Sunday, 27 October 2013

Review: Beyond Black

Mantel, Hilary, Beyond Black, Harper Perennial / HarperCollinsPublishers, London, 2005.

Octavo; paperback, with illustrated wrappers; 451pp. Somewhat cocked; text block and page edges lightly toned; minor wear to covers. Very good.

“There are nights when you don’t want to do it, but you have to do it anyway. Nights when you look down from the stage and see closed stupid faces. Messages from the dead arrive at random. You don’t want them and you can’t send them back. The dead won’t be coaxed and they won’t be coerced. But the public has paid its money and it wants results.”

Before the Booker Prizes, before the quotes taken out of context, before overnight world-wide instant acclaim, Hilary Mantel wrote a bunch of other books. Most importantly for me, and any similarly-minded readers out there, she wrote this book – Beyond Black – a two-fisted, nitrous-fuelled, headrush into the Unknown, Beyond the Veil. This is a book for cover-judgers: what you see is what you get. This book goes – blasts – into some dark, dark places; it has plenty of humour along the way, teamed up with some withering exposés of the human condition, but the subject matter and the humour is as black as it gets – beyond black.

The story revolves around two partners in the psychic business: Alison, or Al, who comes from impoverished roots and who has spoken with ghosts ever since she can remember, and lost, directionless Colette, a ruthlessly efficient business-woman newly cut loose from her dead-end marriage and her dead-head husband. In seeking purpose and answers for why her relationship crashed so badly, Colette encounters Al and Al proposes that she becomes her personal assistant and business partner. Colette reluctantly agrees; not because she has reservations about the supernatural, but because she needs to work: one of her previous prognosticators told her that she would find true love by charting a new direction and cutting loose from old ways, and by meeting a man at her new job.

The two women cannot be more dissimilar: Al is hugely obese, a mountain of soft flesh, while Colette is small, slim and angular – all hard lines and jutting bones. Colette is very direct, believing that all questions have simple, straightforward answers; Al’s world is nebulous and inexplicable: nothing is what it seems and she usually doesn’t have the vocabulary to explain to Colette what is happening. And then, to make things messy, there’s Morris.

Morris is Al’s spirit guide. No-one but Al can see him, but he makes his presence known to all. Morris is dead; an ex-jockey, drunkard, foul-mouthed, lecherous pervert, who – to Al’s great misfortune – was a mate of all the low-life lawless workmen for whom Al’s mum, Emmie, was the ‘town bike’. At the age of eight, one of Emmie’s regulars – “Keef” – brought his fighting dogs to the house and one of them tried to kill Al: since then she has scars and a peculiar affinity for spectral dogs and their mournful sense of loss - finding themselves without their owners in the land of the dead - or still suffering the pain and bewilderment of mistreatment at the hands of brutal owners. Morris, who acts as a conduit for Al, bringing the dead to talk through her to their surviving family members, has the nasty habit of bringing Al’s mum’s dead lovers to stay with him, forcing Al to keep moving to new houses, free of spectral taint, shaking off the unwanted unliving.

Colette, as well as organising and re-vivifying Al’s accounts, marketing and methods of client management, also decides that Al should produce a book. Consequently, they embark upon some recorded sessions wherein Colette interviews Al about her past and her working methods. Chunks of the book are transcripts of these sessions and there are some brilliant moments of golden dialogue. These trips down memory lane throw Al into long periods of self-examination: her childhood, filled as it was with the most horrible mental, emotional and physical abuse, has been mercifully blanked by her psyche and she remembers most of it as simply an unpleasant haze. Unfortunately, Colette’s questioning and Morriss’s unwelcome visitors start to open some messy worm-cans.

Mantel masterfully orchestrates the mechanics of talking to the dead and the activities of those who facilitate the process. She has a needle tapped straight into the veins of those who seek out psychic practitioners for comfort of solace: she mercilessly portrays their obsessive, compulsive self-abuse and wallowing. As well, she conjures a gallery of psychic operators – tarot card readers, palmists, druids, tasseomancers – who are as cynical and money-focussed as any suit-wearing operator from London’s Golden Mile. However – and here’s where Mantel’s brilliance shows through at its best – we meet all of these people through Al, whose generosity of spirit and need to remain “professional” and cater for everyone’s needs, never allows them to become truly the monsters they could be.

Al tells us that the dead are petty, self-obsessed and have hang-ups about the most ridiculous things – one spirit insists that Al pass on a message about the location of a missing cardigan button; another repeatedly tells her that she’s been looking for her best friend for over thirty years; Morris spends most of his time with his dick out. This is the reason, she tells Colette after some persistent questioning, why they don’t bother explaining what Heaven and Hell and God are like. Sometimes Al explains, the dead aren’t forthcoming at all; then she has to fall back on her telepathy to impress her clients. Colette becomes more confused and tries to spot the difference between ‘Al being a medium’ and ‘Al being telepathic’, to no real effect.

The matter-of-fact treatment of the supernatural here is what makes the whole package work. The psychics all compete for new innovations that will allow them to corner the market – Vedic palmistry versus Traditional; Vastu instead of Feng Shui – but their squabbling for buzz-words is merely the gloss on top of the given that is the communication with those “passed over”. At one “psychic fayre” on the weekend of Princess Diana’s funeral, they warily circle each other each trying to be the first to receive a communication from HRH, but trying not to make it look opportunistic. Ironically, Al is the only one who does get an audience, but it happens in her hotel room where no-one except Colette (who doesn’t understand what’s happening) is there to see it.
Ultimately, what drives Al (with Colette, stumbling briskly in her wake) is the knowledge of What Comes Next, and her desperate fear to avoid it, just as she tried to avoid the casual, brutal realities of her childhood. In essence, Al becomes a dweller on the hinterlands, neither here nor there, pacifying the living and trying to keep the dead under control. As you read on, your realisation of the subtleties (and grotesqueries) of her position become terrifying clear.

