Leave the old buffers to their club — the Garrick is fun

A piece in yesterday’s Times:

I’m an ardent feminist but I love this haven of good manners and quiet elegance, says Hilary Rose
They must be spluttering into their G&Ts at the Garrick after the news that a female lingerie entrepreneur wants to smash the pannelled ceiling and become a member. The venerable gentlemen’s club, founded in 1831 and housed in a vast Victorian mansion in the middle of Covent Garden, central London, has so far resisted all attempts to admit women as members. Now Emily Bendell is hoping that equality legislation will end what she calls its “discriminatory policy”, which she claims is unlawful. In the past many male members have voted to admit women to the club, but the two-thirds majority required has not been reached. Are the shades of Garrick Street to be thus polluted?

“Women,” Bendell says, “are only able to access the club’s services as second-class citizens on the whim of a man, who has to both invite and pay for them.”

And therein lies the rub. When I first went to the Garrick, 20 or so years ago, it made me furious. Proper, shouty furious. Why couldn’t I go to the bar to buy my own drink? Why did I have to rely on a man to pay? Why could I go in this room but not that room? Why did my menu not have prices on it, but my male companion’s did? Lady’s powder room? Seriously? Add in that the food wasn’t up to much, and for years I refused to go.

Time passed. I grew older. I went back. And you know what? It’s fun. It’s different. Inside there are liveried porters and an astonishing art collection stacked up to the ceiling in every room. There are leather armchairs and strong G&Ts, attentive uniformed waiters and good food. There is dark polished wood, gilded picture frames and antique mahogany tables. Boldly venturing into commercialism, there’s a waiting list to buy Garrick facemasks in the club’s signature salmon-pink and turquoise stripe.

A friend went to a dinner there this year and found herself talking to a smartly turned-out gentleman of about 102. He asked why she shared the same surname as her father. Nonplussed for a moment, the penny eventually dropped. “I’ve never married,” she told him. “Goodness,” he replied, smiling broadly at her 21st-century daring, “how refreshing!” She didn’t have the heart to tell him that even if she had married, she wouldn’t have changed her surname. “He’d have marked me out as a dangerous subversive before we’d even finished our starters.”

The members are mostly an urbane selection of journalists, actors and lawyers with a smattering of politicians and silver foxes. And of all the venues in London, all of the places that my friends and I could go, it’s an invitation to the Garrick that most of them covet.

I know, I know, there’s a feminist principle at stake, but I get much more agitated about the gender pay gap and misogyny in the workplace. Those are holding back far more women than 1,400 genial old buffers snoring gently on Garrick Street. And why does everyone pick on the Garrick? There are six other men-only private members’ clubs in London, including Brook’s and White’s, but it’s always the Garrick that gets the criticism.

What harm is there, really? If they want their private gentlemen’s clubs, let them have their gentlemen’s clubs. There are plenty of men’s clubs that now admit women and plenty of female-only clubs, including Grace Belgravia, founded to give women the networking opportunities men have enjoyed at their clubs.

I’m not sure what networking opportunities Bendell, a lingerie entrepreneur, thinks she might find among the Garrick’s membership, or at least ones that don’t give them a heart attack, but good luck to her. Say what you will about the Garrick, but they all have impeccable manners. If she does march up to the bar as a member and demand a G&T, they will be delighted to show her the art collection and point her in the direction of the lady’s powder room.

The Garrick is old-school, and private, and it isn’t doing anyone any harm. In time, no doubt, new and younger members will shake things up a bit. For now it’s an oasis of calm in a frenetic part of a frenetic city. If I have to go in the company of an older man and if someone wants to fetch me my drink, well, frankly, so much the better.

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