My first time at the Groucho was perfect, in that I remember little of it. I was 19, friends of friends of friends whisked me through Soho during fashion week, and somehow we ended up there. My only memory is of trying to smoothly, seductively walk past Mark Ronson, tripping and nearly headbutting him instead.
Some years later, my old boss got me in to watch the results of the EU referendum. Screens had been put in the bar but the room itself hadn’t been closed off from the usual patrons. For as long as I live, I will picture some gruff hack pushing a gaggle of giggly teenage models out of the way while bellowing: “Move! Sunderland’s about to declare.”
In short: I have had good and bad nights at the Groucho. Not that I’ve ever been a member; always the questionable guest and never the paying member, as the saying doesn’t quite go. Still, news that the club had changed hands and now wanted to attract a younger clientele felt eyebrow-raising.
It is hardly the first club to realise it needs freshening up. Soho House now offers cheap memberships with all manners of perks for people under 27, and a friend once managed to convince one of the stuffier establishments to let him join for free, on account of him being under 50.
The aim is a noble one; the once-new wave of members’ clubs prided itself on being fresh, exciting and unpredictable, and remaining so means bringing in new blood. Given what went on in those bars in the 90s, it seems fair to say that the now middle-aged hellraisers deserve a well-earned break.
What isn’t clear, however, is whether there really is a new generation dying to replace them. For a start – and to state the obvious – club memberships aren’t cheap. Even reduced rates are, for the most part, more than £40 a month, and that only gets you through the door.
Once in, people can expect to pay similar prices to midmarket establishments, meaning around £8 for a glass of house wine and £18 for one of the cheaper main courses. At risk of appointing myself as the voice of my generation, I doubt that many people born after 1990 can currently afford this with ease.
We are headed towards tough economic times and, unless you are both very successful and in an especially stable job, spending this much for no obvious reason may just seem too frivolous. It is also worth wondering if it still feels like a worthy investment.
People in the creative industries have long relied on informal networking to boost their careers but there are many other ways to meet relevant people. Clubs probably were the ideal place in which to sneak in boozy lunches once upon a time – but the mood has changed.
Last time I rocked up at 6pm in a Soho club, there were few alcoholic drinks in sight, and everyone seemed sober enough. In fact, the waitress did get cross at several customers but only because they were refusing to shut their laptops and stop working. Dionysiac, it was not.
Some places have embraced the heel turn; just before the pandemic, Soho House launched Soho Works, a new chain of co-working spaces mostly aimed at its pre-existing club members. The days of fighting, snorting and snogging feel like they belong to a different world.
It is a shame – I was more concerned with crayons than cocktails in the 90s, but the heyday of members’ clubs did seem exceptionally fun. Perhaps they can reinvent themselves in post-pandemic London. After all, many people are now working from home on the outskirts of the city and would surely welcome a home away from home nestled inside zone 1.
In an era of endless concerns about burnout, toxic online cultures and tech generally ruining our mental health, places where smartphones are frowned on would surely be welcome.
The only problem, really, remains the cost of membership. With inflation mooted to hit 12%, any attempt to bring in fresh faces must realise that few interesting types currently have millions to spare. In short: clubs could be cheerful again, they only need to become cheap.
No, I won’t be holding my breath either.