It’s not only the source material that makes this a great read; it’s also the consummate writing that it showcases. Mantel has a gimlet eye and pins down the bleak urban landscapes which our two heroines tear through with uncanny and beautiful accuracy. Try this:

“A sea-green sky: lamps blossoming white. This is marginal land: fields of strung wire, of treadless tyres in ditches, fridges dead on their backs, and starving ponies cropping the mud. It is a landscape running with outcasts and escapees, with Afghans, Turks and Kurds: with scapegoats, scarred with bottle and burn marks, limping from the cities with broken ribs. The life forms here are rejects, or anomalies: the cats tipped from speeding cars, and the Heathrow sheep, their fleece clotted with the stench of aviation fuel.”

In a world where so much of what gets published is just bad writing that should never have made it to the page, this is a breath of fresh air. Or rather, a great, gulping, lung-filling sense of relief that there is a master at work out there in the field.

And of course, this gets the full five Tentacled Horrors from me, along with a stern injunction to find it and read it!

Friday, 25 October 2013

Review: The Ghost of 29 Megacycles

Fuller, John G., The Ghost of 29 Megacycles, Souvenir Press Ltd., London, 1985.

Octavo; hardcover, with silver-gilt spine-titling; 257pp. Near fine in like dustwrapper, now protected by archival–quality non-adhesive plastic film.

I’m only halfway through this at the moment but I’ve already got up such a head of steam that I need to de-pressurise a bit before I go on. This is a book about technology being used to determine if there are ghosts out there; about science going head-to-head with “things beyond the veil”, and I had high hopes of a satisfying conclusion.

It’s not that I have a superstitious mind, or that I believe prima facie in the supernatural: when I was a kid, like a lot of kids, I wanted magic and spooks and monsters to be real. Too often I found that exploring the world for the supernatural led to pat answers about how “magical” the world is, if you look at it in just the right way; that is, if you use your imagination and play nicely. Not satisfying. I was reading about actual monsters - werewolves being hunted through the villages of 16th Century France; the Amityville Horror; UFOs and the Bermuda Triangle: I didn’t want someone at the end of the show saying “how much fun was that? See what we can do if we all play the same imaginary games?” Going through all of the cut-and-thrust, only to be told what a great, fictional story it all is, was the ultimate cop-out to my 8-year-old way of thinking.

This attitude remains with me today. I don’t mind following through on an investigation only to find out that some phenomenon is the result of creaky floorboards, glowing marsh gas and a few over-active imaginations; I don’t mind the Scooby-Doo ending if it’s reached intelligently and logically; however, I REALLY dislike being dragged through a narrative, hooked along by someone else’s poor assumptions.

This I think is one of the reasons I like Charles Fort (what he stood for anyway; not his writing style). His basic premise is that too often, in any field of human endeavour, people become blinkered by their assumptions about what ought to be happening and refuse to look at what’s actually going on. His main target was the scientific community which, having structured itself in such a way as to discount anything which doesn’t fall within its consensus-backed, peer-reviewed parameters, refuses to even look at anything anomalous. To this end he wrote (turgid, poorly-expressed, incendiary, convoluted) lists of anything that was out of the ordinary, so that it stood on record until such a time that science advanced far enough to be able to understand what had been going on. Fort didn’t have any answers; what he did have was a bee in his bonnet about people who refused to lift their heads up and look around.

The thing that really griped Fort’s cookies was that the scientific community claimed to have all of the answers. It annoyed him that Science, when confronted with the Unknown, often declared in a patronising manner “there has to be a rational explanation”, without then going on to provide one. Discount and move on: this seemed to him to be Science’s standard operating procedure. There are echoes of Fort’s annoyance in every episode of the X-Files, where Government deniability swoops in to conceal, appropriate and cover-up anything that seems strange and unusual. Fox Mulder: the modern-day Charles Fort.

So, I thought this book would be something a little refreshing: the scientific community setting out seriously to discover the nature of Life After Death.

The story is as follows: a well-known industrial engineer named Meeks, a staunch member of the scientific community, approaches our author to ask him to write an unbiased, impartial record of his discoveries in finding a method to communicate with the Dead. This scientist claims to have found a way to get ghosts to communicate with the living through an extension of principles outlined as EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena), working with the spirits of dead scientists to refine the process. It sounded pretty whacky to me (as it would to anyone really) but I decided to take the ride and see where it took me.

The book started off with many authorial assertions from Fuller that he was unwilling to take on the task, that he found the whole thing too preposterous. This was followed by claims to have researched all of the people involved, to see if they were members of the lunatic fringe (and thus to be avoided). Then we had the face-to-face meeting where we were told that everyone present was “normal” and earnest, in no way fruity or demonstrably unhinged. Meeks and his wife meet Fuller and his wife and they discuss the project over tea: Meeks is calm of aspect, steadfast in his beliefs, engaging in manner. The wives are supportive and engaged on both sides of the equation, and we get some homey exchanges of dialogue between Fuller and his missus about what the project entails and where it’s going.

It took less than this much to make my “baloney senses” start tingling.

Arguably, it’s my Gen-X attitudes showing, but when anyone tries this hard to convince me that everything’s OK, I automatically start picking at the cracks. The book to this point followed a well-trod path of deflecting suspicion and reservation: I was being asked not to harbour a feeling that anything other than what I was being told was going on. Strike one: I don’t like being told what to think, and I can see a soft-soap job coming a mile off.

We next had chapters of background, both of Meeks and Fuller, specifically, his past books which rang like self-promotion and advertising. To be frank, it was boring and I kept wanting him get to the punchline. Eventually, we started to hear about Meeks’s initial experiments wherein a cabal of technicians gathered regularly in a rented room with some hard-core audio and other electronic equipment to download information from the Afterlife, in the company of a medium.

What? A medium?

Here’s where the fantasy unravels: we’re told that our scientific researchers are wary of accepting the evidence of spirits from The Other Side, but that the main tentpole of their investigation is a crystal-ball-gazing, tarot-card-shuffling medium. Sorry: given that the presence of the one automatically assumes the fact of the other, as far as scientific method goes this is shooting itself in the foot from the get-go.

Further assertions of serious attitude follow: we’re told that the experiments begin with an earnest prayer; that the medium is not some gypsy-descended fruitcake, but is a reluctant acknowledger of the “gifts” they have been imbued with. Really? Seriously, they could be prayers to Satan at the start of a Black Mass for all I care, it just says that there’s all kinds of bias going on here, not just the taking for granted that dead people live on after “moving on”.

