Journey to Clubland
‘A place where people can go to escape, but still belong.’
Apr 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 28 • By SARA LODGE
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.