This Monday I gave, what was at least for me, a very enjoyable book reading at the Chelsea Arts Club. There, I found a large appreciative audience, made up of many old friends, and during the signing afterwards I actually sold out of books. I found it a joy to perform in a place where I have been a member for over 10 years, and to be part of one of the many quality artistic events that go on there.
Chelsea Arts is a private members club which, although it was out of fashion and foundering in the Eighties, now thrives, with a long waiting list for new members. It was founded in 1891 by the painter James McNeill Whistler and the members are mostly artists, poets and writers, photographers and filmmakers.
It has a fabulous bar that sells drink and food at below pub prices, there's a wonderful candlelit dining room lined with paintings, a snooker room, reasonably-priced bedrooms and a beautiful garden in which you can dine in the summer. The club also organises the Chelsea Arts Club Ball which I can distinctly remember being described in scandalised tones in the newspapers when I was a kid in our terraced house in Liverpool in the 1950s. The ball, often held back then at the Albert Hall, though now housed more sedately in a tent in the garden, was in those dark grey days of my childhood - days of rationing, sexual prurience and snobbery - a byword for decadence, bohemianism, unnecessary nudity and licentiousness.
As a kid I often dreamed that I would one day be a member of such an exciting place, yet when I was initially offered the chance to join during the foundering Eighties, when it would have been dead easy, I refused point blank. I left it until the Nineties by which time I had to wait two years and then undergo a selection process as gruelling as if I'd been an initiate in an LA street gang or an African tribe.
Partly my initial refusal to join was due to an obsessive sense of egalitarianism that held me in its grip until my forties and placed within me an almost visceral hatred of anything that smacked in even the slightest way of inequality.
The first time my loathing for exclusion came to the public's attention was back in 1976 when I used the recently introduced Equal Rights Act to force the organisers of that years' Miss World Contest to let me take part as a contestant. I came a creditable 11th ahead of Miss Ukraine and Miss Burundi - only losing points in the swimsuit round.
A part of me has always hated the way that the cultural, intellectual and political life of Britain has been carried on behind the locked and barred doors of private members clubs. In other countries it has been done differently. In Paris, during the most fertile period in human history, it was possible for anybody, regardless of social connections or schooling, to drink alongside Sartre, Picasso, Matisse, De Beauvoir, Anais Nin, Hemingway etc, at the bars and cafes of the Boulevard Montparnasse, in establishments such as the legendary Deux Magots or the Cafe Flore. All it took was the price of a drink to make it possible for an ordinary citizen to hear the words of wisdom that fell from the lips of the greatest minds of the 20th century, and to give them an outside chance that one of these behemoths of the culture might be sick on their shoes.
Who knows how the cultural life of our own country might have been improved if only the greatest minds of our current enlightenment - the stand-up comedians, artists, publicists, advertising executives, actors and journalists who hang out at London's exclusive Groucho Club were instead socialising at some more public venue such as the McDonalds in the Seven Sisters Road, Holloway. At least then there would be the possibility that somebody might shoot one of them.
Apart from egalitarianism, I did also have a more personal reason for resenting the Chelsea Arts Club. My arrival in Chelsea as a student in the early Seventies coincided with the widespread acceptance of the idea, cooked up by drunken philosophers and left-wing theorists in the bars and cafes of the Boulevard Montparnasse and then misheard by a man from Leicester, that it was impossible, divisive and hierarchical for a teacher to attempt to teach anything to anyone, that indeed the very idea of there being such a thing as "teacher" and "student" led directly to the war in Vietnam and the fact that your Mini would never start if it had been raining.
The staff at Chelsea Art School took to this idea with particular enthusiasm and decamped en mass round the corner to the club. After that, if you had a tutorial or a general studies lecture or you needed to get a form signed, the only way to do it was to go round to the arts club but unfortunately seeing as you weren't a member they wouldn't let you in. In my three years as a student the only way I managed to get any tuition at all was either to disguise myself as a dishwasher repairman or to get a member to sign me in as a guest by promising them sexual favours in one of the reasonably-priced bedrooms.
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