Friday, 4 March 2011

Winston Churchill, F.E. Smith and "The Other Club": Doing One's Own Thing with Aplomb

As the Idle Historian, I wrote somewhat recently on the Sublime Society of Beef Steaks at Eating Like an Edwardian. The existence of these societies are but one example of the importance of clubs and being "clubbable" to the British upper classes. The area of Pall Mall and St. James in London still serves as the preserve of these august clubs, and their names are legendary: The Athenaeum, The Reform and Carlton Clubs (political in nature), White's, Brooks's, and The Traveler's Club.

I recently came across a lengthy reference to "The Other Club" in Juliet Nicolson's book The Perfect Summer: Dancing into Shadow, England in 1911. The Club was created by the young Home Secretary Winston Churchill (a Liberal) and his friend, the
Conservative MP F.E. Smith, after they were refused entry to the prestigious group known simply as The Club (founded by no less than Joshua Reynolds and Samuel Johnson.) The Other Club was designed to be composed of 12 Liberals, 12 Conservatives, and 12 "distinguished outsiders," and to dine fortnightly during the sitting of Parliament. The Club was meant to promote cross-party conviviality though the last of its 12 rules, brilliantly acerbic in tone, was contributed by Churchill:

"Nothing in the rules or intercourse of the Club shall interfere with the rancour or asperity of party politics."

In other words, no plotting of coalitions was to be even contemplated during Club meetings -- present events might certainly have turned out differently if David Cameron and Nick Clegg were members of a society such as The Other Club (although the original Club has not dined for something on the order of 40 years).

Winston Churchill's personality, grand exploits, and the mythology of his Prime Ministership during the Second World War, need no retelling here. F.E. Smith, on the other hand, is remembered largely for his connection to the great man. But he himself was a bold, larger-than-life character on the political stage.

[F.E. Smith, caricature in Vanity Fair from 1907, soon after delivering his fiery maiden speech in the House. Note the similarity of this caricature to that of contemporary Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, which serves as the avatar for the Idle Historian.]


Smith was tall, slim, debonair, ambitious, and his maiden speech -- in contradiction to the tradition of mild-mannered and deferential offerings -- was a challenge to the government over their tactics in the previous election. He was so forthright and occasioned such comment that one distinguished society lady was said to remark: "Who is this Effie Smith? She can't be a modest girl to be so talked about."

These characteristics, mirrored by his friend Churchill who was bold, brash, indefatigable -- and always well fortified with copious quantities of champagne, claret, and brandy -- served the two well in their adventures and lifelong friendship.

The first dinner of The Other Club was held at the Savoy on 18 May 1911. As Juliet Nicolson describes:

The membership was essentially made up of those who were young, witty and unconventional, several of them only hovering on the decorous fringes of the Establishment... The chairmanship of The Club was to be rotated between the members of the two political parties. It was said that a waiter was co-opted to make up the number in the event that only 13 guests turned up to diner -- until it was realised that he could not be trusted to keep his mouth shut, and a large wooden black cat was imported to fill the extra seat in his stead. 'To Dine' was the ostensible object of The Other Club, but at £2 a head, the equivalent of a week's wage for the average working man... it was an expensive evening. Churchill always ordered 'off the menu' when it came to the dessert course. His choice of Roquefort cheese, a peeled pear and mixed ice cream never varied... The Club offered a refuge, a place where conviviality thrived and a tolerant exchange of views was encouraged... The Club was a symbolic manifestation of the friendship between Winston Churchill and F.E. Smith. The first evening was considered a triumph by everyone who attended, and all agreed to gather again at the Savoy... [Nicolson, p. 47-8]
The Other Club, born as a wry and witty means to spite the Establishment that had been spiteful towards them, was an expression of Churchill and Smith's personalities and aplomb. It represented a freewheeling devil-may-care attitude and bipartisanship that, sadly, is quite missing in the stage-managed sound-bite world of contemporary politics. It is a relic of the class and era of its legendary founders.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils

9 comments:

James said...

I think I would have preferred a membership in a beefsteak club,That said an evening with a young Churchill and Smith would have been fascinating.

Tabitha said...

I always thought it was rather splendid that Winston Churchill always insisted that Kaspar the cat dined with The Other Club. The secrets that cat must know.

IdleHistorian said...

Thank you for your comments James and Tabitha.

Of course the beeksteak club(s) were also quite fabulous! And the inclusion of the cat at The Other Club just proves how fun the whole enterprise must have been...

Toad said...

The Other Club sounds very much like how I imagine dinner at the manse of the Idle Historian's to be.

IdleHistorian said...

Thanks kindly Toad! The Idle Historian attempts, of course, to keep up a certain style. Even when it is merely a dinner with a party of one...

Evangeline Holland said...

F.E. Smith is a severely underrated and unjustly forgotten figure of the 201th century. Regardless of one's personal political leanings, I find him utterly fascinating and a sort of unsung influence on Winston Churchill.

IdleHistorian said...

Thanks Evangeline. And I quite agree -- he is terribly fascinating, and no doubt did everything with great style.

Anonymous said...

All Old Birkonians do everything in style......even today.

Anonymous said...

Actually, the Other Club still extists today and contunues to dine at the Savoy.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...