The Afrikaans woman who infiltrated a gents’ club in London


The Afrikaans woman who infiltrated a gents’ club in London

The Garrick Club has played an important part in DEE KRÜGER'S life, even in the days when women were denied membership.


IN the heart of London’s Covent Garden stands a building which most people shuffle past without a second glance. Although designed in the vast proportions of high Victoriana, the Garrick Club is no architectural masterpiece with its putty grey façade, but its aura of importance as one of Britain’s most notable institutions is plain. You only have to look up through the giant windows to the first-floor drawing room with its grandiose cornices, chandeliers and showstopping oil paintings to know  you’re seeing something rarefied and exclusive.  

I used to live around the corner in a cool little flat which I rented from Michael Heath, the cartoonist. In those days I was new to London, fresh off the boat, the highveld complexion of Joburg still marking me as an out-of-towner. 

The Garrick happened to be one of the first buildings I noticed on my early walks to familiarise myself with my new surroundings. I had no idea what this place was, only that the main entrance seemed to be forbiddingly closed off to the public while at the same time very much open for business; open, yet not quite open — or open only to some people but not to … others?

Doormen impeccably kitted out in racing-green uniforms tended the lobby night and day, exchanging jovial greetings and chit-chat with the men who entered in waves before being swallowed by the interior. 

Puzzled, I was tempted to follow inquisitively, sure I’d blag my way in, but I stopped short, something making me resist my usual brazen South African instinct. It was definitely a case of you can look but you can’t touch.

The Grand Drawing Room at the Garrick Club.
The Grand Drawing Room at the Garrick Club.

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For a foreigner, life among the English can be somewhat curious, studded with misconceptions. For those of us who were colonised by the Empire, our view of them will always be coloured in shades ranging across the spectrum of distrust, fear and loathing, tinged with envy and a mix of admiration too, however uncomfortable we might be with it.

We have been shaped by the English in ways too many to mention, whether we accept it or not. Little did I know in those early days that the place I’d been trying to figure out was to become an intrinsic part of the fabric of my life story. 

Soon after we were married, my husband became a member of the Garrick Club. 

For 193 years its success has been based on keeping most people out, unapologetically all women too. Even for men of high standing, it takes at least five years of being on a waiting list before you’re considered.

When John first starting taking me for dinner in the grand salon, named the Coffee Room in that classic understated British way, I didn't give the club’s membership rules or its exclusions much thought. 

I was too busy being intrigued by it. Not due to colonial cringe but because of a genuine affection for what made it tick, and the history it represented. This was, after all, the playpen of Charles Dickens and William Thackeray, John Gielgud and Peter O’Toole.

Named after the most famous actor of the 18th century, David Garrick, the club was formed in 1831 by a bunch of dukes and princes for “actors and men of refinement". These days, its members are drawn from a far wider swathe of British society, the main commonality among them being that they have excelled in their field.

Things chugged along merrily for two-and-a-half centuries, the chaps undisturbed in their redoubt, until the late 1990s when many of them woke up to the call they could no longer resist — the clamour of the modern world.

It came to a head in 2011 when members were asked to vote on allowing in a couple of women as members. Actor Hugh Bonnievale, Downton Abbey’s overlord on television but in real life a thoroughly modern Englishman, nominated Joanna Lumley but met fierce opposition, and the women went away in disgust. In 2015 there was a vote to change the rules and accept women members, but still too many cretins prevailed.  Absurd, yet the resistance to change among Brits is no different from any other country I’ve lived in, each society often blindsided by the dogma to which it thoughtlessly clings. 

John and I were highly upset by the survival of the “men only" rule but too busy to dwell on it, spending most of our time working in places with real problems like Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan. What was happening at the Garrick seemed a lot less important.

The club continued to be a thread that ran through our lives, a welcoming backdrop to some of our family highlights. We’ve thrown memorable parties there over the years, one to celebrate our son’s first birthday, when the Pol Roger coursed through our veins so enthusiastically that one of our guests — a woman! — decided it was time to do a handstand on one of the carver chairs at the dinner table.

