Standpoint's Mole in the Cavalry and Guards Club salutes an institution that has adapted and survived
Geoffrey Price is retiring. It’s the end of an era for the Cavalry and Guards Club at 127 Piccadilly. Geoffrey’s Bar has been a favourite watering hole for more than 30 years. He came to the Club in 1975 when the two famous Clubs merged. He had been with the Guards’ since he was 14, though not behind the bar until he was 17. He started by doing the glasses and clearing things away, plus important and responsible jobs like taking members’ bets round to the bookies and then collecting their winnings.
Ask a London taxi-driver for the Guards’ Club these days, and you might get a blank look. Or he might say, “Oh, do you mean the Cavalry Club?” When the C & G merged, it soon became a takeover. After all, it is well known in military circles that the Cavalry do add tone to what would otherwise be just a vulgar brawl. Horses look good in paintings or in statues: just look around our public squares.
But “woodentops” on parade look terribly dull. However good the drill, it is only the movement that makes it live. Neither an oil nor a water-colour can do a parade justice, but a cavalry charge looks grand on a staircase. Even hog-sticking looks the business. The only painting of the Guards in the Club that is really moving is Lady Butler’s famous Roll Call, after the battle, in Crimea. It hangs next to a painting of a routine duty of the cavalry, mucking out the stables. You can see why the cavalry hated losing their horses, like the Royal Scots Greys in Palestine in 1939-40.
Portraits of Field Marshals grace the two anterooms. The First World War gave the Club Wully Robertson (the only private soldier to find that baton in his knapsack), French, Haig, Allenby and Byng. The Second World War provided Alexander of Tunis. Post-war Generals and Field Marshals to grace the hall of fame include Hull, Carver, Stanier and Bagnall.
The Club has the Household Cavalry to be the link between its two halves. Perhaps it would have been wiser, in both the last two rounds of Army cuts, to amalgamate pairs of infantry and cavalry regiments than to cling to the outmoded distinctions of those who fight mounted and those who march. After all, the Boer War, over a century ago, saw the instant creation of mounted infantry, complete with poem to celebrate them by Rudyard Kipling. These, like modern infantry, got a lift to the battlefield, and then fought on foot. And was it not a Highland regiment, in 1815, which rode to battle clinging to the stirrups of their mounted fellow-countrymen?
In the cavalry, the greatest pain was caused by losing the horse. After that, amalgamations of Hussars and Lancers, Dragoons and Cuirassiers, followed swiftly and relatively painlessly, leading to the famous fractions. The colour of the Mess waistcoat became the battlefield, they say, for petty politicking. The real and vital manoeuvre was to get a real role in battle: tanks, or armoured recce, or “breakthrough troops”, but not, pray God, monitoring NBC (nuclear, biological and chemical warfare).
Once again a trick was missed, back in the 1960s and 1970s, when a great shrinking of the army was under way. The Army Air Corps had helicopters. The Hussars and Lancers had the history. The two might have been merged to form, as in the US Army, an air cavalry, but with panache. Rotors and shakos; missiles and pelisses; surveillance and reconnaissance combined. Instead, huge numbers of our scarce helicopters are used in Afghanistan as taxis for VIPs: a suitable question for PMQs, no doubt, except that Opposition leaders like posing with a backdrop of soldiers and mountains just as much as former student leaders.
When the intellectually shallow Hoon-Jackson reforms of the infantry hit the Army five years ago, the cavalry were unconcerned. But the Guards fought a blinder. They played the national card in a typically astute way. Their five single-battalion regiments, which survived the Jackson axe, represent the UK’s four nations, Johnny-come-lately though the Irish and Welsh Guards may be. Loyalty first and foremost, and obedience. But “we alone guard the Crown in Parliament within the confines of our capital city, London”. No coup d’état could ever work while the Guards remain in Birdcage Walk and Windsor. Armed police are one thing, and of course the Met has “primacy”. But if push ever came to shove, the Guards would do a Hougoumont and save the day.
It is a powerful argument, bolstered as it is by the presence within the Brigade of Guards of the second-to-none Coldstreamers. If ever Prince Charles lost his throne for talking too much and England became a Republic, the Coldstreams would be there to guard Earl Mandelson of Hartlepool in his presidential palace (much spluttering into pink gins in Geoffrey’s Bar).
The cheap-and-cheerful accommodation at the back of the Club, beyond the terrace, known as the Annexe, is no more. It fetched a cool few million for the freehold. The Secretary, too, is no longer a retired officer, naval or military, looking for handy employment in town. The present man comes from hotel management, and is busy creating revenue streams that no one had thought possible before. One such experiment will do to illustrate the differing ethos of the old cavalry and the stuffier Guards. Russian money, before the Creditsky Crunchov, was awash around Mayfair. It percolated everywhere; and with the Romanovs back in favour and diamonds dripping around every new girlfriend of an oligarch, the hunt was on for prestigious venues. So the Club was “hired”. Party girls flooded in, members were denied entrance for the evening.
The Club Committee held a post-mortem. “This must stop. It is lowering the tone,” said the Guards. “Just like the old days,” muttered the cavalrymen.
Back to Geoffrey’s Bar, adorned with cartoons. All the great names are here: Osbert Lancaster, Bateman (“The Guardsman who dropped his rifle”), Giles, Jak and Marc. Sierra Leone PM seized by Army,” reads a newspaper headline in one. “Forget it, Fanshawe,” reads the caption, “it would never work here,” said to an officer looking wistfully out of the window and thinking dire thoughts of Harold Wilson. Such plots nowadays are only cooked up in the Special Forces Club, behind Harrods; and the only coups they hatch are for Africa, not Britain.
Geoffrey’s discretion and inside knowledge make Jeeves look like a noisy parvenu. The tales he overheard are too numerous even for his superb memory. Where Jeeves got in a tizzy about Wooster’s eccentric dress-style, Geoffrey would just recognise a regimental tie, make a mental connection, and ignore the rest. His pick-me-ups were better and his confidence worth having. May his retirement be a long and happy one.
Old soldiers, and now some young ones with their leggy girlfriends, will carry on putting the world to rights in Geoffrey’s Bar, and the sun will come up next morning as usual, and the world will have changed, and yet still be the same. That is the glory and the genius of the British Establishment: adapt and survive; co-opt and conquer.
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