Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Sorry, squire, your dacks are just too daggy
Being thrown out of Decimus Burton’s fabulously pompous Athenaeum Club in Pall Mall is something every Australian should experience once. Ours, sadly, wasn’t a complete throwing-out, a bodily flight down the marble under the stern gilt gaze of the warrior goddess, but a somewhat less satisfying ejectus interruptus. And it wasn’t because of our Australianness.
Xenophobia, like fox-hunting, is no longer legal. It wasn’t gender, either. The Athenaeum admits women these days, even as members, standards having slipped. No, it was dress.
Google lied. Google advised no dress code. My partner, prudently, had anyway pocketed a tie, and borrowed a jacket. But it wasn’t enough. There were pants, and the pants, Sir, simply will not do. They weren’t jeans. (I was wearing those. But women, our host explained, are regarded as untameable). My partner’s pants were of the expensive, recently fashionable sort that come looking a little distressed, a little worse for wear. It is, you might think, rather a British look. But for the Athenaeum the look – indeed the entire last century – might as well not have happened.
The doorman summoned his boss, who tut-tutted eloquently from several metres’ distance. But no sooner was our absolute unacceptability made absolutely plain than our host appeared, descending the vast stair. With booming voice and presence to match he whisked us back up to the rugger-sized drawing-room muttering, rather too loudly, “Never mind ’em, just the bloody servants”.
Athenaeum membership, like monarchy, is successional. Our host, the revered former editor of the world’s oldest architectural magazine, that radical establishment pillar The Architectural Review, was “put up” for membership by his predecessor, J.M. “we’re all modernists now” Richards. Richards was in turn put up by Hubert de Cronin “H de C” Hastings, editor from 1927 to 1973, who was hailed in 1959 by the former assistant editor John Betjeman as; “the Great Man of the Time. You invented modern architecture. We are all your creations.” One thing about empire, it’s jolly good for the ego.
For us, though, it had been a day of clubs. Lunch at the famously intellectual Groucho, in Soho; dinner at the Ath. Wildly different in outlook and leaning yet both designed to engender that nose-pressed-against-the-glass feeling with which all London Australians (and many Brits) are familiar.
Australians relate to Britain like the bad child who nevertheless cannot wait to impress. We affect to despise her, for her grey climate and greyer food, and yet, even now, we send our best and brightest to joust in that bejewelled arena. To win fair grail, slay the controlling dragon. And slay we do. We win their architecture prizes, turn their disastrous Millennium Dome into the hugely successful O2 (or Oz?) arena, design their Olympic village, dominate the tabloids. So it is, in its way, rather wonderful that the British sense of inviolable superiority persists, despite such intimations of takeover.
Most Brits still think of Australia, if at all, as some far-flung kanga-infested blessedly droughty paradise. It’s a brand-mistake we reinforce with, for example, the Australia Day Monopoly pub crawl. Many Brits have cuddled a koala and know that, beneath the fluff there’s surprisingly little meat. And that, when the drugs fade and the stupor dissipates, those claws can be surprisingly sharp. Surprisingly vituperative.
So they’re not surprised that Germaine Greer, from her ancient mill-house two doors down from Cambridge’s shiny and sinister-looking Genome Centre (also called the Sanger Institute, in deference to this Great Australian Proximity), makes a point of climbing rhythmically up the great British nostril. They take Barry Humphries’s recent nomination of Prince Charles as “person most admired” as simple evidence that the royal honours are coming round again.
All this they tolerate, so peaceably that visitors to Canterbury Cathedral, where Thomas Beckett was quadruply slaughtered, may be plied with a special “Australian connection” map that renders ecclesiastical complexities in plain English and points out, among other things, a footprint, near the martyrdom door, carved by John Blaxland, brother of the Blue Mountains explorer, Gregory.
But they must be nonplussed by subsequent generations. By the fact that our Kylie now shares with the Queen (and, I suppose, Beckett) the distinction of being four times waxed, only in this case by Madame Tussaud – the previous Minogue bottom having melted, we’re told, under undue schoolboy affection. Kylie who – notably more fleshlike in wax than in life – is the first fragranced waxwork, and with her own beguiling perfume. The Tower of London guard is a Queenslander who talks AFL while checking bags for bombs. And our Cate is on an awards shortlist for playing the queen who stiffened England’s collars.
And in that beginning was the end, really, for Elizabeth begat Empire, Empire begat Commonwealth, and Commonwealth begat a London where Jamaicans laugh and talk on the Tube, where Neighbours stars are household names and the Walkabout pub chain celebrate Australia Day as if everyone knew it from Anzac.
The Brit lit crit Terry Eagleton once prophesied (after the event, and after Yeats) “the centre cannot hold”. But would someone please tell the doorman?