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Christmas Chronicles of Clubland: on the meaning of obligation - Wemyss's Appalling Hobby:
From the Party Guilty of Committing 'Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn'
Christmas Chronicles of Clubland: on the meaning of obligation

Rather early on in Advent-tide – yet late enough that the bitterness of the winter was already predictable, and in places evident and present, and the Great Freeze readily foreseen – my Uncle George rang up, as uncles will. (Some readers may recall Uncle George for having said, of a recent jaunt to France, ‘Surprisingly pleasant people, really, and a decent bit of country, taking one thing with another. The only disappointment … well. The food.  Very French.’)

I quite like Uncle George, who, quite as much as his brother my father might have been played by Geoffrey Palmer, himself resembles an elderly Simon Callow. I have grown to tolerate his wife, my Aunt Caroline, a more equine, thin, and raucously raddled iteration of the type epitomised by HRH the duchess of Cornwall. I am fond of my cousins, the Terrors of Lake: Anne, who wed the Irish hearty Michaeleen Og, and has issue in Young Matthew; Mary, tweedily sensible, downright, close-cropped and tart-tongued, spinster of that parish; James, a potterer, far too youthful for his years, a confirmed bachelor with a dilettante’s interest in rural and traditional crafts and arts (and, though we do not speak of it, well-muscled young artisans and craftsmen); and young Richard, bluff, sensible, manly, and a bit thick, who is likely to be Anne’s only rival in the procreative stakes.

I like, I repeat, Uncle George, and my cousins, and even Caroline (well enough). This does not mean I care to stop with them for Christmas, or have them stop with me.

Nevertheless, Uncle George, as in duty bound (for which read ‘in mortal fear of Aunt Caroline’), extended the invitation. ‘Now, if you do stop with us, you want to know we’ve a guest.’ (It is Uncle George’s maxim that he wishes, as much as possible, to know nothing whatever of his children’s private lives, in which I think him wise.) ‘Tall, well-set-up young fellow, with curly hair. Stopping with James, you see. He’s – well, not homeless, you know, in the usual sense – he’s at some university of sorts – well, his parents, ah, he’s quarrelled, I suppose, with them, at any rate he can’t stop there for Christmas, and James has rather taken him in, y’ might say … so, if you were to pop ’round for Christmas, you’ll not want to ask about that, or mention his people, or, well, anything, really, you see.’

‘I shall be sorry to miss making his acquaintance,’ said I, firmly. Uncle George’s relief was perfectly noticeable, which is a tribute to BT technology. ‘I suppose I may well do so on a later occasion.’ Uncle George was noncommittal in reply. ‘I hope I may,’ said I, perhaps mischievously; ‘nevertheless, I really must meet some other obligations, you know.’

‘Oh, quite,’ said Uncle George, in unfeigned relief.


I do not profess to be a particularly sociable sort of man. Be that as it may, I am a member of some clubs. Yet when I speak and write of ‘my club’, I commonly mean that certain club which runs largely to lawyers and actors – two species I maintain to be all but interchangeable – and literary chaps, musicians, and a few emissaries from the second and scientific of CP Snow’s two cultures. And of that club there is a particularly roguish, rascally, rackety, and rapscallion ad hoc subset – of which I am, necessarily and inevitably, a member – which yearly celebrates Christmas with a luncheon under the auspices of Robin Goodfellow, he of Pook’s Hill, that saucy fellow. For decades – beginning well before I left school – it has met and caroused, and for decades – beginning even in my University days – I have met and caroused with my fellows.

This mayn’t seem to you like an obligation. Read on.

The Club, as such, is traditionally rather peripatetic, having shared quarters over the years with far more sober and august clubs, and subsisting, so far as rooms for Country Members are concerned, upon the charity of such clubs that kindly allow such motley vagrants as we to have a bed when wanted. In consequence of this roving character, the food is commonly streets ahead of that in the sober and augustly respectable clubs, as it is carefully chosen and contracted for at actual (whisper it) restaurants. Club luncheons therefore are not the common or garden club lunches of school-dinners-with-Lunch-Bags.

