The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold : I adore women but members must come first

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The Independent Online
LET ME state at the outset that I have nothing but the greatest respect for the female of the species. Indeed, among my quaffing partners at The United Oxford and Cambridge University Club, I am regarded as something of a feminist, though reports that I am ready to burn my brassiere are somewhat premature (I jest!).

I have long been a passionate believer in women being given more executive jobs, particularly if those jobs involve neither driving nor mathematics, which, as they would be the first to agree, are not their strong suits. In my experience, women make far better seamstresses than men, and in the kitchen a woman's hand in the mixing bowl ensures first-class pastry every time. In the field of letters, too, women have proved quite excellent, particularly in the areas of "romance" (dread word!) and the lightweight detective novel. Women tend also to be infinitely better typists than men - I am a two-finger fellow myself!- and I have yet to meet a man who could iron a shirt half so well as the "little lady" who performs the task for Yours Truly week in, week out, for virtually no money at all.

Having thus firmly established my feminist credentials may I offer a small word of caution to - bless their flurry little heads! - my female colleagues.

Last week's vulgar display of indignation by Lord Jenkins of Hothead(!) and his cohorts over the rules of The United Oxford and Cambridge University Club concerning the banning of what I once termed - immortally - the UNfairer Sex(!) was both intemperate and absurd. The Wetched Woy must know, as well as anyone, what a nuisance members of the beskirted fraternity can be when given the run of a Gentleman's Club.

An example, if I may. In the early Seventies, I was enjoying a highly civilised conversation in the Travellers Club with my old friend and quiffing partner Jim Lees-Milne.

We had heard tell that a fellow member had taken the rash step of bending to the surgeon's knife and become a woman. It later transpired that the poor devil was James Morris, but at the time we were clueless. Anyway, the two of us were gossiping about who it might be when who should walk in but no less a personage than Sir Kingsley Amis

"Kingers!" I bellowed genially with all the sangfroid I could muster. "Do join us in a drink!"

Sad to say my embarrassment was severe, for I had every reason to believe the chap-turned-chapess was Kingers as he had just returned from Casablanca.

He was, of course, still wearing jacket and trousers - the club rules dictated as much - but his skin seemed softer, smoother more, how shall I put it, strokeable than usual, and it occurred to me, under his broad check shirt and sober tie, I could detect the faintest silhouette of a trainer bra. "How goes it Kingers?" I asked as he eased himself into his seat. He replied with his customary grunt, but I thought I detected a strain of falsetto.

Nevertheless, I was determined to keep him talking for I did not wish to perturb him while I signalled to Jim to summon the Club Secretary with a copy of the appropriate rule book.

While Kingers held forth about the general bloody ghastliness of the modern, I winked furiously at Lees-Milne. Alas, he failed to understand my signal or its sense of urgency and simply winked back.

"Keep him talking," I said to myself speedily turning the conversation to a topic I thought might interest what one might call the new-look Amis.

"Pressed any decent flowers recently Kingers?" I asked.

"Flowers? Flowers?" he replied. "You mean those damn bloody smelly things."

I swiftly changed the subject. "How about the latest in fashion," I asked. "D'y'think pink'll be in this year?"

"PINK?" he choked, spitting out a good half glass of claret. "I'll fetch you a cloth, poppet," I said, and nipped away in search of the aforesaid rule book.

On my return I thrust the Rule 39 (b) sub section (iii) in his face "Members are reminded that sex change operations may not be performed on the premises. Any member who becomes a woman must first hand his membership chitty into the Hall Porter who will destroy it.''

"Sorry Kingers, old girl - I'm going to have to ask you to leave," I said. I'm afraid to say he caused one hell of a fuss, finally pulling down his long-johns to prove that he was "all there". Difficult days and not ones I would wish to see repeated at the Oxford and Cambridge, forsooth.

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