My poor psyche, a member since . . .

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The Independent Online
ARE YOU an inveterate belonger, or are you hard to fool? Are you a loyal alumnus, or are you your own proud creation? Do you knock on the doors of the clubs of the world, or could you not care less?

I'm more of a belonger than I sometimes care to admit. I used to 'belong' to one of the large high street banks, until its rudeness and disobligingness went sour on me and I decided to decamp. Gradually I wound up my credit cards and standing orders and closed down my accounts. They'll be sorry, I thought to myself, but it turned out they couldn't care less.

I was part of a trend. I had found a new, smaller, reassuringly Scottish bank. I looked forward to the day when the government, too, would be run by reassuring Scots of the Labour persuasion, to match my reassuring Scottish bank, to which I now felt proud to belong.

Then, to my dismay, I noticed the other day that the man at the helm of my cuddly, reassuring Scottish bank was responsible for the original negotiations on the Pergau dam deal - the one which had to be 'disentangled'. How could I belong to a bank with such a figure- head? I could not. But I couldn't be bothered to move my accounts and standing orders once again. So I adjusted my mindset instead. From now on I was to be a plain, shrewd, disenchanted customer of the bank. The honeymoon of 'belonging' was over.

It's the corniest trick in the world, making clients believe they belong, and it seems to work. We long to belong. We fear rejection. But we long to belong to something of real value. And we end up belonging to a series of things that are merely aimed at siphoning off the cash.

I fancy that I take a pretty disenchanted view of, for instance, the literature I receive from American Express, which is always aimed at fostering this false sense of belonging. Yet if I received a note from the company tomorrow saying that, in view of my remarks in today's paper, American Express had decided to withdraw my card, that it no longer wanted me as a member, I have no doubt that I would 'experience rejection'. And that would mean that a part of my poor old psyche had belonged to American Express.

My poor old deluded, pathetic psyche - how humiliating that it should have a 'member since' date stamped into its fabric. Me of all people] Me who saw through the boy scouts all those years ago.

Some groups (genuine groups, not pseudo-groups) are so strong that they confer membership without any formal paperwork at all. Women who had the misfortune to be educated by nuns, graduates of Japanese prisoner-of-war camps, Londoners from the Blitz.

Two Poles meet for the first time and chat about nothing in particular until one, after five minutes, suddenly says: 'You're a Thomist, aren't you?' I myself belong to what we believe to be the greatest political party in Britain, the party of ex-Trotskyists. Ex- Trots recognise each other with the same mysterious antennae as Polish Thomists. This is true belonging.

I always felt that the audiences at the Berlin Philharmonic were a genuine group of like-minded people. Opera- lovers who stand in the gods are a group in this sense, whereas the people in the stalls on the first night are probably not. Too many of them will have forked out in order to become members of a pseudo-group.

Margaret Thatcher showed no sign of liking anything to do with culture until she went to Glyndebourne. Then she became enthusiastic. Clearly the music was a price worth paying in return for membership of the super-pseudo- group. This, she felt, is where I culturally belong.

Imagine a person who, a few years ago, became a Lloyd's name. Apart from the financial rewards, there was this extra buzz of belonging to the super-pseudo-group. Occasionally - say during a taxing evening at the opera - he might wonder whether he really did belong to the club, or whether he was really just a little parvenu. He might wonder whether other names might recognise him as a name - little nagging doubts of that social kind.

Then comes the crash. Our friend discovers that he is in the very worst of the syndicates, that his commitments go far deeper than he was told, that his money has been shamefully squandered. The illusion of a pseudo-super- group (which was an exclusive money-for-nothing club) has been shattered, but our friend has something precious in return. He now belongs to a genuine group - the bankrupted Lloyd's names. There is a new genuine dynamic in his life. He belongs at last.

Children love belonging. I'm told that the Young Telegraph Club is taken extremely seriously by its members, and that they receive eerily thoughtful benefits, such as cards on their birthdays.

It sounds as if the old Puffin Club was like this, and that (although in my classification it was a pseudo-group, designed to relieve kids of their dosh) it turned, through sheer force of infantile fantasy, into a genuine group. At least, I heard the founder on the radio recently claiming that the staff in her office at Penguin used to sing the 'Puffin Song' all day long: 'Remember you're a Puffin, remember you're a puffin,' they trilled.

The adult equivalent of the Puffin Club is Frequent Flyers, whereby in return for always flying with the same airline you build up points, and on business class you receive little sponge-bags full of gifts from the likes of the Body Shop. I have in front of me a recent trophy, the Virgin Atlantic version of these kits. It contains a nasal spray, Breathe Easy, a facial moisturiser, a deo-body spray, a tau-marin mouthwash ('scientifically developed'), a vitamin lip balm and a soothing eye gel, all fashioned exclusively by Molton Brown of London.

I flew Virgin Atlantic because I don't fly British Airways, because British Airways doesn't fly Salman Rushdie.

Richard Branson knows how to run a Puffin Club. He sends you his own chauffeur (well, 'yeah, I've driven for Richard, stayed overnight at his place once'), and when you arrive at the airport you get, yes, a letter from Richard personally informing you of this and that good bit of news.

Then you're offered a massage, or a drink in Richard's library, which has all kinds of things such as model ships and globes that seem to gravitate to libraries. And there's a great deal of leather. And there are real books, not just 'fine bindings' or rows of Wisden though there are these as well.

And you truly begin to feel that you belong to the Virgin milieu, that you are sharing the Branson lifestyle. I selected a good book - Mrs Gaskell's Cranford - and a vodka martini. I had joined what Virgin call Upper Class. Somewhere else in Heathrow were the passengers flying Lower Middle Class, Definitely Non-U, Lager Lout Class - whatever. But, hell, I belonged. For an insane second I really belonged.