She performed the tough act faultlessly to huge applause and some of the other gals — less adept and more sloshed — tried to follow suit and toppled over in their evening dresses, streaky mascara and legs all over the place. All the while the staff, poker-faced in their ice whites, kept our crystal glasses filled to the brim.

It was a fabulously chaotic evening, one of the happiest in my memory — not a glass or an ankle broken, no bouncers called to restore “order", no complaints from stuffed shirts.

Which is why I was amused to read a fellow South African journo’s take a few days ago about his experience of a similar London club, the Reform, where he was once invited. His description of “the fusty, dusty old place with its frayed carpets and awful boarding school food" was nothing I recognised.

For starters, the Garrick is a treasure trove. A repository for one of the finest art collections on the history of the theatre, it has more than 1,000 paintings, prints and sculptures depicting 300 years of the acting world, displayed in immaculate condition throughout its seven floors. No crap carpet or cobweb in sight, no soggy chip or lumpy mash served.

Above: Dee Krüger (writer, left), Dee's sister, Gina Nelthorpe-Cowne (behind Dee), Sagan Cowne, John Simpson, Mark Cowne, Rees Cowne and Rafe Simpson. Left: Krüger, Catherine Lurie and Andrea Coombs. Right: Gina Nethorpe-Cowne, Alayne Reesberg, Krüger, Lani van Heerden, Marike Bekker.
Above: Dee Krüger (writer, left), Dee's sister, Gina Nelthorpe-Cowne (behind Dee), Sagan Cowne, John Simpson, Mark Cowne, Rees Cowne and Rafe Simpson. Left: Krüger, Catherine Lurie and Andrea Coombs. Right: Gina Nethorpe-Cowne, Alayne Reesberg, Krüger, Lani van Heerden, Marike Bekker.

Just because these old boys' clubs are somewhat formal, the idea that they’re uptight or crumbling is a lazy one.

For one of John’s landmark birthdays, we decided to go all the way. We rented the entire club for the weekend for pals and family who arrived in flamboyant fancy-dress outfits from far and wide. That night Eva Peron, Nelson Mandela and Zorro, or their alter egos anyway, were swinging from the chandeliers. Not even “John McEnroe”, a Dublin pal squeezed into the tiniest, tightest tennis shorts ever, was required to go and put on a tie.

Chef, as the top dog overseeing the kitchens is known, and I spent a good time fixing the menus, the cocktails, the outstanding wines from all regions of the globe, including the fairest Cape. In one of the smaller drawing rooms he stationed a big round table covered in a dramatic dome of oysters, the like of which I’d not seen, with a dedicated pro on hand to open them expertly to order throughout the night. 

The dinner served to 200 people was like a Roman feast.

And the band played on until the small hours when the cops, not the “fusty old club",  decided it was time out. It was an evening no-one who was there will ever forget.

But something had to give, and rightly so. A fresh storm erupted a few weeks ago about the male-only membership policy. The thought that women could still be treated as second-class citizens in the free world was just too embarrassing to contemplate.

There was another vote, which had to be cast in person. John once again presented himself alongside other members, including Sting, Mark Knopfler, Stephen Fry, Benedict Cumberbatch and a fair number of King’s Counsels and judges. Whether the king himself, an honorary member, voted is not clear. Maybe he was preoccupied with other things, like his health, his new red portrait, and Harry?

While so many pale, stale males at the Garrick have not covered themselves in glory, this time there were enough bright sparks to make a change, and voilà, women can now become members of this funny, fabulous place where Kingsley Amis used to have seven-hour lunches with a good friend of ours. When Amis could no longer make it up the steps to the entrance, he was wheeled in round the back by the wonderful staff.

And as for this South African, the irony of the fact that the club secretary, the person who runs the place, is South African too — and a woman — is worth a chuckle.

♦ VWB ♦

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