But wait: there’s more. Meeks tells us that, after many sessions tweaking an oscilloscope and twitching a metaphorical cat’s whisker, he has discovered that people “over there” live a life of pure thought and spiritual development; some people arrive less-than-perfectly adapted and must be schooled in ascending to higher grades of spiritual excellence. “Life” is spent enjoying the prospect of mental and spiritual attunement, passing on to higher states of phantasmagorical excellence. And there are scientists over there working night and day to find ways of communicating with their loved ones.

Come On! Seriously? Despite the fact that it all sounds mind-bogglingly tedious, has anyone else noticed that all of this material is being made available by one single individual whose “abilities” are assumed, cannot be measured or quantified, and are probably pure hogwash? Well, Meeks and his cabal of serious-minded researchers certainly have no problems with this, and Fuller is keen to make sure that we readers don’t either.

(Insert here the sound of a book flying across the room to bounce off a wall.)

This is no journalistic effort: it’s crap. Fuller’s assumptions – which he may have been sold on by Meeks – are creaky and don’t hold up to any reasonable examination. The premise that mediums exist, that psychic energies swirl around us and can be manipulated by schooled, talented individuals, is not a given, so any “research” which takes off from this premise is necessarily flawed and untenable. Let’s not even mention that a lead chapter outlining the author’s other literary efforts reeks of self-promotion and warns that this entire effort is likely to be an exercise in unit-shifting rather than revelation. Oh, did I just mention that? My bad.

I feel, like Fort, that I shouldn’t be judgemental and that I should keep an open mind about the assertions here. However, I’m not an idiot: the world has rules and it has a lot of snake-oil salesmen. I’m prepared to be astonished by new discoveries, not to be made to swallow a line.

Forty years on, there are still no monsters, ghosts or UFOs; sadly, there are still a lot of bullshit shovelers.

No Tentacled Horrors for this con-job.



Established: 1819

“‘If I had a conscience,’ Doctor Percival said, ‘I would not remain a member here. I’m a member because the food is the best in London’
‘I like the food at the Travellers’ just as much,’ Hargreaves said.”
-Grahame Greene, The Human Factor

1819-1822: 12 Waterloo Place
1822-1832: 70 Pall Mall, SW1
1832-Present: 106 Pall Mall, SW1

Entry Restrictions
Men only, on the proviso that they have “travelled out of the British islands to a distance of at least five hundred miles from London in a direct line”; a stipulation of membership is that all nominated candidates must name at least four foreign countries which they have personally visited.

Famous Members
Prince Talleyrand (1754-1838)
Lord Castlereagh (1769-1822)
Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington (1769-1852)
George Canning (1770-1827)
Sir Francis Beaufort (1774-1857)
Earl of Aberdeen (1784-1860)
Viscount Palmerston (1784-1865)
C.R. Cockerell (1788-1863)
Sir William Parry (1790-1855)
Sir Roderick Murchison (1792-1871)
Sir Charles Barry (1795-1860)
FitzRoy of the “Beagle” (1805-1865)
Arthur Balfour (1848-1930)
Stanley Baldwin (1867-1947)
Sir Wilfred Thesiger (1910-2003)

Skills Augmented:
Anthropology, Credit Rating, Other Language, History; Navigation

Areas of Speciality:
Diplomatic Relations; Foreign Affairs; Historical Matters; Travel Literature; Cartographic issues

Once peace had been restored in Europe, After the Napoleonic Wars, A group of English gentlemen – amongst them Lord Castlereagh – saw a need for an organisation which could use its experience of foreign countries and manners to facilitate new connexions with former enemies. The idea was that a Club of well-travelled individuals could provide hospitality to foreign travellers, which would then facilitate reciprocal relations overseas.

The Club was originally established at Waterloo Place, its ideals enshrined in its charter and the head of Ulysses chosen for its badge; however the premises there were soon deemed to be unfit. Charles Barry was commissioned to design and build a new headquarters and in the meantime, the Club relocated to 70 Pall Mall before taking up residence in the house which he built at 106. The building is redolent of overseas architectural influences, mainly Italianate, which spoke strongly of the Grand Tour, an essential part of any young man’s upbringing at the time. Barry received £1,500 and lifetime membership for his efforts.

Principal rooms in the Traveller’s Club include the Library – often cited as one of the most elegant venues in London – and the Map Room, home to many rare and important original travel documents, on the ground floor. The Bramall Room opens out onto the Carlton Gardens to allow pleasant meanderings in warmer weather.

The interior is lavishly decorated in mahogany and brass, designed also by Barry, with an ornate handrail up the main staircase, installed to allow the French Prince Talleyrand to access the upper levels in his later years. Amongst all this finery, there are also excellent examples of art, objets and decorations from across the globe.

“Treddleford sat in an easeful armchair in front of a slumberous fire, with a volume of verse in his hand and the comfortable consciousness that outside the club windows the rain was dripping and pattering with persistent purpose. A chill, wet October afternoon was emerging into a black, wet October evening, and the club smoking-room seemed warmer and cosier by contrast. It was an afternoon on which to be wafted away from one’s climatic surroundings, and The Golden Journey to Samarkand promised to bear Treddleford well and bravely into other lands and under other skies...”
-Saki, “A Defensive Diamond”

Sunday, 20 October 2013

The Drone's...

