(a further attempt at an endpiece for the Club book, with apologies to P G Wodehouse)
On a dreich Edinburgh afternoon in the Scottish Arts Club, a blether of members was gathered round the artificially roaring fire, each with his or her warming tincture of choice near at hand.
The white wine spritzer had been staring at a blank Times crossword for half an hour. His attempts to make sense of, Compère taken in by trick sign: ‘Diamonds!’ is clubman of note (4,6), were hampered by his eavesdropping on the wide-ranging conversations of the merry throng. Indeed, were his eaves to drop any further, they would be in danger of becoming an A-frame.
The discourse had just moved seamlessly from the threat of turning the Royal High School into a multi-storey spa centre, boutique hotel and shortbread emporium, to the question of the Scottish Colourists’ standing in today’s art world, when it was interrupted by the arrival of a glass of pale ale, clutched by a rosy-beaked and enthusiastic member, descending from the top floor atelier.
“I say chaps (said the pale ale), as you know this place has come on in leaps and, in a very real sense, bounds, since we started having more events and activities. What with learnéd talks on Saturdays, groups like life drawing, textiles and French conversation and what-not …
His speech was interrupted by a general hubbub of ‘jolly-good-shows’, combined with curious looks of ‘why-is-he-telling-us-this?’
“The reason I’m telling you this is that we still have one or two gaps in the old timetable. Fridays between three and five are pretty dead, and I was wondering if anyone had any ideas — better still, activities you might fancy organising?”
“Whisky tasting!” roared the fine old malt.
“Well, I was thinking more along the lines of poetry readings or mindful macrame workshops, but …” He tailed off, suspecting, and not without cause, that he wasn’t being taken too seriously. A well-stocked bar can have that effect. Adding, “Well, I’ll just leave that idea out there for your consideration,” he headed out the door and back up to the studio.
“Queer cove, that,” muttered a pink gin in the corner; “can’t be doing with all this enthusiasm, myself.”
“We’ve never been short of interesting people”, said a member of the female persuasion from behind a glass of the fine house white. “On my first time here, I was listening in on the chatter of a group of venerable members, when I heard one chap, with a glass of calvados in one hand and a stuffed mouse in his handkerchief pocket, saying, ‘When I was in Romania for the revolution…’. I remember thinking, ‘who on earth is this chap’s travel agent?!’ before I realised they were all retired journos and foreign correspondents. Fascinating stories!”
There was an outbreak of reminiscing on the Club’s notable eccentrics, past and present, after which the discussion centred on oversubscribed events, overbusy lunches and underattended evenings.
The spritzer reminded the gathering of his own, all too familiar, opinion.
“What this place needs is more functioning alcoholics. On a Friday or Saturday evening, this place should be heaving.”
“As should the members,” interjected the appropriately well-oiled fine old malt.
“Indeed; and spending money like the Water of Leith in full spate,” added a gin and tonic.
“I’m told there have been a few jolly evenings,” said an aged rum, “since they set up that group on WhatsItCalled, but I’m afraid some of us just aren’t tech-savvy enough.”
“More young blood would help,” muttered the pink gin.
“I’ve told you before, Angus, (said the house white); bathing in that won’t actually make you any younger.”
“Oh well; it was worth a try though. And jolly good fun.”
After the subsequent gales of merriment had subsided, there were intermittent showers of introspection, with sunny intervals of optimism and all that sort of meteorological rot. The general consensus was that the old institution was in pretty good shape, but everyone present had very different ideas of what else was needed to perk it up, fill it up or even just wake it up.
“I know exactly what we all need right now,” announced the malt, conclusively; “another bally round of drinks!”
[The solution to the crossword clue — Compère is ‘MC’, taken in by JOHN (=trick, both slang for prostitute’s client) and astrological sign LEO, followed by D for Diamonds, giving the Club member of note, ie the composer, JOHN MCLEOD]
The painting is The Smoking Room, the Scottish Arts Club (1945) by William Oliphant Hutchison [1889-1970], in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery collection. It includes the artist’s fellow members, Dr Peddie (with pipe), the artists Alick Sturrock and J G Spence Smith, and, giving us a stern look over his specs, the Club President, Dr Whittaker. There ain’t no smoking room no more, but there is ‘lady members’.