Fancy some schmoozing? Join the club

Are London's private media haunts really bursting with winners and wannabes slurping Bolly? Stephen Davies finds out

It is 8pm, Monday night, and the brand new London Press Club near Canary Wharf is unnervingly empty.

"We are sometimes busy," says the restaurant manager. "A whole bunch of people from the Telegraph were headbanging in the Meeting Room this afternoon. Wait a moment. Is it called 'headbanging', or 'brainbanging'?"

"Brainstorming?" I offer.

"Ah yes. Brainstorming. There were lots of people here."

Michelle, the club manager, shows me around. It is a beautiful old Georgian building done up to look like a modern four-star airport hotel. The walls are crammed with mementos from the Fleet Street Press Club - a photo of the Queen Mother playing pool, framed editions of the very first Sun and the all-new-all-pink Financial Times. There is something melancholy about these venerable trinkets, sitting among all the faux carpets and faux curtains, something curiously symbolic of Canary Wharf itself - a bunch of people crammed together in a spanking clean wasteland, trying to create some cosiness, just like in the old days.

I am not a member of any media club. This is not a symptom of some fanciful moral superiority. I am neither deep nor ethical enough to believe that media clubs symbolise all that is elitist and lubricious about our industry, that such a cloistered existence can lead only to an unpleasant smugness in my social life (as well as a raging cocaine habit and a lot more work at the BBC).

No. I am not a member simply because I arrived in London from Manchester only a year ago, and I'm too miserly and disorganised to get myself on a waiting list. Unlike the namesake of Soho's most venerable media haunt, I do want to belong to the sort of club that would have someone like me as a member.

There's only one media club in Manchester - a dingy back room near Albert Square full of twisted old men playing dominoes, who bitch about the sort of people that go to Groucho's and how thy've got the industry sewn up, those untalented London bastards brown-nosing John Birt at drinks parties in the Soho Room. For, without doubt, three easily definable groups of people make up this not-so-secret society of ours: members of Groucho's; guests of members, and people who despise everything Groucho's stands for on moral grounds.

Often, of course, people have been known to slide from one to another. Members of Group 3 eventually become members of Group 2 or even Group 1. And, rather sadly, members of Group 2 sometimes decline into being members of Group 3. Just stand outside Groucho's on any weekday evening and listen in to the rancorous conversations on the pavement. For instance, Monday 30 October 1995: "Yeah well," snorts a young man. "That's the last time I ever go there." "So rude," mutters another. "They think they're so special."

"You've got to be a personal friend of Keith Allen's to get in these days." "Yeah. Or Damien Hirst."

Inside in the foyer, Gordana, the manager, peers through the venetian blinds. "They're still there," she tuts. "What can we do?"

"Just ignore them," replies the receptionist.

The charm of Groucho's is the routine - every night is pretty much like the last. The stalwarts - Keith Allen, John McVicar, et al - have moved upstairs to the new snooker room/sports bar. When a woman inadvertently joins them, they all go very quiet. Alex from Blur rushes around clutching champagne and telling everyone, with engaging candour, how "fantastic it is to be a pop star, because you get to hang around with other famous people". Victor Lewis-Smith sits in a comer and gets into fights. Recently, he upset various grief-stricken notables by signing himself into the members' book as "Michael VerMeulen + 4 pall-bearers".

Jeffrey Bernard has stopped being a regular, which is a shame. One night, the story goes, he looked up from his wheelchair, turned to Frank Muir and said, in a dignified manner: "I always thought you were a c**t."

But Groucho's is a far friendlier place than many seem to think. (So friendly, in fact, that people often continue chatting even when they're inside the toilet cubicles.) Its significance is inestimable - hence the bitterness.

"The amount of deals that have been made here when the commissioning editor was pissed out of his mind!" says one member. "But they sheepishly phone you back and tell you the job is already filled."

