Tuesday, 15 April 2008

ou phrontis

I dropped into Clouds Hill the other day. Those of you with eclectic memories may recall that Clouds Hill was the cottage owned by Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known from the David Lean film as Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence was nothing like the tall, handsome and debonair Peter O'Toole. Quite the opposite in fact. He was only five foot three, rather plain looking and awkward in his mannerisms.

Lawrence was of course also ideally suited to be a member of the Diogenes Club and club records would, I am sure, show that he was a past president back in 1935 just before his untimely death - that is if the records could be found, which sadly they cannot since they have been lost along with much of the club’s better known memorabilia. I may say more about the club museum and its artefacts at a later date but to get back to T. E. Lawrence and Clouds Hill, there is only one solid evidence of connection with the club and that is the recollections of old Manton who once said that he met Lawrence when he was a young lad and couldn’t abide the fellow - thought him a tremendous show-off.

However, despite Manton’s doubtful memory and the lack of Diogenes Club records there are three things that convince me that Lawrence was a Diogenist to his very core.

The first thing is Clouds Hill itself. It is rather a rum kind of place. Not much in the way of windows as you can see from the picture and inside there is no kitchen nor lavatory nor any kind of hot or cold water. Certainly a place for the bohemian lifestyle. A man who had lived among the Bedu for almost two years had no need for modern conveniences. This is the way Diogenes would have been today – living out of tins and trotting up the hill with his spade to do his business. Here is ample evidence of the Diogenistic lifestyle and it is as close as you can get to living in a barrel as will pass for present day accommodation today.

The second thing that indicates Lawrence was a true Diogenes Club member was the rather secret work for which his special talents had made him particularly suitable. His relationship with Churchill, the talk of his being asked to head-up the secret service, the offer of a job as secretary to the Bank of England (I ask you!) his strange and untimely death and the mysterious black car that was sighted at the time. And then there were all manner of VIP visitors who came to see him at Clouds Hill including EM Forster, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, George Bernard Shaw and Thomas Hardy. How they coped in these ascetic surroundings is another matter. But it all adds up to something more than a mere private in the army. Here are mysterious comings and goings for which the Diogenes Club members are rightly famous.

The third thing that convinces me that Lawrence was a member is the inscription I saw over his doorway. One day his neighbour called round to find Lawrence up on a ladder with hammer and chisel in hand carving the words “ou phrontis” into the concrete lintel. Lawrence was a Greek scholar as you probably knew and when he was asked what the Greek words meant he told a story which he said he had read in Herodotus. The story goes that a king had a daughter that he wanted to marry off so he invited all of the best and most suitable young men to a feast. Well one young man got a bit drunk and danced on the table and did a few handstands – which is not the kind of thing you do at polite parties remembering that Greeks wore short military skirts and didn’t bother much with undergarments. Well the king was suitably repulsed by this young show-off and shouted out that he had just lost his chances of marrying the royal daughter. To which the young man shouted back “ou phrontis!” which roughly translated means “I don’t give a damn!” It’s the sort of phrase that one can almost believe was invented by Diogenes himself and expressed his philosophy pretty exactly. Anyone who carves that over their door has got to be a true cynic in practice as well as in spirit.
Dr Phil

[For those interested, the club memorabilia has included such rare artefacts as a blue carbuncle – said to be the inspiration for a famous detective story; the hollowed out foot of a woolly mammoth – used as the club umbrella stand; a coded journal said to belong to Sir Isaac Newton – as yet indecipherable and supposed to contain new insights into the workings of the universe for which the world was not yet prepared and finally the hollowed out skull of an ancient philosopher, said to be Plato’s himself – now used as a bowl from which the club dog drinks.]

