Port and Leather Armchairs: A Journey Through London’s Clubland
This is ‘book’ 5 in the series The Impossible Books of Keith Kahn-Harris. The cover was created by Gus Condeixa. For more on this series, read the introduction here.
What sort of book is it?
An unashamedly personal travelogue, with some reflections on class, power and politics thrown in.
How likely is it that I will write the book?
I’d certainly love to immerse myself in London’s clubland and I guess that this book is probably the only way I’d ever do it. Still, I doubt it’s going to be a priority any time soon.
Am I happy for anyone else to write the book?
I’m surprised that no one has. This book is in the same territory. I’d be happy to read ‘my’ book if someone else writes it, although I would be a little jealous.
The traditional London gentleman’s club has always held a guilty fascination for me. I devour scenes set in such places in nineteenth and early twentieth century fiction, I linger over conspiratorial clubland conversations in English spy novels, I pour over Wikipedia entries on the gentleman’s clubs of London. I picture myself in comfortable old age, ensconced in a newspaper next to the fire in the library of my club, glass of port in hand. Like Phileas Fogg, the fact of whose membership of the Reform Club is the beginning and end of his biography at the start of Around The World in Eighty Days, I yearn to be known by my own clubland address.
Or do I really?
People like me don’t tend to join gentleman’s clubs. Left-liberal intellectual Jews with feminist pretentions and a penchant for extreme metal music, do not seem to be obvious candidates for the Reform, Travellers or Boodle’s. Middle class to the core I may be, but I am no establishment figure and I rebel against wearing the suit and tie obligatory in most clubs of this kind. Besides, what on earth would I do there? It’s not as though I need a place to stay after attending sessions of the House of Lords during the week while the wife, children and governess remain at my country estate, nor do I need to have discreet conversations with the head of MI6.
Yet the fascination lingers. I have had the opportunity to visit the National Liberal Club, the Caledonian and Brooks and they are strange, evocative places. For all that many clubs like these now accept women and their membership is drawn as much from the new financial elite rather than the old establishment, they are still radiate a sense of restrained ease, a distinctly British kind of patrician Gemütlichkeit. Clubland seems inviting, cosy and discreetly welcoming, even as I know it remains a bastion of exclusion. In an odd way, I even feel more at home in the traditional gentleman’s club than I do in some of its more modern equivalents. Having visited Soho House and other such havens for the newer and brasher media and hi-tech establishment, I felt much more of an outsider in such places despite being somewhat closer to their ideal class of person than I am to that of the old-style club.
I am the opposite of Groucho Marx: I am attracted to any club that would not want me as a member. The frisson of attraction and repulsion that I feel when I am somewhere in which I don’t quite fit is addictive. It’s the desire for this feeling that will propel me on the journey I intend to take in Port and Leather Armchairs.
The premise of the book is a simple one: I will try and visit every one of London’s gentleman’s clubs, from the Alpine to White’s. To do so, I will need invitations, which will prove an interesting challenge and a way of getting to know the clubland milieu. For some clubs, such as the Special Forces Club, getting an invitation will mean travelling way outside of my comfort zone. At each club I will seek to hear the stories, soak up the atmosphere, eat the smoked salmon and imbibe the house port (hopefully in a leather armchair in front of a roaring fire).
An impossible challenge? Maybe. But the journey will be an education. I want to know whether the traditional clubland culture is alive and well, whether it is a last redoubt of the old establishment or a base for the new, whether it is an anachronism or still oddly relevant. And I want to know where I fit in. What does it mean to be a Jewish lefty intellectual in clubland? Where am I in today’s British class system? Is my fantasy of clubland a fantasy that could never be, or might there be a club that is right for me?