The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

Clubs are British institution

Category: Customs + Festivals

The club is a decidedly British institution. It is the sense of a club which is the most obvious feature of the House of Commons. The parliamentarians continue their ritual — dawdling in from the lobby, bowing to the Speaker, exchanging whispers, and speaking as if they were addressing not a nation but a room. The members, though mostly very ordinary people, assume the heightened manner of a club — the affectation of an older, more confident generation. Members love talking about “The House’ as if it were a person — moody, headstrong and feminine. “The House won’t stand being lectured, you know,’’ said one of them, “she hates to be treated like a fool’’.

Apart from Parliament — often called the Best Club in town — no other institution has become more utterly representative of a certain aspect of the British way of life than the club. There exist school clubs and college clubs, political clubs and cultural clubs, town clubs and country clubs. There are sports clubs of all sorts including yacht clubs and driving clubs and the Pony Club with a membership of 77,000. There are numerous Shakespeare clubs which appeared as the predecessors of the Scottish groups celebrating their “Nichts wi’ Burns’’ and of Dickensian Fellowships. There are. more than 820 “official’’ music clubs and societies belonging to the National Federation of Music Societies. With the folk revival in the late fifties folk clubs began to develop on a large scale, the main catalyst being the political and cultural ferment among the contemporary young.

In London Clubland is concentrated in the palatial houses in and around St James’s Street and Pall Mall. Boodles, Brooks’s, the Athenaeum, the Reform, the Travellers, St James’s, the Garrick, the Carlton, the Union, Bucks, the Turf, the Saville and the Savage, that unique Bohemian haven for artists and writers, are but a handful of distinguished Metropolitan clubs.

Among the most famous clubs of London The Other Club occupies a special niche. It was founded in 1911 by Winston Churchill and has developed into a powerful pillar of what is often called the Establishment. Members of the club gather for dinner once a month when Parliament is in session and their traditional meeting place is the Pirate Room of the Savoy Hotel, for it has no premises of its own. These meetings are strictly private and uninhibited; informality and gastronomic distinction jointly reign.

The Other Club is rich in traditions, many of them attributed to Winston Churchill. At his behest, and smacking of superstition, a large wooden black cat was seated near him at dinner with a napkin tied around its neck. The name of the black cat was Kaspar. It was designed and carved from a piece of plane tree and was placed near to Winston Churchill whenever there were only thirteen at table.

Limited to fifty, the list of membership includes members of the Commons and the Lords and other prominent people. It was given the name The Other Club because it aims always to hear the other man’s point of view.

If the title of this club is odd, so were many in the past. There used to be an Everlasting Club which failed to go on for ever; the notorious Hell Fire and the Humbug; the Mug House which succumbed in disorder, and the Ugly with a taste for disfigured faces.

In every part of Scotland, and for that matter anywhere in the world where there is a handful of Scots, the birthday of Robert Burns is traditionally celebrated on the nearest day to January 25 by the Burns Dinner. It was started by a handful of Burns Clubs and gradually the cult of the Scottish bard spread all over Scotland and beyond. There are now more than 700 Burns Clubs throughout the world. The Mother Club in Greenock, Renfrew, was founded in 1802 shortly after the poet’s death.

The festive menu is almost invariably couched in the typical language of Burns, and the Haggis, Scotland’s most famous savoury, is king of the feast. It is ceremoniously paraded and served at all Burns Night celebrations. The ritual of piping in the Haggis is rigidly and fondly observed on these occasions: the skirl of the pipes heralds the approach of the Haggis borne aloft by a white-hatted chief, followed by two or more waiters forming a sort of bodyguard and brandishing bottles of whisky which should be taken neat with the dish.

The procession moves sunwise round the room and ulftimately the Haggis is deposited in front of the Chairman who displays his appreciation of the cook by pouring him an extra generous measure of Scotland’s wine.

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