John Betjeman* understood clubs. Regardless of his lament for the shrinking of red on the map, he was a man of his time when charting societal change. He mourned the passing of the clubman, but he wasn’t in total denial.
For those seriously starved of entertainment, there’s a virtual library of criticism mocking Betjeman by those ready to be clever after the event. For me, he fixed a time when the world made sense, and everyone knew their place within it. I’m a million miles from matching this utopia with my values, but he captured the sorrow of a changing world beautifully**
The clubman – and I’m emphasising that noun in the second syllable – was quite the thing back in the time of our fathers. You worked hard, you paid your dues, you had your part in creating offspring and maybe a little post physicalisation, you went to the pub with your friends and you joined a club.
The metier of that club was mostly irrelevant, The thing which mattered was you were a member. Putting on a different tie to cleave the time between work and family. Small gestures and quiet despair. Is this as good as it gets? My dad was fighting the Battle of the Bulge and I’m soldering valves, kicking balls or maybe living that freedom riding bicycles with like-minded others looking for individuality within a clan.
Fair play to them all. Stories of riders in heavy suits summiting snow bound hills and carrying cast-iron bikes over broken ground always raises an appreciative eyebrow. Not the roadies – hard men as they clearly were – rather those heading off road with a self conscious smile and a desperate need to be different.
For me that’s the free spirit breaking out. The antipathy of the clubman. Sure the need to belong pervades, but it’s not bound in rules, it’s forged in that spirit. Heading off into the unknown with nothing more than a dubious map last used to pinpoint ordinance, a bike doubling as a factory commuting vehicle, and a well-there’s-no-point-dying-wondering attitude to wondering what might come next.
That’s what Betjeman missed. The subversive culture of those who swapped hierarchy for high places, social conventions for the hegemony of a tribe, the need to conform juxtaposed by the need to be not quite like you. It’s not Rosa Parks on a bus in 1955, but I can’t help wondering if this represents a British well if you don’t mind then fuck you.
Whatever, the legacy is interesting. I’m with Groucho Marx in that I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member. I work too damn hard and I’m too bloody old to spend time with people I’ve no time for. Clubs identifying themselves with jerseys, arbitrary delineations of what fast might be, tedious rules bounding acceptability and an aristocracy of those who are, and those who are not.
I think I’m probably not. And I’m sure those clubs would explain in some detail why I am wrong. How inclusive they might be. How they retain the fading ethos of the the clubman I read about 20 years ago. And I would argue right back that spare time should not be regimented, should not conform to what some kind of committee codifies as acceptable, should not need to tell you what, should not tell you how, and refuse to tell you why.
Still what do I know? Road clubs aren’t lacking in numbers. MTB clubs a little behind but there is still a tribal need. Maybe there’s a thing for belonging, a group of your own, even just a reason to venture out in the shit weather.
Maybe, maybe not. There’s something of the clubman in all of us. Wanting to belong. The power of many. Sacrificing individualism to the safety of the crowd. Bystander syndrome spinning a sense of those like us. In a world increasing fractured by a daily ‘what the fuck just happened here?’, it’s a perfectly understandable refuge.
But I still don’t get clubs. I get riding with my mates. There’s a huge difference and it’s not about rules or jerseys. John B hated that the world wouldn’t stop turning and clubs, to me, feel they are an transient anchor to that ideal.
If there is going to be any kind of progress in a world which appears to be run by those keen to be the architects of the destruction of it, then meritocracy has to be the thing which stills the madness. That’s not something which sits well with knowing your place.
The age of the clubman has had endured a little too long. It’s probably time to think for ourselves.
*a man who loved bicycles in a way which endures, and a word-view which does not.
** Really I find serious literature mostly pretentious and unfathomable. But this is good stuff. And I’m speaking as a man who’s tried James Joyce a few times and ended with ‘Ulysses- no fucking idea at all’