Saturday, 5 April 2008

The Diogenes Protocol

Since one of our newer (ahem) members has let it slip the Club was actually founded 232 years ago, i.e. in 1776, rather than its much later officially publicised founding date (when it first moved into its own premises), it has become necessary to clarify a certain matter. What follows will hopefully put into perspective talk of the Club being first established as an "underground" organisation or secret society.
The year 1776 was a critical one in British affairs, with the Americans breaking away, largely over the Customs duty on tea, leading to the so-called Revolutionary War Of Independence. Certainly the price of tea and coffee was a concern here too, for before gentlemen's clubs existed as separate entities, the coffeehouses of London were where men met to read the latest periodicals and discuss affairs of state.
The London Coffee-house was where 18th-C. gentlemen went to read and discuss newspapers In Britain, there were many affected by the gap between the wealthy few and the needy many, and talk of revolution was in the air. This was also the year of Adam Smith's textbook The Wealth Of Nations, introducing market principles like supply and demand, and the idea of the "Free Trader." The coffeehouses of London became conversational battle grounds for the cut and thrust of fierce political debate over new ideas like the res publica, the rationale of public ownership and republican government. Soon they also became recruiting grounds for government agents looking for men to spy on perceived enemies at home or abroad, or to act as agents of influence, to promote one ideology or another.
As in every age, there were men who preferred to stand above all this, who wanted to be independent, not drawn into the political ideologies and changing alliances of the day. They were nonetheless pestered by nosey parkers sounding out their views, or beset by clumsy attempts at recruitment by men who often flew false flags or were double agents.
A small group of them decided to hire, by the evening, a private upstairs dining room in one or another of London's many inns, where they could meet monthly in peace for intelligent conversation, while avoiding the divisive and constricting subject of politics and its cousin, religion. In order to protect this strict protocol from abuse, each member would adopt a "covering" identity to conceal their actual name and position, the conversational equivalent of the disguise in the then-popular masqued ball. The names chosen were those of Classical philosophers. "Diogenes" was reserved for the annually-elected club president, after the founder of Cynicism who held political ambition in such low regard he told off Alexander the Great. Other members chose names like Socrates or Pythagoras.
As new members were forced to take increasingly obscure names, the basis was broadened to include other cultures. With the antiquarian revival in progress, names were chosen from Celtic myth, like Merlin and Gawain, and this also brought with it the idea of using a round table for meetings, for the number of members had grown by now from the original four to thirteen. Thus was born, in name at least, the Diogenes Club - or rather our Diogenes Club, for there are of course now others, of which we do not speak.
A private toasting ceremony
For a dozen years all went well, but in the 13th year, events in France forced a change in Club protocol. Britain's long-time enemies the French had supported the Americans in their revolution; France's own radicals had grown in power and now, in 1789, overthrew their Royalist state, leading to a decade of terror across the Channel. The Continent was cut off - the gentleman's Grand Tour of spas and art galleries no longer possible. Newspaper reports and the influx of thousands of French émigrés telling tales of endless purges and executions by guillotine, and a growing fear of invasion made a lofty disdain for worldly affairs more difficult to sustain for men of a certain calibre.
Members grew sombre and spoke more quietly; the gentle good humour of past meetings vanished. The news became all-important. Members brought the latest newspapers with them and pored over them for hours, looking for clues or hints as to what might be going on, or might happen next. What had been a jovial dining club turned into a reading room where members read even during meals, and only muttered conversation was heard. This was one reason the Club would abandon meeting in inns and become a club proper with its own premises, as it became more a private library, stocking the latest periodicals as well as rare books which were bequests from members, who were often well-travelled.
Then members began to disappear two or more at a time, returning tight-lipped as to where they had been. Sometimes they were limping or bandaged up, and it soon became obvious these private cabals had abandoned neutrality for unauthorised intervention abroad. But it must be stressed that this was never part of the Club’s official mandate. It was not within the founding principles of Diogenarianism to try to - in the popular phrase -- "set the world to rights." Other members felt the aristocracy had brought disaster on themselves by their own lack of moderation.
Political poster from 1792 comparing the English and French-Republican styles of government from a Loyalist English perspective
And so these taciturn returnees said merely that they had been away "taking the waters," had had a carriage upset or some such accident. Even the Club president, the 14th "Diogenes", by profession a botanist, reappeared one day with his cheek gashed by a sabre cut, which he explained away as a boating or bathing accident while on holiday down on the coast at Mudeford.
By now, members knew better, and a protocol developed that no one would ask questions in the club room, lest the answers prove awkward. The author Conan Doyle must have heard of this oddity, although he either did not know, or care to write of, the real reason behind it – or perhaps treated it as an insiders’ joke. For in his Sherlock Holmes stories, he merely says the Diogenes Club is a place where members go to read the latest periodicals and nobody is allowed to talk!
Yet soon after this, someone must have talked, for details of such unofficial cross-Channel exploits were dramatised in popular plays and novels. These were written by an émigré aristocrat living in London, but who was never a Club member, being a woman. She was the Baroness Orczy, and she wrote of a gentleman adventurer, Percy Blake, whose private codename was Diogenes. He operated as a political intriguer with a pair of companions, codenamed Socrates and Pythagoras. She put his exploits in the 17th C., claiming this 'Diogenes' was the real identity of the subject of the famous painting The Laughing Cavalier.
She also wrote of his more recent descendant, Sir Percy Blakeney, who took his codename from a flower he used as a seal - the Scarlet Pimpernel. To help spirit away political prisoners from the shadow of the guillotine, the Pimpernel also has his own "League" of a dozen or so volunteer helpers. Through her hit stage play and the dozen stories that followed, the Baroness was credited with introducing in popular literature certain now familiar situations. This includes the idea of the 'league of extraordinary gentlemen' who lead a double life, playing the aloof or hedonistic clubland gentleman while secretly risking life and limb, operating abroad as agents under a code name in order to put the world to rights.
... Not that we do that sort of thing any more, of course