Letter from London: Late Show at the Too Much Fun Club

An engraving of the Garrick Club in 1864.

There have been some very English ripples of late coming from London’s Garrick Club, the pretty much sealed-off talking shop named after 18th-century actor David Garrick. A story broke a few weeks ago listing its members — the King is a ceremonial one — including establishment figures such as Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden and Secretary of State for Levelling Up — what leveling up? — Michael Gove. The real problem was, why still only male members? ‘Equality for women is a recognized public policy objective and all those in public life should be committed to that objective,’ Labour MP Harriet Harman, drafter of the Equality Act 2010, told the Guardian. To be fair, the head of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) Richard Moore has since resigned his membership. A handful of judges now, too. But another 150 or so top barristers remain in situ, prompting the Bar Council to warn that such clubs ‘create the potential for unfair advantage’ for lawyers seeking to become judges.

Which reminds me of a sultry evening in Covent Garden thirty or so years ago, walking with the artist and a good friend living on Maiden Lane. We were about to pass the suitably grey Garrick building with its seventeen bedrooms, library, morning room, card room, billiards room, reading room and roof terrace — the computer room hadn’t been installed yet — when the artist suddenly broke step and dashed up inside, registering distaste at its desk for its men-only policy. Similarly, Advocate of the Year Dr. Charlotte Proudman posted a few days ago about the need ‘to start asking why powerful (predominantly) white men are desperate to keep women locked out’. This was accompanied by an image of leading female lawyers staging a protest in full court attire outside the Garrick’s locked gates. As Jane Austen wrote: ‘One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.’

Elitism is global, though. Definitely one of the most prepossessing clubs I have visited was the Sind Club on Fatima Jinnah Road in Karachi. This was in Pakistan in 1983. I recall standing alone in the magnificent doorway. A man in a white jacket headed towards me. ‘You’ve come back,’ he said: ‘I knew you would.’ He grabbed a menu from the mahogany counter and led me straight through, sitting me down at a neat corner table, where I hoped to read some freshly translated revolutionary Urdu poetry. As might be expected, I didn’t wish to disabuse the man of the fact I had never been there before but felt obliged to do so. ‘You are always so funny,’ he replied, making a fuss of the starched white napkin now on my lap, unconcerned I was a mere reciprocal member, before wiping away some non-existent crumbs from the tablecloth. He glanced sideways: ‘We can’t be doing your usual, sir,’ he said, ‘because of new laws. But we can be offering you a most perfect solution.’ I looked at him quizzically. ‘I believe it will be to your satisfaction, sir,’ he said. I continued to go along with it, knowing I was at his mercy anyway, a guest in his house, so to speak, eventually receiving from him an immaculate tray with a tea-pot, sugar bowl, jug, and second bowl. Disguised in the teapot however was gin. In the sugar container, ice cubes. In the large jug, tonic water. A freshly sliced lemon was in the second bowl. ‘Welcome back,’ he said, withdrawing backwards with the tray.

Former East Berlin clubs were the most decadent. Some were so hard-core they defied description. Suffice it to say years of repression from the Wall and Soviet impertinence meant a no-holds-barred approach. I liked to think I was hoping for something more intellectual — maybe frustration over Gunter Grass, talk of the liberation of other Central and Eastern European countries, or just the legitimacy of detente — but people just wanted to talk about money. Just as the clubbable art world used to be an interesting place before it was taken over by the price of everything and value of nothing set. Ergo, artists today appear in the financial rather than arts section of the press.

I recall one club in Split in Croatia during the Balkan War. What a nasty little place that was. Not because the Croats were unpleasant, but because war is unpleasant. Not that clubs in conflict zones are always poisonous. In Kabul, I used to favor UNICA — United Nations International Community Association — until it was attacked by three Taliban who killed five UN staff, two Afghan guards, plus an Afghan civilian. I also recall a club of sorts in Aqaba during the foothills of Gulf War One, where people were able to transcend most of the problems on the ground. At the time, thousands of foreign workers were fleeing Iraq via Jordan to catch ships laid on by the Saudis. Time out, more often than not, was where peace grew best. In vino veritas, too, despite the regular midnight leaps from ridiculous heights into the Red Sea.

The list goes on, of course, and probably began for me aged 15 at a free festival in Windsor with freaks and hippies and that first love of poetry. Takoradi in Ghana, close to the Ivorian border, had the best music. Also humming were places in Strasbourg, Madrid, even a refugee-freighted Lesbos. In New York, a well known American writer sat with his head in a plate of food at Nell’s on Fourteenth Street. Someone pulled the wordsmith up by the hair to say hello to me — I didn’t like that — before slumping his face straight back down in the plate again. Didn’t Hunter S. Thompson say something about ‘Free passes to the Late Show at the Too Much Fun Club’? Regardless, I don’t go to clubs much anymore. Okay, there was a time in London when the smoking deck of the plutocratic Groucho Club was an unmissable hotbed of low-downs for me, especially when decompressing from abroad, but the last time I went to a club was with my New Yorker friend, and I was on sparkling water. He and his likeable Swiss friend were sampling the wine cellar together. At least for me this meant not waking up in Bangkok as happened to one British writer after going on the lash in London for the first time in years.

Wasn’t the European Union a club? Surely those were better days. I could film with ease and the artist could exhibit without red tape. The musicians of the family would have been able to tour without the endless paperwork of today. When this now little again country of ours was a major player in our closest neighbours’ supranational union of member states, the world took us way more seriously, for one. ‘An absolute disaster,’ as artist Anthony Gormley described Brexit to Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart last week. Now, we squeak instead of speak, claiming for example to be standing up to China, or some such codswallop, like the ‘tim’rous beastie’ in the Robert Burns poem. Some former Leavers today are like failed revolutionaries turning on their own, grabbing every incendiary issue they can — race is a particular favourite among some; especially the truly ghastly Great Replacement Theory — in order to deflect from the fact they have basically tanked the country.

Finally, not sure if the London Assembly here counts as a club but many of us will soon be voting for a new — or old — London Mayor. It was actually left to a member of the London Assembly under Boris Johnson to save the former Colony Club. Why they passed up on this, I don’t know. To be fair, it was often carnage inside, so maybe it was to save people’s lives. The latest on the far less arresting Garrick Club is that seven women in top establishment positions have been nominated to become female members. That’s if the club can finally agree to change its dreary men-only policy. To be honest, most of the women I know wouldn’t touch the Garrick Club with a bargepole anyway.

Peter Bach lives in London.