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BOOK REVIEW: An uneasy journey into Clubland with Pete Brown

Pete Brown’s latest book is really three-in-one: a history of working men’s clubs, a portrait of clubs as they exist today, and an emotional memoir of a life spent struggling to navigate the English class system.

Like Pete, I’ve got a strong connection to working men’s clubs. Although my parents tended to prefer pubs – better beer, better atmosphere – they were also members of The Railwayman’s Club in Bridgwater, and of The Royal British Legion.

But my maternal grandparents, Lancastrians who moved to Somerset in the 1960s, were club people by nature. Grandpa had a strict three-pint limit and liked the fact that, at the club, it felt OK to nurse a half-pint of mild for an hour or two. Nan liked bingo.

The club I think of when I think of The Club is Highbridge Social Club where my grandparents drank for several years and which for a while my cousin actually managed.

A social club.
Conservative Club, Bath.

In Clubland Pete writes about the difficulty of knowing whether he really likes clubs or is appreciating them through a middle class filter. Is it nostalgia? Or, worse, ironic detachment?

Personally, I think it’s both of those things, but also completely sincere. I remember visiting the former railwayman’s club at Truro for the first time (it’s now just a pub, albeit one in a Portakabin) and feeling deeply, wonderfully at home.

Drinking a brown split, in lieu of mild, sitting on a bench under fluorescent light, I was eight-year-old me again, but also my own father and grandfather and uncles, but also a writer thinking: “There’s content in this.”

Pete Brown navigates this awkward space with the confidence you might expect from a man who has been writing about beer and pubs for 20-odd years and seems to win Beer Writer of the Year most years he’s eligible.

A particularly mean-spirited review of one of his previous books, by Jonathan Meades, of all people, dismissed Pete as a “professional northerner”. Still smarting from that, perhaps, Pete has nonetheless leaned into it: good point, Mr Meades – but what does that actually mean? Let’s not shy away but, rather, dig deeper into it.

How does a man from Barnsley – whose identity is built on being A Man From Barnsley – feel when he walks into working men’s clubs in Newcastle or Sheffield, knowing that he is also now a middle class writer from North London?

In the introduction to the book, he recalls how, as a student, he visited the hometown club with his father and, suddenly, didn’t fit in:

“I’m at college,” I said proudly (‘college’ being the catch-all term for any education after the age of sixteen. You just didn’t say the word ‘university’).

“What’s tha study?”

This was brilliant. A follow-up question! A real conversation with the lads. ‘Management Studies,’ I replied proudly.

An embarrassed silence fell immediately around the table. After a while, one of the other blokes, without lifting his eyes from his pint of John Smith’s, muttered, ‘Tha can’t study management.’

And that was the end of it.

Elsewhere, he runs himself in circles trying to work out if it feels right for him to join his local working men’s club in Stoke Newington. On the one hand, he’s helping it survive. On the other hand, he has a reflexive dislike of “middle class twats” appropriating working class culture.

Of course you might prefer your history with less personality, less emotion, and more footnotes.

The fact is that the facts are all here, in the service of a story about how the British working class has struggled against attempts to dictate how it ought to live, and enjoy itself.

Pete traces the origins of the club movement as an effort by well-to-do, well-meaning people who wanted to provide an alternative to the pub. At first, there was no beer, but the working man won that battle.

They then, after much wrangling, won control of the entire movement. In so doing, they wrestled free of the influence of brewers (real competition, cheap beer) and of moral arbiters – late opening, the development of a unique clubland culture behind members-only doors.

Tales of clubs in the north in the 1960s and 70s have a flavour of the novels of David Peace: an attempt to transplant the glamour of Las Vegas to a landscape of moorland and mines. Did you know Roy Orbison met his second wife while performing at a club in Batley?

A recurring point is that people underestimate the importance of clubs, overlooking their role in the history of everything from music halls to improved pubs, and the extent of their reach.

In 1974, he tells us, there four million people were members of Club & Institute Union (CIU) affiliated clubs.

Interior of the Buffs club, Penzance.
The Buffs Club, Penzance.

In the past we’ve referred to clubs as “shadow pubs”, invisible in many towns and neighbourhoods. Perhaps, as Pete suggests, they’ve flown below the radar in terms of cultural commentary too.

Pete’s accounts of visits to clubs still in operation today are distorted by the strange effects of the pandemic. Soldiering on, though, he talks to treasurers, committee members, bar staff and drinkers, making keen observations on the way.

For example, he is repeatedly told that the secret to the success of clubs is cheap beer. But it’s cheaper again from the supermarket so there must be something else that draws people in. It’s company, he suggests, and live music. (And the relatively cheaper beer doesn’t hurt.)

At the same time, Pete keeps checking himself for rose-tinted-glasses. He reflects on the sexism that blighted men-only working men’s clubs for decades, even as he seeks to understand it as a response to the accumulated trauma of successive world wars. Sheila Capstick, who campaigned to abolish the practice of second-class club membership for women, gets some well-deserved attention in a dedicated chapter.

Pete also forces himself to look long and hard at Bernard Manning who, for many people, epitomises the clubland comedian.

Throughout, the writing is frank, witty and warm. I particularly enjoyed the casual use of northernisms throughout the text – another “fuck you” to Jonathan Meades, but also mimicking the way your accent returns when you spend time with the folks, back home. “As the nature of being working-class shifts, and t’world continues to open up…” he writes at one point. Is it an affectation, or could he just not help himself? Either way, it’s a welcome touch of seasoning to the prose.

He concludes with some advice for clubs which are struggling to survive, including the very basic step of making it easier to join. After more than a century of exclusivity, some have simply not adapted to a world in which they need to attract members, rather than find excuses to turn them away.

Our nearest club is St Anne’s Board Mill Social Club, originally serving workers at a long-demolished cardboard factory. Maybe we’ll join, if they’ll have us.

Clubland: how the working men’s club shaped Britain is published by Harper North, RRP £20, but we got our copy for £15. There’s also an eBook and an audiobook read by Pete Brown himself.

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