London Journal, Day 2: In which I commit myself to the cause of Reform

I am joining my grandfather's club. 

Some clarification is probably needed here: my grandfather has been a member of one of the historic London clubs along Pall Mall for the last half-century.  It is one of those institutions designed to provide a bastion of dignified masculinity where nineteenth-century husbands could seek their solace during daylight hours from the pervasive femininity of the domestic sphere. It has a vast library, an excellent dining room (Thackeray, who was a member, talks about the quality of the chef - who was much in demand - in Vanity Fair), a stunning colonnaded atrium, and a vibrant intellectual life.   This etching shows the upper level of the atrium in the 1840s.  What are all those women doing there?  I really couldn't say.  Probably being saucy. 


The club was founded by the supporters of the 1832 Reform Act, who felt the need of a social space for the progressive political life of London.  When my grandfather joined in 1959, they asked him to swear his commitment to the cause of reform.  "That sounds like something I agree with," he said, "but can you tell me what exactly it means?" "It means," the chairman replied, "that you believe that the middle class should have the vote."

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the political Liberalism of the club made it a gathering place for the prominent writers of the day.  Arthur Conan Doyle was a member, as were H.G. Wells, Henry James and E. M. Forster.   Siegfried Sassoon, beloved to me not only for his own poetry, but for his central role in Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy, was a member for even longer than my grandfather.  The actor Henry Irving was (perplexingly) a member of the Reform Club, not the actor's club nearby, the Garrick, which still doesn't admit women.  (And let's not forget that Stuart, the hero of Sherry Thomas's Delicious, is a fictional member of the Reform Club.)  Gladstone belonged, as well both Churchill and Lloyd George, although the latter two resigned their memberships when a friend was blackballed.

You see, when you apply for membership, your nominators present you to the Secretary and the Chair of the club, who then enter your name in a vast book that stand in the atrium.  The other members may then sign their names in support of your application or place a black mark under your name, blackballing you.  When Andrew Carnegie applied, so the story I heard goes, the labor practices of the American industrialist were not deemed to be in keeping with the principles of reform.  He was blackballed.  But when the Chair was giving me a tour of the club, Carnegie's picture hung on the wall of a back hallway, with other notable members.  "I heard that he was blackballed," I remarked with some surprise and not a little gaucherie. "He might have been," the chair replied, "People keep trying, you know."

The Reform Club was among the first (or the first?) of the Pall Mall clubs to admit women, which it has been doing quite heartily since the early 80s.  But it only occured to us last year that perhaps I might also join.  So on my first full day in London, I got dressed up and hied myself over to the club, to present myself to the Chair and obtain my official introduction to the Club. 

I have been visiting Pall Mall with my grandfather for several decades now.  When I was little, he used to take me to the clock in the atrium, which is set daily to the naval clock in Greenwich.   There is a book, he used to tell wee Sycorax, called Around the World in Eighty Days.  In this book, the hero makes a bet with some colleagues at the club, a bet that he can't make it all the way 'round the world and back to the club in eighty days or fewer.  The time will be marked by this very clock.  Let's set our watches to it, he would say, just like they would have.

My meeting with the chair was wonderful and surreal.  He introduced me to several different members, who expressed their exuberant willingness to sign by my name in the book.  The next thing I knew I was having lunch with the chair and an arms-dealer-turned-Anglican-canon.  When, I wondered, did my life become a John le Carré novel?

As I stood by the clock this time, I thought of my grandfather back in Washington, and of Jules Verne.  I went home and plucked our copy of Around the World in Eighty Days from the shelf.  I had never read it. 

The club insinuates itself into the opening lines of the novel:
In the year 1872, No. 7 Saville Row, Burlington Gardens, the house in which Sheridan died in 1816, was occupied by Phileas Fogg, Esq.  Of the members of the Reform Club in London few, if any, were more peculiar or more specially noticed than Phileas Fodd, although he seemed to make a point of doing nothing that could draw attention.
And then it dominates the pages that immediately follow:
Phileas Fogg was a member of the Reform Club, he was nothing else.  That such a mysterious person should have been numbered among this honourable company might cause astonishment; let me say, then, that he was admitted on the recommendation of Messrs. Baring Brothers, on whom he was at liberty to draw to an extent unlimited. [...] He lunched and dined at the Club at absolutely regular hours, in the same room, at the same table; he never treated his fellow-members, never invited a stranger.  He never availed himself of those comfortable bedrooms that the Reform Club places at the disposal of its members [...] If he took walking exercise, he invariably did so with measured step on the inlaid floor of the front hall, or in the circular gallery under a dome of blue glass supported by twenty Ionic pillars of red porphyry.  Whether he dined or lunched, it was the Club's kitchens, the Club's larder, pantry, fish-stores, and dairy that supplied his table with their savoury provisions; it was the Club's waiters, solemn-faced men in dress-coats, with molleton under the soles of their shoes, who served his food on special china, upon admirable Saxony napery; it was out of the Club's matchless glasses that he drank his sherry, his port, or his claret flavoured with cinnamon and capillair; and it was the ice of the Club, imported at great expense from the American lakes, that kept his beverages in a satisfactory state of coolness.
That last luxurious detail always strikes me as particularly giggle-inducing.  They were dragging chunks of ice from Lake Michigan to London to cool the Reform Club's gin-and-tonics?

The wonderful thing about reading this edition is this: my grandfather had jotted little notes all through the margins, although this verb hardly described the cool precision of his minute characters. 

"Not quite accurate," his marginalia declare the description of the club above. "?," he writes, near a use of the word "gumption." "Right!" he exclaims when Phileas Fogg looks out over the lush gardens from his seat in the dining room.  And "Never!" when he washes down his pudding with a cup of specially mixed Reform Club tea....

2 Responses so far.

  1. Jill says:

    I am glad that your early days as a Reform Club Member are immortalized here. Perhaps when you are your grandfather's age, you can celebrate a century of family membership.

  2. When I am my grandfather's age (90), it will be 110 years of family membership!

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