Extra than simply one other Michael Wheeler membership in London

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THIS great British institution, the Athenaeum Club, was founded in 1824 and Michael Wheeler is about to celebrate the 200th anniversary of what he calls "more than just another London club". His richly illustrated book is another exuberant product of Yale University Press.

There were clubs in front of the Athenaeum, but they were usually the meeting point of the landed and titled. John Wilson Croker, the founder of the Athenaeum, designed something different. At a time of political polarization, although he was a staunch Tory, he made sure that the majority of the Whigs were on the opening committee. He also designed a club where membership was open to those who had received honors in the arts and sciences, politics, and the church, rather than childbirth accidents.

Historically, the more solid Anglican bishops have been members. Cartoons by Osbert Lancaster depicting Athenian bishops in gaiters adorn the walls near the entrance to the downstairs toilet. Edward Burne-Jones told his cousin Rudyard Kipling shortly after his election to the club that he "would soon know more about the inner workings of the bishops than a hundred biographies of them".

Some of the most famous Victorian-style ecclesiastical debates on the authority of the Bible; The Colenso affair and the storm of essays and reviews reverberated in the Athenaeum, where almost all of the main actors were members.

It is telling that bookcases have always been given precedence over murals rather than the images that dominate clubs like the Garrick. A 19th century protocol of the General Committee states: "The social enjoyments of a club are here combined with the means of intellectual satisfaction and improvement to a degree that is unlikely to be enjoyed by any similar association." Wheeler offers a careful account of the various changes in the organization as well as the physical and architectural environment of the club.

Until World War I, the British intellectual and political establishment actually existed as a network of relationships that were compact and whose members met at the Athenaeum. Wheeler's appeal to major members over the past two centuries occasionally reads like a scaled-down version of the Dictionary of National Biography, the brainchild of Leslie Stephen, who was elected to membership in 1877.

In 1902 the club had its first banquet since its inception to celebrate the admission of no fewer than nine Athenians to the twelve recipients of the newly established Order of Merit, the pinnacle of the honor system. The Prime Minister, A. J. Balfour, claimed in his speech on the occasion that such a "body of undiluted distinction" had never been gathered in a room of comparable size.

Social change, especially after World War II, led to the fragmentation of the now mythical establishment. At the same time, parallel vertical career hierarchies were expanded, the requirements of which limited the extent to which executives in one area could interact with those in another area.

© the AthenaeumGeorge Morrow, "Raid on the Athenaeum Club," Punch, 1906, a cartoon reproduced in the book

Wheeler describes the Athenaeum's post-war slump. It was accompanied by a decline in awareness of the clerical element. It is true that the Archbishops of Canterbury continued to play a significant role in running the club until relatively recently. Archbishop Runcie was proud to be a member of the Wine Committee, while his predecessor Donald Coggan remained as a trustee until his death in 2000. However, only ten diocesan bishops are currently members and some of the rest have gone to the vineyards of cheaper Farmers' Club. It is a development that reflects the dwindling presence of the clergy in society.

In other respects, the years since 2000 have revived the fate of the Athenaeum. In 2001, female members were added and facilities, and not least the food, improved significantly.

Everything is recorded in loving detail by Michael Wheeler. In such a crowded canvas, there is bound to be a slip or two. In the concluding chapter, Lord Mackay is described by Clashfern as "the late one" when, thankfully, thanks to his sharp and frequent contributions to debates in the House of Lords, he is still very much alive.

The lockdown has highlighted the value of those places where new friends can be made and the art of conversation and politeness can be practiced. Wheeler has given us a full history of one such place, the Athenaeum Club, which is nearing its bicentenary. As we ponder the vicious results of polarization in the political universe in the United States today, we can be grateful for the bipartisan vision of founder John Wilson Croker, an Irish Tory who is deservedly recognized in this volume.

The Rt Revd Lord Chartres is a former Bishop of London.

The Athenaeum: More than just another London club
Michael Wheeler
Yale £ 35
(978-0-300-24677-3)
Church House Bookshop £ 31.50

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