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“Author and critic”, by Norman Mansbridge, from the menu card of a 1955 Authors’ Club dinner


The author’s life is, of necessity, largely a lonely one involving long hours spent in front of a computer screen or over a notepad in one’s study knocking out a few hundred words a day which may eventually end up as a book. Distractions are to be avoided at all costs, or the book won’t get written. This solitary lifestyle is probably the reason writers are drawn to joining clubs: once their daily work is done, their desire to meet a few other human beings over a drink or a cheap meal is understandable — and who better than their fellow authors?

The mid-Victorian authors — Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray — were great clubmen. So were their successors such as Kipling, Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle, all patrons of a London club founded for writers, whose history has now been entertainingly set down by C.J. Schüler (Writers, Lovers, Soldiers, Spies: A History of the Authors’ Club of London 1891-2016, Authors’ Club, £19.99).

Throughout its history, the Authors’ Club has perfectly mirrored the lives of many of its members by eking out a hand-to-mouth existence, never entirely sure where its next cheque is coming from. For many years it was quartered in Whitehall Court, the gloomy Victorian pile that also houses the National Liberal Club, where it exuded a shabby gentility: Anthony Powell, who joined in 1945, described it as “an odd little backwater . . . dominated by Edwardian literary memories and a gargantuan black cat”.

The post-war austerity years were particularly difficult, as they were for many London clubs. Powell’s contemporary Graham Greene was an active member then, and set a scene there in The End of the Affair, his narrator Maurice Bendrix entertaining his lover’s husband at a “seedy club” which he liked because there was “little likelihood of meeting a fellow writer”.

Despite the great names who were members and vocal public figures in the period between the wars — such as H.G. Wells and Compton Mackenzie — the club operated a colour bar until the early 1950s for fear of offending its landlord in Whitehall Court, and did not admit women until 1971. Pleasingly, it is now chaired by the Indian-born female author Sunny Singh, and after much post-war peregrination has ended up back in the National Liberal Club. So writers who’ve been grinding out that literary masterpiece in their lonely study all day know where they can still have a good moan, as authors always will, about the eternal iniquities of the book trade.

 
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