R.G. Menzies — a very ‘clubbable’ prime minister

It is perhaps not well known that Robert G. Menzies immensely enjoyed the social life of the clubs he was a member of. He had membership in three during his career: the West Brighton, the Savage, and the K.K. They provided a clean relaxing break from his busy life first in the law and then in politics. Sir John Bunting, Menzies’ Cabinet Secretary and Secretary to the Prime Minister’s Department, devoted several pages to Menzies’ ‘clubbability’ in his book R.G. Menzies: A Portrait. Those pages are reproduced below.

Edmund Burke’s Club is organizing a dinner to commemorate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta (15th June 1215) and the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo (18th June 1815) at Melbourne’s Savage Club for the 16th of June 2015. As with the very enjoyable dinner on the eve of our Edmund Burke conference, the dinner will take its lead from R.G. Menzies.

MENZIES was a considerable club man. But that straight away needs an explanation, because the clubs he most used were not of the usually understood variety. There are various dictionary definitions of clubs. For what are now understood as the traditional clubs, the Concise Oxford formula seems to go closest: ‘body of persons combined for social purposes, and having premises for resort, meals, temporary residence etc.’ Clubs of this sort, modelled on British precedent, have always existed in Australia. They are social clubs obviously, but they are also clubs that people join for business and professional reasons. These were not really for Menzies. He visited them often enough, and the equivalent clubs elsewhere, and, as a guest, was perfectly at home and happy. But although he was in them, he was not of them, nor of their style. His main choices, in his home city of Melbourne, fell on three quite other clubs: the Savage, the West Brighton and the K.K. These were clubs for the inner Menzies. (I omit, which would be at my peril if he were to know, the Melbourne Scots, but it does not, I think, come into this narrative.)

I can imagine at this point the celebrated, if colloquial, question ‘So what?’ Clubs are clubs, especially any that Menzies would join. Well, the answer, just as colloquially, is clubs aren’t clubs. The Savage, the West Brighton and the K.K. are social clubs certainly, but that is about where the similarity with the ‘traditional’ ends.

In these, members meet regularly for dinner and conversation, and in some cases entertainment. It is a collective arrangement. The members meet in aggregate rather than in separate, small groups. Their philosophy can be put in the words of the illustrious Jonathan Swift, a member of such a club: ‘the end of our Club is to advance conversation and friendship, and to reward learning without interest or remuneration. We take in none but men of wit or interest.’ On this basis, and adding that members must be men of appetite, at ease with food and wine, it was easy to see that Menzies fitted the Swift formula at all points. His clubs, one might say, selected themselves for him.

Both the Savage and the West Brighton are of this derivation, and each goes back in history for a hundred years or thereabouts: the Savage to 1894 and the West Brighton to 1881. The K.K. is much younger, and it has other differences, but its prime activity is dinner and conversation.

Of these Menzies clubs, the Savage has by now come nearest to the traditional style. But it had other origins — bohemian in nature — and aspects of them remain. It was a performers’ club — performers in all the arts, and in law. Menzies had a great affection for it, which never dimmed. It was at its height in his earlier days, when he was still at law and then starting on his political career. Then the Savage for him was principally for lunch. Later, and especially as club president, which office he held from 1947 to 1962, dining-in nights greatly attracted him. The club is in the midst of the law district of Melbourne, which suited him admirably; his law colleagues were members with him. So also were other professional and business acquaintances, among them architects, artists, and captains of industry. In terms of place and people, all the makings were there. The Jonathan Swift requirements of conversation, wit and interest were fulfilled. The Savage, however, offered something more. It had if not a rule then at least an understanding that its members would hang their dignity in the cloakroom! Once more the contrasts in Menzies come to the fore. In the courts, a study in dignity; in the Savage, dignity dismissed and, in its place, showing off. Menzies at the Savage was no ‘Prime Minister’ or’ Attorney-General’ or even’ Menzies QC’: he was just ‘Menzies’ —and greatly enjoyed it. In later years, with seniority attached to him, the position changed somewhat, and a reverential feeling became apparent when he appeared .But this he never asked for. He always spoke lovingly of the club — and its disrespect, both given and received!

The Savage was central, as I said, to Menzies’s earlier years. In our period, his second prime ministership, it was the West Brighton that gave him most of his club life. The West Brighton Club was from the start, and still is, a bowling club as well as a social club, but for Menzies it was a club for dinner. The club itself identifies the weekly dining-in night as the focal point of its life and the origin of its traditions and its camaraderie. It also describes itself as attracting, as members, ‘the gregarious and the outgoing’. Yet here is Menzies, reserved in private, to the point of shyness, not only a member but taking total delight in it. It is just the Savage paradox repeated: his political life had no shyness in it, neither it seems did his West Brighton association, even though so much else on the private side brought out his hesitations. He was a member at West Brighton in all for more than fifty years, and in the second half of these, he practically never, if he was in Melbourne, missed the dining-in night. For most of his days as Prime Minister, the club night was Saturday. That suited Menzies well. It fitted in with his political timetable better than other nights. Later, the club night was Fridays, and Menzies, then in retirement, apparently found no problem in the switch. He even, in 1970 and 1971, took a turn as president. ‘Taking a turn’ is apt as a general notion at West Brighton. Again drawing on the club history, the rule and practice are that all members are equals, and a man who holds position of distinction, ‘for example a Prime Minister’, will be given the proper respect his position deserves, but he will be expected to make his contributions along with everybody else. He will be given no differential treatment. This is an aspect of the club that Menzies enjoyed, as with the Savage. He liked to come down from officialdom and eminence, and be part of the ordinary ‘exchange of insults’.