Robin Goodfellow’s men, however, are not the Club, nor are we all of us of the Club. One function that the Christmas luncheon serves is to introduce potential new members to the Club quâ Club – and to weed out the Not Quite Suitable. (Before the clamour drowns me out, let me say that the subscription is reasonable, side and snobbery are frowned upon, and, most importantly, that the one, and it may be the only, thing we’ll not accept is a bore.)

Thus far, I realise, this sounds more an indulgence than an obligation. Possess yourselves in patience.

The traditions of Robin Goodfellow’s men are a distillation of those of the Club, including barracking and sledging and brutal wit that should leave the sledging in the Ashes simply standing. The secretary, so far as we have one, of our club-within-a-club, the truly savage Landor, is a master of this craft, as befits his position upon the wigged-and-gowned side of things in daily life.

The tariff of our puckish annual luncheon is steep, far different to the reasonableness of the Club itself.

The luncheon itself is traditionally rich, and the Pomerol and Margaux flow in a lapping tide.

How, you will ask, is this an obligation, in fulfilment of which a Country Member is willing to forego his pleasures and endure a miserable journey up to Town?

We People of the Hills, Robin Goodfellow’s men, are, I repeat, a rackety lot, by no means all of us members of the Club itself, and we are not all friends by any means. I, certainly, have introduced to Robinhood some fine fellows; I have equally endured the guestly presence of others who’ll never pass into membership of the parent Club, which tolerates any man save a bore.

I have in my years provided entrée for young and likely lads who, in the fullness of time, quite likely shall join the Club, and who ad interim are encouraged in their works, from the Bar to the arts.

Yet this is not our justification.

Even the bores serve a function: they mayn’t ever be allowed into the paradisal portals of the Club itself as members, yet they also are given mutual aid and encouragement. Take – oh, let’s call him young PR Hallam Scott, which he prefers (and I, naturally, call him simply, ‘Scott’). He is a young barrister, thrusting, pushy, and devoid of any social sense. There are moments when I quite like him. There are moments – nine in ten – when I loathe him to a degree I cannot express. To paraphrase Bevin on Bevan, to those who assert him to be his own worst enemy, my response is always, Not whilst I’m alive. Part of this is that he spent most of his formative years abroad – his father, a decent enough chap by all accounts, was a minor FCO functionary – and simply hasn’t learnt the unspoken rules, which even we reprobates of Puck’s affinity, who claim we haven’t any rules, adhere to. (His young wife, Lebanese-born, is a lovely young woman, of whom I am quite fond.)

Partly, also, it is that he is a sort of failed doppelganger of mine. Scale me up a size and a half, bow my shoulders to roundness, transform me from basso to tenor, darken my colouring all-’round, regress my age by a decade and a half, shift my politics to the hard Left, make me loudly allergic to religion, halve my intellect, and pile on two stone too many, and you’ve Hallam Scott. But that he knows Chloe-and-Olivia, I should never have been reconciled to his presence, since two Christmases ago: there is a limit even to my willingness in helping lame dogs over stiles.

It is not, therefore, simply the pleasure of seeing old friends that drove me to go up to Town.

Yet of course, I did see old friends. Belmont-Wild, with whom I was at school – indeed, he was in my house, and we are arcades ambo, friends of long standing – managed to attend after some years of absence, he having been immured in Town by the press of lobby business and the deteriorating weather (I am glad to say he managed to find a train homewards and shan’t miss Christmas with his wife, who disapproves me, and his sons, who do not). Moody was there, with his shaven head – I see no point in surrendering to baldness, but, then, I’m not Moody – and his great buggerly beard: savage old Landor warned him, as he warns him yearly, that someday he’ll be banged up on suss as being a Salafist terror-imam. To his credit, Hallam Scott had, under my auspices (lame dogs and stiles), brought a potential new recruit, another white-wig, Tristram Clare, a compact ginger with a fascinatingly ugly face and the body of a cunningly-miniaturised Apollo; he’s clever with it, and bids fair to go far.

I had brought a new member, although a very senior man, Todhunter-Leigh, a resplendent ornament of the British film industry (typically, Hallam Scott was naïvely bewildered to find that Todhunter-Leigh is, if anything, a trifle to my Right-wards, politically, the callow Hallam Scott having a callow conception of the films world).

