Ever thought your membership of White’s, The Jockey Club or Home House was exclusive? Well think again. The British clubs truly worth joining have far meatier membership criteria. Impeccable connections and length of pocket count not at all; joiners must have achieved something spectacular or survived an act of derring-do. It is testament to our national identity and sense of humour that so many inspirational and eccentric sporting clubs exist. Other countries boast brave soldiers, fearless adventurers and people who have stared death in the face and survived. However, they appear not to set up clubs, choose a tie and hold an annual dinner for a good old knees-up Blighty-style.
Perhaps the most eminent of the Great British clubs is the VC & GC Association. The Victoria Cross is awarded for conspicuous bravery in the presence of the enemy. Similar acts of extreme gallantry but not in the face of the enemy are honoured with the George Cross. The 29 living members of the association meet for a biannual rededication and remembrance service followed by dinner in the presence of royalty.
Many military-inspired clubs have a lighthearted attitude to their members’ ordeals and brushes with death. The Goldfish Club was formed in 1942 for airmen who had survived a wartime ditching “into the drink”. It was founded by CA “Robbie” Robertson, chief draughtsman of the company that manufactured the Mae West inflatable life-jackets that saved so many members’ lives. New members were presented with a heat-sealed, waterproof membership card and a badge embroidered with the club emblem – a white-winged goldfish flying over two blue waves; gold representing the value of life, and fish the sea. News of the club’s formation spread rapidly, even to POW camps, where eligible aircrew claimed membership. By the end of the war the club had over 9,000 members. Today there are Goldfish worldwide.
Mike Dane became a member in 1961 when his search and rescue helicopter nose-dived into the sea. “We had just completed a winching demonstration with the Ramsgate lifeboat,” he explains. “Our helicopter rose swiftly and was beginning to transit forward (nose down) when the Pratt & Whitney gave an apologetic cough and stopped; 50 feet altitude and 10 knots forward speed is no time to have engine failure. We crashed into the sea at an angle of 45 degrees. The helicopter flipped over and quickly began to sink. Fortunately, I bobbed up in a small air pocket at the back of the helicopter, punched out the rear window and escaped. The other passengers were already outside the aircraft but there was no sign of the pilot. Thankfully, moments later he shot out of the water almost to his feet, life-jacket inflated, visor down.”
Most people nowadays would require 10 years’ therapy to recover but through shared experience and humour clubs like the Goldfish help their members overcome their trauma. If crashing into the drink weren’t frightening enough, ejecting mid-air has to come a close second. The Ejection Tie Club celebrates it members’ survival of near-death experiences by sending them a tie. The design on the club tie incorporates the warning sign seen on all aircraft with an ejector seat. The club was set up by Sir James Martin whose company Martin- Baker has made ejector seats for fighter planes since the late Forties. There are over 5,000 members worldwide.
Some sporting clubs have been created to allow members to participate in mad activities such as throwing themselves down the 1,212-metre Cresta Run head-first on a top-of-the-range tea tray. Riders spat out at Shuttlecock corner gain membership of the Shuttlecock Club, whose name derives from Victorian lady riders’ skirts opening like shuttlecock feathers as they shot out the side door. Riding too fast into Shuttlecock or not taking the correct line ensures entry to the club, a tie and tickets to the annual bash in St Moritz.
Illustrator John Springs became a Shuttlecock member last year: “I was taking part in an ‘Americas’ toboggan race. Rivalry and competition compelled me not to ‘rake’ through Shuttlecock. I was launched 14ft in the air and landed in the straw. After a fall you raise a hand to show you’re alright. That’s when I realised I’d snapped my collarbone. “
COMPANIONSHIP, NOT COMPETITION
Those in need of a challenge closer to home can choose to swim the English Channel and, if successful, gain entry to the Channel Swimming Association’s annual dinner in November. All they have to do is negotiate one of Europe’s busiest shipping lanes for 22 miles until they are greeted by a garlic-muncher with a towel at the other end. Simples.
