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Last Updated: Monday, 24 November 2003, 13:24 GMT
'If anybody wants me, I'll be at my club'
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News Online Magazine

Prince William
Prince William is following in his father's footsteps
Prince William loves clubbing, which may come as no surprise, given his carefully-cultivated image as a modern, youthful man about town.

But William's club of choice is not the Ministry of Sound, Annabel's or even celebrity hang-out China White's.

It is White's, of St James - the oldest and most exclusive gentleman's club in London.

Like his father, Prince Charles, William has reportedly put his name down to join this venerable establishment. And he is not alone.

The gentleman's club, that much lampooned bastion of privilege and tradition, is enjoying something of a renaissance.

Young aristocrats who would have once spurned the crusty portals of White's, Boodle's and Brooks's, the trio of clubs that form the backbone of London's clubland, in favour of more egalitarian pleasures are now queuing up to join.

'Bad years'

Clubs which were facing closure 25 years ago have discovered a new lease of life. In his 1979 book, the Gentleman's Clubs of London, Anthony Lejeune says the 1960s and 1970s were "bad years for gentleman, and therefore for gentleman's clubs".

London clubs
White's
Brooks's
Boodle's
The Carlton Club
The Army and Navy Club
The Garrick Club
The Arts Club
The Royal Automobile Club
But he now says his gloom was misplaced.

"It has done far better than I predicted. It revived well under Mrs Thatcher," he says. Part of this is down to the "high price" of London restaurants, making club dining rooms a more attractive option to the cost conscious man about town.

Revolution

He adds: "The young have realised they can have fun at a club. It is where their friends are".

I think White's could be more mischievous. It has become rather serioso. The rough and tumble was more vigorous in the 1960s
Tom Stacey, White's member
Last month, Prince William reportedly spent the afternoon playing snooker with three friends at White's, where his father held his stag night more than 20 years ago.

Clearly the traditional image of the ancient clubman - snoring gently in a leather armchair, a carefully-ironed copy of the Times resting on his florid face - is changing.

Or is it?

Asked what is the biggest change London's clubs have seen in recent years, Mr Lejeune, cites the disappearance "virtually overnight in the late 1960s" of bowler hats and umbrellas.

Oh, and "accommodation for women".

"For years I voted against women guests at Boodle's, but I think it has added tremendously to the evening. It used to be rather dull. Now it is rather jolly," says Mr Lejeune.

But he adds: "The thing you notice is that the decibel level goes up. It is much less peaceful."

'Refuge'

Women are still barred from membership at White's, although according to Mr Lejeune this is more down to practical considerations than outdated attitudes.

Bar sign
Many clubs remain male-only environments
"There is nowhere to put them. There is not enough space."

So what will Prince William get for his 850 annual membership fee?

Author and publisher Tom Stacey, who has been a White's member for 40 years, describes it is a "refuge".

"You can be completely unselfconscious. You are among people you have grown up with, people you went to school with.

"You speak the same instinctive language. It is not snobbish. It just allows you to relax. You can break wind and nobody minds."

Wild behaviour

White's was founded in 1693. Former members include Regency buck Beau Brummel, and every English prime minister from Walpole to Peel.

Cards were traditionally played for high stakes and members had a fondness for exotic wagers, which were recorded in the club's betting book.

Carlton Club
A rare glimpse inside the Carlton Club
According to Mr Lejeune's book, "one member bet 1,000 that man could live 12 hours underwater. A low fellow was hired, and sunk in a ship by way of experiment - but the bet was lost".

In more recent times, White's has acquired a reputation for raffishness and wild behaviour, particularly in the era when Randolph Churchill and Evelyn Waugh were regular visitors.

Tom Stacey misses those days.

"I think White's could be more mischievous. It has become rather serioso. The rough and tumble was more vigorous in the 1960s."

Shrouded in mystery

He recalls "wrestling on the floor of the billiard room" with one member, following a disagreement.

"An enjoyable engagement," he recalls with a twinkle.

The membership process, like much else associated with London's clubs, is shrouded in mystery.

According to Tom Stacey, you need a proposer and two seconders. The applicant's name then "sits around in a book for a while, collecting signatures, until it has about 35.

"They have to be people who know them, who can say if he is a good bloke or not."

Once in, membership is "practically never" revoked, but "there have certainly been quite a few blackballs", where membership is refused by the committee.

Indignity

There are also certain social rules to be observed.

"You never talk about business. There is really no networking. That is a no-no. You dress for the occasion. Not formally, but you wouldn't go there in a pullover. You would probably wear a suit. You are gracious to the staff."

It seems unlikely that Prince William will suffer the indignity of being blackballed - or have to wait eight years to become a member.

But Anthony Lejeune is surprised the heir to the throne has had the opportunity to join in the first place.

The tortuous application process means there are few members of William's age - and fathers are not allowed to propose their sons.

He concedes that things can be speeded up "in certain circumstances".

"If the applicant is over 80 for example."




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