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Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Behind Closed Doors by Seth Alexander Thévoz review – entertaining study of London private members’ clubs | History books

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The revelation that the Tory MP Chris Pincher disgraced himself in the Carlton Club – that bastion of Conservative exclusivity – has shone the spotlight on the secretive world of London members’ clubs. Anyone who has walked past the hulking Victorian edifices of privilege that lurk in St James’ Street and Pall Mall will have their own opinions about the desirability of our elected representatives spending their leisure time drinking and dining among their peers in them.

Popular imagination places their membership somewhere between Phileas Fogg, gaily heading off from the Reform Club to traverse the world in 80 days, and, well, the likes of Pincher. But in Behind Closed Doors, a lively and comprehensive study of London clubs, Seth Alexander Thévoz offers a barrage of statistics that may suggest that their heyday has long since passed. We discover that nine out of 10 “traditional” establishments have gone bankrupt over the past century and that the 40 or so clubs that survive today do so because they tend to boast a distinctive culture or identity, whether their appeal is to actors (the Garrick), the armed forces (the In and Out Club) or, of course, Conservative MPs.

Once inside their imposing doors, sternly guarded by porters, members find themselves immersed in quaint, centuries-old traditions that are indebted in equal parts to Oxbridge colleges and Alice in Wonderland. Many boast coffee rooms that do not (primarily) serve coffee, smoking rooms in which you cannot smoke and, in one case, a silence room that had to be scrapped because members refused to be quiet in it.

The first acknowledged London institution, White’s, opened in 1693, although Thévoz describes it simply as “a successful coffee shop with a gambling room around the back”. Private meeting places came to prominence in the Georgian era – “[they] were rapidly finding themselves the pre-eminent social networks of their day” – and then achieved critical mass in Victorian times. Two world wars, a change in social demographics and the rise of a new, hipper breed of clubs mean, however, that the traditional institutions now seem an anachronistic relic.

This does not suggest that they hold no appeal to a certain kind of man. (There were once 50 clubs appealing exclusively to women; now there is one, the University Women’s Club.) Thévoz notes the incongruity between the ostentatious appearance of these establishments, both externally and internally, and their all-pervasive obsession with secrecy; this is best summed up by the society institution Boodle’s’ maxim that “the club has never sought public attention”. Would that the same could be said of its members. Thévoz briskly observes that “clubs had no shortage of cads and bounders”, with the apt qualifier that “politicians could be the most rum characters of all”. At least one club allowed its clientele to veto prospective new members with a ballot paper containing three options: “Yes”, “No” and “Good God, no”.

Thévoz’s book is at its best when it covers the “eccentricities” of this world. Clubland is, after all, a place where a sign can read “members are asked not to bring their mistresses to dine at the club, unless they are the wives of other members”. Nowhere, he claims, “did bacchanal self-indulgence find greater and more deplorable scope than in the clubs”. It is at its weakest when shifting from droll observance to attempting to make sweeping socioeconomic observations, many of which fail to convince; Thévoz’s claim that early clubs dealt in a kind of “aristocratic protosocialism” feels unlikely. There is, perhaps inevitably, a great deal of repetition between chapters; at times, reading this feels like ploughing through a laundry list of defunct establishments with names such as the Victory Services Club and the Westminster Reform Club.

Yet longueurs aside, this remains an entertainingly readable and well-researched glimpse into a world that fewer and fewer choose to be a part of, and perhaps rightly so. The chastened Pincher and those of his ilk should have heeded the Duke of Wellington’s advice: “Never write a letter to your mistress and never join the Carlton Club.”

  • Behind Closed Doors: The Secret Life of London Private Members’ Clubs by Seth Alexander Thévoz is published by Robinson (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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