Published in The Financial Times

It seems there are certain things you’ve just got to start doing if you want to get ahead in business: peppering conversation with words like “strategy” and “vision”, for instance; developing a preference for golf over all other human pursuits, up to and including seeing your own children; and, if the results of a recent survey are anything to go by, joining the Royal Automobile Club.

Hemscott, the financial information group, recently asked nearly 2,000 directors of UK-listed companies about their leisure activities. While golf unsurprisingly topped the list of hobbies, the more-than century-old Royal Automobile Club – not to be confused with the RAC car breakdown service, which was sold off in 1999 for Pounds 437m – topped the list of clubs.

To try to understand what makes it so appealing to the cream of British business, I had the idea of joining and writing about the experience. However, the plan was scuppered by the size of the annual subscription (in the region of Pounds 950), the size of the additional “entrance fee” (about Pounds 1,900) and the discovery that the “election process” for new members is only marginally less involved than the procedure nation states have to go through when applying to join the European Union.

Instead, I settled for trial membership offered by the RAC press office and last month began looking forward to several days of padding across rich carpets, falling asleep in leather armchairs and having my dribble wiped away by tuxedoed servants. But, as soon as I cheerfully entered the Edwardian splendour of the club and was rather uncheerfully castigated by a member of staff for not wearing a tie, I realised things might not turn out as expected.

I was allowed to continue my tour of the building wearing a violently-coloured borrowed neckpiece, but because I do not generally enjoy looking like a 1970s comedian, I left as soon as I could, vowing not to return until I had absorbed the RAC’s dress code. Given the staggering complexity ofthis code, it was several weeks before I was back, wearing a tailored jacket and trousers, collared shirt and tie (no cravats allowed), as required.

The plan was to spend an entire day at the club, working and then relaxing. But as I took a seat in the gorgeous library, a problem cropped up: a member of staff informed me that laptops were not permitted. I would have to go to the St James’ Room next door to use mine. But in the St James’ Room I found another obstacle: a member of staff informed me that I would have to pay Pounds 5.40 an hour if I wanted to sit there. (I have since been told that there is no charge if you are using your own laptop, but this was not the information imparted at the time.)

The prospect of paying for the privilege of working wasn’t tempting – frankly, sometimes even the prospect of being paid to work isn’t enough of a motivation – so I gave up on the idea of writing at the club and instead decided to do some light contemplation over a light lunch in the Smoking Room, the traditional members’ drawing room downstairs.

After glancing at the menu, I stopped a passing waiter and asked if I could trouble him for a sandwich and a cup of tea. He said I could trouble him for a sandwich and a cup of tea, but I would first have to trouble myself with the task of taking my laptop (sitting in a case next to me) downstairs, for club rules clearly stated that outerwear and bags had to be checked into the cloakroom on entering the clubhouse. I did as I was told and eventually got my sandwich. I would offer details about the relative tastiness of this sandwich, except I had read that the RAC takes its role as a place of leisure seriously and members are not allowed to open briefcases, or take pen to paper, in any public room, so I have no notes with which to refresh my memory.

Things continued in this rather unsatisfactory way for the remainder of my trial membership. I was booked in for a massage on a Saturday morning, which began with the masseur berating me for choosing a Swedish rather than Chinese treatment and then pummelling me so vigorously that at the end I didn’t know whether to proffer a tip or file charges. In the event I just creaked over to the brasserie where some friends and I paid over the odds to be served lacklustre British fare.

Slowly but surely, the reasoning behind the club’s nickname – the “Really Awful Club” – began to make sense. I expected it to be slightly weird and old-fashioned. After all, I knew that the club allowed women to enter only in 1998 and it once opposed the introduction of number plates on the grounds that they were unnecessary. But in the event the club’s popularity baffled me entirely. Yes, the building is beautiful. And, yes, it has a fabulous swimming pool and other excellent sporting facilities, including a clubhouse in the country.

On the other hand, what is the appeal of a club where you are banned from doing work but required to dress up like you’re going for an important job interview? A club based in a city that offers one of the widest choices of restaurants in the world, but which requires you to pay steep prices for soggy British food? A club where you are instructed to relax, but where your behaviour is monitored and regulated as if you were at a monastery?

Indeed, I spent most of my time at the RAC expecting to be taken aside and given a jolly good thrashing across the buttocks for breaking one obscure rule or another. In other words, the RAC felt like an English public school for boys. Which may explain its popularity with City directors: for many of them, those days may well have been the best of their lives.

(c) 2006 The Financial Times Limited. All rights reserved