Tradition and the Club

THE club — I am not here referring to those hermaphroditic organizations whose members play outdoor games — is, in its best tradition, distinctly an antisocial institution. Englishmen invented the club and brought it to perfection. Arnold Bennett, in his novel, Buried Alive, described a London club — reputed to be the famous Athenæum — with illuminating pen. He pictured a venerable, smoke-encrusted mansion with vast, high-ceilinged rooms into which only a little light ever filtered, where bishops, deans, scholars, and statesmen sat in huge upholstered chairs, drowsing and nodding over the Times. No strangers were ever admitted; no one spoke above a whisper; the ancient servants flitted about among the shadows and were only slightly more wraith-like than the members. This was, I have always thought, a perfect picture of what a club should be, a fortress impregnable to the outer world.

The ideal club should be a refuge, a retreat to which a man could go and feel obliged to speak to no one. In business hours he must put up with various social contacts; in his home he is supposed to observe the ordinary amenities of family life, speak amiably to wife and children, smile at their humors, forbear growding at the food and the cook. But between office and home there is the club. Within its sacred portals one should be permitted to be one’s natural self: keep his hat on if he so desires, meet the eye of a fellow member and glance away with indifference, stare stonily through the window without being considered a misanthrope, snore in the library, criticize the menu and the chef, and write venomous letters to the House Committee. Ah, what a solace to the day’s pin pricks those letters to the House Committee of one’s club!

Years ago I became a member of a club that had considerable antisocial tradition to recommend it. True, we had few bishops and no statesmen on our roll, but there were plenty of members who bore themselves as if they were such. Laughter, of course, was taboo; the doorman set the keynote of impeccable solemnity; no one ever talked shop; the elders had their favorite chairs — like Major Pendennis — in the dining room, and no one else dared to occupy them; the library was a dormitory in spite of the dignified admonition displayed on each table that ‘Perfect Silence Is Requested.’ In far rooms members played cards or billiards, but even there voices were muted and the click of ball on ball had a soothing, semi-sepulchral tone.

But a change came over the face of the land, and the tone of my club altered. By degrees — almost imperceptible at first — it was lured from the straight and narrow path of its austere tradition. The dining rooms were painted a brighter hue, and members began to talk more gayly. The common rooms were spruced up, and telephones and running water were installed in every bedroom. The pace of life was becoming accelerated outside the club doors, and some of that insidious passion for change — camouflaged under the name of improvement — was being communicated to our pristine fortress.

The club must keep step with the times: that was the slogan, forgetting that the raison d’être of a club is to provide a refuge where ‘the times’ might be forgotten. Ancient candelabra were removed, radio sets were installed, a Stock Exchange ticker appeared in the alcove by the cigar stand.

The club hearkened to sirenic voices and found them dulcet. Some of the younger members debated the desirability of a ladies’ dining room, squash tennis courts, a swimming pool. Sunday afternoon concerts were inaugurated and Club Nights, so that forsooth the membership might get together and come to know each other better!

How far we were straying in the nineteentwenties from the tradition of a club as an antisocial institution!

A few of us made resistance to these innovations. But to what avail, when the passion for ‘improvement’ was in the air? Our clubhouse, it was said, was antiquated; pride dictated that we should build another, bigger, better, brighter. The members who had installed the Stock Exchange ticker busied themselves with plans by which we might finance a new house more in keeping with their grandiose dreams.

We built that new house. It was an Aladdin’s palace, not a club. It towered eighteen stories and was honeycombed with elevators. There was a wing for ladies, where the wives and sisters and cousins of members might lunch and dine. There were two floors of squash courts with a gallery for spectators, shower baths, and dressing rooms. There was a marbletiled swimming pool, a solarium, a Turkishbath department; there were rooms devoted to massage, violet-ray treatments, and electric cabinets. One might eat in half-a-dozen restaurants and in each have his ears assaulted by loud laughter and cheery greetings flung across the room.

A club? It was a hotel, grand, imperial. No one felt inclined to slumber in the ornate and brightly illuminated library. No member had his favorite chair, his special waiter. Ladies might invite him to join them at their tables or in their lounge, and he could not excuse himself on the score of distance. To growl among such magnificence was not good form; and why write letters to a House Committee that was swollen with pride at its handiwork?

Well, again a change came over the land. Aladdin’s palace was a dream, and like a dream it commenced to dissolve. The dues of the club had to be increased, and the membership began to falter. The bright young men had glibly said that the new building might at a pinch be converted into an apartment house, but apartment houses were now a drug on the market. What the future holds for that club I do not know. Only yesterday I sent in my resignation.

Yet possibly the disjointed times may confer a benefit on those who still yearn for the good old club of tradition. Such men may find an ancient house on a side street that can be bought at a bargain price. They might furnish it with comfortable, secondhand chairs, engage antiquated servants who limp and shuffle, provide a dim-lit library where members can sleep and a menu over which one can in all good conscience cavil. In such a place the times — bad or good — may be disregarded, and a man be allowed to brood at ease and speak to no one. The thought has its fascinations. I myself am hankering for some such cave where a crusty Anglo-Saxon may be as antisocial as he damn well likes.