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The Literary Cranks of London – The Vagabond Club

The second of a series on 'The Literary Cranks of London' this published in  The Sketch on Aug. 29th, 1894. Written by a member George Brown Burgin (1856-1944), novelist, critic and journalist. There are various photos of him in the National Portrait Gallery collection. He was sub-editor of the humorous journal The Idler from 1895 to 1899. He wrote over 90 novels but there is no Wikipedia page for him. However there is quite a bit online on him including various quotations such as his claim that: 'It is much more comfortable to be mad and know it than be sane and have one's doubts.' The Vagabond Club was founded around the blind po├Ęte maudit Philip Bourke Marston and boasted such distinguished members as Jerome K. Jerome, Robert Barr, Conan Doyle, Barry Pain,  and Israel Zangwill. No women. It is interesting that Burgin mentions, without opprobrium, that  it contained 'misogynists'...

The Literary Cranks of London 
The Vagabond Club.

"Our Noble Selves," a la Grant Allen (he ought to be a member), would more adequately describe the august body of which I have the honour to be secretary. When we were vagabonds we did not call ourselves so, but cheerfully used to meet at the late Philip Bourke Marston's rooms in Euston Road after a frugal dinner at Pagani's. There, amid clouds of smoke, people did just what they pleased until the small hours of the morning. Marston had the supreme gift of attracting the most dissimilar men and making them harmonise; he was the only religion some of them had. This circle of friends numbered about a dozen, and the last time I saw Marston before his death was when he attempted to recite a sonnet beginning "I stood amid the ruins of my soul," but was unable to finish it. I am not aware that anyone has ever analysed the secret of his extraordinary powers of fascination; it was a personal magnetism which never relaxed. 

When Marston died the old meetings at Pagani's became constrained. There were too few of us. We did not like to talk about the dead man present at the feast. For some time we drank to his memory in solemn silence, a silence eloquent of pain. One by one the old familiar faces began to drop off, strangers wanted to join us, and we creased to d outward homage to the memory of our founder. Pagani's became too limited; we wandered about on the face of the earth seeking a dining place. The meetings were supposed to be once a month; but C. N. Williamson - I think he was secretary then - forgot to send out the cards on one occasion and we missed our dinner. Then H. Edwin Clarke - he and his brother-poet, Wyville Home, were two of Marston's oldest friends - nobly drew up a et of rules, and proposed that we should meet at the Mitre, in Chancery Lane. There the membership gradually crept up to sixty, and snow limited to a hundred. The club rules of admission are so elastic, however, that a Nova Scotian artist once proposed a Mic-Mac Indian chief (Knick Knack would have been more appropriate) for membership, and we gravely elected him, feeling that, as vagabonds, it behoved us to extend a  hearty welcome to our primeval brother. When we found out that he wanted us to receive his subscription (half-a-crown) in basket-ware, and expected to be provided with unlimited rum at the club's expense, we declined to accept the red man's invitation to go to Cape Breton for an initiatory ceremony. One member was of opinion that he could give what he called "pointer" to even a Mic-Mac Indian in the way of drinking rum, but the club refused to countenance so indecorous a proceeding. It seemed unfair to bring the poor Indian all the way to England and then break his heart by defeating him in a contest.

Almost the last appearance of Dr. Westland Marston in public was at the Mitre one night, to meet his son's friends. Even the men who didn't know him felt that this courtly old man had something heroic in him. He was broken with age and sorrow, bidding good-bye to the world, yet could not leave it without a few words to those who remained to perpetuate the Marston tradition. Dr. Marston called for a colossal bowl of punch and drank with us to the memory of his son. As he did so. I can remember how the face of poor old Leopold Lewis peered slowly round the door, and he emphatically informed us, for the hundredth time, that translation of "The Bells" was the work of the century. 

After a time, the more advent ours spirits in the club tired of the Mitre, and so we migrated en masse to the gilded halls of the Holborn Restaurant.

A sense of ever-present waiters haunted, and we flitted to the Cock in Fleet Street. The membership has been limited finally to a hundred, and among that hundred are to be found journalists, artists, faddists, misogynists, optimists, pessimists and novelists of all descriptions. 

It is vaguely believed that the Vagabond Club has a committee; but, as no earthly power can ever succeed in getting all its members together at the same time, the club possesses a happy safeguard against radical innovations. Every now and then some active member proposes changes which are agreed to enthusiastically and referred to the committee. There are also some elaborate rules, although the intellect of any single member is scarcely sufficient to grasp the subtle distinctions which they hint at rather than enforce. The one stern fact which most of the members understand is that they have to pay half-a-crown a year each for club expenses. When applied to for the half-crowns most of them consider it a deadly insult, and hint that the secretary is meditating a flight to the Argentine Republic, there to join a fellow-philanthropist.

At the dinner, which always takes place on the first Friday in the month to suit the critic (few playwrights dare to produce a new piece on Friday), the chair is usually taken by the least sensitive member of the club who happens to be present. I once inquired for the secretarial gavel at dinner some years ago, whereupon the waiter produced the handle of one. I asked what was the matter with it. "Well , Sir," said the waiter, "there was a dinner 'ere last night, Sir, and one gent who was beginning' to get leetle fla-vi-our about him chucked this gavel at another similar gent, and they both lost their 'ead." Occasionally a man wants to recite after dinner. If he does it again he is cautioned. The feeling of the members is rather in favour of a quiet chat and smoke. Sometimes Jerome K. Jerome, Robert Barr, Conan Doyle, Barry Pain, or Zangwill are, with difficulty, induced to read a new article or story, and there is a tradition that a very young member once recited an original poem. He has never been seen since. One evening the next room to us was occupied by a collection of Dissenting ministers dining together. One of the our own members, of somewhat clerical appearance was seized by their head-waiter. "You're making a mistake, Sir," the head-waiter solemnly assured him. "That's the Vagabond Club room, Sir. If you go in there, you won't know yourself again when you come out."

F. W. Robinson, as the doyen of the club, is generally to be found in a corner enacting the part of Good Samaritan to the younger men who are trying to storm stony-hearted London. Walter Besant heads the list of honorary members, and the half-dozen most successful literary men of the day are to be found enrolled in the club archives. Every member is expected to know every other member, so that a very real tie of brotherhood obtains all round. The club is genuinely proud of every member's success, and grieved when he fails. Within the last three years it has experienced far more pleasure than grief.

The secret sorrow, however, which wears his young life away and cankers the heart of every secretary the club has had since its inception is the fact that under no circumstances will members answer their postcards bidding them to the feast. I once tried sending return postcards. In the present elastic sate of the law of libel it is impossible to say more. "Seasons return," but those postcards never did. - G. B. B.

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