Reader, have you ever been inside a London club?

I do not mean a jazz club, or a nightclub, or a golf club. I refer to those pillared edifices on Pall Mall whose names are so blatantly not blazoned on their façades. These are the venerable “Gentlemen’s Clubs” of London, founded two centuries ago to provide men of a certain social standing with a cloistered sanctum in which to congregate, to converse, and to carouse.

Often, as I have passed from Green Park to Trafalgar Square and surveyed their magnificently stony frontages, I have felt a yearning curiosity to discover what lay within. I never thought myself fated to find out. Last year, however, I discovered that membership in a small and impecunious Scottish institution for writers and artists, by a fluke of second-cousinship, would grant me access to the haughty havens of St James’s. Now, with all the enthusiasm of a new arrival in a strange land, I would like to show you around.

Aptly, the most dramatic entrance of any London club belongs to the Garrick, haunt of actors and writers, which stands amongst theaters, a brief stroll from grubby Leicester Square. To enter it is to be surrounded by a gallery of smiling ghosts. The walls are crowded with oil paintings of celebrated actors, actresses, and playwrights of the 18th and 19th centuries. As you ascend the stairs, Melpomene, the muse of tragedy, towers at full length above you. You can ogle the Victorian pin-up Henry Erskine Johnston, who smoulders in a plaid, with bare biceps, and looks rather like the modern Scottish screen star James McAvoy. All around the green room (aptly, it is green) you catch the lively eyes, flamboyant gestures, and colorful costumes of performers who are now eternally resting, though you sense that most of them would make a comeback given half a chance.

At the head of the stairs are cabinets of theatrical relics: the fan given by Madame Vestris to her dresser, Henry Irving’s keychain, which terminates in a Japanese mask. You pass, then, into the Morning Room, where the 18th-century actor and impresario David Garrick himself (attired in a pink tunic and trousers with gold braid and a blue fur-lined cape, holding a spear) presides from head to toe over the mantelpiece, upon which sail two silver galleons accompanied by silver dolphins. In such a theatrical environment, it is very difficult to resist the temptation to pose. Even the Ladies’ Cloakroom—a blue boudoir of mirrors and sofas, with an audience of ladies, playing roles from The Provok’d Wife to The Fair Penitent—encourages you, while applying lipstick, to practice a smouldering look towards the stalls.

Hierarchy is important here. The candlelit dining room has a central table and satellite tables: Diners will know where they stand by where they sit. Recent applicants for membership who have been blackballed include Jeremy Paxman, a famous political journalist. The Garrick is also one of a handful of old London clubs where women are admitted only as guests. It is like a superannuated actor of the old school: grand, flamboyant, entertaining, but also jealous of its privileges and apt to cherish its favorites and punish its enemies. It relishes its own controversy.

The majority of old London clubs consist of a Morning Room, in which one can read newspapers and drink coffee; a splendid Dining Room, in which lunch and dinner are taken; a billiard room, a library, and a bar. There are often other reception rooms and bedrooms for the accommodation of out-of-town members, but the essential business of a club revolves around the leather chair in which, now as then, a member can rest undisturbed in the perusal of current affairs, or chat with his peers while consuming reasonably priced food and drink.

For the best lamb cutlet and the best library, you should visit the Reform Club, an elegant example of 19th-century neoclassicism founded to bring together supporters of the Reform Act of 1832, which extended the vote to the British middle classes. It now admits members of all political stripes who consider themselves “reformers.” Stepping into the light-filled, rectangular atrium, you look up towards a leaded-glass cupola. If you stand on the eight-pointed star in the middle of the marble floor, you may feel as if you are inside a Victorian musical box and should pirouette on one leg to the tune of “Rule Britannia.” Around you are wine-colored carpets, dark wood, and portraits of earnest Victorian politicians, clutching speeches and bills. It is on this compass that the famous bet is made in Jules Verne’s novel about whether or not it is possible to go Around the World in Eighty Days.

The light and spacious galleries and the long, book-lined rooms, with their busts of Churchill and political cartoons, serve to emphasize that this is a club that prizes intellectual debate. I attended a meeting of the Reading Group, where each member had read at least one (and often several) books on the agreed topic, “The Literature of Africa,” and gave a synopsis and appraisal. To add zest to the digest, the chef had devised a clever menu on an African theme with South African wines. Both the discussion and the degustation were impressive.

The Reform has had a reputation for its cuisine since its flamboyant Victorian chef, Alexis Soyer, who enjoyed preparing outrageous feasts but was also sufficiently interested in cheap nutrition to accompany Florence Nightingale to the Crimea to explore ways of feeding the troops and patients more effectively. Club food in general is traditional, substantial, and unfussy. But the Reform takes an amusingly sidelong approach to this remit. They do not serve fish and chips, but they do offer Guinness-battered haddock goujons, French fries, peas, and sorrel mayonnaise. You might finish with a gin and tonic jelly. I did—and it slipped down, both sharp and sweet: a literal parting shot.

