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Innocent days at the Thursday Club

Miles Kington
Tuesday 16 January 1996 01:02 GMT

I think I am probably one of the last surviving members of the old Thursday Club, the gang of cronies that the Duke of Edinburgh used to gather round him in the 1950s to have a bit of fun away from his serious life at Buckingham Palace. The club was strictly all-male, but that does not mean there were not women at these gatherings. After all, as Arthur Koestler once said to me, "The extraordinary thing about men at all-male gatherings is that they talk about women non-stop, whereas at mixed functions the men talk only about male hobbies such as sport, politics and cars - never about women, even though there are many women present."

A clever man, Koestler. I would not like to give the impression, by the way, that Arthur Koestler was present at these little get-togethers. He was present, very often, but I would not like to give that impression, as he often asked me never to reveal that he had come there. "My dear boy," he used to say, "I have been to gatherings like this in Central Europe before the war, gatherings of princes and showgirls and intellectuals, and always the same thing happened on the occasions."

"What was that?" I said.

"The Nazis invaded," he said, with a shudder.

On an average night of the Thursday Club there would be 10 or 15 members present. There would be Lord Louis Mountbatten, Arthur Koestler, Prince Philip, Cecil Beaton, and little Larry Adler playing his mouth organ in the corner, and maybe one or other of the Kray brothers. There would also be the ladies, whose names I remember as Flo, Loulou, Beryl, Gertie, Simone, Pat and one or two others. To begin with, I puzzled over their presence there.

"You men are all distinguished people," I remember saying to Lord Louis Mountbatten. "You are all distinguished in action, or thought, or culture, or in heredity. But these girls ..."

"Don't knock these girls," said Lord Louis.

"I had no intention," I said stiffly. But he was not listening to me.

"These girls are all great ladies in their own right," he said. "The Duchess of Northumberland, the Percy, the Lady Devonshire ..."

"These are their titles?" I said, amazed.

"No," he said. "They are the pubs they work at."

There was a chorus of coarse laughter from the gathered throng, but to my amazement Lord Louis Mountbatten burst into tears and started cradling his head on his arm.

"Nobody understands me," he said. "Nobody loves me any more. Especially in India."

"Oh, knock it off, Louis!" Philip would say. "OK, so you slaughtered a couple of million Indians during Partition. OK, so you made a mistake. But don't let it get you down! Don't spoil the party! And no pictures please, Cecil!"

This to Cecil Beaton, who had already got his little Brownie out.

"If you don't want photos, why do you ask me here?" said Cecil, looking aggrieved.

"We shall have photos when we are ready for the group photo," said Philip. "It is very important that these occasions should look innocent when the time comes."

"When what time comes?" I asked.

"When they write my life story," said Philip.

There was an explosion of laughter at this.

"Who on earth would want to write your life story?" said old John Betjeman, who dropped in to the Thursday Club occasionally. "You are no more interesting than a public statue. You have done nothing except marry the Queen. That is all you have done."

"It will be enough, one day," sighed Philip. "One day in the future biographers will peer into the Royal Family's history looking for dirt. They will say, did Prince Philip ever have a wild life? Are there dark secrets? And they will discover the existence of the Thursday Club!"

"But nothing exciting ever happens at the Thursday Club!" said Flo, pouting. "Nobody ever gets out of line! It is all as safe as houses. We have a drink and we put a Joe Loss record on, but it is all as boring as hell."

"That is the whole point," said Philip. "They will say that, and they will be right and they will not investigate further. This will be a cover- up for ..."

He looked at his watch. "I must be going now. I have a ... meeting. But if anyone rings tell them I am here."

With that he was gone.

I often wondered where he was off to. Back to the Palace, I expect.

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