I was honoured to be a guest today at the Rochester Castle Club's annual Fruits de Mer lunch. The Castle Club was founded in 1865 (though it incorporates the Rochester Book Society which dates to 1797), and it occupies a stunning Georgian building on The Esplanade, by Rochester Bridge (the white building slightly set-back in the picture below).
The food was truly amazing; moules mariniere followed by crab, winkles, cockles, prawns, razor clams, whelks, oysters and lobsters. Volunteers from the committee travelled to Billingsgate at 3am to buy the freshest produce, and the Club's chefs prepared, cooked and presented the delicacies to perfection.
About fifty members attended and I was placed on the top table next to the Chairman. There is a strict dress code, and I must say it was nice being surrounded by people who looked smart, could drink without becoming aggressive or disagreeable and were able to talk coherently and interestingly. And mobile phones are banned - so no beeping and peeping as people sent text messages beneath the table, or worse still made business calls in front of others.
The day has been perfect, but throughout there was one nagging doubt. The Club does not allow women to join.
As a Libertarian, this issue causes me a great deal of angst. I support the right of free association, and if a group of men wish to club together, buy a building and invite others to join them to eat and drink, what right do we have to stop them? I equally support the right for women to do the same. But I would be outraged if someone opened a club and put up a sign reading "white people only" or "gays not allowed". Is there really a difference between banning people on gender or banning them on sexuality or race? And if I oppose men-only (or women only) clubs, can I also support the establishment of a Conservative Womans' Committee? Which I am happy to do!
This issue is one which returns time and time again, and I can see and appreciate both sides of the argument. I would welcome readers' comments!