IT’S GREAT TO KNOW YOU BELONG by Andrew Collins
If I should ever drown, I’m convinced my life will flash before my eyes as a series of laminated membership cards, affiliation certificates and enamel badges. That’s because I am an inveterate joiner. Quite unlike Groucho Marx, I’m happy to be a member of any club that will have me as a member.
Ever since boyhood I have had an urge to join. I can write my own autobiography in clubs and societies, each one pinpointing a different need and a distinct life-phase. First, there was the Tufty Club, founded by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents in 1961, but with a membership of two million at its peak in 1973. Based around a stiffly-animated but sensible squirrel, I dimly remember watching some road safety films in a church hall and having a badge, but little else. I was under five, the club’s target age.
More significantly came the Warlord Secret Agent Club, a covert society run from the pages of the boys’ war comic (home of Union Jack Jackson and unreconstructed dialogue like “Take that, my slant-eyed friend!”). For a 20p postal order you got a wallet, badge and code-breaker. Ideal accessories for the combat games my brother and I played around the fields and building sites of suburban Northampton.
I simultaneously joined the school choir, getting in touch with my inner softy, and the Airfix Modellers Club (membership no. 106339). There was also the Dennis The Menace Fang Club, whose black plastic wallet contained top secret passwords D.I.N.G. and D.O.N.G. (which stood for Dennis Is Never Good and Dennis Owns Naughty Gnasher). In 1978, when I reached upper school, I flirted with the Weston Favell Bird-Watching Club and notched up just the one field trip before self-consciously letting my membership lapse. The shifting musical tastes of a teenager are mapped by the ELO Fan Club (a certificate and five bent Walkerprints, 1979) followed by the 999 International Information Service (late discovery of punk rock, 1981; a few Xeroxed newsletters).
My coming of age is marked by membership cards for the Nene College Film Society, the NUS and the AA, whose motto in 1984 was “It’s great to know you belong.” Then it’s The Whale And Dolphin Conservation Society (waking up to environmental issues in the late 80s), The Labour Party (lapsed after general election defeat, 1992), the NUJ (first job in journalism, plus first strike), Canons Health Club (mid-90s, didn’t we all?), the Soil Association (hardcore organic lifestyle badge of honour), RSPCA, PDSA (you get a Certificate Of Friendship), IFAW, WWF, CPL (once you’re on one acronymic animal charity’s mailing list …).
These days I belong to a whole portfolio of pointless online clubs which require no more effort than checking your email inbox. Even though I don’t especially like her, last year I joined the Pat Benatar Fan Club. Why? Well, I was feeling insecure, having turned 39 and moved to Surrey. And the name caught my eye when I typed “fan club” into a search engine. I could have joined the Hans Zimmer Fan Club or Baseline, the Andre Agassi Fan Club. I chose Pat’s because I could only name one of her hits, Love Is A Battlefield, and she seemed a very 80s person to have an ongoing fan club. I wanted to join and find out more.
On the same day I signed up for Benatar-News, “the Pat Benatar Fan Club News listserver”; the On The Buses Fan Club, whose first newsletter would inform me when the 70s sitcom was next repeated, provide the answer to a previous competition (“Mum used green stamps instead of money to buy her fun wig”) and sign off with a heart-warming “Ding ding!”; and Jane’s, the defence organisation, for free access to Jane’s News Briefs, Sentinel Risk Pointers and Defence Glossary (“a database containing over 20,000 defence-related acronyms and abbreviations”).
It goes without saying that signing up online is too easy. What, no postal order? No agonising wait for your SAE, bulging with documentation, badge and perhaps money-off vouchers? All you get these days is a login and a password. Who would want to join a club that’s so easy to join? At least when Groucho famously resigned from the exclusive Friar’s Club in New York with the words, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member,” he did so by telegram.
Proper club-joining should involve some physical effort and a field trip. Hence my recent application to MENSA. “Do you want to meet like-minded people?” asked the brochure. “Are you looking for intellectual stimulation? Take the first step to membership – NOW!”
Anyone can take the MENSA Home Test. I did, and excitedly sent off my answers. I scored 143, putting me in the “top three percentile” and earning me the chance to do the Supervised IQ Test for £9.95 at University College London with 29 other hopefuls, all at least half my age, and one bright spark aged 10. “People in MENSA are a bit mad,” said the bearded adjudicator. “Cleverness complicates rather than simplifies life.”
I’ll never know. I scored 138 and 106 on the two papers and was barred entry (“Under the rules of membership you are not allowed to retake this test for 12 months,” wrote Ms H Oliver, Testing & Admissions Coordinator).
The Tony Hancock Appreciation Society (est. 1976) required no such aggravation, just a tenner. As well as The Missing Page magazine and access to the archive library, joining offered me the chance to attend my first annual Reunion Dinner, along with 86 like-minded members (mostly older chaps whose wives stayed at home) at the Quality Hotel, Bournemouth, where Hancock lived as a boy. We swapped memorabilia, entered a “fun quiz” (41 out of 45), watched episodes and queued halfway round the dining room to get our menu cards autographed by special guest June Whitfield. I returned to Surrey satisfied that it really is great to know you belong.
And there was a copy of The Teapot Times waiting for me on the mat. Worth joining the Clipper Tea Club too.
It all seems so long ago now – living in Surrey, being 39 – I was actually in the process of working up a new non-fiction book about clubs and joining when I signed up for Pat Benatar, Tony Hancock and took the MENSA test. But my publisher convinced me instead to write the third part of my memoirs, which I did. They were never very keen for me to do anything but write memoirs, which is why I am no longer with them. Still, at least I got a piece in the Times out of it,