Wednesday, May 23, 2007

At the Dunedin Club

My friend, Arnold Bachop, the singer, and I performed some songs at the Dunedin Club a couple of weekends ago. I'd never visited this institution, even though it's been going since 1872 or thereabouts. (It resides in a house built by the famous Johnny Jones, known for whaling, amongst other things. He only lived there for about seven years.) There's probably no reason why I should ever have been in the Club. As its name implies it's intended as a place for members to join, and I suspect I wouldn't be willing to part out with the steep membership fee for the sake of hobnobbing with the hoi polloi.*

We entered the hallway, which was wide enough to swallow up any one room in my house, and waited until the butler – sorry, the manager – came to acknowledge our presence. He wasn't at all formal, and told us that the Victoria League AGM was still taking place, and would we mind waiting. We’d come to sing to the Victoria League people.

So we read up on which worthies of the town were members, and noted that many of them were professional people making a good deal of money. The walls had a number of old paintings on them, scenic paintings that seemed to me to lack any real distinction, as well as a sketch of the house by Shona McFarlane, and portraits of Jones and his wife. Cheery-looking Victorian couple.

There was a Suggestion Book on a hall table (some of the other furniture in the hall would collect a very pretty penny at an auction). It dated back to the first years of the Club, and some of the 19th century handwriting took a little deciphering. Most of the suggestions were fairly basic, relating to the hanging up of coats, or umbrellas, or the like. As time went on the suggestions didn't get any less down-to-earth, but perhaps that's what suggestion books are all about. Avoiding dealing with long discussions about the banal in a club meeting.

I took a quick trip up the stairs – which creaked with their age – and glanced around the upper hall. The floorboards were rather uneven, and noisy: certainly you wouldn't want to be taking a quiet trip to the loo in the middle of the night.

Meanwhile the Victoria League continued with its AGM. The Victoria League, I later learned, began at the beginning of the 20th century, and was most well-known in the early days as a group to help men during the First World War. It opened clubs and hostels, and provided beds for both soldiers and their wives. During the Second World War, it worked in a similar capacity, and since then has been strong on assisting students in need.

The League in Dunedin has seen its hey-day, I suspect, as most of the members are in their sixties and upwards. For them it acts as something of an ongoing social club. However, the Victoria League worldwide is still a valuable society.

Finally we went into the dining room and did the songs, which went well. Afterwards, the husband of the president of the League took us around some of the back section of the Club. A long corridor has cartoons and caricatures by Tremain and Syd Scales and others of many of the past presidents and members. The billiard room at the back of the building is big enough to encompass not just a room of our house, but the whole ground floor. Two enormous billiard tables stand waiting for members.

The place has been done up very well over the last decades, helped by the fact that the Club has architects and men with some ready money willing to put their efforts towards maintaining the place in style. Upstairs the rooms have been altered considerably, making them more hospitable for guests. Supposedly the men’s toilets downstairs, which our host was keen to show us, are original, although if that’s the case, they’re very well preserved. Apropos of that, the most extravagant toilets still standing in Dunedin must be those at the old Art Gallery. The building was raised for the South Seas Exhibition back in the twenties (I think) and the urinals are a sight to see (and to pee at!)

* Love this phrase, but I now realise it's inaccurate, of course: the hoi polloi are the great unwashed, not the well to do...

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