Landor was there, savage as ever; Clewer and Christie snarked merrily as they got through an astonishing amount of claret; ffinch-Teffont was properly inscrutable, as a writer of detective stories ought by rights to be. Ogbourne, that Tory Wet and Provincial Statesman from my own country, Chloe’s father, was absent: Chloe-and-Olivia had dragged him securely away to Sanremo a fortnight prior, and wisely: since Christmas last, Ogbourne has lost the sight of one eye, much of his acuity, and, in May, his wife. His Honour Judge Farquharson, the baby-faced assassin, did not attend, nor did that witty fellow More-Tolliver, nor yet did Ward-Plunkett the public school jazzman: the weather has much to answer for.

We sledged and barracked in the most traditional form.

‘Worried you’ll be marooned in civilisation, Wemyss, or simply totting up what’s left in the bottle?’

‘No, I’m concerned about Harriet in this weather.’


‘Harman,’ interjected Belmont-Wild.

Really?’ Hallam Scott was astounded.

‘She’s a ginger Tamworth.’

‘Wemyss once had a boar he named “Boothby” – tried to mount everything.’

‘And one that wouldn’t mount anything. Named him for Ted Heath.’

We discussed everything under the sun, from the Coalition to the inevitable failure of Roman sumptuary laws (that was Todhunter-Leigh, curiously enough). We told tales upon one another – Belmont-Wild remembers Every Bloody Scrape into which I ever got as a schoolboy, and Landor is at his most savagely hilarious when he recalls the misadventures of Ogbourne.

We toasted absent friends: old Frost, who died ten days prior, never again to sit lumpishly at one end, looking like nothing so much as the aging Bismarck as played by Curt Juergens, spilling soup down his tie and interjecting caustic witticisms; my dear old friend, Edwin Savernake, dead these ten months, sleeping now in a Vale of Pewsey churchyard. And we told their tales anew, with fondness.

Yet these pieties also, obligations though they be, might have been performed, these shades honoured and these libations poured, without our coming up to Town or spending three hours at table.

In what way, then, did I discharge an obligation by lunching well and drinking deep? What was served by my determination to be present, if I were the only Country Member to do so? What drove me, beyond my own pleasure, to a journey upon which one was ever anticipating the train guard’s murmuring, ‘I am just going outside, and may be some time’?

This, then: that amidst the partridge and lamb, the duck and the Dover sole, the beefsteaks and the venison, the creamed spinach and asparagus and parsnips and spuds, the cheese and the pudding and the crumble, the claret and the port, Good was done.

Artists and writers consulted with judges and barristers and senior solicitors over charitable foundations. Young men with little entrée were assessed for engagement they might otherwise never approach – on condition that they volunteer in charitable work. Accounting was made of the work of charity over the twelvemonth past, new charities were chosen, appeals were made and appeals were met, assignments for service to the poor were chosen for the year to come. And that very steep tariff I attributed to the meal – a tariff adjusted to the means of the newer guests, I may add – paid for far more than an admittedly lavish nosh. After all was totted up and all those who wanted paying were paid, we cleared £3600 for our charities from this one luncheon, which I think rather good for fifteen men in a bitter winter, with guests and members prevented by weather and the younger guests being asked very little in the way of super-contribution over the cost of the meal. More pertinently, that is perhaps a tenth, if that, of our direct contributions over a year, and our indirect aid, in our various fields, to our pet charities and appeals is several times that figure.

And I avoided any prospect of Christmas with Uncle George and his lot, to boot.

Wherefore, by Oak, Ash, and Thorn, I defend Robin Goodfellow and his rackety followers:

To gather Gold
At the world’s end
I am sent. 

It is not given
For goods or gear,
But for The Thing.

A happy Christmas, then, to all of you in God’s grace.


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59 comments or Leave a comment
femmequixotic From: femmequixotic Date: December 24th, 2010 05:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
Pity about James, ah, Potterer. He sounds quite (cough) interesting. Still, best to escape Christmas with certain family members, I say.

And you named a pig after Harriet? Oh, dearest. *shakes head and laughs* You're terrible, and yet oh so amusing. I do think perhaps I'd like to hear a few more tales Belmont-Wild might tell on you.

I'm sorry about the losses you've had over the year--Chloe's mum and Savernake and Frost--2010 has been a painful year.

