Garrick chaps stand by to repel women: Zoe Heller infiltrates a bastion of male exclusiveness in its most divided hour

'FEELINGS are running very high about this. I heard a chap in the corridor the other day, shouting at the top of his voice about it. 'It's an outrage,' he was saying. 'The club will be ruined. It has to be stopped.' I . . .'

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.'

(Photograph omitted)

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
Sport
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
News
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Sport
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Sport
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
News
i100
News
i100
Sport
Plenty to ponder: Amir Khan has had repeated problems with US immigration because of his Muslim faith and now American television may shun him
boxing
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments