From the moment in March 1924 that a tipsy young nun trying to gain entrance to Balliol College, Oxford, an all-male establishment, was unmasked as the son of the Bursar, rolling back after a scandalous party at its premises, the days of the Hypocrites Club – they were rumoured to eat new born babies boiled in wine - were numbered. The membership included some of the most interesting people of the next half a century or more. Its one-time Secretary was Evelyn Waugh – who used some nine of his fellow members as models in his fiction, not least in Brideshead Revisited.
Fellow members included Robert Byron, icon of travel writing thanks to his masterpiece The Road To Oxiana; the communist Claud Cockburn, whose journalistic motto was ‘believe nothing until it has been officially denied”; Anthony Powell, the ‘English Proust’ who wrote the twelve volume Dance To The Music Of Time; Henry Yorke, who wrote acclaimed modernist novels as Henry Green; Tom Driberg, a Labour politician whose sexual proclivities were so actively pursued that it was presumed he had some kind of official clearance; and Alfred Duggan, a super-wealthy alcoholic, called by Waugh ‘a full-blooded rake of the Restoration’, who had a car and chauffeur on standby to take him up to London to see his mistress, a nightclub hostess. He staggered his contemporaries by becoming a highly regarded historical novelist in his forties. And there are Harold Acton and Brian Howard, the models for Anthony Blanche of Brideshead Revisited.
Waugh’s minor characters drawn from the Hypocrites’ orbit include one half of Basil Seal, bitten to death by an ape with whom he was sharing a hotel room in Spain; and Lord Parakeet, whose real life inspiration once set the Thames on fire, and addressed his fellow members of the House of Lords as ‘My dears.’ The club’s only stated rule was that ‘Gentlemen may prance but not dance.’ It was often ignored.
The Hypocrites Club lasted less than three years: its members continued to be thorns in the Establishment’s side for the next five decades – even those who rather approved of it. This is the first book length portrait of what another member, the littérateur Peter Quennell called ‘a kind of early twentieth century Hellfire club’.