Letting in women, too

SINCE prehistoric days men have used clubs to defend themselves. In the beginning they made them out of wood and hit things with them, and then, when life became more civilized, they made them out of walls and floors and leather armchairs, and went and hid in them. Most of the big London clubs started out as coffeehouses in the 18th century. These were ostensibly public establishments, but so many literary lights, so many Boswells, Drydens, Addisons, and Popes favored them, that the ordinary man in the street became shy and stayed away. So the coffeehouse keepers, anxious about their dwindling trade, set aside a room for the eggheads, and from there it was an easy step to the formation of a club.

Although nowadays few men pretend they are going to their clubs to read literary masterpieces out loud to fellow members, they still insist, if pressed, that they meet all sorts of incredibly intelligent people there and that the interchange of ideas is so stimulating they feel like giants refreshed when they return home.

We women, although incredibly silly, as everybody knows, do not believe this for a minute. Walking down, or indeed up, St. James's Street, we have no great faith in the ideas born of those bald heads we see nodding in the windows of their elite meetinghouses. We have no illusions.

We have to face the fact that men join clubs for the sole purpose of getting away from us. That they should want to do this does, of course, defeat our comprehension, for are we not all admirable, attractive, wise, beautiful? Utterly certain that we are, it is a constant source of wonder and irritation to us that our men should wish to absent themselves so frequently from the hearth.

The trouble lies, one supposes, in the fact that at home a man always seems to be in a minority. However many sons he may have, the general impression is that he is hemmed in by women telling him to wipe his muddy shoes and to keep his greasy head off the backs of chairs. At a club he knows that, short of a revolution, no woman can penetrate into the holy of holies.

Did I say can? I meant could. For a few years ago many of the barriers started to come down, and women could be seen actually crossing the sacred thresholds on alternate Wednesdays or on the third Saturday in the month. Quite a few of these bastions of masculine apartheid found they could no longer make the proverbial ends meet without slicing off a portion of their premises for the use of members and their ``ladies''; and although women's lib claimed this as a victory over prejudice, the sad truth is that it was obvious to all but the most wishful thinker that if there had been any choice in the matter we should still be barred the gate.

This was made blatantly evident by the rooms allotted us. These were usually the club's hastily converted basements, chilly, dark, and looking onto blank walls. To reach them we teetered down steep stone steps and in by the back door, our member escorts, who were giving us lunch there, coming in by the front door and strolling through the beautiful rooms designed by Robert Adam or the Wyatt brothers to join us.

Still, we did not complain. We were at least on the premises, and who knows but that in a decade or two we might worm our way from the back to the front and might, with our appalled menfolk, be slithering about on those shiny leather chairs under the Van de Veldes and the Hondecoeters, and eating that scrumptious apple tart we heard so much about.

And this is what has happened. The other day I found myself dining in my late father's club, my table being set directly beneath the Zoffany he had bequeathed to this institituion and on which I had not set eyes for 40 years.

So yes, we can claim almost total victory (there are still little pockets of resistance here and there but they will soon be mopped up, no doubt); a 98 percent infiltration into the enemy's camp. Let us, therefore, rejoice exceedingly. Always provided, of course, that we want to consolidate our gains by actually using men's clubs. For what we forget to take into account is the fact that Englishwomen, unlike their cousins across the Atlantic, are not very clubable creatures.

Either because we have long been instilled with the idea that clubs are places where men go to get away from us, or because we are not by nature gregarious, our clubs never seem to prosper. Or at any rate do not look as though they were prospering. The few women's clubs I have visited have always struck me as being solely for the purpose of parking luggage and powdering the nose between journeys, places of expediency rather than pleasure, with each member a stranger to all other members, sitting in a corner waiting for something, usually an aged aunt, to happen.

Even women's luncheon clubs, which start out with the intention of promoting intelligent conversation over a quick plate of Spaghetti Bolognese, have a way of drifting into oblivion, the numbers getting less and less until soon only the founder, the treasurer, and the treasurer's mother are left to bury the corpse.

We are touchingly confident, however, that English men's clubs are different. Perhaps they are. We shall see. They certainly serve delicious rice pudding.

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