For an academic, working in the Study Room at the Reform Club feels naughtily pleasurable. A bell will still summon a butler with a toasted teacake and a dry sherry. It is a library with booze: a sedate speakeasy all the more luxurious for its tranquility. Headed notepaper and inkstands wait for you to dash off a poem. Henry James looks down from the wall, ready to add a superfluous clause to your sentences while you contemplate the garden. There is also a full-time librarian, who can aid your research.

I read about clubs, discovering that they are largely a British and American phenomenon: Other European nations developed few social clubs in the 18th and 19th centuries. Perhaps they had less need of them. The British, living in a highly stratified society, created enclaves that both reflected divisions—of class, politics, and gender—and enabled meetings that otherwise would not have happened. One 18th-century club included 16 members who had been born in London and 39 who had originated elsewhere. An important function of clubs has always been to integrate those from outside the social heartland into the metropolis.

To experience a London club at its most international, it is fascinating to visit the Royal Automobile Club—also on Pall Mall, but with a wholly different atmosphere. Where the Reform Club’s interior is the color of morocco bindings with gold inlay (like the Houses of Parliament, which Charles Barry also designed), the RAC is racing blue. It resembles an early 20th-century hotel: bright and unapologetically sumptuous, with a colorful round carpet in the foyer representing the RAC’s signature dial, on which a luxury car is sometimes parked. Doormen in blue jackets and top hats wave you upstairs to a cocktail bar, where a waiter will instantly ply you with gargantuan olives, nuts, and potato chips. You can try the signature “Gloom Raiser” or a “London Sky,” which is made of London blue gin shaken with lavender, fresh lemon juice, cranberry juice, and crème de violette. A syllabub of a cocktail, it is a fetching lilac, which bears no resemblance to the London sky unless you are under the influence of hallucinogens. It may, however, make you see stars.

In the basement is a swimming pool with Egyptian columns, which would grace a Busby Berkeley musical with 50 girls in blue bathing suits forming an imaginary driver’s wheel. There are also squash courts and Turkish baths. Vast banquet rooms, a lounge of Corinthian splendor with tableaux of exotic birds, and a billiards room with five tables exemplify the scale. With 16,000 members—10 times the number of many other clubs—the RAC is the America to its neighbors’ Liechtenstein. Slightly brash (it has computers in the library) and openly expensive, it nonetheless ticks many of the boxes that younger professionals look for in a club: They can work there, and they can work out there.

This may be one reason why London clubs are surviving in the modern world. No longer dominated by artists, aristocrats, and intellectuals, clubs—more central, economical, and exclusive than hotels—have become meeting rooms and conference facilities for businesspeople. The Oxford English Dictionary gives 1980 as the first use of “network” as a verb meaning “to engage in social or professional ‘networking.’ ” Two years later, “network” was first used meaning “to link computers together to allow the sharing of data.” Of course, people have always networked; but it is the Google-eyed self-consciousness of our time that has given all social interactions a professional dimension, and vice versa.

Gone is the spirit of Bertie Wooster’s Drones Club, where if you wanted to attract a chap’s attention you simply “heave a piece of bread at him.” Food fights were once normal. One clubman of the prewar era was accused of throwing a boar’s head at a peer of the realm, which had knocked him into the fireplace. The member denied the charge, exclaiming, “Nonsense. .  .  . I’ve thrown nothing but jelly all evening.”

Now, if you want to experience bohemian behavior that goes beyond tippling, there is only one London club I can reliably recommend: the Chelsea Arts Club. Where most of the Pall Mall clubs are palaces, the Chelsea Arts Club is a den. Near the King’s Road, where 1960s rock stars and models flaunted their flares, it is small, with a mansard roof, a garden with a gazebo, and stripy deck chairs where you can flirt, fight, forgive, and forget. The billiard table, which bears the legend “no glasses, no cigarettes, no diving in at the shallow end,” is not relegated to a separate room here: It is at the heart of the club, by the bar, surrounded by sculptures, nudes, drinkers, and the ginger club cat: Squeak. I suggested to Gary Morgan, a seventysomething artist who has been a member for 50 years, that the colorful nature of billiards must appeal to artists: his red trousers, the green baize, and red balls made a striking composition. “How do you know what color my balls are?” he twinkled. “We’ve only just met.”

Punches are sometimes thrown across the billiards table on a Friday night. But the prevailing spirit is fun. Morgan explained to me that painting in a studio is a very solitary life: “Having another place to come saves artists from themselves.” As Max Beerbohm put it, a club is more than a home: It is “a refuge from many homes.” Here making eye contact is not threatening; noise levels allow chat; cell phones and computers are banned.

A club is a place where people can go to escape, but still belong; where they do not have to explain themselves; where there is always a free table, and no waiter is wondering if they would like to order, or to leave. Bertie Wooster’s friend Bingo announces gleefully, “[This club] is the eel’s eyebrows.” I haven’t found a worthy heir to P. G. Wodehouse’s epithet. But there is life in the old clubs yet. Showing me the billiard table on which Edward VII once took his mistresses, one member of the Reform Club winked: “That sort of thing isn’t usual these days. Then again, if the door’s closed, it’s always best to knock.”

Sara Lodge, a senior lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews, is the author of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth Century Poetry: Work, Play, and Politics.

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