October 2009


In retreat

By Malcolm Knox
In retreat

The Athenaeum Club on Pall Mall, London, c.1950. © Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Gentlemen’s clubs

An educated guess about the nature of the interior of an establishment gentlemen’s club might have one imagining late-Victorian mahogany panelling, glass-fronted bookcases, priceless art, chesterfields, chandeliers and deferential staff bearing decanters in the wobbly direction of aged cigar-puffers. The shocking truth is that the cliché is more or less spot-on.

Invited to speak at The Australian Club in Sydney a couple of years ago, I felt reticent about telling, say, my wife where I was going. After all, being caught inside this type of gentlemen’s club may carry more shame than being spotted in the ones with poles and mirrors. Even more shameful for me was that when I addressed the luncheon of about three dozen men – most, but not all, retired and trussed up in pinstripes and ties as if they were still taking a break from their Supreme Court or Macquarie Street duties – I enjoyed the experience. I enjoyed their curiosity, their courtesy, the modesty of their comforts. There was no evidence of ruling-class conspiracy or gin-soaked bluster; rather, this was a group of placid, low-key, almost childlike citizens who seemed somehow in retreat – finding their calm in a tranquil place of respite and asking questions about the world, over their surprisingly well-prepared salmon and vegetables.

Of course, to confess enjoyment is to beat a kind of retreat myself. I would like to say that I enjoyed the humble decency of The Australian Club without endorsing any of the politics that saturate the carpets, the rich furnishings, the numinous light, the fresh bathroom towels; without, above all, endorsing the defining and unifying rule of such clubs: the exclusion of women. But can I? Am I permitted to say that the hospitality of The Australian Club was of a rare goodness, while partitioning off the anachronism, the chauvinism, what seems to me the sheer absurdity of the gender bar?

Australia has approximately 30 of these single-sex clubs. The oldest is Sydney’s The Australian Club, founded in 1838, followed by the Melbourne Club, which was founded a year later to give grazing gents a city bolthole and enable the oldest pioneer families to maintain an urban network. These clubs and their imitators had a similar founding principle: a cocoon for the landed. Melbourne gained its Savage and Athenaeum clubs, as well as its own branch of The Australian Club (est. 1878), while even the less clubbable Perth, Hobart, Brisbane and Adelaide have their own exclusively male clubs. Sydney’s Union Club was founded in 1857 by men from The Australian Club who opposed the overuse of the blackball within the ranks of the original club, but it has since merged with the Universities and Schools Club and now allows female “associate” members. For its sins, it lost reciprocal privileges with two London gentlemen’s clubs.

The Queen’s and Women’s clubs, in Sydney, maintain a ladies-only policy, as do the Alexandra and Lyceum clubs in Melbourne and the Moreton Club in Brisbane. Many members have spouses at the men’s clubs. In Sydney’s Palm Beach, the exclusive clubs for former members of the surf club are divided by sex. The Cabbage Tree Club, for men, and the Pacific Club, for women, sit on the beachfront side by side like a monastery and a convent.

With most of these clubs, money is not the thing. The barrier to entry is not high annual membership fees (which range mostly from $500 to $2000), but rather the steeplechase of sponsoring and refereeing and vetting: the months and years of interviews and checking. The clubs select by type, not wealth. For this enduring vestige of colonialism, they pat themselves warmly on the back.

The Tattersalls Club in Sydney was founded 151 years ago for a group of like-minded men who could be trusted to honour their wagers on thoroughbred races. Membership constituted a badge of honesty. While Tattersalls remains a grand place with a gym, a pool and four floors of prime real estate, its wealth belongs to assets acquired in the past, rather than its current inflows. This August, the club asked its members to approve the sale of assets to repay a $3.5 million credit-note being called in by the National Australia Bank. Having traded at a loss for several years, it had borrowed against its Elizabeth Street building to fill the gap year by year. ANZ pulled out of its arrangement with the club in 2006, and NAB offered a credit line until this year. The club appealed for one-off member donations in 2007, but received inadequate support. Only 10% of members offered to come to the club’s aid. A number of financial arrangements to deal with the debt were proposed, none of which included merging with another club or inviting women to join. Tattersalls may cut off the nose of its assets in order to spite its male face.

The real story here is not a stubbornness of will but the disappearance of what might once have been called potency. Where once the clubs might have been closed rooms of power from which the world could be ruled, the historian Janet McCalman has observed that “The spheres of influence have moved on from the 1960s.” The clubs used to derive their influence from more than just keeping women out: kept out too were those from the wrong side of the political and social tracks. These exclusions meant a lot. Now they don’t. The perimeter of power is no longer a closed circle, but a spaghetti junction. If it’s all about the ‘right type’, who knows what the ‘right type’ is anymore? The pages of Who’s Who, in listing club memberships, used to indicate a substantial intersection between Melbourne Club and Liberal Party, Australian Club and board directorships, Tattersalls Club and the bench. Now the overlap is skinnier, and club membership does not deliver automatic access to influence. For one, the powerful have other networks in which to mix; for another, most clubs expel anyone caught talking business. This is the most endearing of the clubs’ anachronisms. What mover and shaker of today longs to spend lunch with an 80-year-old retired surgeon, rather than with his BlackBerry? Who would want to pay a couple of thousand dollars per year, as Paul Ham once asked, for a nice quiet chair?