Still, I'm glad it's drawing to a happier close for you, and that you were able to make it to London to spend time with wine, laughter and old friends.

Much love, my dearest, and a happy Christmas to you and yours, and may there be glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: December 24th, 2010 05:37 pm (UTC) (Link)

Amen to that.

I should add, firstly, that there's a super-injunction with Belmont-Wild's name on it should it be wanted, and, secondly, that Heath the Pig lived in deathly fear of the best farm-cat I ever had, a lustrous-maned, vocal, imperious foe of all vermin, who had already been named, inevitably, Moggie Thatcher.
femmequixotic From: femmequixotic Date: December 24th, 2010 05:56 pm (UTC) (Link)

I don't suppose...

that Belmont-Wild is bribable? :D Ah, pity. I suspect there are some highly amusing stories hidden away.

And poor Heath! I can't help but feel a bit of woe for him and his namesake. They never had a chance, now did they? (I am quite taken with your habit of naming animals after politicians though. Most of mine have ended up with rather literary names, I'm afraid, and it's most annoying when you're twenty-two to discover you're actually not the only person who thought of naming a cat Brontë.)
wemyss From: wemyss Date: December 24th, 2010 06:02 pm (UTC) (Link)

He quite likely is, actually.

And how in buggery can one NOT name pigs for politicians?
being_here From: being_here Date: December 24th, 2010 05:41 pm (UTC) (Link)
Do those of us who are beyond the reach of God's grace get a share in the happiness of Christmas?

I think my biggest regret about the gender that I was born into is that it excludes me from clubs where I could read a paper and smoke a pipe. Of course my upbringing would probably exclude me regardless of my gender.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: December 24th, 2010 05:45 pm (UTC) (Link)

No one is beyond the reach of Grace.

In fact, Dr Grace will hit you for six, bowl how you may.

And don't repine: thanks to ZaNuLabour, one can hardly get by with smoking in the bloody smoking-rooms these days.

Happy Christmas - to ALL.
being_here From: being_here Date: December 24th, 2010 05:57 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: No one is beyond the reach of Grace.

To be fair, I don't think one can completely blame new labour. Politics is full of interchangeable gobshites these days, more interested in soundbites than policies, all keen to erase the subtleties of life.

I never used to feel beyond the reach of grace you know, but this past year I feel very isolated from it.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: December 24th, 2010 06:03 pm (UTC) (Link)

We all experience that long, dark tea-time of the soul.

Feelings are subjective. Facts are objective.

I cling to that, often.

And I see you've twigged to what's wrong with politicians, of all parties - and why I name pigs for them.
noeon From: noeon Date: December 24th, 2010 05:49 pm (UTC) (Link)
Your conversation with Uncle George should be a Christmas classic. *still laughing*

The events of the luncheon appear to exceed the tag of boring self-indulgence and venture into actual good done. And rather a bit of skewering, not just the roast.

Happy Christmas, dear one, and may the season and the next year bring you joy.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: December 24th, 2010 05:54 pm (UTC) (Link)

And to you, m'dear.

George is, well, George.
noeon From: noeon Date: December 24th, 2010 06:07 pm (UTC) (Link)

Rustic amusements

James the Potterer also sounds quite something.

a confirmed bachelor with a dilettante’s interest in rural and traditional crafts and arts (and, though we do not speak of it, well-muscled young artisans and craftsmen).

Edited at 2010-12-24 06:08 pm (UTC)
wemyss From: wemyss Date: December 24th, 2010 06:09 pm (UTC) (Link)

We're an interestin' family.

Vide icon.
noeon From: noeon Date: December 24th, 2010 06:52 pm (UTC) (Link)

Vide la vida

steepholm From: steepholm Date: December 24th, 2010 07:15 pm (UTC) (Link)
With a host of furious fancies
Whereof I am commander,
With a burning spear and a horse of air,
To the wilderness I wander.
By a knight of ghostes and shadowes
I summon'd am to tourney
Ten leagues beyond the wild world's end.
Methinks it is no journey.

I'm glad you made it back safely - and compliments of the season!
wemyss From: wemyss Date: December 24th, 2010 08:44 pm (UTC) (Link)

Not quite so bedlamite, really.

Although as a description of Southern and of FGW, it is apt.

Happy Christmas.
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