The Drone’s
Established: 1910

“We're pretty broad minded here, and if you stop short of smashing the piano, there isn't much you can do at the Drones that will cause the raised eyebrow and the sharp intake of breath"

-A Drone’s Member

Dover Street, Mayfair, W1

Entry Restrictions
Men only
Famous Members
Samuel Galahad “Sam” Bagshott
Charles Edward “Biffy” Biffen
Montague “Monty” Bodkin
Godfrey “Biscuit” Brent, Lord Biskerton
“Tubby” Bridgnorth
Frederick “Freddie” Bullivant
Hugo Carmody
G. d’Arcy “Stilton” Cheesewright
Marmaduke “Chuffy” Chuffnell
Nelson Cor
Dudley Finch
Augustus “Gussie” Fink-Nottle
Ronald Overbury “Ronnie” Fish
George “Boko” Fittleworth
Cyril “Barmy” Fotheringay-Phipps
Hildebrand “Tuppy” Glossop
Richard “Bingo” Little
Algernon “Algy” Martyn
Archibald “Archie” Mulliner
Horace Pendlebury-Davenport
Judson Phipps
Harold “Stinker” Pinker
Tipton Plimsoll
Claude Cattermole “Catsmeat” Potter Pirbright
Alexander “Oofy” Prosser
Rupert “Psmith” Smith
Adolphus “Stiffy” Stiffham
Reginald “Reggie” Tennyson
Frederick “Freddie” Threepwood
Reginald “Pongo” Twistleton
Hugo Walderwick
Frederick “Freddie” Widgeon
Percy Wimbolt
Harold “Ginger” Winship
Bertram “Bertie” Wooster
Algernon “Algy” Wymondham-Wymondham

Skills Augmented:
Bargain; Cricket; Fist/Punch; Sneak; Throw;
Areas of Speciality:
Country House Retreats; Cricket; Famous Cooks; Musical Theatre

Not all of London’s most famous Clubs are, in fact, real. Some of them exist only in the pages of famous writers who, themselves, drew upon their own memberships for inspiration. We’ve seen how Boodle’s provided Ian Fleming with the notion of M’s Club Blades, and other writers have developed their own establishments in a similar fashion. Most famous of all however, has to be the Drone’s Club, created by Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse.

The founding of the Drone’s Club is shrouded in the mists of time (circa 1910) and is rumoured to have been a charitable act, similar to those of foreign organisations which fund the return of ex-patriate gentlemen back to their homelands after their fortunes turn bad. Establishing a place where vapid and wastrel upper-class youth could be gathered together in one spot seems an act definitely tailored towards the Common Good.

The Drones is populated by young men of a class viciously referred to as “upper-class twits”. They have no particular political or ideological bent beyond indulging their fondness for high-jinks and the furthering of relationships formed whilst in school at Harrow, or Eton. As a group they instinctively shy away from anything bordering on the intellectual.

Uniting all members of the Drone’s is deeply-hued hatred of another Club called the Chanters. Members of that Club are all earnest, go-getting young men who pride themselves on being everything that the Drones are not. Regular inter-varsity activities take place between the two establishments and these contests are bitterly played out. These events are of the challenge variety and are usually instigated by a Chanter’s Club member heaving the gauntlet at the foot of a Drone’s Club adversary.

Events within the Drones Club include the following: The Drones Club Annual Golf Rally; The Drones Club Annual Darts Tournament (sweepstakes); and the Drones Club Annual Fat Uncle Contest (sweepstakes). The Golf Rally takes place along St. James’s Street: participants must carry a golf club and have their own ball; they tee off from the front steps of the Senior Club on Pall Mall and finish with a chip shot through the front door of the Berkeley Club in Piccadilly. Drinks are de rigueur. Very few Drone’s ever complete the course, what with the fleeing through shattered glass from angry Club members and the escaping from policemen. The Darts Tournament, being a sweepstakes event has little to do with the skill of the players, and the Fat Uncle Contest is likewise handicapped in the tactics department. (For the record, the Fat Uncle Contest involves surreptitiously discovering the weights of various nominated avuncular relatives.)

The Clubhouse has two smoking lounges, one large and one small; however for reasons unknown the small lounge is rarely used. The dining room is often raucous and filled with unbridled conversation, leading to the tradition of attracting the attention of a fellow member by throwing a bread roll at him. There is a gymnasium with a swimming pool, ropes and rings but its use is generally infrequent.

More important than the facilities are the personnel. The head barman, McGarry, has an encyclopaedic memory and mixes the Club members’ cocktails to perfection every time. The head porter Bates is a past master of diplomacy and defends the Club’s gates from unwanted intrusion and idiocy. And Robinson who works as a waiter in the cloakroom, is the voice of reason when it comes to organising and assigning hats, coats and various types of purloined impedimenta, including policemen’s helmets.


“Once a year the committee of the Drones decides that the old Club could do with a wash and brush-up, so they shoo us out, and dump us down for a few weeks at some other institution. This time we were roosting at the Senior Liberal, and, personally, I had found the strain pretty fearful. I mean, when you’ve got used to a Club where everything’s nice and cheery, and where, if you want to attract a fellow’s attention, you heave a bit of bread at him, it kind of damps you to come to a place where the youngest member is about eighty-seven, and it isn’t good form to talk to anyone unless you and he were through the Peninsular War together. It was a relief to come across Bingo. We started to talk in hushed voices. ‘This Club,’ I said, ‘is the limit.’

‘It is the eel’s eyebrows,’ agreed young Bingo. ‘I believe that old boy over by the window has been dead three days, but I don’t like to mention it to anyone...’”

- P.G. Wodehouse

“If you are so jolly sure that life is finally extinct, just try clearing away that glass and see what happens!”


Saturday, 19 October 2013


Established: 1764

“There was something peculiar about a Whig house and a certain similarity between them. The black and white marble hall; the painted ceiling; the Roman busts; the pictures which several generations of young noblemen had brought back from their European tours (then a necessary part of education); the fine library, and a certain air of distinction.”
-Harold Macmillan, The Past Masters

St. James’s Street, W1

Entry Restrictions
Men only; women are allowed as evening guests on special occasions

Famous Members
Charles James Fox (1749-1806)
William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806)
Robert Peel (1788-1850)
Lord Halifax (1881-1959)
Harold Macmillan (1894-1986)
Roy Jenkins (1920-2003)

Skills Augmented:
Accounting; Bargain; Credit Rating; Gambling; Law;

Areas of Speciality:
Liberal British Politics; Journalistic Policy; Business & Finance; Current Political Trends; Foreign Affairs; Backgammon

Brooks’s was first established at a private premises in Pall Mall, from a group of 27 gentlemen including four dukes. Its purpose was to provide a meeting place for those of Whig sensibilities, in direct opposition to those Tory members of Whites. The original meeting place was “farmed” or managed by Scots Club organiser William Macall, known more generally as William Almack, who passed management over to his lieutenant – a fellow named Brooks – who facilitated the move to the new location in St. James’s Street. Although Mr Brooks died only three years after the new premises was established, the name stuck.