And the people on the pavement do go away, eventually, to the burgeoning Soho House, or Blacks, or the Academy. Fads come and go. A couple of years ago, the Atlantic Bar and Grill - a colossal deco basement situated underneath the Regent Palace flea-pit/knocking shop for pauper Swedish tourists - was the in place for media types who couldn't or didn't want to attend private members' clubs. Populated by the people who really did wear those ridiculous clothes you saw in the window of Katherine Hamnett, a night at the Atlantic was hot and intimidating. However, it was the ominous presence of a bouncer who judged customers' stylish suitability before granting them access that caused the Atlantic's downfall. Now the place is full of businessmen from Southwark wearing big gold watches.

Some clubs thrive on their lack of faddiness. 2, Brydges Place in Covent Garden is the Soho House without the crowds - just spindly armchairs with spindly people and middle-aged publishers peering over their spectacles. The Academy, in the basement of the Literary Review building, never has more than 30 people in it at any one time.

"They've got a new microwave," says Jay Rayner, the novelist and journalist. "So it's a lot of lasagne and shepherd's pie these days."

A place of engaging eccentricity - a pine brasserie downstairs, a big roaring fire upstairs - the Academy's rules include a temporary cessation of membership fees if you are incarcerated in Her Majesty's Prisons. Although one cannot imagine any member of the Academy becoming incarcerated for anything, unless the Government decides to outlaw ponderous discussions about the legacy of Kingsley Amis.

Across the road from Groucho's on Dean Street, members of Blacks look down sniffily on Groucho's, while trying hard to get into the mood of abandonment suggested by their own cramped candle-lit reproduction opium den. The all-women membership committee was an interesting ruse, albeit one doomed to failure.

"The only men they decided to let join were very boring, so they loosened their rules," says one member. "The men are still pretty boring." Likewise, the Union Club on Greek Street. Another pretender to Groucho's throne, it is tiny and cramped. The only exciting thing about the place is Malcolm McLaren, slumped in the corner.

Finally, let's try Greek Street's Soho House - the great new success and Prince Regent (after the untouchable and unjoinable Garrick) of all the clubs that offer great big old chairs and log fires. The Soho House is a house and, like all houses, becomes something of a nightmare when 200 people cram themselves into the living room. The main floor is packed to the rafters with BBC production executives surrounded by excited Youth Opportunities runners, assistant features editors for the Independent on Sunday and BFI stalwarts discussing esoteric projects.

"It's a short film for Stuart Cosgrove's Red Light Zone," says one young woman. "We're going to film it all in Super 8. Split screen, you know. And every 20 seconds or so, we're going to cut to a camcorder's point of view of the crew, watching the interviewee, watching the camcorder."

"Why?" I ask.

There is a long pause.

"I don't know," she admits. "Stuart Cosgrove just asked me to."

Upstairs in the oak-panelled lounge, hushed conversations sometimes are interrupted by thearrival of an entire PR company launching, say, the latest Head and Shoulders TV ad in the adjoining luxurious cinema. Everyone mutters and goes downstairs. This is nitpicking, however. Soho House is, without doubt, the most comfortable and commodious of all the media clubs.

The aim of the Soho House was to create an environment that was never too furious and never too busy. Here, sadly, it has failed, a victim of its own success and good atmosphere. But it remains the only genuine rival to Groucho's. It closes very late, and opens very early for a sedate breakfast - like a gentlemen's club for people who want, but fail, to be gentlemen.

Groucho Club: membership pounds 275 a year, plus pounds 100 joining fee; waiting list is more than two years. Requirements: a proposer, a seconder and a brief CV.

Soho House: membership pounds 300 a year, plus pounds 100 joining fee; waiting list is a couple of months. Requirements: a proposer, a seconder and a brief CV.

London Press Club: membership pounds 25 a year; no waiting list. Requirements: "You have to be a member of the press."

2, Brydges Place: membership pounds 150 a year; no waiting list ("We have a few spaces free"). Requirement: a proposer.

Academy Club: membership pounds 85 a year; waiting list ("fairly quick, maybe a few weeks"). Requirements: a proposer and a seconder.

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