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  1. Wealth
November 1, 2007updated 01 Feb 2016 12:06pm

No Bores Allowed

By Christopher Silvester

It may not be the grandest or the oldest, but the Garrick is probably the coolest of London clubs, says Christopher Silvester.

It may not be the grandest or the oldest, but the Garrick is probably the coolest of London clubs, says Christopher Silvester.

Now that the pristine splendour of its façade, the result of having the soot and grime of a couple of centuries delicately blasted away, has faded somewhat, the Garrick Club, located in a street that runs between St Martin’s Lane and Covent Garden, is looking its best. It is the richest club in London, since it sits on a cash pile of some £50 million.

This came about following the bequest of a quarter share of the royalties from Winnie the Pooh by his creator AA Milne, and the licensing of those rights to the Walt Disney Company back in 2001. Rather than pay a dividend to members, a vulgar suggestion rightly disdained by the majority, it was decided to use the windfall to secure the club’s long-term future, first and foremost by undertaking a wholesale programme of refurbishment.

Apart from the façade, the Coffee Room, which is the Garrick’s name for its main dining room (presumably deriving from coffee houses, which were the progenitors of gentlemen’s clubs), was handsomely restored and its paintings cleaned and rehung. It is the most elegant club dining room in London, its walls adorned with paintings of theatrical subjects by Zoffany and Clint.

My personal favourite, Clint’s Scene from ‘Lock and Key’, hangs at one end of the room, above a table known as ‘the Prefects’ Table’ because it was frequently commandeered by assiduous and self-assertive members such as Kingsley Amis and Sir Robin Day (both now deceased).

Named after the great 18th-century actor David Garrick, the club was founded in 1831 and moved to its present site in 1864. Closer to theatreland, the inns of court and Fleet Street than the Pall Mall and St James’s locations of the other principal London gentlemen’s clubs, it is appropriate that its membership should be drawn predominantly from the theatrical, legal and journalistic professions, with business and other pursuits bringing up the rear.

There are many members of distinction – theatrical knights, judges, senior QCs, editors, generals, former ambassadors, MPs and peers, academics, the Bishop of London, and even a convicted fraudster (Lord Black of Crossharbour, who continues to pay his membership dues in spite of his current difficulties). That said, the Garrick is the least stuffy of the grand clubs, with the emphasis on friendliness, conviviality and good cheer.

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Unsurprisingly, there is a long waiting list for membership, and a candidate usually requires the signatures of 30 or more current members. Once he has attained a suitably impressive page in the candidates’ book, he may have to wait for up to seven years after being originally proposed before he is elected, though it pays to have popular members as sponsors. The calibre of candidates is high, as the founding committee gave an assurance ‘that it would be better that ten unobjectionable men should be excluded than one terrible bore should be admitted’. A bankrupt may not be a member and members can be expelled for bringing the club into disrepute.

The Candidates’ Committee ensures the various professions are represented in roughly equal measure. As far as the age profile is concerned, the group which forms the largest part of the membership is of those aged between 60 and 70, with the second largest group aged between 70 and 80, followed by 50- to 60-year-olds, then 40- to 50-year olds. The youngest member at this time is in his late 30s.

The Garrick’s membership stands at around 1,400, with around 50 members being lost through natural wastage each year. One of the (slightly morbid) delights of the Garrick is the camaraderie that follows one into the grave, with members thronging to the funerals and memorial services of popular fellow members. The cost of membership, which is levied quarterly, is around £1,100 (plus an equivalent joining fee).

A visit to the Garrick typically begins in the Cocktail Bar, which is situated on the first floor and presided over by head barman Harry Soekarni. Only members and their male guests are permitted, but female guests may be entertained in the Morning Room, across the landing from the bar.

This is followed by lunch or dinner in the Coffee Room. There is a long table for members (with one male guest at lunch or two in the evening) in the centre of the room. Guests may also be entertained at more private side tables. In the evenings, lady guests are permitted to dine at the side tables.

The food has improved in recent years, though if there is a fault it is in the unadventurous nature of the menu. The wines are excellent, especially the clarets and burgundies; a few members keep private collections within the club’s cellar.

After a meal, members and their male guests wishing to continue drinking, may retire to the screened-off space ‘under the stairs’, which is arguably the heart and soul of the club. This is where the candidates’ books are kept. Members are supposed to sign the front of a candidate’s page if they know him well enough to write a personal letter, otherwise they sign the back. Members sometimes find that in a state of undue enthusiasm born of inebriation they have signed a page more than once. A vessel on the mantelpiece above the fireplace contains snuff for those of an antique disposition and a couple of bell-pushes are used to summon a wine steward.

In addition to the Coffee Room, there is another members’ dining room, the Irving Room, which serves as an overflow and also for post-theatre dining and breakfast, as well as three private dining rooms varying in capacity from 12 to 48. There is also a reading room, card room, billiard room and a library devoted to the theatrical arts, which is available to visiting scholars. Club dinners, library talks and occasional concerts are arranged for members’ benefit.

The property of the club is vested in four trustees and its administration is supervised by the General Committee and various sub-committees, while its daily running is the responsibility of the secretary. The new secretary, who has been in the post for just over a year, is Olaf Born, who trained in a German hotel, then came to England in 1989. He worked in various country-house hotels before completing his degree at the hotel management school in Heidelberg. The following ten years he worked for the seventh Marquis of Northampton, running his stately home at Castle Ashby as a dedicated venue with 26 bedrooms for corporate events and dinner dances.

‘The reason I decided to apply to the Garrick Club,’ says Born, ‘is that Castle Ashby had enjoyed a lot of repeat clients and was very customer-orientated, and I did not want to go back into hotels as such.’ He likes the personal element of an establishment with members or regular guests. He had never been to the Garrick before being appointed; indeed, he’d never set foot in any club before.

‘I tried to visit the Garrick before my job interview,’ he recalls, ‘but the porter wouldn’t let me in.’ His biggest challenge thus far has been getting to know the members face to face and forging relationships. He is acutely aware of the need to make gradual changes within the club without damaging the culture. Born tries to stay in the club at least two nights a week. If the members’ accommodation is full, he will stay in the Chairman’s Bedroom. He meets members in the Cocktail Bar and will sometimes go down for dinner, though he doesn’t like to impose.

The club recently acquired a nearby property in Covent Garden called Exchange Court, purportedly in order to be able to offer more staff accommodation locally in the future, although it is shortly to be rented out as office space.

At present, there are only ten bedrooms for members to stay the night (compared to the Reform Club, which has 60 bedrooms). Each has a TV and will soon have wi-fi internet access. The Garrick also has use of the premises next door to the club and is intending to make the space available to members, as extra overnight accommodation and possibly for members to use laptops and check emails.

Visitors in the next year will not be able to appreciate the glories of the main staircase, which is being refurbished. All the paintings have been taken away for restoration and the Works of Art Committee is considering where they will be positioned. The re-plastering and painting of the staircase starts next August, when the club closes for its summer break, and the paintings will be rehung the following January.

According to the latest club newsletter, two porters have experienced strange goings-on in the dead of night, leading to fanciful speculation that the ghosts of those distinguished thespians Garrick and Irving (though Garrick was never a member, of course) still patrol the building.

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