“Tell them I’ll be at the Club.”

May 28, 2009 at 4:05 am (Uncategorized)

It was my father-in-law’s birthday yesterday, and he and K, my mother-in-law, opted to stay overnight and have the celebratory dinner at “the Club.” This is the Union, University and Schools Club, one of those old fashioned, wonderfully anachronistic institutions of an all but bygone era. Despite the fact that they didn’t always admit women, and still get a bit snippy about the dress code, I can’t help it: I love the Club. 

I’ve had a thing about private clubs since I was a child. Specifically gentlemen’s clubs, which is pretty funny considering they’d never let me darken their door. I am completely besotted with everything from the heavy artwork in gilded frames to the silver water jugs made dewy with ice. The library at the Club is my ideal room fantasy brought vividly to life. I find the entire place enchanting. They still hand out menus in the restaurant that only list prices for men. Ladies, don’t you know, must not be troubled with such details – although we’re evidently robust enough to clear the three flights of stairs necessary to reach our one and only restroom. A bit passive aggressive of the old boys, don’t you think? 

K and P told me a great story yesterday of staying in one of these clubs with reciprocal rights while in London one year. K descended the stairs dressed very smartly in a matching trouser suit. A turbaned, liveried Indian greeted her at the door to the dining room and said, “Was Madam wishing to take breakfast in the dining room?” Well, yes, K said, Madam was. The man bobbed his turban as he gave K a careful once-over, and then he looked up and enquired politely, “And where was Madam’s skirt?”

And I think it’s the sheer pomposity that appeals to me. It’s so outrageous. Preposterous on just about every level I know. So completely paused in time. There’s this great hushed silence to the Club that is the closest thing I know to actual time travel. The walls at the top of the stairs on the second floor are covered with the profiles of all these men – cameos, black cut-outs against a white background, and they’re fantastic, I so badly want to pinch the one of the big fat cat in a penguin suit with a stogie jutting from his fat lips. These cameos delight me, they tickle me, they’re part of my deep Club Love. 

It’s the sort of place that makes its own melba toasts. And they serve things like Gruyere souffle, which is what I had for entree last night. Then I had a parmesan crusted veal scallopini for main. Ginger pudding with marmalade ice-cream, complete with a slab of honeycomb that could do double service as an ice-pick, for dessert. Other people had things like duck legs, and chocolate fondant. I mean, you just don’t see a meal like that every day. Even the food seemed straight out of something by Oscar Wilde. And meanwhile, all the men were shifting uncomfortably at table. 

“What is it?” I said to Llew. 

“I’m really warm,” he whispered.

“Well, take off your tie, for god’s sake.”

Llew glanced around the room and then leaned across the table. 

“I can’t,” he said.

Still not understanding, I said, “No wonder you’re steaming. You’re still wearing your jacket. Take it off.”

Llew looked exasperated. Sometimes I’m not altogether clued in.

“I can’t,” he said again.

My turn to look around, and finally the penny dropped. Every man in the room was wearing a jacket and tie. They’re not allowed to remove them. All part of maintaining the gorgeous, rarefied absurdity that is the Club’s especial domain. Wonderful.



  1. Grad said,

    What a wonderful meal! What a wonderous place! There is something to be said for formality; for traditions kept; for the proper way to do things. Granted, not particularly suited for everyday use, but fabulous for the not-so-everyday. Oh, did Madam ever get to eat breakfast without Madam’s skirt?

  2. Lilian Nattel said,

    I love your description. A holdover from another time. Nice to visit, & I wouldn’t want to live there!

  3. doctordi said,

    Grad, Lilian, I’m with you. It makes for a sensational, otherworldly outing, far from the madding crowd, but you couldn’t honestly LIVE like that! And no, Madam was returned to Madam’s room and changed into Madam’s skirt before admission to breakfast was granted.

  4. litlove said,

    I was going to write that I’d never been in a gentlemans’ club, and then I thought, oh hang on a minute, I do work at Cambridge University and there is really no difference as far as I can see. We’re served lunch by a butler in a wood-panelled room, y’know.

  5. Pete said,

    Love the descriptions and I can definitely relate since my dad was a member of the City and Civil Service Club before it closed down. When I met him for lunch there one day I had to borrow a jacket and tie from a waiter! And they have the exactly the same thing with the menus – those for the ladies don’t have prices. (Pretty sure that the ladies’ rest-rooms are up a few flights of stairs as well.) The Cricket Club was pretty similar and of course they had the Long Room, to which no women were allowed. My date made a point of kicking up a huge fuss about it, while I squirmed and said, “It’s just not done.”

  6. davidrochester said,

    Marvelous. My wealthy relatives in Canada belong to a similar club, and I am similarly amazed by it when I visit.

    I think this will amuse you … in the novel I am writing, which takes place in 1885 London, the main character belongs to a ludicrously exclusive club which commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar every year by launching a spun-sugar replica of the H.M.S “Victory” on a chased-silver tub of rum punch. There is also a rumor circulated that the damask tablecloths at this club are woven by blind virgins in a convent, but he will neither confirm nor deny this urban myth.

  7. doctordi said,

    Okay, Litlove, a butler serves your lunch?! Are you kidding? That’s fantastic! in 2009! Fabulous.

    Pete, I think these clubs are near-identical the world over. I remember when I was at college in Canada, my roommate and friend, who was strenuously growing her leg hair at the time, launched a loud, impassioned protest against a gentleman’s club in Victoria or Vancouver, I can’t remember which, for banning female students from leaving via the front door after a planned performance with the boys (the college puts on an annual show each year and performs it around the traps). I remember feeling confused, because while always someone dedicated to promoting the rights of women, I just couldn’t muster any hostility toward the club. The romantic lure was just too strong, although it contradicts so much of what I believe.

    David, you’re so right. This amuses me *greatly*. I can’t wait to read it. I have no doubt, none at all, that this sort of establishment is your fictive realm par excellence.

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