The Club building was designed and built by architect Henry Holland and was finished in 1778; in aspect, it resembles a grand country house, with rooms for backgammon and an extensive library. It lies directly across the road from Boodle’s, and the two Tory Clubs – White’s and the Carlton Club – are just down the road. A smaller associated Club – the St. James – occupied the block next door; Brooks’s took over this establishment in 1978, amalgamating the two organisations under the Brooks’s title.

The original purpose of the Club was to provide a home away from home for gentlemen of Whiggish persuasion, to which they could retire whenever it suited them (and whenever domestic life became too unbearable). Gambling was a prevalent activity and outrageous amounts of money where reported to have changed hands there. Notably amongst the Clubs of London, Brooks’s instituted a tradition whereby the subscription fee for membership was deducted from the pay-out from a member’s gambling when they went to cash in their chips; it was considered unseemly to have to present a member with a bill for their membership dues.

Gambling was a somewhat alarming addiction at Brooks’s from the early days, with sessions of whist carrying on for consecutive days and nights at a time. The Whig politician Charles James Fox was known as a reckless and enthusiastic game-player and often bankrupted himself, relying upon his fellow members to bail him out of financial difficulties on several occasions. A certain Mr Thynne resigned in disgust from the Club for having won at cards only £12,000 in two months; the Club records note this event with the comment, “and that he may never return is the ardent wish of members”. Like White’s, Brooks’s has a betting book wherein the more unusual wagers are recorded for posterity; one bet from 1785 runs to the effect that "Ld. Cholmondeley [pronounced ‘Chumley’] has given two guineas to Ld. Derby, to receive 500 Gs whenever his lordship fucks a woman in a balloon one thousand yards from the Earth." The outcome from this wager is not appended.

From the start, Brooks’s aimed to provided substantial meals for its members and in this it succeeded very well. However, variety was not a spice that prevailed in the Club’s kitchens. Bored by the unending repetition of the bill of fare, members set up a protest which resulted in the creation of Watier’s, an on-site restaurant attached to the Club, in 1806.

A fire severely damaged the Great Subscription Room and the front morning room directly below it in the 1970s but this wasn’t the worst calamity to hit the place: in 1974, IRA terrorists threw a bomb into the outer dining room around 10 o’clock in the evening. The blast succeeded in wounding three waiters closing up after the day’s trade but missed the Home Secretary – a Club member – who, it seems, was the intended target of the attack.

Brooks’s has a long and distinguished membership and is acutely sensitive to the need for a tradition of family members. There are members who can trace their forebears back to seven or eight generations as members of the Club. With the amalgamation of the St. James’s Club in the 1970s, entry was opened to European dignitaries, literati and members of the diplomatic set, connexions which have strengthened and broadened the society of the Club. It remains to this day, one of London’s most exclusive gentlemen’s Clubs.

“That evening I was to dine with the Chancellor who had been saying to me for some days that he ‘had to talk to me alone, and would take me out to Brooks’s’. So we drove off in his great big Daimler, unloaded ourselves halfway up St. James’s Street and went into the Club. Upstairs is the gaming table with a slice cut out to give room for Charles James Fox’s tummy. At the bar down below were Mark Bonham-Carter and other willowy young men. It’s a classy Club, not at all like the Garrick, and after we’d had a drink we went into the dining room and had claret and gulls’ eggs and were gentlemen together.”

-The Crossman Diaries


Friday, 18 October 2013


Established: 1762

“I like this Club.”
-Winston Churchill

1762-1782: 49-51 Pall Mall
From 1782: 28 St. James’s Street, SW1

Entry Restrictions
Men only; from the late 1980s, women can obtain Associate Membership

Famous Members
David Hume
Adam Smith
Edward Gibbon
Beau Brummel
William Wilberforce
Laurence Olivier
Lord Cherwell
Winston Churchill (Honorary Member)
Harold MacMillan
Ian Fleming

Skills Augmented:
Accountancy; Animal Husbandry (Biology); Fishing; Ride: Horse; Rifle; Track

Areas of Speciality:
Fly-fishing; Fox-hunting; Horse Racing; Coarse Fishing; Pheasant Shooting; Grouse Hunting

Lord Shelburne – the future Marquess of Lansdowne and Prime Minister - founded this club as think-tank for his political career in 1762. The original address was at 49-51 Pall Mall; in 1782, another club – the Sçavoir Vivre – became defunct and Sherburne’s organisation took over their premises at 28 St. James’s Street. Boodle’s has been there ever since.

The Club has been called Boodle’s since very early days, the name deriving from that of its first head waiter Edwin Boodle. The building was designed by the architect John Crunden in 1775 and the ground floor underwent a refurbishment between the years 1821 and 1834 organised by John Buonarotti Papworth.

Although it started life as a Tory establishment, Boodle’s rapidly shed its political raison d’etre and began accepting members from both sides of the ideological divide. More than anything, Boodle’s is known as a retreat for country gentlemen who need to escape from the pressures of Town whenever business takes them there. Boodle’s is a tweedy, horse-y kind of a place, a retreat for readers of “Country Life” magazine.

Open fires are a theme in the lounges here as are oil paintings of rural scenes and especially of prize-winning horses and other domestic animals. Like White’s, Boodle’s has a grand bow window overlooking the street; one Duke who favoured this position answered, when asked why he liked sitting there, “I like to see the damned people getting wet.”

In the last third of last century next-door property development allowed Boodle’s to take advantage of the construction and build a ladies’ lounge. This is a subterranean extension which encroaches onto the neighbouring block and resembles the main bar of a luxury liner. This breaking-down of the “Men Only” prerogative has won Boodle’s many friends amid the younger generations and has bolstered membership through recent financial downturns.

