Article by David Salter and Jonathan Cull.
For Bond devotees of London’s clubland, it is of some interest to watch Blade’s, M’s club, gradually turn, as the books progress, from a 20th century version of its sybaritic predecessor, the Scavoir Vivre*, into straightforward Boodle’s. Fleming usually lunched at Boodle’s and was devoted to it. He stated that a dull club was what he wanted and he had left White’s because ‘they gas too much’.
[*The Scavoir Vivre was too exclusive and it blackballed itself to death within a year.]In Moonraker, he described the atmosphere at Blade’s, where there might be cheats and perverts among the members …’but the elegance of the room invested each one with a kind of aristocracy’.
Certainly, it used to be said that if you called out “Carriage for Sir John” in the smoking room at Boodle’s, at least a dozen members would look up. Solidity and tranquillity make up the atmosphere of this elegant building. The walls of the Adam interiors reflect the very English pursuits of a membership drawn from country gentlemen and Knights of the shires. The stairwell is hung with Grand National champions, the coffee-room with Stubbs and Sartorius.
Regrettably the custom of boiling all coins before giving them in change for a note has been discontinued, the servants no longer wear black knee-britches, and should you have neglected to dress for dinner, you are no longer segregated into “the dirty room”. in Fleming’s Blades, it was custom to give its members ‘only freshly minted money’.
Fleming occasionally played bridge with old friends, but more often was to be seen dining alone in a seat in the window, perhaps the famous bow-window facing St James’s Street. One old Duke was fond of sitting there because, he said, he enjoyed “watching the damned people get wet”. A typical meal might consist of gulls eggs, followed by fried sole, washed down with a crisp Chablis.
In Moonraker, he describes M as eating “his usual meagre luncheon – a grilled Dover sole followed by the ripest spoonful he could gouge from the club Stilton”. This was generally accompanied by a half carafe of Algerian red, “The Infuriator”. All while sat by himself in a window seat “barricaded behind The Times.”
“M looked like any member of any of the clubs in St James’s Street. Dark grey suit, stiff white collar, the favourite dark blue bow-tie with white spots, rather loosely tied, the thin black cord of the rimless eyeglass that M seemed only to use to read menus, the keen sailor’s face, with the clear, sharp sailor’s eyes. It was difficult to believe that an hour before he had been playing with a thousand live chessmen against the enemies of England “.
It is not difficult to recognise something of Fleming’s amour-propre in this portrait, both in appearance and his wartime record. For both men, their Club provided an oasis of calm, a very English continuum, unruffled by the world outside. As Sir Winston Churchill once said, as he sat in that same bow window smoking his cigar – “I like this club”, thereby summing up what so many generations have felt about Boodle’s.
Blades, whilst being a blend of clubs known and frequented by Ian Fleming is also a creation that flowed from his romantic and vivid imagination. No real club combined or combines all the traditions, activities and glamour with which Fleming imbued his wonderful creation. Blades brings together all the finest aspects of London Clubland, and reflects his love of that unique world.
Boodle’s. Pratt’s. White’s. Crockford’s, each contributed something to Blades and it is worthwhile to look at each and to see what they brought to the mixture that Fleming so skilfully blended to produce the epitome of London clubs.
Boodle’s was Fleming’s own club, the one he settled on after leaving White’s for reasons mentioned above and it’s main contribution to Blades was certainly its architectural features as well as its traditions. But beyond that the profile of its membership and what he described as its essential “dullness” bears little similarity to Blades.
In You Only Live Twice, he describes it as ‘too full of superannuated country squires who would be talking of nothing but the opening of the partridge season.’ A dig, perhaps at his brother, the traveller and writer, Peter Fleming, who had returned to the family home, Joyce Grove at Nettlebed, where he settled into to the life of a country-sports loving squire.
In literary Bond lore, it was where one of Fleming’s most famous creations was born – Ernst Stavro Blofeld. As regaled by Henry Blofeld when he met Ian, along with his father and brother who also belonged to the club, Fleming recalled trying to come up with a name for the villain in his Bond novel, Thunderball.
According to Blowers:
“And he said ‘I went to bed scratching my head and woke up more or less similarly afflicted and couldn’t think of it in the morning and got a taxi to Boodles in St. James’ Street and sank gratefully into a leather armchair, reached for the membership list and started to go through it alphabetically, looking for the name of a baddie.
“And when he got to the Bs he was gobsmacked by a phalanx of three Blofelds, and in his own words, he said, “I slammed the book shut, gave a yelp of delight, ordered a pint of champagne and never looked back.”
Pratt’s main influence on Blades was its location at 14 Park Place, off St. James’s Street. Fleming, either accidentally or deliberately, called it Park Street. Perhaps his intention was to blur its position.
Beyond location Pratt’s has little in common with Blades and even then, in his later books Fleming appears to move Blades into St. James’s Street. Pratt’s is a very small, private dining club with a chequered history and, since 1937, it has been owned by the Dukes of Devonshire. Its dining room, located in the basement seats only fourteen and its only other room is a billiards room where members dump their coats. There is also a committee room and a secretary’s office.
A vestige of English eccentricity is to be found in the basement of Pratt’s, where the red-painted walls are festooned with animal heads and cabinets of stuffed fish and a hippopotamus’s jaws.