To understand what ‘taking a turn’ implies, it is necessary to lift the lid a little on a West Brighton dinner. A typical night in Menzies’s time would consist of a group of thirty or forty members and guests who had in common, not any particular social status, not any particular occupational or professional background, and not any particular degree of wealth, but ‘good manners, a quick wit and the ability to express oneself entertainingly’. The group would move into dinner at 7 p. m., and sit itself down at one table. The meal would start immediately: a fish course, by tradition flounder, then roast sirloin of beef and, finally, salad and cheese. Only one variation was allowed: there was a roast chicken alternative to the beef. But, apart from its traditional nature, and the excellence of it all, the point about the meal was the serving. There were fish distributors, beef carvers, and salad mixers appointed from among the company. All, including prime ministers, would get their turn, and all would be subjected to the somewhat lively barracking that went with it. Carving, under the scrutiny of thirty or forty men of wit and epithet, whose one idea was to embarrass, could be a humbling experience, especially for Menzies, the amateur carver, who could not even get appointed to the carving job at home! But roast beef and carving and salad and mixing were not all that the dinner had to offer. There was one thing more, and deliberately I mention it last. It was, if it is not putting too fine a point on it, a choral dinner. Except when eating precluded it, which was never more than briefly, singing in some form would go on. The choruses commenced from the instant the president took his seat at the dining-table, and the first of them, traditional as the flounder and the roast beef, established the mood of the evening. The opening lines were:

Sing of joy, sing of bliss
Home was never like this.

For the next hour, any member waiting to be served or having finished a course could and did start another chorus. And everybody, or almost everybody, joined in. The choruses were well known, though words, in the interest of wit and topicality, were sometimes changed. The bawdy had no place. After the first hour the singing continued, but by direction now of the president. Spontaneity was set aside. Solo items came into things as well as choruses. There always seemed to be some good voices to carry things along. So, another question: Menzies and singing —and in semi-public? The answer is that he revelled in it, and, as a club (as distinct from a bathroom) baritone, I suspect he rather fancied himself. He certainly took his turn, and boasted that he could hold a tune better than most. And the chances are that he could. Singing was in the family. (Frank Menzies, his brother, was a celebrated tenor.) I was a guest with him once or twice, and he was able to demonstrate most impressively.

Speeches at West Brighton do occur, but they are by no means the centrepieces. Guests, as I know, are allowed to speak rather than sing, if that suits them better. Members, too, have a right to speak, according to club rules, up to three times during their membership. One is on their induction into membership, and one is in celebration of one of their birthdays. On these occasions they may speak on any subject, and for as long as they like, provided they do not exceed two minutes! The third occasion is when called on by the president — and that by custom is never! The West Brighton membership included in Menzies’s time at least two of his leading Canberra ‘boys’ —that is of the public service. Sir Patrick McGovern (then the Commissioner for Taxation) and Sir John Knott (then Director General of Posts and Telegraphs) both entered the fold, possibly at Menzies’s urging.

The club secretary has told me that he noticed that Menzies often sought out and sat next to Frank Dempsey at the dinner table. Dempsey, who had been a jockey, was then Starter for the three Melbourne race clubs. He had been the doyen of the jockeys. The contrasts between Menzies and Dempsey were intriguing, and not least the dramatic contrast in their sizes. One night the secretary asked Menzies: ‘Why do you so often sit next to Dempsey?’ Menzies replied, ‘Well, I know nothing about racehorses and he knows nothing about politics, and that is a wonderful start to enjoying each other’s company.’

The K.K. Club has elements of the West Brighton formula in it, but is in origin and essence considerably different. It is a dining club, but smaller, and it meets for dinner not each week as at West Brighton, but just once each quarter. It was created in 1919, when a few businessmen in Melbourne arranged to have a dinner with Sir John Monash as their guest of honour. Sir John Monash had been Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Forces in the 1914-18 War. The dinner was highly successful, to the point that it was agreed that further dinners should be held. Members took it in turn to be president for the evening, with a distinguished citizen or visitor from abroad as guest of honour. Menzies joined the club in 1928 and, since his death occurred in 1978, he was a member for fifty years. The list of members over the years is what one might call a very ‘Melbourne’ list. And the club is no doubt a very ‘Melbourne’ club. It is essentially private and comprises leading business and professional men. What is again interesting in the Menzies connection is the quota of artists who were members.

The K.K. has no club premises of its own, and it therefore arranges its dinners in private dining-rooms elsewhere, usually at other clubs. And although singing has got itself into the K.K. procedures, it is speech that has pride of place. The club is for dining, and with compatible people, but it is also for discussion, and to hear a guest speaker. I feel West Brighton will not mind if I say that K.K. is a bit more intellectual and serious. Several K.K. members are also West Brightoners, so there is by definition equal intellect and wit in both places, and equal dedication to good company and good food. The difference is in approach. At West Brighton, it is a matter of shedding the tensions for a while and generally getting right away from the working week. At the K.K. the working week is there to be talked about. The discussion will be informal, off the record, and often light-hearted, but it is discussion nevertheless. And although there is a fun quotient at K.K., it is, one suspects, rather higher at West Brighton.

All these clubs are very much ‘Menzies’: an agreeable purpose, a bond with other members through interest or intellect and preferably both, a basic but not too strict decorum, and altogether a chance for off-duty fun and display. The crucial ingredient for Menzies was, however, that he should get as ‘good’ as he gave. It was, one imagines, not unlike his parliamentary or his election hustings settings, where loaded questions would come up for loaded answers, and where there was always banter in the air. Usually, on these occasions, and very likely in his clubs also, Menzies came off best, but he could nevertheless laugh and give marks when he didn’t.

From R.G. MENZIES: A PORTRAIT by Sir John Bunting pages 206-211