Ian Fleming liked Boodle’s and, in his James Bond books, based M’s fictitious gentlemen’s Club Blades on it. Many of the descriptions of Blades accord well with member’s knowledge of their real life establishment
“‘You know that terrible stuff that Sir Miles always drinks? That Algerian red wine that the wine committee won’t even allow on the wine list. They only have it in the Club to please Sir Miles. Well, he explained to me once that in the Navy they used to call it the Infuriator because if you drank too much of it, it seems it puts you in a rage. Well now, in the ten years that that I’ve had the pleasure of looking after Sir Miles, he’s never ordered more than half a carafe of the stuff.’ Porterfield’s benign, almost priestly countenance assumed an expression of theatrical solemnity as if he had read something really terrible in the tea leaves. ‘Then what happens today?’ Lily clasped her hands tensely and bent her head fractionally closer to get the full impact of the news. ‘The old man says, “Porterfield. A bottle of the Infuriator. You understand? A full bottle!” So of course I didn’t say anything but went off and brought it to him. But you mark my words, Lily,’ he noticed a lifted hand down the long room and moved off, ‘there’s something hit Sir Miles hard this morning and no mistake.’”

- Ian Fleming, The Man with the Golden Gun


Sunday, 13 October 2013

London Club Membership Rules...

“‘Come and dine with me.’
‘I am not a member of the club.’
‘We don’t care at all about that. Anybody can take in anybody.’
‘Does not that make it promiscuous?’
‘Well, no; I don’t know that it does. It seems to go on very well. I daresay there are some cads there sometimes. But I don’t know where one doesn’t meet cads. There are plenty in the House of Commons.’”
-Anthony Trollope, The Duke’s Children.

An old stand-by for newcomers to Call of Cthulhu is to play the Dilletante character. The virtue of this type of role is that it comes with money, and has a certain amount of social cachet; the downside is that Dilletantes are usually bland and unfocussed: players usually end up recreating the “upper-class twit” à la Wodehouse, or trying to emulate Jay Gatsby. These characters have cash and position, but it’s rare that they have anything else.

Their virtue is that they give inexperienced players an easy entrée to the world – kind of like coddling an egg; the problem with them is that they usually have so little to offer an investigation.

These rules provide a way around these issues. By having a Dilletante character become a member of an established Club, it gives them a focus and a reason to keep an eye on their precious Credit Rating (and, it must be said, a reason for insidious Keepers to try and mess with said Rating!). It no longer becomes a given that goes with the territory; it’s now a very real process that the character has to monitor carefully.

(Please note that the bulk of this material concerns English characters centred around London society. There were Gentleman’s Clubs in New York and Boston as well (even American versions of the British ones) so if your campaign is a trans-Atlantic one, use these guidelines as a template for establishing Clubs in those locales. But for now, back to Old Blighty:)

All Dilletante characters – including the women, but not Americans - will have attended either Oxford or Cambridge, if desired, and clear rivalries exist between the two universities. As well, most characters will have residences either in the country or in “Town” (i.e. London) and quite naturally will have Club memberships. These Clubs were established to provide networking opportunities for individuals with particular hobbies, philosophies, backgrounds, or talents in common: thus membership to these associations can augment characters’ abilities. Except where noted, in addition to information-gathering and skill-augmentation, Clubs have the practical value of being a ‘home away from home’: meals and rooms are available to members at short notice, and members often used their Club as a base when arriving back from overseas or before heading out of the country. Sometimes, after a full night of theatres and restaurants, the Club was a good place to crash rather than hauling oneself all the way home.


General Information & Roleplaying Mechanics:
“It would be better that ten unobjectionable men should be excluded than that one terrible bore should be admitted...”
-A member of the Garrick Club, 1870

Eligible characters should divide their starting Credit Rating by 30 to determine how many Clubs that they are members of (any fractions can be used to gain “associate membership” to another Club, which allows access but does not augment skills – see below). Thus an eligible character with a 42% Credit Rating could be a full member of Brooks’s and an associate member of the Carlton.

Membership is not automatic; one must be nominated by an existing Club member and voted in by the other members. New characters may assume that they were nominated by their fathers, uncles, or guardians; existing characters must roleplay their way in – working with the Keeper to find a sponsor and endure the voting session – or resort to a simple mechanic of rolling under their Credit Rating to win the vote.

Failing to gain entry to a particular Club usually means no later attempt is possible; however, this is not hard-and-fast. Clubs keep records of failed attempts at membership and the internal rumour-mill will keep replaying the reasons why a fellow was unsuccessful. Usually, the pertinent reason for being denied entry – poor behaviour in Court, a scandalous affair, or something similar – will need to be addressed before a second attempt can be made; with some of the political Clubs a simple change in government is enough to clean the slate. Be aware though, that the one who nominates a black-balled candidate is often required to resign their own membership for bringing forward such an eminently unsuitable prospective member.

Full membership allows the character to freely access the facilities available at the Club’s headquarters. These include rooms to spend the night, with meals provided, access to the bar (including running an ongoing tab), the library (if present), the dining room, newspapers, billiards rooms, card tables, and other useful impedimenta. The full member also has access to VIP areas established at major sporting events (such as Ascot) and gains reduced entrance fees – or free entry – to various theatre and gallery events. They have the right to vote in regard to membership nominations, or changes to the Club’s rules or management. They receive regular newsletters outlining forthcoming events and are automatically invited to functions held on the Club’s grounds. They may bring guests into the Club (if this is allowed), but must observe their behaviour and keep to those areas where guests are tolerated.

Club membership is paid for by subscription. This is normally several hundred guineas per annum and is paid generally each August. Non-payment, or delayed payment, will result in sharp drops in the character’s Credit Rating skill until the situation is rectified. In extreme cases, the character may be denied access to Club facilities, or may even be asked to resign their membership!

If - Heaven forbid! – your Credit Rating drops, for every 30 points lost, you lose access to one of your Clubs. Each time you try to enter a Club, roll your Credit Rating: if you fail, the Club denies you access … and probably asks you to pay your bill!

Associate membership means that you can enter the dining room, or bar, of the Club and relax in certain of the lounges. You do not have voting rights, cannot operate a tab longer than your present attendance, and you do not have residential options. You may receive invitations to events, as well as any newsletters the Club produces, but you can be asked to vacate the premises if “secret Club business” is about to take place there. You may not bring guests. As well, entry is not free: an associate member must sign in with the porter at the front desk and tender a nominal entry fee (anywhere from £1 to £100, depending on the establishment).

