Dickens may have spoken here

Rachel Halliburton gets in full voice for a rowdy night of debate with the Ancient Cogers

The Ancient Society of Cogers prides itself on mixing beer with politics. The rowdy cocktail this produces would not be an ideal evening for the faint-hearted. Situated above the bar of the Betsy Trotwood pub in Farringdon Road, London, this eclectic debating society presents a cross between Speakers' Corner and a mental rugby scrum. Anyone who expresses an opinion is instantly exposed at the jugular for a barrage of colourful insults.

"In India they worship the cow."

"The Tory Party worshipped one for years."

The discussion has been going for some time, and the Cogers are well into their verbal jousting. Although the tone of the evening is haphazard, it claims its pedigree from a tradition going back over 200 years.

"Jerome K Jerome and Edmund Burke were members," boasts Tom May, the society's chairman, or "Grand", a paternal communist who puffs authoritatively on his pipe throughout the proceedings. "And Charles Dickens may have come along a couple of times. We think the Pickwick Papers were partly inspired by us."

To be an Ancient Coger, you must obey certain rituals. The society meets every Saturday evening to discuss the week's events. After the opening speech - the opening speaker should always make a reference to the royal family - each person present is invited to get up and contribute opinions. Tom, as chairman, checks the proceedings with a series of cards that carry messages indicating to the speakers when they should wind up, in accordance with the length, ineptitude or offensiveness of their views.

To gain formal membership, it is necessary to have spoken at least twice. The title of "Coger" earned through these speeches comes from the Cartesian "cogito", I think.

"Puerile toad!" shouts Frank Stringer, the society secretary. He is one of their more established thinkers. "We had a puerile comment from that turd of a Tory." He turns and glares at the large man in a guernsey, who appears regularly at Speakers' Corner and makes no attempt to hide his connections with the Young Conservatives. Unprepared for the attack, the YC is less scathing in his response than he was to an earlier, more mumbled interruption. "It's lovely being heckled by someone who can pronounce a sentence with no vowels in it."

The tone of the evening has fallen after a promising start. The young American who began the proceedings has attempted to launch the discussion in the directions of football hooliganism, the Internet, and cultural conditioning.

"Are we really prepared to surrender our national identities?" cries a man from the back. His melodrama flounders as the proceedings lurch into a discussion of English food. "Come, come; you're clearly quite an expert on tripe." Seemingly oblivious to the heckling around him, a man with a serious case of sideburns stares ferociously at the Evening Standard and scribbles notes with his Biro. Behind him, a grey solicitor rests his chin thoughtfully in his hand, and quietly but confidently makes his interruptions.

The 20 or so people thrown together by the debate are astonishingly varied. Of the two women there, one runs a successful business and the other is a librarian. The men number a former maths lecturer, a hotel porter, a couple of solicitors, some students, and a Yugoslav who refuses to identify himself further.

To categorise an evening with the Ancient Cogers is a difficult task. If it is the spirit of this kind of debate that is keeping democracy alive, then we are all in trouble. On the other hand, it makes for a better Saturday evening than watching Blind Date.

The Ancient Society of Cogers ("The only surviving 18th-Century tavern debating society in England") meets every Saturday at 7.30pm at the Betsy Trotwood, Farringdon Road, London EC1. Membership is free and there is no compulsory admission charge. (Tel: 0582 415392 for further details.)

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