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Pursuits: Why do the English like belonging to clubs?

Why don’t we have modern clubs in India?

I thought about the Indian experience when I was in London this summer. Two new clubs have recently opened and are the talk of the British capital. The first is

Loulou’s owned by Robin Birley and the other is the Arts Club on Dover Street, a venture helmed by the phenomenally successful (Zuma, Le Petit Maison, etc.) Sindhi restaurateur Arjun Waney which includes Gwyneth Paltrow among its founders and guiding lights.


   Both clubs are fundamentally different, an example of how Britain can sustain clubs at different levels. At the top level are the traditional gentleman’s club in St. James, places like White’s and the Athenaeum. These have been haunts of the establishment for years, have traditionally been hostile to women and include senior civil servants, the aristocracy, the landed gentry and other top people as their members. The Garrick has more actors and lawyers. The Reform found fame as the club that Phileas Fogg set out from in Around The World In Eighty Days. And then, there are establishments with larger memberships – the Royal Automobile Club, the Oxford and Cambridge Club – that try and follow the same establishment-only principle.


   When you see people gliding into elegant wood-panelled sitting rooms full of old buffers silently reading their newspapers in the movies, it is the old establishment clubs that are being portrayed. When upper class chaps say, in period dramas, “I’ll spend the night at my club”, these are the sorts of places that are being talked about.


   While the establishment clubs still have their place, there is also a different kind of club which is a cross between an establishment club and a nightclub. This genre is most closely associated with the late Mark Birley who first opened Annabel’s in the early Sixties in Berkeley Square. Annabel’s, named after Birley’s then wife, (who went on to marry James Goldsmith after she gave birth to Jemima Khan) was a club meant for drinks, dinner and dancing. Birley controlled membership and only allowed in upper-class types he approved of. In the process, he made it London’s most sought-after and exclusive dining place. Birley himself became a legend – apparently he was the first man to wrap lemons in muslin and introduced many other such practices – and went on to open other clubs including Harry’s Bar (in partnership with the owners of Venice’s Cipriani Hotel), George and Mark’s Club.


   By the time Birley died, some years ago, his family life had turned into a bit of a soap opera and he refused to leave his clubs to his presumed heir, his son Robin, and sold them to rag-trade millionaire Richard Caring instead.


   If Annabel’s and White’s were places for the traditional establishment, then the Eighties saw the growth of hipper private member’s clubs, that catered to the new establishment: artists, writers, journalists, successful professionals, etc. The first such club to be widely written about was the Groucho, followed by Soho House, run by a man called Nick Jones.


   These kinds of clubs still survive (though the Groucho lost its cachet quite quickly) but here too, corporate ownership has crept in. Nick Jones sold a controlling interest in his empire to Richard Caring (yes, same guy) and now Soho House is a global phenomenon with branches everywhere including a very successful New York outpost.


   Of the two new London clubs, the Arts Club owes more to the Groucho-Soho House genre in that it is meant to cater to people who’ve made something of themselves and not just to those who were fortunate to be born into the establishment. It is already London’s most happening place and is packed out night after night.


"A mark of a successful society is that we let everybody in. One reason for England’s decline is that the Brits are too busy keeping people out."

   Loulou’s on the other hand, is very much Son of Annabel’s. It is owned by Robin Birley and marks his attempt to recapture his father’s legacy. Its opening was preceded by some sniping at Richard Caring who, Birley loyalists suggest, has taken the old Mark Birley clubs down-market.


   In a sense, this is the English class system at work. Birley is old English upper class. Caring is a Jewish entrepreneur who made his fortune in the garment trade before buying up restaurants by the sack-full. (He also owns the old Corbin and King empire: The Ivy, Le Caprice, J Sheekey etc.)


   But all of this begs two questions: The first is why do the English like belonging to clubs? The short answer appears to be that they like keeping other people out. The point of a club is not that you are a member, but that other people are not. So the British class system, which first found expression in the old gentlemen’s clubs, now reasserts itself, in a more meritocratic form, in the creation of new clubs. At some level, Brits like to belong to an establishment, whether old or new.


   The second question takes us back to the beginning why is India so different. The Old Raj Clubs exist, of course, but most are shadows of their former selves. The Bombay Gymkhana is a sports club for executives and middle management. The Willingdon is like a retirement home. The Calcutta Club looks like it has seen better days. So does the Bangalore Club. The Delhi Gymkhana was once the centre of Delhi’s bureaucratic-military-civilian establishment. Now it is just a place where civilians go to when they want to drink scotch without paying restaurant prices. Only the Bengal Club, designed to be like a gentlemen’s club, in St. James, still looks as though it was meant to, though it is hardly the centre of any establishment.


   Part of the reason for the decline of India’s clubs is that they no longer fulfil their original purpose. They were designed in the Raj-era for English people to meet each other. Many actually refused to accept Indian members. (The Willingdon was created as the one place where White people could eat roast lamb with the natives, provided they knew how to use a knife and fork.)


   In the first flush of independent India, there was an urge to replace the departing white establishment with a new, brown establishment. But once the post-Independence generation died out, their children stopped caring about club membership and what it represented. People who join clubs these days value the facilities (vast grounds, tennis courts etc.) but have no sense of being part of some establishment.


   Why then do we not have the Goucho-Soho House kind of club meant for achievers?


   Frankly, I don’t know. But I think that Indians have less desire to ‘belong’ than Brits do. We don’t need social approval.


   Take the example of the businessmen’s clubs, the Chambers at the Taj and the Belvedere at the Oberoi. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was a big deal to be a member. Now, even businessmen don’t care. The clubs don’t do very well. And you will hardly ever see many people of consequence at them.


   India is a dynamic society at a stage where the old establishment has melted away and the new establishment has still to emerge. Nobody needs social sanction from anybody else.


   Personally, I think this is a good thing. A mark of a successful society is that we let everybody in. One reason for England’s decline is that the Brits are too busy keeping people out.




  • Rafi 14 Feb 2023

    Yes, I do agree that Indians do not need social approval. My mother was Indian, and she taught me a lot about Indian culture (I have never been to India, though.) She used to say many positive words s about India.

  • Juiats 02 Feb 2023

    t's a great post. Thank you for sharing the great one. Keep share such an amazing post. I really loved reading your blog. It was very well authored and easy to understand. waffle game

  • S. Suchindranath Aiyer 02 Apr 2013

    A cheap place to drink? I can personally testify that the decadence (even criminality) is worse than portrayed here, but the facilities are far better.
    Indians have a great need to "belong". But there belonging is to establishments like criminal gangs such as political parties, civil services, kitty parties and club mafias as much as to their respective castes, religions and communities;)

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