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?
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!