The president stood up, put on his green velvet cap, lifted the gavel and brought it down sharply to call us to order. We were sitting in a horseshoe on either side of him, half of us with a red rose in our lapel and the others wearing white ones.
He was the most interim of presidents, in office for one night only as neither the outgoing incumbent nor his chosen successor could be there and he confessed right away that he didn’t know what he was doing. He confirmed it a few minutes later by getting the date of the club’s foundation wrong, shrugging amiably when a member draped in a couple of layers of old tweed corrected him.
The club has met twice a year for dinner since the 1890s, for most of that time in the same building in Mayfair where about 30 of us were sitting now. It commemorates a single poem written in the 19th century and honours its author while celebrating conviviality, friendship and the view that life is not to be taken too seriously.
The format is always the same with the names of all the members and guests printed on the menu, which has a drawing on the front and a poem on the back. The poem is recited by its author, the artist explains the drawing and there are two other speeches, one a learned reflection on the club’s literary subject and the other a vilification of the guests.
My guest demanded we meet outside because he was afraid to go in on his own, an anxiety that proved well-founded when he was confronted by an old friend of mine who has become more eccentric over the years.
“Are you a spy?” he said.
When I boasted that my guest was, in fact, a poet it only deepened my old friend’s suspicion and he gave us both an arch, knowing smile. He sat next to me at dinner while my guest was trapped on the other side of the table with his, a morose figure who announced as they sat down that he had nothing to say.
My old friend’s conversation was more promising although it came in fits and starts, stopping abruptly every so often as he stared at the ceiling or jumped up to take a picture of me with his phone. During one of his silences, I asked him about one of the guests on the other side of the room.
“The one who looks like Marcel Proust?” he said.
It was true. He had the same heavy eyelids, smooth, sallow complexion and soft, drooping moustache and he sat impassively throughout, watching quietly. Before I could find out more, my old friend stood up and announced that he was swapping places with my guest.
After our dinner of beef and suet pie washed down with wine that had oesophageal reflux written all over it, the speeches began. The artist was a little sentimental about missing friends during the lockdowns, the poet made no claims for his doggerel and the learned speech was mostly inaudible.
As always, the vilification of the guests was the highlight as the club secretary used the biographical details we provided to accuse them all of being imposters and fantasists. It was revelatory too, so that I only noticed how improbably broad Marcel Proust’s shoulders were when we were told that he was a professional rugby player.
As we laughed and blushed our way through the speeches and the members toasted the guests, the guests toasted the members and we all toasted our honoured poet, I thought about how many gatherings like this were happening all over England on this cold, dark night. Every country has its clubs and associations but nowhere are they invested with so much ceremony and with so much effort put into the most trivial of rituals as in England.
Roger Scruton described it as a kind of enchantment that endows objects, customs and institutions with a moral character, so that we respond to them as we respond to one another and to which the English were more than normally alert.
“They related more easily to clubs, regiments, schools and teams than to human beings. Or rather, they found human relations more natural, more easy to conduct without embarrassment, when they occurred between people already joined by some shared form of membership,” he wrote.
Looking around towards the end of the evening, the timid and the awkward seemed as contented as the charming and the clever and the brilliant chatted easily with the bores. As we were leaving, I saw my old friend standing alone like Charlie Chaplin with his feet splayed and an umbrella over his arm.
“Let’s meet again soon,” he said, looking at the floor.
“We can talk about, I don’t know, life.”