Vicky Pryce is evidently a clever woman, but even she must be a little flummoxed by the Hurlingham Club’s decision to kick her out. Sorry, it hasn’t kicked her out – it’s “invited her to resign,” as though “inviting” her to partake of the Victoria sponge at the Fulham club’s afternoon tea.
Talk to a Hurlingham member, though, and they won’t mention the invitation to resign; they’ll say she’s been blackballed. Which means it’s not the club secretary or the board who’ve decided to abort her membership – it’s the members themselves.
Why? Because she was sentenced to prison for eight months for perverting the course of justice by taking her husband’s speeding points. But has she not been partially rehabilitated since then? I mean, she’s appeared on Question Time, which, in the hierarchy of social standing, is only a few kudos points behind guesting on Desert Island Discs. And isn’t Jeffrey Archer, the celebrated jailbird, still a Hurlingham member? He was jailed for perjury – so is it OK if you’re jailed for being a liar, but not if you’re jailed for helping your husband? Or does the fact that Archer does charity work somehow eclipse the lying, perjuring et cetera in Clubland’s moral rule book?
Let me explain something, Vicky: in clubland, it’s seldom about public wrong-doing; it’s pretty well always personal. The chances are, you’re being invited to resign because someone objected to your unchanging hairstyle, your Joe 90 specs, your Greek accent, your actually being Greek or your being a vengeful wife, rather than your being a shameless and flagrant points-taker.
Blackballing is the dark heart of the jolly convivium of clubs. The word refers to the process by which a membership committee decides whether or not to allow someone to join their august assembly. White balls are dropped into a frame – but if more than one blackball is dropped in, the candidate’s fate is sealed, and they go to their grave wondering why. Or else they’ll make a frightful social gaffe and be asked to resign without ever ditto.
In 1965, the 11th Duke of Argyll was made to resign from White’s after he wrote articles in the press about his wife, the notorious Margaret Duchess of Argyll. In theory he had to go because club rules forbade members from talking about women, let alone writing about them. In fact it was because the ducal divorce proceedings had thrown up a scandalous photograph of the Duchess performing fellatio on a naked man, and chaps didn’t want to be reminded of such sordid stuff every time they met the duke in the bar.
I had an early brush with this milieu in the early 1980s when I went to the Garrick to interview a distinguished writer. We were talking by the stairs when a wolfish elderly figure stopped for a chat. “How goes Rocco Forte’s application to join White’s?” my interviewee asked. “Hah!” his friend said gleefully. “Blackballed till he resembled a plate o’caviarrr.”
Forte was then chief executive of Trust House Forte, a worldwide, billion-spinning hotel chain; but unfortunately his dad had once been proprietor of a milk bar and he was therefore too common (and Italian) to pass muster. It’s odd that White’s should have been so snooty – after all the club’s first incarnation, in 1693, was as White’s Chocolate House, named after its owner, or Frank White, formerly Francesco Bianco.
The club’s blackballers were at it again in 2007, when they blocked the membership of super-suave Bryan Ferry, the Roxy Music crooner. It was said they objected to his being the parvenu son of a Durham miner; it’s more probable that they didn’t want some pop star (even a 61-year-old pop star) near their decanters and chafing dishes. It was piquant to read, a year later as the City dived into meltdown, that investment bankers, no matter how immaculate their pedigree, were suddenly being refused admission to London clubs, from SW1 to the trendy coteries of Covent Garden and Shoreditch.
On rare occasions in the past, the dodgy and the arriviste have made it to the hallowed corridors of Pall Mall and St James because they have a sufficiently heavyweight sponsor. Jimmy Savile, a man whom you’d think would be swiftly shown to the tradesman’s entrance of any club, was fast-tracked to membership of the Athenaeum, most intellectually rigorous of London clubs, solely because he was nominated by Basil Hume, later Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster; that’s tantamount to being endorsed by Jesus Christ and all the cherubim and seraphim. It seems unlikely, however, that many people struck up conversations with him over dinner.
So chin up, Vicky. It’s not a moral thing; it’s entirely personal. And I see you’re also a member of the Reform Club, whose members in the past have included Jeremy Thorpe and Guy Burgess. And they were never asked to resign. Curious thing the British establishment, isn’t it?
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