I missed a chance to dine again at Brooks’s Club, where I had not been for years. A stomach bug kept me from “the Other Place,“ then from Brooks’s. After putting in a partial refund for the train at redspottedhanky.com and topping up my Oyster card for cheaper bus and underground tickets, I finally went out again.
The British Gentleman’s Club may be under siege from frustrated feminists (even my own club has gone “mixed”), but some, like the glorious Garrick Club, simply ignore them. The feminists have a problem as well; passing laws to rid the world of all-male or all-female organizations would have unpleasant consequences for their organizations, too.
I like “mixed” clubs, like my Parisian Aunt’s elegant club on the Faubourg Saint-Honoré, but I also like single-sex clubs. I am sure men and women club differently, and while I see the political benefits of a club, I also see the political benefits of golf. Ask our Presidents. However, I am not going to “spoil” a putative “good walk” for political reasons, nor join a club.
There might be good political reasons for a male to attempt to join the Junior Service League of St. Augustine or the Palatka Woman’s Club, but I discourage it. Of course, I realize it would be almost impossible to keep some clubs all male. After Lady Thatcher became Prime Minister, it would have been difficult to give a good reason why she couldn’t join that Conservative bastion, the Carlton Club, and ascend the Grand Staircase with the other members.
I had the opportunity to lunch at the Carlton the other day, as the guest of a woman member. These clubs are very grand, and often the food is often very good. We had drinks up the Grand Staircase in the Morning Room and lunched downstairs in the Churchill Room. Lady Thatcher was much in evidence, and the large portrait of Sir Winston in the Churchill room was convincing. It was, however not as fierce as the famous Karsh photograph, “The Roaring Lion,” which makes Sir Winston look as he was about to refight World War II on his own. When he was photographed, already grumpy, Karsh simply reached over and snatched Sir Winston’s cigar from him. The result was the immortal glower that seems best to sum up the savior of Britain.
Gentlemen’s Clubs like Brooks’s and White’s, are smaller than the palatial clubs that line Pall Mall (such as the Oxford and Cambridge, the Royal Automobile Club, and the Reform). Clubs like White’s, Brooks’s, and Boodles are also older and have long waiting lists. Some clubs have bedrooms, but they all seem to have a “Coffee Room,” actually for dining, as well as sitting rooms, and, of course, a bar. Some even have good libraries. They can be lovely places to drink, eat, and congratulate oneself on one’s good fortune.
The Gentlemen’s Clubs began in coffee houses, which probably explains why we dine in a “Coffee Room.” In the 19th c. they were homes away from home for young gentlemen starting out in London, where they could have privacy, companionship, drink, and even gambling. It is said in recent times that a member’s wife calling her husband’s club would not be put through until it was discovered whether the member wanted the call, perhaps a version of the woman you just saw going into her house still being “not at home” if she didn’t want to be.
I love these clubs; I have been fortunate enough to have been in several of them, and I am a member of one of the larger ones. It is a great consolation to this American to find himself “clubbable.”
After lunch we went to the Dulwich Picture Gallery, a small but splendid collection of paintings in South London. While I enjoyed the permanent collection, we really went to see an exhibition of the watercolors of John Singer Sargent. Renowned for his portraits (he always made socialites look like themselves but even more beautiful), Sargent was also a brilliant watercolorist. There were scenes of Venice, World War I, and even a splendid tarpaulin that really caught the light in its folds expertly. For University of Florida fans, there was a Florida watercolor of several fierce alligators.
We wound up the day with a Heraldry Society reception at the College of Arms, which is responsible for genealogy and granting coats of arms to Englishmen and Welshmen as well as turning up in their playing-card tabards for Coronations, State Funerals, and the State Opening of Parliament. Garter King of Arms proclaimed the Queen Mother’s Style at her funeral, as had long been the practice in heraldic obsequies. It is a little like falling down Alice’s rabbit hole, what with Rouge Dragons and the like.
The Scots have Lord Lyon King of Arms, who takes it all even more seriously, as President Trump found out when he adopted an armorial device for one of his golf courses in Scotland. He now has a proper Scots coat of arms. The College of Arms has “Imperial Jurisdiction,” but the Scots do tend to look to Lord Lyon.
Americans of old American families have a hard time proving the right to an old British coat of arms; the Atlantic cuts across family trees and severs us from Church records and the like. However, Americans who can prove descent in the male line from a subject of the Crown can petition the Earl Marshal for an “honorary” grant, which is perfectly valid. If you want to play by British rules, it is a way to obtain a title, even if the title is only “Gentleman” (c.f. “William Shakespeare, Gent.”). Alternatively, you could be adopted by a German aristocratic family, since they have had to incorporate their titles into their surnames. Though one cannot “buy” a coat of arms, one still has to “pay the fees attendant on taking up an honour.” Ask your banker.