Friday, 22 August 2014

Pure English

In my last post I mentioned a letter about London clubs that my husband tore out of the UK Daily Telegraph some years ago. It is something that could only have been written for, about and by the English. The study of nuance is what underpins the class system in England, I think. The finely honed skills needed to detect all the subtle differences between each gradation on the social table cannot, I suspect, ever be mastered fully by foreigners - thank heavens:

To the Daily Telegraph

It was charitable of your leader writer to accept Iain Duncan Smith's convoluted justification for his decision to decline membership of the Carlton Club while remaining a member of the all-male Beefsteak. I can't help wondering if there might be a simpler explanation.

Put crudely, membership of the Beefsteak is infinitely harder to obtain - and therefore more desirable - than that of the Carlton. The former is in clubland's Division One; the latter at the bottom of Division Two. Clubs are terrifyingly snobbish places in their relations with one another. No one disputes that Division One is headed by White's, followed by (in no particular order) Brooks's, Pratt's and Boodle's. The ethos of these clubs is that of the threadbare aristocracy and country gentry: the uniform is an exquisitely cut Huntsman suit that has gone shiny at the elbows.

The Beefsteak, like the Garrick, does not quite conform to this stereotype; but it counts as Division One because its members are so distinguished, and the waiting list correspondingly long. Division Two is headed by the Athenaeum, followed by the Travellers, the Carlton and (just) the Reform. It is a world of pomposity, pinstripe suits and business cards heavily inscribed with professional qualifications. Division Three consists of a melancholy tranche of clubs that advertise for members and that, as a result, attract self-selecting bores in bow ties. Anyone who has visited the Oxford and Cambridge, East India or Savile clubs will know what I mean.

By one of those little ironies so typical of the English class sytem, it is these last clubs that tend to make the most noise about clubland. If you hear a claret-faced fogey boasting about "my club", the chances are he is a Division Three man. And Duncan Smith? He may be clever and amiable, but he is also starchy and straitlaced: quintessentially Division Two.

Andrew McBride, London

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