Club class

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I've always found clubs intriguing, mostly because I've never belonged to one. Apart from the Pony Club, of course. This is partly because no one's ever asked me, but also because I come from a non-joining family. My grandmother was courted by the Bloomsbury Group way back when, but it didn't last long. According to family lore, she walked into one of their parties, saw two of literature's chief (male) luminaries sobbing into each other's shoulders because "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" was being played on the gramophone, turned on her heel and never went back.

Clubs are a bit of a bloke thing, an extension of the playground. Boys have gangs - like Gary Glitter. Men join clubs. They will go to extraordinary lengths to be acceptable: take up politics, play golf, work in the media, join the Army, wear ties. They need a sense of belonging, you see. A man without a club is like a woman without a bicycle. Or something like that.

Clubs are great, though, aren't they? The way the menus have remained unchanged since the 1890s and the service clings resolutely to an era when women didn't have jobs - or if they did, they jolly well kept quiet about it. As my normal eating experiences revolve around the bottle-of- red, bottle-of-white, bottle-of-water, just leave it there and we'll help ourselves arrangement, I love to watch men look at wine lists and really think about it. I love the way the waiters only take orders from the man. I love being in a place where you can actually get brown Windsor soup, and the fish of the day is always Dover sole. I love fruit salads made of apples. I love the air of opulence in austerity.

Anyway, I think I witnessed the birth of a new club the other night. The funny thing was, the chaps forming it were already in one at the time. It was one of those caves in St James's whose dining room walls are covered with portraits of nabobs. I was with my lovely father. It wasn't his club, which is down the road; we'd been fed some guff about reciprocal arrangements and closed restaurants. He was filling me in on Aberdonian scandal, and I was filling him in on the season's top nail-varnish colours.

The dining room was near-empty. To our right was a table of six, none of whom seemed to share a mother tongue. They persevered with conversation in what sounded like a mixture of Scandinavian and Malay. It was quite obvious, though, that no one was going to leap on to the table and start singing "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend". To our right was an empty table for nine.

We were tucking into smoked cod's roe with little triangles of toast, when the lads arrived. You couldn't miss them: they must have had a sporting connection, because they filled a lot of space, and were dressed in navy blazers and striped kipper ties. They all had the same haircut, as well: that straight, slightly side-parted job with the Michael York floppy lock which you only get after copious ingestion of calcium in early youth. They were obviously enjoying each other's company: there was a lot of elbowing going on, and insults flew up and down the table.

The staff scurried about, bringing plates of pate and cut-glass ashtrays. Someone offered to take my father's fish off the bone for him, but he elected to cope alone. A solitary man with a carafe chose lemon meringue pie from the trolley. As the lads swallowed their steak au poivre, Head Honcho, at the top of their table, rose to his feet, unfolding a piece of paper.

"Right," he said, "we need to agree on some rules. You've all got a photocopy of the proposed ideas. Anyone who's got any other suggestions, please follow normal debating practice."

As is customary in the debating chambers of Westminster, this statement was greeted by a burst of "r-r-r-r-rrrrs" and "wooaarghs", then everyone turned to his neighbour and started talking. Head Honcho tapped a glass with a fork and everyone ignored him. Then they all burst out laughing in unison. A beefy chap halfway down the right-hand side put his hand in the air. Head Honcho nodded at him.

"We don't seem," said Beefy, "to have anything in here about the sort of person who's allowed to be a member. I'd like to propose that we only allow people to join who have every intention of dying of gout and cirrhosis of the liver."

"Wooaargh," said the lads approvingly. Head Honcho looked about. "Anybody second that?" Someone stuck his hand up. "OK. Hugo seconds it. Shall we vote?" "Wooaargh." "Carried," said Head Honcho.

Hugo's hand was waving about. "I would like to pass a motion that Lucien stop hogging the port," he said. Affirmative grunts. Lucien's neighbour filled a wine glass to the brim, bent forward and sucked half an inch off the top. Raised his hand. "We have to blackball anyone who doesn't look like he's going to be a full-timer. We want to hold dinners at least once a month and anyone who's not prepared to turn up should be ousted."

Father leaned forward. "They're not rowers," he said. "None of them is small enough to be a cox." "Celtic football?" "Now you're being facetious." Cigars came out and chairs tipped back. Suddenly one could see how sprightly teenagers turn into pompous old men: all it takes is 50 years and a broken vein or two.

Beefy found his feet, and slapped the table. "Just one more thing," he boomed, "which I think is essential." "Go ahead," said Head Honcho. "No bloody women," he said. "Wooaargh!"