July 29, 2011 10:03 pm

Done with discrimination? Join the club

It’s a certain type of masochism to want to join a group that doesn’t want you

Some time ago the British National Party lost a racial discrimination ruling and was ordered to open its doors to non-whites. That’s right; a big BNP welcome was available to anyone who fancied hanging out with crypto-fascists and sieg-heiling thickos. Hilarious as this was, the question that obsessed me was why any object of BNP scorn would wish to join their ranks.

The same thought came to mind this week with the news that national treasure Joanna Lumley may make a bid for full membership of the Garrick Club, home to some of Britain’s most articulate and cultured misogynists. One of Britain’s most venerable men-only clubs, you get a better class at the Garrick and it’s certainly far less raucous than other gentlemen’s establishments like, say, Spearmint Rhino.

For years the Garrick has held out against allowing women members and only recently granted female guests access to certain areas, presumably those where the club keeps its legendary porn stash (I’m sure there’s no truth to the rumour that it has every issue of Razzle magazine since 1867, including the scandalous Lillie Langtry centre-spread made available only to committee members on special occasions like the anniversary of Emily Davison’s death).

No doubt there are good reasons to join the Garrick: an affection for the blended beauty of its salmon and avocado ties; a love of steam pudding; a desire to bump into Jeremy Paxman in the gents. Or perhaps you’ve outgrown the Bacardi and Coke lifestyle of the Groucho club and need a new base camp from which to begin the next social climb?

But has Joanna thought this through? Of course, it is admirable to challenge discrimination at the heart of the establishment, but if she wins she’ll have to join the beastly place and take her seat at the hallowed centre table and chat with some self-regarding cove who used to be someone 20 years ago. Groucho Marx famously did not want to join any club that would have him as a member. But it’s a certain type of masochism to want to join a club that doesn’t want you.

Of course, such characterisations are unfair. There are lots of perfectly interesting people who don’t hate women at the Garrick. There is even a significant body of members who would like to open the club fully to both sexes and are actually uncomfortable about the existing discrimination, though not uncomfortable enough to leave. These fine fellows acquit themselves of the prejudice of their co-members because they only joined a club that discriminates against half the population, they don’t actually support the idea. Look, I’m sure they are super guys – I’m just glad we didn’t have to rely on them during the civil rights era.

But listen, will come the retort. The Garrick doesn’t hate women. It loves women. It’s just that women members would “change the character” of the club. They’d talk about periods and network in a vulgar way. It’s a worry; after all when the club first admitted black men, the halls were doubtless littered with new members standing around in chains singing “Old Man River”.

Joanna’s challenge does present the club with something of a problem, however. In the first place all members would acknowledge that she is a fine filly who would grace any establishment. She’s witty, charming, interesting and a decision to refuse her would also make the club look like, well, the kind of place it is.

Ironically, members have long been expecting this. A committee member once told me the real problem was that the members’ wives would no longer trust their husbands to spend vast hours there. This was particularly true, he added, of older gents. A London club is a haven for semi-retired types who fancy a bit of conversation and need somewhere to hang out between appointments. It wasn’t that women were objectionable, it was that wives would not like the idea of their husbands “whiling away their lunch hour chatting up Joanna Lumley”.

So be warned Joanna. All right-thinking people support you, but if you do win there are several hundred Viagra-popping members just waiting to meet you.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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