Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Savile Club’

Happy 150th Birthday, Robbie Ross!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 25th May, 2019

Edwin Thomas, Gyles Brandreth, JF“A real friend,” declared the American gossip columnist Walter Winchell, “is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out.” That statement perfectly encapsulates Robert Baldwin Ross, erstwhile lover and devoted friend and literary executor to Oscar Wilde as well as mentor to several younger writers, including the First World War poet, Siegfried Sassoon. Last night, in the gorgeous ballroom of the Savile Club in Mayfair, members of the club and of the Oscar Wilde Society gathered to celebrate Robbie Ross’s 150th birthday, which falls today. The club Chairman, Robert Harding, spoke of Robbie’s short tenure at the Savile (at that time based on Piccadilly), as well as of Oscar Wilde’s failed attempt to join. The actor Edwin Thomas, who played Robbie in Rupert Everett’s film The Happy Prince, read the speech that Robbie had himself given at a huge dinner at the Ritz Hotel in 1908, when Wilde’s creditors had all been paid off (largely thanks to German interest in his work). The chef at the Savile recreated deliciously much of the menu of that event over a hundred years ago. I gave the after-dinner speech highlighting Robbie and the value of friendship. Gyles Brandreth was the Master of Ceremonies.

Robbie Ross cover 1Ross was born in Tours, France, on 25 May, 1869, but moved to London with his widowed mother and siblings while still a child. He was precocious and cheeky and remarkably confident in his own sexuality; at age 17 while a house guest he seduced Oscar Wilde. Later he was friends with Oscar’s passion, Lord Alfred Douglas, until they had a terrible falling-out. “Bosie” Douglas then persecuted Robbie for years, the stress undermining Robbie’s already weak constitution. For several years he had rooms in an extraordinary establishment run by Nellie Burton at 40 Half Moon Street, Shepherd’s Market — a haven for bachelor men of letters. It was there (and at the Reform Club) that Robbie entertained Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and others. I wrote about all this in my biography, Robbie Ross, which is still available in paperback and as an ebook:


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The History of London Clubs

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 20th February, 2012

For many people today, the idea of belonging to a Club (previously known as a Gentleman’s Club) is a mirth-inducing anachronism, but as someone who belongs to two — one political, one thespian — I know that they can play an important role in one’s social life, as well as being oases of calm in the maelstrom of London. It’s true that I myself took a while to seize the point of Clubs; when Philip Ziegler invited me to join the Chelsea Arts Club when I was the Liberal parliamentary candidate for Chelsea, 30 years ago, the idea seemed preposterous. I maintained my membership of the local gym instead. Perhaps it’s a generational thing. Yet there are some Clubs, such as the Savile, that have been rejuvenated in recent years by a sudden influx of younger members. Certainly, a century ago, any young man in London with an eye to political or professional advancement would have sought to be admitted into membership of one of them. And as about 80 of us were informed at an entertaining and informative talk on The History of London Clubs, given at the National Liberal Club this evening, by PhD student Seth Thévoz, in their heyday, there were over 400 Clubs in London, including several dozen for women. MPs in the late 19th century might be a member of as many as three. This was partly to escape their wives in many cases, but also because it was in Clubs like the NLC, the Reform, the Carlton and the Constitutional that alliances were made and policy discussed, more so than is the case today. St James’s was the heartland of traditional Clubland, though these days some of the action has moved further east, to venues such as Soho House, Groucho’s and even Shoreditch House. Seth’s doctoral thesis covers a period in the middle of the 19th century, whereas my own related researches for books has tended to be covering a period 50 years later. But for those who would like to get to know more about the subject while on a walking tour, Seth has joined up with colleagues to form Lost London Tours. Predictably, he leads the one on historic London Clubs — so if you see him loitering on the pavement outside White’s, you’ll understand why.


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Peter Schrijvers at the Biographers Club

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 29th June, 2010

The Flemish author and academic Peter Schrijvers was the guest speaker at today’s gathering of the Biographers’ Club, held at the Savile Club off Grosvenor Square. His book Bloody Pacific has just come out in a second, paperback edition (Palgrave, £12.99) and I hope to review it shortly. Peter Schrijvers had prepared an excellent, thoughtful written presentation focussing on some of the core issues in his book, which deals with the way the Americans fought the Japanese in the Second World War, and in particular the experiences of individual soldiers, what they thought of the enemy and their behaviour (often brutal or outright criminal) on the battlefield. Hearing the author speak, I was struck by the similarity with my own observations in the Vietnam War, of how young US troops there, many of them only teenagers, considered the Vietnamese subhuman — the Viet Cong of course often indistinguishable from ordinary peasants — and how gungho they were about killing them. I wish things in warfare had improved since then, but I fear the same has probably often been true in Iraq and Afghanistan, and not only on the part of the American forces.


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Biographers’ Club Prize

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 2nd September, 2008

Sod’s Law has it that every time I have a nice dinner lined up, the TV rings and asks me to do a live Press Review — but I can’t complain, as they pay, and I know that if I said ‘no’ they would only ask someone else… So, I missed the middle bit of the Biographers’ Club prize-giving dinner at the Savile Club earlier this evening, at which the accolades went to Michael Bundock of the Johnson Society for his work on Samuel Johnson, whose tercentenary falls next year. I don’t think this is the same Michael Bundock who wrote an erudite tome on shipping law, but I can’t be sure. Infuriatingly, I was seated at the same table as him, but alas, by the time I had returned from the TV studio (the Savile had kept a dinner warm for me, bless them, maybe because I used to be a member), he was up and gone. Similarly, I missed hearing the main speaker, my old chum Simon Callow, who has written on fellow thespians Charles Laughton and Orson Welles. However, I did get a chance to have a good reminiscence with him (mainly about Laughton’s next-door-neighbour in Santa Monica, Christopher Isherwood, whose biography I wrote). And as a penance for missing Simon’s speech, I promised that I will go to see him in the pantomime ‘Peter Pan’ in Richmond this Christmas. Sigh.


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Remembering Leo Abse

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 20th August, 2008

When the definitive history of the social liberalisation of 20th century Britain comes to be written, the name of my old friend Leo Abse, who has died aged 91, will be writ large. An indefatigable campaigner, both as a lawyer and as a South Wales Labour MP (of Polish Jewish extraction), he was largely responsible for changes such as the decriminalisation of attempted suicide, easier divorce in cases where a marriage had irretrievably broken down and homosexual law reform. His small size belied his immense vigour and his determination, but unlike many social reformers, he had a tremendous sense of humour. He was always somebody I was delighted to find myself sitting next to at lunch when we both members of the Savile Club, and the hospitality at his beautiful home on the riverfront at Chiswick — including at his 90th birthday party last year — was generous and warm.

Leo listed amongst his hobbies ‘psychobiography’, and among the various books he produced were three or four truly controversial probings into subjects such as Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Daniel Defoe. He read widely in psychoanalysis and related fields, though some professionals thought his theories were a bit off the wall. One the most surreal evenings I ever spent was at the Freud Museum in Hampstead with Leo and Michael Foot, dissecting the personalities of Tony Blair and George Brown and the relationship between them.

Several years ago, after the death of his first wife Marjorie, Leo went into decline — so much so that he even sent out New Year cards bearing a drawing of the grim reaper. But a second marriage, to the Polish interior designer Ania Czepulkowska, 50 years his junior, literally gave him a new lease of life. He had always been fascinated by textiles and clothes — Marjorie designed several splendid outfits for him for Budget Days — and he was susceptible to human beauty in all its forms.

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