Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Kit Kat for Christmas

The Kit Kat Club
Ophelia Field - Harper Collins $25
Looking for a last book for Christmas. Have an interest, as I do between history, and modernity? Then the Kit Kat Club by Ophelia Field is for you.

So what was the Kit Kat club? Imagine a cross between a TED conference and a local New Zealand Foo Camp, where every couple of weeks you were summoned to give yet another - speech of your life – as well as be expected to have an opinion on every nuance of the current politics of the day – and be able to either write about – or publish – or sponsor the next ‘big thing’

Then imagine if you're a struggling author,  this all taking place within half an hours walk of the your lodgings in the Strand in London, and then – better still – if you got the call to join, you got fed while you talked. As for company, you would be rubbing shoulders with the likes of the legendary dramatist William Congreve, and the writers and publishers Joseph Addison and Richard Steel.

Enter the truly loud and wonderful world of the Kit Kat Club, a select gang of writers – publishers and patrons who, from its founding in 1690, for the next 20 years, regularly gathered  together - first at the pie shop of the baker Christopher [Kit] Cat -  had a brilliant dinner and the chance to take part in one of the great moments in London life when literature as a profession finally took off as something that you could earn a living at.

Patronage always had a master.

There was of course a catch. The publishing deals to be had almost always were with the same guy – Jacob Tonson – a cross between Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, and Rupert Murdoch. Also, the topics under discussion where almost always about making the dominant political elite -the Whigs - acceptable, witty and erudite. In short talent came with politics – and politics always had a master.

Ophelia Fields’ account of how this club came to dominate the ferment of intellectual and political inquiry of the early 18th century London of coffee house society is a compelling one. It’s also a brilliant read.

That said, it’s clear that if your politics or your face didn’t fit, there was little to commend the Kit Kat pie, or its patrons.

Dr Sam Johnson to Lord Chesterfield 
As for the patron end of the equation -  when reading more than one account of their fickle ways,  I was reminded of the classic response of Dr Sam Johnson to Lord Chesterfield who in response to a very late endorsement of his Dictionary project, responded, “Is not a patron my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water -  and when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help?

A version of this review appears in Idealog Magazine. 


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