Taken to the Garrick Club one evening, I was surprised when a mouse ran across the carpet. I squeaked and pulled my legs up. Not a murmur from the other armchairs. My host leaned over. ‘No one minds the mice,’ he explained. ‘It’s the women they don’t want.’ It made me laugh then and it makes me laugh now.
I thought fondly of this story when I read in the paper that Emily Bendell, founder of the lingerie brand Bluebella, had instructed lawyers to seek an injunction preventing the Garrick from ‘continuing to operate its discriminatory policy’ of excluding women would-be members. As it happens, I don’t mind being there on sufferance between the allotted hours and in the permitted rooms. Boys will be boys, gentlemen will be gentlemen. Don’t let the buffers get you down.
It has been a summer of postponed weddings and that means cancelled stag-dos too. Some grooms are planning ‘small stags’ (muntjacs, perhaps?) when social distancing allows. I feel for my husband. Formerly, I packed him off for weekends in Hamburg of beer halls, night clubs and Miniatur Wunderland, the largest model railway in the world, in the knowledge that he would come home happy and restored. In the strange spring months of isolation it became all too apparent that my cricket chat was lacking and my football banter poor. On Sunday afternoons, he would disappear into the study for epic pub quiz sessions, beer on desk, mates on Zoom, and emerge hours later as new.
The word ‘bastion’, usually coupled with ‘male’, is invariably framed as a Bad Thing. But the bastion serves its purpose. Men need safe spaces too. If the shed, the scout hut, the working men’s club, the boys’ locker room, the boxing gym, the Great British boarding school, offer a place to beat chests, to let off steam, to eat, drink, belch and be merry, and if members return to their womenfolk calmer and more cheerful, then, well, floreat clubhouse! Likewise, the sanctity of the WI meeting, the stitching circle, the book group, the hen party, the spa day and the girls’ night in or out.
One of the pleasanter battle cries of social media is ‘find your tribe’. The tribe has nothing to do with creed, colour or country. It’s about fellowship with those who love the things you love. So if you identify as a guerrilla knitter, a vegan baker, a heavy metaller, a Vauxhall camper-vanner, a dahlia-fancier, a mudlark or a collector of Staffordshire china, there’s a Facebook page, an Instagram gang, a message board to connect you to other like-minded souls. If your tribe happens to be other barristers, actors and hacks who like their preprandial Twiglets, their 18th-century paintings (‘come up and see my Zoffanys some time’), their nursery puddings, their grouse in season and their women elsewhere, then the Garrick waiting list awaits.
I don’t doubt that the club has its dinosaurs, but really there are scarier beasts to slay. Over lockdown, calls to the police about domestic abuse rose by at least 15 per cent. Controlling husbands and fathers were given the government’s stamp of authority to keep their wives and daughters at home. Since 4 July, has anything ‘eased’ for them? Meanwhile, the debate about whether women’s refuges, changing rooms, loos, dormitories and hospital wards should be gender blind hasn’t gone away. And don’t forget that every summer, girls born in Britain are taken abroad, mutilated and returned to school in September in pain and incomplete. One minor mercy of the travel restrictions is that a cohort of girls may have been spared this assault.
But no, the burning issue of our day is whether women can have a green-and-pink Garrick garter belt to match the gentlemen’s ties. There’s a whiff of publicity drubbing here. Had you heard of Bluebella before the bra-and-knicker brand’s appearance on p3 — nudge, nudge, wink, wink — of the Times? Me neither. If anything, I find the stockinged rig-outs of the models on the Bluebella website — don’t all click at once — more offensive than the ‘discrimination’ practised at the Garrick. At least the club insists on jackets and collared shirts at all times. Fight the bigger battles, smash every glass ceiling going, but leave the oak panelled doors alone.