4 JANUARY 1992, Page 25

Shallow brooks murmur most

Richard Cockett

BROOKS'S: A SOCIAL HISTORY edited by Philip Ziegler and Desmond Seward Constable, £20, pp. 233 Readers of The Spectator will be pleased to know that the ancien rdgime is alive and well and resides at Brooks's.

Twenty current members of Brooks's, men of distinction in a variety of fields, from Roy Jenkins to Simon Raven, have clubbed together to celebrate this fact in Brooks's: A Social History, each writing an essay on different aspects of Brooks's con- tribution to English social and political his- tory. Brooks's, founded in 1778 (or 1764, according to one's historical preference) was originally, as Philip Ziegler puts it, the `Whig Party at dinner or the gambling tables'. The bulk of this volume is devoted to a series of chapters in chronological order tracing Brooks's development as a club within the Whig, and later the Liberal, tradition. There are also essays on the his- tory of the St James's Club, founded for the convenience of the 19th-century diplomatic corps which merged with Brooks's in 1975, and the Society of Dilettanti, which found a home there for both its dinners and its pictures. If, as the preface claims, this volume can best be used as a social anthropologist's pocket guide to 'Whiggism', the evidence on display here is pretty damning, for in reality this is all-male 'social' history at its most unrepentant. What passes for 'social' history in these pages is an abject succession of petty squabbles, aristocratic 'high-spirits' at the bar and the gambling- tables and endless disputes over the quality, quantity and price of food and drink.

The nadir is reached with the 'Great Billiards Table Controversy' of the 1920s. Reading this history , one is reminded of a Russian journalist's recent observation that England is the only country where little (public-school) boys are treated as gentle- men, with the consequence that it is only in later life that they revert to behaving like little boys. The gravest threat to the peace of Brooks's came, of course, from the existence of that other half of the human race — women. I was momentarily taken aback to learn of the 'admission' of 'ladies' on page 104, only to be reassured on page 105 that this meant only that they were allowed in after 6 pm, and confined to cer- tain rooms. But then those all-important finances do have to be helped along.

In as far as Brooks's registered the politi- cal controversies of the past two centuries it was mainly through the process of 'black- balling' aspiring members who were deemed to have held disquietingly radical opinions. Political history in this volume is thus 'a combination of fiendishly complicat- ed blackballing plots and counter-plots, petty snubs and musings on the nature of 'Whiggism'. Sadly, most of the authors, in their desperate attempts to write in an urbane and amusing manner (thus upholding the finest traditions of Brooks's), appear merely lightweight. The only writer who manages to shape his material into an intelligent and useful nar- rative is Robert Blake, thereby satisfying the hope of the publisher that the essays in this volume might be not only 'entertain- ing' but also a 'serious contribution' to his- tory. The other authors rarely achieve anything more than an elegant calculation of how many members of Brooks's were in the Cabinet at any one time (figures which are repeated ad nauseam throughout). Indeed, the authors are ill-served by their editors, as the text is full of repetition; Roy Jenkins succeeds in doing little more than repeating Lord Blake's chapter in a less coherent manner. The staple ingredient of this sort of history is, of course, the anecdote, which is much in evidence here -- and the same anec- dotes are also much in evidence on several occasions.

Such is the stuff of `Club history'. The self-congratulatory tone of these essays will, I am sure, commend this volume to members of Brooks's but probably not to anyone else. The only slightly defensive note is struck by Noel Annan in his short essay on the 'Whig Tradition'. Annan seeks to rebut John Vincent's accusation that Brooks's is a bastion of 'snobbery'. Whilst admitting that much of the post- war liberal establishment could be found at Brooks's, Annan writes that: Vincent's trope does not bear examination. The political configuration of Brooks's changed when the St James's Club left Pic- cadilly and joined Brooks's in St James's Street.

I think John Vincent can rest his case.

Richard Cocicett's David Astor and the Observer was published last year by Andre' Deutsch at £17.99.