It’s not all glamour, TV. My most recent outside broadcast took me to Rushden in Northamptonshire and its sprawling plastic recycling plant. The cold, unremitting wind, din of machinery and the whiff of something of indeterminate origin, had me scurrying for the sanctuary of our mobile satellite truck between on-air segments.
It meant half a dozen of us crammed inside a space designed to accommodate a trio of technicians. Conversation turned to the big news story of the day. It was the apparent scandal of the Presidents Club. An undercover reporter from the FT had described how 300 men had attended a posh dinner in London at which hostesses were allegedly harassed and groped.
I made the point that my daughter sometimes waitressed at black-tie dinners and, like all right-thinking parents, the idea of her being the subject of unwanted advances was not a pleasant one to me.
Conversation then moved from the personal to the theoretical. What did we think, as a group of men – for this was an increasingly rare day when neither the presenter, correspondent nor producer was a woman – about formal all-male gatherings?
My view has long been that government has no right to tell people with whom they can freely associate. But I add this caveat: such groups of individuals cannot expect any help from the state, in the form of charitable status tax breaks. The state must tolerate without encouraging.
Our researcher then imagined a scenario where a pub or a club put up a sign, as he claimed to have seen recently, saying “No women”. We would not, he rightly noted, allow such explicit exclusion on grounds of race or creed.
There is a line here. I don’t know where it falls, but I fancy it’s on the move. To explain. It is wholly uncontroversial for a group of men or women to crave the company of their own sex. If I invited a group of male pals out for a meal, nobody would bat an eyelid. But there’s an institutionalisation trajectory at the heart of this which is worth plotting.
Imagine my buddies and I have a great night, so good in fact that we fancy making it a monthly get-together. Our only grumble was that the music in the bar was too noisy. So we agree to book a private dining room. Over time we realise that one reason we all get on so famously as a group is our shared enthusiasm for flying drones. One of our group is a multi-millionaire. He’s inherited an old shooting bothy which he says we can use for our monthly dinners. So is born the Old Drones Club.
Is any of that in breach of modern mores? Well, let’s add one complication. The rich donor is generous, but not a sap. In return for this kindness he demands some say over who he shares his bothy with. He does not mention gender or race, though his irrational aversion to Scotsmen is well known. Nothing is written down. There’s no club constitution. He simply argues that he trusts his friends, if they want to expand their circle of fellowship, to invite like-minded souls. They do, but no Scotsman ever appears at the bothy.
It’s not impossible to conceive a scenario similar to this playing out in decades past when men have coalesced together around a mutual love of golf, rowing, philately or, in the case of some gentlemen’s clubs, gossip and grog.
At what point does the territory turn treacherous? Is it when something is codified, when a rule book emerges, explicitly listing categories of membership, ranks of privilege and exclusions? Is it when a loose freemasonry evolves, such that the gathering loses sight of its original purpose and becomes solely a vehicle for reciprocal advancement? Or is it when a group of men, unleavened by women, start to behave badly, as is alleged at the Presidents Club dinner?
John Stuart Mill famously said the state should only interfere in our lives “to prevent harm to others”. A Scotsman who applied to join the Old Drones Club could claim harm, but only if he knew it existed. I fancy this is the rub. Men’s clubs will still form, but they will become discreet to the point of invisibility.
Journalism’s enduring attraction is its potential variety. It’s not all waste reprocessing plants. As part of our recycling coverage I went to interview Sir Ranulph Fiennes at his farm overlooking Exmoor. I returned home enthused with a determination to get a child or two to read Fiennes’s brilliant revisionist biography of Robert Falcon Scott (of the Antarctic). I tried to soften them up with a potted history of Sir Ranulph’s own polar achievements. They were unmoved. I then explained that he had been forced to remove his own frost-bitten fingers with a hacksaw. That got them.