A bit of a stink at the Garrick over Winnie the Pooh's pot of money

Ann Treneman
Monday 03 August 1998 23:02

IT IS not known whether Winnie the Pooh would be allowed to become a member of the Garrick Club. On the plus side, he is male, he is hairy and he has an oral fetish of the most rampant sort. On the minus side, he is a bear.

But the club that won't have women has never expressed a view on ursine types and, since his creator A.A. Milne was a member, then Winnie probably could be one too.

This comes up because the Garrick's 1,000 human types are faced with the kind of problem that Winnie would know just what to do with. A.A. Milne left the rights to Pooh to four beneficiaries: his family, the Royal Literary Fund, his school (Westminster) and his club (said Garrick). Now Disney wants to buy the rights for future royalty for pounds 200m. That means that each beneficiary could get about pounds 50m. The idea of this amount of cash coming through the letterbox at Garrick Street, in central London, has caused uproar among members with a battle raging about who and what should benefit from all this money and how it all should be decided.

The problem is that it is simply too much money to be sensible about. Pooh knows this too. "That's a goloptious full-up pot of honey," he said when contacted in the story Piglet Meets a Heffalump. Others see it in more precise terms and figure that, after the deal is done, there could be some pounds 39,000 available for each individual member.

"I don't think the Garrick needs a new wing or anything," said Lord Lamont, former Chancellor of the Exchequer. "I feel a little like Winnie the Pooh who, when asked if he would like honey or jam, replied he would like both - and without the bread." Pooh rejects this and says Lord "Tigger" Lamont has taken his comments out of context.

But, back in the unreal world of the Garrick, the 30-member general committee has taken matters into its own hands and called a special general meeting for Friday week. It wants members to agree to accept the Disney offer and to use some of the money to set up a charitable fund which, for tax purposes, must be approved before the autumn. The idea is to give money to charities that have nothing to do with Lord Lamont, charities of the kind that A.A. Milne supported generously when he was alive.

Scarcely had the confidential letter about this been received than some members began to react in a way not unknown to a certain grey donkey. "That's what I call bouncing," said Eeyore when confronted with Tigger in the story Eeyore Joins the Game. "Taking people by surprise. Very unpleasant habit. ... I don't see why Tigger should come into my little corner of the forest and bounce there."

Nor do the Eeyores of the Garrick see why their committee insists on bouncing about. "It is being seen as an outrageous act of gross arrogance," said one member. What is? "The presumption that they can hand out the members' money in this fashion," he said. In what fashion? "In that fashion," he explained before laying out some other ideas. Why not use to money to increase the availability for bedrooms, to support an arts fund and to reduce the fees which run to about pounds 850 per member per year?

Hmmm. Now that latter idea is the kind of charity that every member might support. But the Eeyores do not seem to have the full story. This, as general committee chairman Anthony Butcher notes with some exasperation, was set out in the letter. He agrees that the timing is less than ideal. "I don't want to have the meeting then any more than anyone does but we can't control Disney's timetable," he says. The deal also depends on whether Disney gets approval from the US Congress to lengthen copyright in this case.

But, given that the US Congress does give its approval and that the deal is done, then this is what the general committee proposes to do with what Mr Butcher believes will be pounds 30 million after tax. First some money is to be reserved for the upkeep of the club. "A cock-shy is about pounds 10 million from the money," said Mr Butcher. Next a charitable fund would be set up but would be capped at pounds 8 million.

That leaves pounds 12 million. The first reaction to this in Clubland, where it seems that all greed is relative, is that any pay-out would be considerably less than the pounds 35,000 being pocketed by RAC members. So it would be. But Mr Butcher goes further than that. He says he is quite positive that Garrick Club members would not want their personal bank accounts added to in any such way. "My sense is that it is real reluctance amongst members for there to be any share-out at all," he says.

Why is this? "Well, because they are nice chaps I suppose," he said. Oh really, I say. "Well I can't think they would be frightened of you in the press." But, I say, many of your members are the press. At this point Mr Butcher looks back to what A.A. Milne might have thought. "I'm pretty certain that when he did this he thought it might be able to buy a couple of cases of vintage port or, say, in the case of Westminster, have an extra helping of plum duff at Christmas," he said.

What? "In other words he wasn't thinking in terms of the sort of money that is available."

Rupert Hart-Davis once recalled Milne at the Garrick taking a gloomy view of most things - Tito and Stalin, to give two examples, but also "most other people" including his fellow members. Certainly it seems he would have given most of it away, having once said: "The only money which we are never sorry to have spent is the money which we have given away."

But back to Pooh. What would he do? "If anyone knows anything about anything," he notes, "it's Owl who knows something about something or my name is not Winnie-the-Pooh which it is. So there you are."And Owl? Well, he is definitely a member of the Garrick, but he's not talking - yet.

The Garrick Club: A Safe Haven For The

Connected And The Flatulent

n Founded in 1831, primarily for actors who could not obtain membership of the likes of St James and Pall Mall. Most members are now in the law, journalism and advertising.

n The tie is ghastly pink and green (supposed to be cucumber and salmon, sported right by Sir Robin Day). "The great thing about the Garrick tie is that it goes with absolutely nothing," said a member.

n It takes seven years to become a member.

n Members voted against women joining in 1992. "I think the fear is the sort of women who would join," said one man. They'll be thrusters - the middle-aged and late middle-aged journalists who want to get on. They'll be the clever barristers and they'll be Edwina Currie, you know. This is the problem."

n One of the club's most famous rows was between Thackeray and Dickens (right). The latter was upset over an indiscreet remark made by Thackeray of Dickens's affair with Ellen Ternan. To get his own back, Dickens backed the literary journalist Edmund Yates who had written a rude column about Thackeray. Dickens ended up resigning.

n Famous names who have been blackballed include Jeremy Paxman (right), whose opponents refused to say why they didn't want the mild-mannered journalist in their club, and Bernard Levin (right), rejected for criticising Lord Justice Goddard (the man who sentenced Derek Bentley to death). Other members who have been blackballed include Brian Wenham, former director of BBC TV programmes.

n Women are allowed to eat lunch in the Milne Room (better known as the Pooh Room) which is painted a sickly pink

n Four former Chancellor of the Exchequers are members: Norman Lamont, Geoffrey Howe, Kenneth Clark and Nigel Lawson.

n The club costs pounds 850 a year to join, steep in comparison to others.

n Only 80 of the 1,000 members are below the age of 45.

n It is one of the few places left in England that still serves charcoal biscuits, which absorb flatulence.

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