out the Traveller’s used ‘direct line’ quite deliberately, doubtless to avoid rules-lawyering. Direct isn’t simply straight, it’s also “undeviating in course; not circuitous or crooked” As the crow flies, IOW. Which is pretty clearly what they meant, they just didn’t want to say anything so… ummm… let’s say rustic.

      • CBI Says:

        Hmm. “Undeviating in course” also changes things. While 500 mi due south would only have the error associated with the earth’s surface, 500 mi due east (undeviating) would leave one a bit over a tenth of a mile short of 500 mi were one following a great circle route. 🙂

  5. janelindskold Says:

    I love the intensity of these responses!

    And if I ever do that story, now I’ll have Chad’s calculations.

    • Chad Merkley Says:

      If you do, remember that the earth is not a perfect sphere–it’s bigger around the equator than around the poles. I used the average radius in my math. Therefore, exactly 500 miles from London would vary depending on direction. I would expect that this difference is only on the order of a few hundred yards, but I’m not going to try and calculate that (I’m not even quite sure where to start). Of course now, with GPS and Google Earth and all that, figuring out your exact distance from a certain point isn’t difficult.

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