The Garrick Club in London is preparing for a bitter struggle over whether to admit women members. How long can the British establishment fend off modernity? The broadcaster Jeremy Paxman was leaning back on a low sofa, chatting with a young man in this context, young means under Michael Gove, the Conservative chief whip, was surrounded by a small cluster of men. After a while, Paxman stood up to say hello to Gove; they talked for a moment, laughing.
Shortly after, everyone — among them a former warden of Wadham College, Oxford, and a senior adviser to the government on privatisation — made their way out of the bar for lunch. Members who arrive by themselves gravitate to this central table. On that Tuesday, the head of the table, reserved for the oldest member of the club, was occupied by a venerable-looking individual with long grey hair and a white beard.
Along the table were 10 other men whiteall in suits darkthe most youthful perhaps in his mids, their grey he bent together in conversation. But that could all change this summer. Beneath the grand staircase in the entrance hall, a collection of leather armchairs is arranged around a fireplace, where sleepy-looking men go for a rest.
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Pinned to a board in this private area are details of a motion by the lawyer and former Labour MP Bob Marshall-Andrews, proposing that women should be allowed to the club. Those favouring admitting women are more instantly recognisable — the actors Stephen Fry and Hugh Bonneville, Michael Gove, journalists and broadcasters.
Their professions suggest gentlemen of a certain age. A two-thirds majority is required for change to be approved. Members of the nearby clubs value their unchanging atmosphere. Until the midth century, there was little question of women being admitted to these clubs, since, on the whole, there were almost no women in the professional and artistic fields from which members were drawn.
Time, gentlemen: when will the last all-male clubs admit women?
Slowly, over recent decades, a few have begun to allow women in — the Reform Club inthe Athenaeum inthe Carlton Club in Many of these decisions were commercial — with rapidly ageing membership, new female blood helps bring in vital funds. A few remain unrepentant about their men-only status. Only at private lunches — women are allowed then — as we do the lunches on a different floor.
Still, the question of reform does surface from time to time. The motion was, however, firmly rejected. Yet the issue refused to go adult. London following year, Anthony Layden, then chairman of the Travellers Club, and a former ambassador to Libya and Morocco, proposed a consultation on the wider question of whether women should be admitted as members.
In Aprilclub canvassing responses from almost members, he delivered his 8,word report. Many of the candid responses he received reveal a dislike of women and unease in their company. The efforts of a minority group to persuade fellow members to admit women to the Garrick have so far been futile and painful.
The broadcaster Melvyn Bragg and the writer John Mortimer tried, and failed, to influence fellow members. If I were to ask for leave to go to the Garrick with the chaps and chappesses it would not be granted.
They thought it was hilarious. But intwo women were nominated as prospective members: the actress Joanna Lumley, by Hugh Bonneville ; and the arts broadcaster Lucinda Lambton, by her husband and former editor of the Sunday Telegraph, Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, and the economist and diplomat Peter Jay.
The decision was that the spirit of the rules would be breached, and that the status quo should be maintained. The club was very divided. It was really as if some crime had been committed. It was a terrible battle. Needless to say in the end, the lawyers said it was unlawful. Worsthorne and Lambton spoke to me by telephone from their house in the country, noisily correcting each other, passing the receiver from one to the other to add extra details.
Can you believe it? It is perplexing. Very, very odd. Worsthorne was also bruised by the experience. I had friends who had backed Lucy, just to be friendly to Lucy and me — and ed in our favour. They said they were treated with such rudeness by some other members, who would harangue them with anger and indignation as if they had let the side down. But I enjoy a fracas. Women are no longer uninteresting as professional comrades. It makes no sense to keep them out. There is growing hostility among women in the legal profession towards a club that welcomes so many male QCs and judges, but excludes women.
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Members protest strenuously that they glean no professional advantage from membership. However, a senior female QC, who did not wish to be named, told me that she was irritated by the continued male-only nature of the club. She pointed out that male colleagues went from court to club, whereas female lawyers of her ranking had no time for clubs even if they were invited to because they went directly home, to look after the children.
In Octoberone north London magistrate, Jo Arden, decided to take action. And yet there is a complete double standard when it comes to women. She believes that the Garrick remains an influential institution. When the last Labour government drafted the Equality Act, there was some discussion of how the legislation could be used to make these clubs illegal, but this proved impossible. The legislation settled on banning clubs from excluding people on the basis of colour, but allowed them to continue rejecting women. Politically it was a disappointment.
As club as men are still the power brokers, having exclusive clubs just for them is going to boost that position adult and again; if you allow men to recruit to their own private clubs they can continue to share that power amongst themselves, or not to share it. The appearance of new equalities legislation did make it illegal for the Garrick to make some areas of the club off limits to women.
It is now illegal for the club to dictate that seats at the central table are just for men. London worked — you rarely see a woman at that table.
Those who enjoy this privileged company are not necessarily conscious that it is exclusive. For many of the members I spoke to, affection for their clubs was often rooted in a sense of nostalgia for their schooldays, with their communal dining and narrow membership base. When I go into the Garrick I feel the whole weight of the world is lifted off my shoulders.
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A few members of these clubs will admit that membership has been a useful gateway to influential people. Members, serene with the self-confidence of entitlement, cheerfully rub along. Modern West End clubs have nothing at all to do with real life in Britain in the 21st century. They have such wonderful staff. One is treated like family. Everybody trusts each other totally.
Hardly any of us live in stately homes any more, but this is as near as one gets, in terms of having relationships over decades with very nice staff. Every time I sit having lunch in the dining room, I think of those leaders lunching in that same room years ago. One loves that — the weight of tradition.
If peculiar, quirky old men choose to spend time in the company of each other, so be it.
He acknowledged that the clubs he visits are almost uniformly white in their membership. You occasionally see a black or brown face as a guest — but very few people of other races are members.
Ann Widdecombe, the former Conservative prisons ministerwho was the first female member of the Carlton Club in when it changed its rules, dismissed the suggestion that all-male clubs are unfair. Feminism to me is going out there and competing with men on equal terms. Among those Garrick Club members in favour of reform there is some anxiety about whether they will garner enough votes for the required two-thirds majority in June.
Melvyn Bragg, who backs women members, said it was more likely now than in that the vote would go in favour. There has been a sea change in all sorts of things and I think the sea change will come through the doors of the Garrick. I would be in favour of it changing tomorrow.
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Even if the Garrick votes to admit women, it will be some time before they are able to in any : there is a seven-year waiting list and a current member has to die before a new one can. Still, time marches on: a board by the entrance to the dining room displays numerous typed death notices. Follow the Long Read on Twitter: gdnlongread. The long read UK news. Time, gentlemen: when will the last all-male clubs admit women? The Travellers Club in Pall Mall recently debated and then rejected the idea of allowing women to. Amelia Gentleman.