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NEITHER SHERLOCK Holmes nor his brother Mycroft were English Clubland sorts. True, Mycroft was a Founder of the Diogenes Club, an establishment said to have “the most unsociable and unclubbable men in town.” And Holmes was known to consult with him there on occasion.
My visits to the Diogenes have been only in my imagination, aided by the chronicles of Dr. John H. Watson. However, I had a most pleasurable stay at another English club—and have been thrown out of another.
A fine book, The Gentlemen’s Clubs of London, contributes to my knowledge of the subject. In this book, we learn that the three oldest London clubs are White’s, Boodle’s and Brooks’s.
White’s was founded in 1693, a year before establishment of the Bank of England. Originally known as White’s Chocolate House, it evolved from London’s coffeehouse tradition.
White’s reputation in the 18th Century was one of exclusivity and a certain raffishness. Jonathan Swift (he, of Gulliver’s Travels) wrote that White’s was “the common rendezvous of infamous sharpers and noble cullies.”
According to Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of the Underworld, British & American, the term “cully” probably derived from the earlier English word cullion, a rascal, which in turn traces back to an obscene reference related to the Latin word culleus, bag.
Boodle’s, founded in 1762, is the second oldest London club. Author Lejeune observes, “It used to be said that, if you called out ‘Carriage for Sir John’ in the smoking room, at least a dozen members would look up.”
Brooks’s, founded in 1764, is considered to have the most elegant building among traditional London clubs. Commissioned in 1777, it retains the appearance of a small country house. As usual, you can’t please everyone and a cynic said Brooks’s was “like a Duke’s house—with the Duke lying dead upstairs.”
Countering criticism, Brooks’s was also the headquarters for a group of dandies known as the Macaronies. As in “…put a feather in his hat.” These fellows were also credited with introducing this pasta into England.
My pleasurable experience in English Clubland came through an invitation arranged by an Overseas Member of Chelsea Arts Club. As its name suggests, this club is in Chelsea, not in traditional London Clubland around St. James. Established in 1891, one of its founders was American artist James Abbot McNeil Whistler. Noteworthy among London clubs, it has been opened to women since 1966.
The Chelsea Arts Club is renowned for its beautiful garden featuring its members’ works of art.
In fact, my Expense Report for the stay records three entries identified as “rounds of drinks,” $9.20, $9.20 and $23.25, in which I had the pleasure of treating several of the artists and sculptors.
The last entry mentions “membership chat,” so things must have gone swimmingly.
Less successful, though no less memorable, was the time colleague Larry Crane and I were attending the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. We had heard that visiting Yank journalists were invited to the circuit’s exclusive British Racing Drivers’ Club, so we stepped in for a cup of tea.
We had been misinformed.
While they didn’t exactly tar-and-feather us, nor did they exhibit the warmth and camaraderie of Chelsea Arts Club. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013