Characters from mainland Europe, or America, may be able to wangle associate membership to a Club, if they gain sponsorship from four full-members and do not get “black-balled” by a secret ballot during the consideration of their membership. Such characters must have at least 75% in their Credit Rating skill and then may only join one Club. When applying to join, roll your Credit Rating: if you roll above this number, you’ve been voted out!

Honorary membership to any Club is the exclusive preserve of Royalty (usually English Royalty, but this is sometimes waived in favour of European heads of state). The only non-Royal to have been awarded this distinction is Sir Winston Churchill.

Entry Restrictions
Clubs, by their very nature, aren’t open to everyone. Generally speaking, to be a member of a Gentleman’s Club, you need to be a gentleman, in the strictest sense of the word. Female characters have few options in club-land; although, after World War One, new Clubs which allowed female membership came into being.

Added to this, many Clubs accepted members of a particular political stripe, or who had served in the military. Still others accepted members who had certain accomplishments in academic or theological circles. Others required more nebulous qualifications, such as the ability to speak engagingly at a public dinner, or to be a “good sport”. Where these limitations exist, they will be highlighted in the Club’s description.

Famous Members
Sometimes, it’s cool to stumble into a noteworthy individual while on the trail of an investigation: Clubs are natural places where this can happen. Keepers who enjoy having their players rubbing shoulders with the famous, may check the list provided with each Club’s description and, if the dates suit, can work a meeting into their story.

“A member of White’s once said that a Club ought to have only two rules: 1) That every member should pay his subscription, 2) That he should behave like a gentleman. Inevitably, there are behavioural lapses...”
-Anthony Lejeune, The Gentlemen’s Clubs of London

While at one’s Club, one is able to “let one’s hair down”; however, one should always be mindful that the older and more influential members are always on hand to assess one’s performance. No less a person than the Prince of Wales has been forced to resign from their Club for breaking the rules (smoking inside, in his case).

No-one ever wanted to attract the title of Club Bore, despite the fact that every Club has one. Worse still, was the crime of letting-in someone completely tedious to bother the rest of the members, either as a guest or as a nominated potential member. Doing so could get you barred, or ditched!

Guests are always tricky, especially if they are members of a rival Club. Most Clubs had a small room just inside the front door to which one could withdraw with one’s stockbroker, or lawyer, for a quiet conversation; this was usually the limit afforded to the guest of a member as well, although some Clubs were more lenient. Remember that if a guest is required to dine or front the bar during their visit, they or their sponsoring member must pay an entry fee.

Members may never invite guests to stay overnight at the Club. This is quite simply beyond the pale. However, one can arrange for one’s valet or some other member of one’s staff (typically a chauffeur) to lodge with other members of staff at the Club and to carry on their duties for their masters. Of course, their services while at the Club could be called-upon by the rest of the members also, owing to the fact that – while resident - they act under the aegis of the Club, as temporary staff.

During August, a Club may shut down to allow repairs, re-painting or other refurbishment to take place (and to recover from the members’ indiscretions). At these times, which happened once in every five or so years, another Club would sponsor the ousted members, allowing them full privileges at their establishment. At these times, the members of the sponsored Club could suffer a serious social bollocking if their behaviour wasn’t up to snuff.

“They were quite decent little fellows; no trouble. Buy their suits off the peg of course...”
-A Guard’s Club member after billeting the Savile Club

Each Club has a range of listed skills, which it augments. Characters with full Club membership can add +3 to one of the Club’s listed skills; +6 to another of the listed skills; +9 to another listed skill and +12 to another skill, either adding to their own existing skill, or picking up the skill if their original rank for that ability is “0”. A skill may be modified only once by this method and cannot be raised over 90%.

Other Language refers to a language that is pertinent to the Club’s origin – Greek for the Athenaeum, for example (see your referee if in doubt). Generally speaking the range of languages will be confined to French, German, Latin or Greek: Akkadian or Farsi will have to be heavily justified!

Drive or Ride skills must be pertinent to the Club in question, in order to obtain the benefit (e.g. Ride: Elephant is not a skill that can be gained from attendance to most London Clubs). Unless specified or qualified, Drive refers to Automobiles or Carriages, and Ride to Horses.

Note that Credit Rating is also a skill that can be augmented by membership at certain Clubs, reflecting the prestige that such membership can confer. In these cases, a character’s skill can only be augmented after they have made all of the rolls required to gain admission.

Information gathering
Your Club can be a source of vital information in the course of an Investigation! Generally, the kind of information that one obtains from a Club is of the social type, sometimes referred to as “gossip”. Nevertheless, if one needs to find out about someone’s background - their political leanings, ability to handle finances, general trustworthiness – these things are easily ascertained by an afternoon’s conversation in the Club lounge. Generally each Club has areas of speciality about which information is readily available; more incendiary, or valuable, information can be found depending upon the sort of roll a character comes up with in the course of play. Club members may have heard things about people critical to an ongoing investigation, or Club staff may have revealing “dirt” to dish on fellow members. Occasionally, a waiter may be tempted by a few sovereigns to eavesdrop upon another member’s conversation while pouring the brandy...

Characters seeking such information should make a Luck Roll or a Library Use Roll (whichever is the greater) to determine a result. This roll is modified by and shortfall between the character’s current Credit Rating and their normal score; that is, if for some reason their Credit Rating is suffering a -20% penalty, their competency at sussing out Club information suffers the same penalty.

The range of Club specialities in terms of skills allows other information to be discovered too. If the party’s investigation has unearthed a strange-looking dagger, a day at the Oriental Club might locate someone who had not only seen such a weapon before, but might even know the particular tribe for which it is a feature. Determining a question of Parliamentary procedure, identifying the top-scoring batter during the cricket season in ’03, knowing what sort of engines drive a Sopwith Camel: these are the kinds of knowledge-based answers that a Club’s coterie of experts and aficionados can reveal. Spending a day at the Club and nosing around, allows a character to make a 20% roll against any skill for which the Club is famous, in order to answer a single question.

For foreign characters, the Embassy of your nation acts in a similar fashion to a private Club. While membership does not augment your starting skill set, it allows you to sniff out information at a flat 20% for any question, after spending a day there in conversation. Most embassies have bars, lounges and libraries, dining rooms and accommodation for short periods, if needed; at worst, your character might be billeted with a member of the diplomatic staff.