The shooting world’s most sought-after honour is membership of the Shooting Times Woodcock Club (STWC). Not only must you be in the right place at the right time and shoot two woodcock with a right-and-left without lowering your gun between shots, you have to do it in front of two witnesses. Stuart Pyke became a member last year. He says, “You can be the best shot and not get the opportunity or you can fluff the second shot. In 25 years of the Okehampton Woodcock Club I’m the first who’s managed a right-and-left. I’m very proud of myself – most people don’t get to do that in a lifetime.”
Undoubtedly Stuart will treasure his STWC certificate, tie and badge, and rightly so. Belonging to a group, especially one with exclusive merchandise, appeals to the child within. And, just like a child, we all want to belong. Many of these clubs are as much about acceptance as they are recognition. There can be nothing more satisfying than joining an elite of plucky, skilled or courageous people as an equal.
The Silkie Club is very much in the spirit of teenage daring and no place for chickens. Its founder Professor Caroline Tisdall threw down the gauntlet to her sporting peers. “To become a member you have to catch a bonefish on the fly, dive 30 metres and kiss a silky shark, all in a 24-hour period. I call it the tropical Macnab,” she says. Field Editor Jonathan Young became a member in 1998 after a trip to Cuba. He insists there were “no tongues”. Tisdall says, “Joining a club is more fun and companionable than taking part in a com-petition. Forming extreme sporting clubs is an aspect of our deeply eccentric nature and part of our battle against conventionality. Our island spirit has propelled many an intrepid explorer or adventurer to discover and do great things.”
BEYOND THE COMFORT ZONE
Whether it is a case of island spirit (or something stronger) that compels members of the GH Mumm Cordon Rouge Club to undertake intrepid expeditions year on year, I’m not certain. Set up in 2008, the club comprises 26 of the most exciting adventurers, explorers and round-the-world yachtsmen. Georges H Mumm, who founded the champagne house, enthusiastically supported his friends’ expeditions, including that of Jean-Baptiste Charcot to Antarctica in 1904. When members elect two world-class adventurers to their ranks every year the newcomers receive a club sword and are taught to sabrage a bottle of Cordon Rouge.
As I sipped fizz with yachting legend Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, transatlantic rower and TV adventurer Ben Fogle and polar explorer Tom Avery, I started to wonder what the hell I’d been doing with my life. Why had they embarked on such extreme adventures and pushed themselves to the limit physically and mentally?
Sir Robin, who in 1969 became the first person to sail solo non-stop around the globe explains, “I have a low boredom threshold. In 2006 I sailed non-stop round the world because some youngsters in the yachting fraternity said that, at 67, I was too old to do it. I was really pissed off. I had to prove them wrong.” Four years ago Sir Robin must have been
badgered by boredom; he organised to go climbing in Greenland with his fellow Cordon Rouge club member Sir Christopher Bonington, CVO, CBE, DL. Most people would have been content to arrange a game of tennis.
Dee Caffari, MBE, 2010 annual chairman of the club, became a round-the-world yachtswoman when she decided to take a break from her job as a secondary school teacher 11 years ago. After becoming the first woman to sail solo non-stop around the world the wrong way (against the wind) in the Aviva Challenge in 2005/6 she hasn’t looked back. Dee says, “Everyone has a goal or challenge in life that perhaps they’re putting off or ignoring. The most rewarding aspect of my job is creating belief and confidence in young people. It’s our responsibility to inspire and educate them that there’s a whole world out there.”
No one knows that more than Jason Lewis who spent 13 long years circumnavigating the world, crossing five continents, two oceans and one sea by rowing and pedalling, without assistance from motors or sails. To him the members of the Cordon Rouge club are like family. “When I got back I didn’t know what The X Factor was. My friends had moved on – they had careers and families. We didn’t have much in common anymore. For me, trips are about moving out of a normal environment into an extreme one to gain perspectives on yourself, life and society. Different tribes, such as the Aborigines, went on walkabout or vision quests in order to discover something the tribe needed before they returned. Adventurers have the same responsibility to bring knowledge back to the 21st century and inform people.”
It’s time for us to get out of our comfort zone and take on a challenge. We have a duty to push the envelope for the sake of future generations who will be so constrained by health-and- safety rules they’ll be unable to leave the house. My contribution will be to do the Cresta run next year in frilly knickers and Victorian skirt for maximum Shuttlecock effect.