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Journey to Clubland

‘A place where people can go to escape, but still belong.’

Apr 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 28 • By SARA LODGE
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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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