My informant broke off as an ancient figure in pin-stripe wandered into the desiccated splendour of the Garrick Club's Morning Room and began to leaf through a Telegraph. After a pause, he leaned forward in his chair. 'I tell you,' he continued, his voice descending to a snooker- commentary whisper, 'it's getting to be a real Serbia versus Bosnia situation round here.'
Tomorrow, the 161-year-old Garrick, a gentlemen's sodality in Covent Garden, London, with a membership boasting a large representation of the journalistic, theatrical and legal professions, will hold its annual general meeting. Members will be asked to vote on the motion: 'That the Rules of the Club should be amended to include a new Rule stating that in the Rules, words importing the masculine gender include the feminine.'
Behind this verbiage lies a proposal that for the first time in the club's history, membership should be extended to women. It promises to produce an unusually well- attended and tempestuous AGM.
The woman question is not the first controversy to disturb the tranquillity of Garrick life. Since 1831, when the club was founded for the purpose of 'bringing together the patrons of the Drama and gentlemen who are most eminent in their respective circles', there have been several internal spats - usually concerning the split loyalties of journalist members.
Back in the 1850s, a hack writer called Edmund Yates was forced to resign following the publication of an unflattering article he had written about his fellow club member, Thackeray. As a gesture of solidarity with Yates's uncompromising journalistic honesty, Dickens resigned also.
More recently, the columnist Bernard Levin had his request for membership 'blackballed', largely, it was understood, because he had written unfavourably of a former Lord Chief Justice, which several of the club's old judges considered an unforgivable impertinence. (Laurence Olivier offered to put Levin up for membership a second time, and to resign if he was blackballed again, but, once bitten, Levin preferred to retreat with dignity.)
Female membership threatens, however, to be the fiercest Garrick battle to date. First brought up at a Garrick luncheon by club member Anthony Lestor QC, who is counsel to the Equal Opportunities Commission, the idea of letting women in has proved exceptionally divisive. At present women are allowed into the club only as the guests of members. Even then, they are not allowed to eat in the main dining-room at lunchtime and are excluded from the bar at all times.
While the pro-women campaigners regard these rules as an embarrassing anachronism, traditionalists insist that they are fundamental to the nature of the institution. One member expressed disgust at the idea recently advanced by two prospective women members, the TV producer Linda Agran and the journalist Janet Daley, that women should have access to the club's allegedly rich networking opportunities. 'That is a deeply ignominious argument,' he said. 'Quite contemptible, in fact. The notion that one should join a club in order to make contacts] Simply by expressing that view, those two women will have lost the vote for themselves.'
Another important aspect of the anti-women position concerns the supposedly inhibiting effect that the presence of women would have on the men's behaviour. Peregrine Worsthorne, columnist for the Sunday Telegraph, has argued, for instance, that the distinctive cut-and-thrust of men's club banter would be blunted by having girlies about: 'Such conversational jousting would end in tears before tea-time if women were on the receiving end of the sport,' he wrote last week.
Worsthorne's readiness to make his position known is the exception. Many members refuse to comment at all, and most of those who have agreed to talk like my anonymous confidant in the Morning Room, have demanded that their identity be kept secret. This is because tradition - and one of the club rules - dictates that members should not divulge club business to outsiders, and also perhaps because the issue is such a hot potato.
Even some of those who initially put their names to the post- prandial motion circulated by Mr Lestor have since cried off. However, a leaked letter recently sent out to selected members by the proposer and seconder of the AGM motion, David Whitaker and Denis Forman, provides an interesting list of 54 members who are in support of the pro- women campaign. They include Sir Richard Attenborough, Lord Chalfont, Simon Jenkins, Lord Justice Woolf, Hugo Young, Melvyn Bragg, Tom Conti, Andre Deutsch, Professor Ronald Dworkin, John Mortimer QC and Sir Peter Parker.
The letter, which requests its recipient to 'contact at least two members who are not on the list and try to secure their attendance and their vote', acknowledges that the pro-womenites are, as yet, a small band. The general conviction among club members seems to be that the motion will be defeated, this time at least. 'It seems comical that we should have to have this debate at all,' one of the pro-women members explained, 'but the club will almost certainly vote against women and then we'll look even sillier than we do now.' 'Why?' another pro-women member exclaimed, when I asked how he was so certain that the vote would go against women, 'Because the club has an unnaturally high proportion of old farts - that's why.'
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