While many London clubs have facilities for playing cards – mainly Bridge – Crockford’s, in its various manifestations, has been the only one to concentrate on high-stakes gambling like that described in the memorable Blades section in ‘Moonraker’
Founded in 1827, at 50 St. James’s Street, by East End fishmonger William Crockford, the original Crockford’s lasted until 1845. Originally described as a ‘notorious and violent gambling hell’ it attracted bored young Regency bucks from the nearby clubs and as the result of the dishonest practices of its proprietor, succeeded in bankrupting a significant number of them who were prepared to wager their fortune on the turn of a card or the roll of dice. Surprisingly, to this writer at least, the Duke of Wellington was the senior member of the club.
Re-established in Carlton House Terrace in 1928, where it continued until its closure in 1970, it remained a home, albeit perhaps more restrained, for high-stakes gambling and this is where Ian Fleming spent many evenings.
More recent times have seen a Malaysian owned Crockford’s Casino open at 30 Curzon Street and this continues the tradition of beautiful surroundings, high-stakes gambling and excellent cuisine. Beyond the name it has no descendancy from the original club.
The senior London club and establishment club, par excellence, White’s still retains a certain raffishness. Originally founded, in 1693, as a public Chocolate House, it moved through various St. James’s Street locations, partly due to a disastrous fire, until it found its final home as a private members’ club at No. 37, at the top end of the street in 1781 and it has remained there ever since.
In the past high-stakes gambling was commonplace here and during the 19th. century George Drummond of Drummond’s Bank lost £20,000 to Beau Brummell compelling his resignation from the bank and General Scott won £200,000, thanks to ‘his notorious sobriety and knowledge of whist.’ Nowadays cards are still played – but for rather lower stakes.
In You Only Live Twice Fleming has a dig at White’s, saying that members of Blades considered it ‘noisy and smart’.
And finally, two clubs. One where Fleming is known to have played cards and which will have contributed to the aura of Blades, particularly the enthralling Bridge game in Moonraker– and the other, the club where M would have felt most at home.
A couple of other clubs that are also of interest:
The Portland Club
The Portland Club was originally formed before 1815 as The Stratford Club, assuming its present name in 1825. It is a club for serious card players, thought to be the oldest card-playing club in the world and established as the world authority on Whist and Bridge. For much of its time it has had its own premises, although I have been unable to establish where these were located. At some stage these premises were lost and the club has since, relied on the hospitality of others.
From 1969 to 1990 the club met at the Naval and Military Club, then located in Palmerston’s old house in Piccadilly. That club, otherwise known as “The In and Out”, after the signs painted on its gateposts in Piccadilly, has now moved to St. James’s Square and the Portland meets at The similarly named Army and Navy Club, known as “The Rag”, at 36 – 39 Pall Mall.
The United Service Club
In You Only Live Twice, describing M, Fleming says: ‘He wasn’t a clubbable man and if he had had the choice he would have stuck to ‘The Senior’, that greatest of all services’ clubs in the world. But too many people knew him there and would ask him ‘what he was doing these days’ – and there was too much shop talked.
The Senior, otherwise The United Service Club was founded in 1815 as a club for officers above the rank of Major or Commander, and acquired its nickname in order to differentiate it from the more open Junior United Service Club, with which it amalgamated in 1953. The main home for The Senior, from 1826 was at 116 Pall Mall, in a wonderful building purpose-designed by Nash.
As Anthony Lejeune says in his superb “Gentlemen’s Clubs of London”: ‘The Senior was built for the giants of a heroic age and seemed too big for the lesser men of today.’ In 1976 it gave up the struggle and today the building houses The Institute of Directors.
A club for James Bond?
For Bond a suitable home might have been found at The Special Forces Club, in Knightsbridge. A club strictly restricted to ex-service people with a special forces background. The walls are adorned with pictures of past SOE, SAS and SBS heroes.
In The Man With The Golden Gun he muses about the annual ‘dinner for Old Boys – the fraternity of ex-Secret Service men that went under the name of The Twin Snakes Club. A grisly reunion held in the banqueting hall of Blades.
Ian Fleming was an interesting combination of modernist and traditionalist. There is no doubt that he loved England and her institutions and traditions. As he wrote in “Moonraker”, on the subject of blackballing (the process of excluding unsuitable applicants for membership, used by club committees) when the club’s Head Porter, Brevett, anxiously added his own blackball to those of the committee, ‘the committee would rather have lost its Chairman than the porter whose family had held the same post at Blades for over a hundred years.In creating Blades Club Fleming sought to paint a portrait of the ideal London Gentlemen’s Club, combining aspects, features and traditions of a number of institutions that he knew and frequented. This he certainly achieved and the section of Moonraker devoted to Bond and M’s evening at Blades is, in the writer’s opinion, a very fine piece of writing in praise of a certain aspect of English life.
At Crockford’s in 1999, the Australian entrepreneur Kerry Packer lost £11 million in one session and in 2012, the gambler Phil Ivey beat the house to win £7.7 million. The casino refused to pay on the grounds that Ivey had been cheating by using a technique known as ‘edge-sorting’. Though this is not illegal they maintained that it was, effectively, cheating. Various court cases and appeals upheld Crockford’s position and Ivey was not paid although his original £1 million stake was returned.
Anthony Lejeune’s The Gentlemen’s Clubs of London