However, if your Credit Rating drops for any reason, the Embassy will bar you - as a poor exemplar, or security risk - in the same manner that a Club does.

“Foreign” Clubs
Many countries on the European mainland had Clubs structured along the same lines as the British ones. In most respects, these are identical to the London premises, although for the most part, they will be older and may espouse certain mystical or quasi-religious activities as part of their traditions. Many university towns have fraternities dedicated to the advancement of learning...or at least of varsity extra-curricular activities. Some of those Heidelberg fencing schools were pretty wild affairs!

Clubs in the US were a feature, predicated upon the model demonstrated by the London Society; in fact, many London Clubs opened branch establishments in places like New York, Boston or Washington. Across the Empire, from Johannesburg, to Rangoon, to Melbourne, to Shanghai, Clubs took root and prospered: the defining trait of these establishments is that they were often more luxurious and, if anything, more exclusive than their London archetypes.

Keepers are urged to use one of the London Clubs as a basis for designing these organisations.


Established: 1693
“...the common rendezvous of infamous sharpers and noble cullies...the bane of half the English Nobility.”
-Jonathan Swift

1693 - 1697: 4 Chesterfield Street, W1
1697 - 1753: 5 Chesterfield Street, W1
1753 – Present: 37 St. James’s Street, SW1

Entry Restrictions
Men only; there is a six-year waiting list. Between the years 1783 and 1832, only Tory party members or affiliates could join.

Famous Members
King George II (1683-1760)
Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745)
Spencer Compton, 1st Earl of Wilmington (1673-1743)
Henry Pelham (1694-1754)
Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle (1693-1768)
William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire (1720-1764)
John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute (1713-1792)
George Grenville (1712-1770)
Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham (1730-1782)
William Pitt the Elder, 1st Earl of Chatham (1708-1778)
Augustus FitzRoy, 3rd Duke of Grafton (1735-1811)
Frederick, Lord North (1732-1792)
William Petty-FitzMaurice, 2nd Earl of Shelburne (1737-1805)
William Cavendish Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland (1738-1809)
William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806)
Henry Addington (1757-1844)
William Wyndham Grenville, 1st Lord Grenville (1759-1834)
Spencer Perceval (1762-1812)
Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool (1770-1828)
George Canning (1770-1827)
Frederick John Robinson, 1st Viscount Goderich (1782-1859)
Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852)
Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey (1764-1845)
William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne (1779-1848)
Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850)
Beau Brummell (1778-1840)
Randolph Churchill (1911-1968)
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (1909-2000)
Peter Quenell (1905-1993)
David Niven (1910-1983)
Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966)
Malcolm Sargent (1895-1967)
David Cameron (1966-) (Resigned)

Skills Augmented:
Accounting; Bargain; Bicycling; Credit Rating; Drive: Aeroplane; Gambling; Law

Areas of Speciality:
The Tory Party; Business & Finance; Current Political Trends; Avionics; the Tour de France

White’s is the oldest and perhaps the most prestigious of the London Clubs. It was first established as “Mrs White’s Chocolate House” in 1693 and was one of a rash of coffee houses which proliferated throughout London at that time. Charles II, alarmed by the number of clandestine, dissenting organisations which grew up around these houses, banned coffee (and chocolate) throughout England, but was forced to rescind the ban eleven days later when real threats of rioting in the streets became an issue.

Mrs White’s Chocolate House was established by an Italian immigrant named Francesco Bianco, but generally known as “Francis White”. In 1697, the coffee house moved across the street where it developed a sort of schizophrenic nature: within White’s was established an ‘Old Club’, an inner circle of operators that were the embryonic form of the later gentlemen’s Club. A ‘Young Club’ was established as well, formed from the group of individuals awaiting entry to the inner circle.

A fire destroyed the premises despite the exertions of member King George II, who urged the bucket lines onto heroic efforts in order to save the building. New premises were obtained at the top end of St. James’s Street and opened for business in 1753, incorporating the Old and the Young Clubs as one entity. The Club – “White’s” - has been at this location ever since.

Initially, the Club was organised along apolitical lines; however, after Prime Minister Pitt resigned his membership of Brooks’s Club down the street for being “too Whiggish” and settled in at White’s, White’s became the unofficial Tory headquarters from about 1783. Once the Carlton Club became established – whose entry demanded Tory party membership – White’s began to blur the political distinction of its membership once more.

The morning room of White’s contains a huge bow window which overlooks the street. Beau Brummell was known to occupy a seat at this viewpoint so that he could comment upon the sartorial quality of the passers-by. It was also at this window that Lord Alvanley won £3,000 betting with a friend as to which of two raindrops would get to the bottom of the window pane first. In later years Sir Winston Churchill, an honorary member of the Club, had a seat reserved for him in this spot.

White’s is known as a gambling establishment and was severely criticised for this fact, as the quote above from Jonathan Swift testifies. There is a “Betting Book” in the Club which details some of the more extravagant wagers that have been conducted on the premises, including a bet that a man couldn’t survive twelve hours underwater; many bets on the outcome of engagements during the Penisular Wars; and a bet by a man with his brother that he would never bet more than a guinea on anything ever again (the amount was for more than a guinea).

Within White’s at the start of the Twentieth Century a group of the members developed a fad for bicycling and the Club is known for its interest in cycling events. Indeed, it holds several races during the year along with many bicycle excursions where staff are sent out ahead with picnic hampers to greet the cyclists as they arrive at their destination. During the two World Wars, White’s also supplied its own wings of pilots to the war effort, made up from the aircraft enthusiasts which populated its ranks.

White’s has a close association with the King’s Theatre and the Royal Drury Lane Theatre in the West End and the porter sells reduced-price tickets to productions showing at those venues to Club members.

“‘I live at the Albany,’ said Endymion.
‘You live at the Albany!’ repeated St. Barbe, with an amazed and perturbed expression.
‘I knew I could not be a knight of the garter, or member of White’s – the only two things an Englishman cannot command; but I did think I might some day live at the Albany.’”
-Benjamin Disraeli, Endymion