You’ve probably walked down Aldersgate a dozen times, and you may even have paused by London Wall and wondered about the iron door half-hidden by tumbling masonry. With neither handle nor lock, the door is featureless except for a small recessed panel at eye height.
You almost certainly won’t have knocked sharply on the door.
I stood back as the panel slid to one side, revealing a pair of startlingly blue eyes.
‘The Pilcrow Club?’ I asked.
The eyes swept over me, brows narrowing as the inspection became less cursory.
‘Who sent you?’
‘The ostler, the wherryman and the scribe,’ I recited, fluttering my eyelashes in what I hoped was an entreating manner.
There was a long pause as the eyes considered my response, glancing left and right along the street. Then the panel closed, there was the rattle of a bolt being slid back and the door creaked slowly open, revealing a long tiled passageway.
‘Welcome, young lady,’ said the owner of the blue eyes, a short man in his 70s with a neat moustache. He led me down the sloping passageway and pulled aside a thick red curtain at the end, revealing a large, wood-panelled room lit by two vast ornate chandeliers. A number of elderly men, and rather fewer women, sat talking quietly at tables and in groups of armchairs.
‘Let me introduce you,’ said my guide. ‘My name is Ambrose. My story: I used to have a thriving business making typewriter ribbons. These are some of our other manufacturing members.’
‘Cantwell,’ said a man whose side whiskers bushed out from his cheeks. ‘Bowler hats.’
‘Fancourt,’ said a man in his late 50s. ‘Tapes.’
‘Tapes?’ I enquired.
‘VHS. Cassette. Betamax. Reel to reel.”
‘Ah,’ I said.
‘And this is a gentleman whose membership is pending,’ said Ambrose, indicating a ragged-looking man who sat biting his nails. ‘He makes the ink that dyes paper yellow.’
I looked blankly, prompting Ambrose to explain further. ‘Yellow Pages,’ he said. ‘He’s just heard. Still in shock, poor fellow. Over there, though, are the trade members. Projectionists, meter readers, watch repairers, taxi drivers. All vanishing means of gainful employment, sadly.’
A gong rang, and large doors at the back of the room slide open to reveal a series of long tables. As the members made their way to the tables, Ambrose suggested that I would be welcome to join them for lunch.
‘That’s very kind,’ I said, ‘but really, I’m not hungry.’
Ambrose looked me over, a faint smile twitching over his lips.
‘Oh, we’re all hungry,’ he said. ‘That’s why we’re here.’
‘… I have no money,’ I admitted.
‘Of course you don’t,’ said Ambrose. ‘None of us do. In the Pilcrow Club, there is no charge. We’ll discuss your membership after lunch.’
He guided me to a table, where I sat next to a jovial man who had already started tucking into a large slice of veal and ham pie.
‘Doughty,’ he said, waving a hand in my direction. ‘I made the wrong sort of holders.’
‘The wrong sort?’ I queried.
‘Phone book holders,’ he replied. ‘Floppy disk cabinets. Those little plastic envelopes that held your tax disc to your windscreen.’ He talked as he chewed, pieces of pastry dropping into his lap. ‘I was nothing if not diverse.’
I selected a chicken leg and a spoonful of potato salad from the copious array of food.
‘Please,’ said Ambrose, ‘don’t hold back. You must be hungry.’
Gratefully, I added a pork pie and a slice of quiche to my plate.
‘I don’t understand,’ I said. ‘Who pays for all this?’
‘To understand the Pilcrow Club,’ said Ambrose, ‘you must first know what a pilcrow is. It’s the typographic symbol that used to indicate a new paragraph in text.’ He sketched the form with his thumb on the tablecloth:
‘In medieval manuscripts, the monks would copy out their texts in black ink, and the pilcrows would be drawn in afterwards, in red ink, by specialist rubricators.’ He paused to pour us both a glass of wine.
‘When Gutenberg produced his first printed bible,’ he continued, ‘he tried to implement two-colour printing, but failed. So he left a space at the beginning of each paragraph for the pilcrow to be drawn in later, in red.’ Ambrose glanced at my empty plate, and added another pork pie.
‘But his bibles sold so fast there wasn’t time for the pilcrows to be added. That’s why, even today, every paragraph in printed text – bar the first – begins with a space. They’re waiting for the rubricator.’
‘As are we all,’ muttered Doughty between mouthfuls. He glanced up at me. ‘It’s a metaphor.’
Ambrose sat back and dabbed his mouth with a napkin. ‘And it was the rubricators who, in 1457, recognised that their careers were at an end, and set up the Pilcrow Club for all those who found themselves in a similar predicament. Wise investment and careful husbandry have led to the Pilcrow Club having the considerable financial standing that it enjoys today.’
Ambrose poured me a coffee from a silver pot.
‘So,’ he said. ‘What is, or was, your particular profession?’
‘It’s a little embarrassing,’ I replied. ‘I was in the movie business.’
‘Is that embarrassing?’ said Ambrose.
‘The adult movie business.’
‘Ah,’ he said, nodding sagely. ‘But surely in this age of internet pornography, the demand for adult performers is greater than ever? Especially for, if I may say, an attractive young woman such as yourself.’
‘I wasn’t a performer,’ I admitted. ‘I was a fluffer.’
‘You’ll have to forgive me,’ said Ambrose, ‘but it’s not a term, or indeed an industry, with which I can profess much familiarity.’
‘Fluffers used to help the gentlemen performers, er, achieve their full potential. In between takes. Stop them flagging, as it were.’
‘I see,’ said Ambrose thoughtfully. ‘And what has happened to allow these fine gentlemen to dispense with your doubtless expert services?’
‘In a word,’ I replied, ‘Viagra.’
‘Ah,’ said Ambrose.