But it’s the gender-exclusivity of the bar that still sticks in the craw. Mary Gaudron, when she sat on the High Court, refused invitations to dine at The Australian Club. The former Labor parliamentarian – and now Sydney City councillor – Meredith Burgmann said of the straitened Tattersalls Club, “I hope it goes broke.” Big corporations and law firms used to subsidise male employees’ membership fees to their clubs. No longer – unless the clubs admit women. There is still outrage that Marie Bashir and Quentin Bryce are the first NSW governor and the first Commonwealth governor-general, respectively, not to be offered even honorary membership of men-only clubs.

So what gives? How, in the face of irrelevance, if not bankruptcy, can keeping women out be such a cherished prerogative? When the clubs stand for so little else, why is it so important to stand for just this one thing?

At last year’s AGM, Melbourne’s 141-year-old Athenaeum Club refused to admit female members. A group including Graeme Samuel, Trevor Green, Terry Moran and Geoff Walsh resigned in protest. John Ridley, the former Victorian Liberal Party director, emailed members:

When I looked around the room last night, I suddenly felt a chill about the attitudes and qualities that so many club members reflect. With the first female governor-general, chief justice, chief commissioner of police and secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet all in place, any organisation that claims to be aiming to attract leaders and is only open to men is deluding itself.

The Victorian Attorney-General, Rob Hulls, is on record supporting a rewrite of anti-discrimination laws to remove the exemption private clubs enjoy, thus making the gender bar illegal. But I suspect that these good intentions are missing the point.

Perhaps the clubs would rather lose influence than admit women, just as they would rather go broke than open their doors to the nouveau riche.

The impression I received at The Australian Club was that its denizens were not hungry for power but for solitude. The website for the club’s Melbourne branch offers “a destination for those seeking to escape the strain of modern life”. That says a lot, I think. Men go there not to conspire, but to escape. It’s just a bit weird that half of the human race – wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, friends – can be seen as part of “the strain of modern life”.

It would be wrong to assume the default position and call these places ‘last bastions’. A bastion is a defence, built around the edges of a fort to keep invaders out. The truth is that few people, male or female, are storming the ramparts of our gentlemen’s clubs; even fewer, as we have seen with Tattersalls, are willing to stand up and fight for them. If the gender ban is overturned, it’s hard to imagine intelligent women rushing to join.

The real bubbling core of this debate (and the probable, if frightening, reason for the clubs’ future survival) is revealed in a survey run by the Athenaeum Club, which showed 60% of members were opposed to admitting women and only 32% were in favour. It was the ‘young fogeys’ in their twenties and thirties who led the opposition. Ian Wilcock, a former Australian ambassador to Israel, emailed members after the AGM:

Particularly shocking to me were the attitudes of younger members. I do not wish to spend any more time pretending to respect the sensitivities of such men, who are clearly unable to adjust to the world as it is and who seem to want to retreat to some kind of boys’ treehouse where they might be untroubled by half the human race.

Preposterously, what seems to draw the young fogeys in is not the clubs’ profile as places of influence but their newfound outlaw status. The thumbed-nose at political correctness is precisely what they love about their clubs. Wilcock also wrote: “I find I have very limited patience for trying to coax people into the 1970s.”And he was talking about people who were not even born in the 1970s.

Tattersalls has the staggers and the American Club folded last year. Are gentlemen’s clubs dying? As Marx might have noted, the clubs are choking on their internal contradictions. Money is needed, but must not be spoken of. Influence is needed, but exerting it would be poor form. Power would be nice, but not at the expense of sharing it with the better half of the federal cabinet, the deputy prime minister, the governor-general, the premier of Queensland, several High and Supreme Court judges, many of those within the top echelons of the medical professions and the managing director of the country’s second-largest bank – to name but a few.

Clubs have died before: the Australasian Pioneers’ Club and Imperial Services Club were unable to withstand the 1980s, for instance, and had to merge with other organisations. Yet the clubs may not be dying so much as changing shape. It’s worth noting that while sporting clubs and watering holes have become decreasingly male – female membership of Clubs NSW (the collective of RSL-type clubs) has outnumbered male this year for the first time – more children than ever are going to single-sex schools. This will leave an indelible mark. Kids will emerge from their educations either bored with their own sex or fearful of the other and, as they grow older, become nostalgic for school days. If the growth of single-sex schooling produces a new generation of fear, then the “boys’ treehouse” may enjoy an unexpected future, where it thrives on being outside, not inside, the spheres of real influence.

Malcolm Knox

Malcolm Knox is a former literary editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, and has won three Walkley awards for journalism. His books include Jamaica, The Life and Bluebird.

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