It takes one to know one far too often

In a tribute by Donald Trelford to his old friend Alan Watkins, the eminent political journalist who died last week, one particular anecdote snagged in the mind. Alan, said Trelford, was a man whose great interests in life – rugby, cricket, wine, the English language – were the same as his. “In El Vino’s or the Garrick, when approached by someone whose company we didn’t fancy, we would go into a comic routine in which we recited the names of the great prop forwards of the 1950s. This was usually enough to drive away the most persistent of bores.”

Here is my problem. Although I always enjoyed reading Alan Watkins, in this story I instinctively identify with the interrupter as he tried to make conversation with these two eminent journalists and found himself bewildered by a mysterious comic routine involving surnames. There is something archetypically English about the scene. It might have been a set piece in a Kingsley Amis novel. The names recited were unimportant; they could have been prep school masters or characters out of Trollope. What mattered was that they were part of the game of exclusion.

There is an undeclared club at the heart of English life, and incidents like this reveals its workings. They tend to be amusing for insiders, but tiresome for us bores (“bores” being a usefully general and dismissive term much loved by Private Eye under the editorship of Richard Ingrams; unkind souls might think an interest in the English language is almost the definition of a bore).

It is not necessary to be particularly brilliant or interesting to belong to the establishment club. Being male is important. An interest in some Spectator-ish enthusiasm – cricket, village pubs, PG Wodehouse, agreeable conversation in congenial company, etc – is helpful, as is a position of power and influence. A country solicitor or a lowly GP, however funny or interesting, will tend to be ranked among the bores.

Members need not agree politically. Clubbiness transcends ideology. What matters is shared world view, and comfortable certainty that the traditional English way of doing things is the envy of the world. There is something about our national character which makes belonging to a self-perpetuating establishment club peculiarly attractive. The impulse usually becomes irresistible at that moment in middle age when people find that they have power in politics, business, the law or the media.

Bang on cue, a new generation of insiders has taken centre stage this week. There was evidence of an instinctive togetherness as the luminaries of the Tories and Liberals, many of them graduates from Oxford University, posed together for the first time. Despite their differences, there has already been a sense of temperamental bonding that was rarely evident within the Labour Party.

The English insider is probably born not made. Class is important but more as a destination than as starting point; the socially modest beginnings of some members will quickly be forgotten if the right stolid, middle-class virtues, and the right tone of voice, are adopted. By the time the would-be club member has reached university, the first thin strands of a network will be in place. Twenty years later, he will be running the country, or in a big corner office, or sounding off about this and that in the press. Another two decades on, and he will be deflecting bores at the Garrick by reciting the names of rugby players.

If all this sounds a touch chippy, then so it should. It takes a sort of talent to fit into a strong and self-protective world. Joining a great unofficial club which helps run the country requires an innate capacity for friendship. It involves a recognition that the personal and the professional are connected, that a quiet drink with the right person at the right time can later solve problems and ease one’s progress through the world. The idea that, by helping other people along, one will eventually help oneself, is not so outrageous. Generosity is required, and a spirit of instinctive co-operation. For those on the chilly outside, it is all rather enviable.

Independent, Friday, 14 May 2010