Below is my after dinner speech to The Alpine Ski Club. My term serving as President of the Club came to an end, and I gave this speech following the Annual General Meeting. The Club was founded in 1908, and has onerous entry criteria:
“Candidates for Ordinary Membership must be competent and experienced ski-mountaineers who have completed at least 20 days of ski-mountaineering over a minimum of four seasons among glaciers and/or important mountains. They must be supported by a Proposer who shall attest that the candidate is a safe participant and active contributor in decision-making for unguided tours.”
In the past the committee had discussed whether we should relax the entry criteria, and make it easier to join. But so far this has not happened. Because of the entry criteria, Britney Spears probably wouldn’t get in.
Clubs – After dinner speech for the Alpine Ski Club 2nd December 2016
Thank you for having me to speak. I thought I would say a few words about “clubs” – because it is something that we discuss on the committee. I would hasten to add these are my thoughts, and don’t reflect the views of everyone else. But it is a discussion that keeps coming up, because we want the club to remain relevant as the world changes. And we want to continue to be a club that independent ski mountaineers want to join.
Nial Ferguson, in a 2012 BBC Reith Lectures talked about this theme. Ferguson cast doubt on the fashionable idea that the new social networks of the Internet are in any sense a substitute for real networks and clubs like our own Alpine Ski Club.
He quotes some statistics from Robert Putnam’s book “Bowling Alone”, which looks at the decline of social capital in the US. Between the late 60’s and late 90’s he quotes a long list of indicators showing a decline in social capital
- Membership of Parent-Teachers Associations: down 61 per cent
- Service as an officer of a club or organisation: down 42 per cent.
- Membership rates for men’s bowling leagues: down 73 per cent.
Americans do still go ten pin bowling. But they don’t do this as a social or team activity – they go Bowling Alone.
This isn’t just an American trend. In Europe civil society is also in decline. Nial Ferguson quotes some more statistics from Europe, including that
- The share of people informally volunteering at least once a fell to 29 per cent, down from 35 per cent the previous year.
The last one is particularly sad, because there is quite a lot of evidence that volunteering is good for you. People who volunteer tend to be healthy and live longer.
So what is causing this decline in clubs and social activity?
Well Putnam blames technology for this decline. First television, then the Internet – that has been the death of traditional association life. Facebook and its ilk create social networks that are huge – but weak. With over 1.7 billion monthly active users. I think probably he is right, but I’m interested in how we should respond (other than by buying shares in Facebook).
I think it is worth asking:
Are there any clubs people do want to join? And what are these clubs doing differently?
Well I can think of one. Berghain. Which is a nightclub in Berlin.
Like our club, it started as a men only club, women weren’t allowed in. Now they are a bit more inclusive, but not much more. Many people still get turned away. Britney Spears was rejected by the Berghain door policy. Perhaps that is a myth, but I know very attractive girls in their early 20’s – who were rejected by the door policy. They couldn’t believe it. Never happened to them before. But that just means that they want to get in even more. It reminds me of Groucho Marx’s claim that he wouldn’t want to join any club that would have him as a member.
Let me emphasize, this is at a time when night clubs are rather unfashionable. Luminar Group which was a publicly listed company running almost 100 nightclubs in the UK went into administration in 2011. So the club Berghain is doing well at a time when most other nightclubs are in decline.
And so I asked my friends what makes this so attractive a club to get into?
The answers came back. The arbitrary door policy actually means everyone is on the same level. It creates a space where the normal rules don’t apply. But there is also a community. You don’t spend hours and hours dancing alongside your friends on MDMA without developing some kind of bond. Shared experiences. And there is a mystique to it.
People also say “in order to get in….you have to NOT care about getting in.”
And “It is better to go to bed early on Saturday night, then get up early and stand in the queue at 6AM on a Sunday Morning.”
Or “The bouncers will judge you, and discriminate. They are looking to weed out people who don’t seem authentic.”
But then another friend told me “People will actually transform who they are as a person. And change how they dress from Monday to Friday, so that on Saturdays they can roll up and be validated with an approval.”
Other than the arbitrary door policy, there are other quirks. No mirrors, no smart phones. Most clubs are narcissistic, but in Berghain they don’t want you looking at yourself. And they certainly don’t want you taking pictures.
Each person seems to have story about something really quite extraordinary that happened in the club. So whatever they are doing, it has created a mythology.
A club that bans mobile phones. But perhaps that is the point – it is the anachronisms we keep that make us valuable.
I think an economist would really struggle to explain this behaviour, but a sociologist might understand. What we value is not productivity but shared experiences and shared identity. And also exclusivity.
A couple of years ago I persuaded a friend from Chile to watch a game of county cricket at the Oval cricket ground. This was a four day game, it was very cold windy and rainy day in May. It was almost snowing. The players probably outnumbered the spectators. But my friend who was studying for a phD in sociology found it fascinating. Perhaps in the same way that we might find some undiscovered ritual in the South American jungle fascinating.
She said “Now I feel that I have seen your country. In South America no one would try to preserve a cricket club, a game which takes four days to play and no one seems to be interested in and after four days it can still end in a draw. Some property developer would give a “brown envelope” and very soon afterwards there would be a hotel or block of luxury apartments on this land.”
Of course, it would be more productive to turn the Oval Cricket Club into a block of luxury apartments. But the fact is that we don’t judge everything simply “Gross Domestic Product”. Instead I think we should be proud of our anachronisms, even as the world changes. And these might just be what captures the imagination of people we want to join our club. And also the people we turn away.
Now let’s raise our glasses to toast: