A Club That’d Have Me As A Member (but only since 2002)
My best outings on this project so far have been at others’ request (Silchester and Vyne Street), but tonight I made a request. My dad’s been a member of the Athenaeum Club (founder members include Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin. Do you think they ever got each other’s mail?) for a long time now but I’ve never visited so tonight I got him to take me there for dinner.
It was pretty much exactly what you’d expect. The kind of meal where they spoon out your carrots onto your plate for you rather than letting you do it yourself, and the menu has no prices on it. There was a newspaper lectern in the main hallway with the Telegraph on one side and, for those who prefer something more left wing, the Times on the other side. They only started admitting women in 2002 (apparently because the head of MI5 has been a member of the Athenaeum for more than a century and when Stella Rimington was appointed they decided to reconsider their position on women).
You’re not supposed to take pictures inside, but just for you I sneaked my camera in and was very discreet. This is the main hall. Doesn’t this statue (allegedly of a woman) look like a man with some afterthought boobs stuck on? And given that this area was ‘gentlemen only’ for 180 years, does that exposed breast count as ‘entertainment for gentlemen’?
Over dinner, my father and I discussed why we both feel driven to gain acceptance to elitist institutions like this one (and Oxford University, and the Orthodox Jewish world, and many others) even while we continue to criticise them. Or perhaps, why we feel driven to criticise these institutions even while we remain, to some extent, members.
It’s a peculiar compulsion. Not quite the self-loathing implicit in “I don’t want to belong to any club that’d have me as a member”* but something more principled, I like to think. There are always two sides to every story. No line of argument is above criticism. A club can be worth belonging to but still benefit from healthy criticism. It’s very Jewish, really: the idea of “an argument for the sake of heaven” which is a vigorous discussion that leads us closer to truth. Accept nothing, question everything. I have my father to thank for this attitude: I question liberal orthodoxies as much as conservative ones – it makes for a difficult life in some ways, but always an interesting one.
*Of course Groucho Marx was really talking about the antisemitism of the time which meant that, as a Jew, he couldn’t join any of the prestigious golf clubs.