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Blogging and writing

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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20th Century Pub london pubs

V.S. Pritchett on the changing London pub, 1962

The writer and critic V.S. Pritchett was born in 1900 and saw the pub evolve over the course of the 20th century. In 1962, he wrote about it, in his book London Perceived.

“I am old enough to have known three distinctive periods of London life”, he writes. “I have ridden in a horse tram. I have been run over by a hansom cab…”

He gets on to pubs fairly promptly in the first chapter of the book. The  introductory observation in this passage is that…

the influences of mass life are changing us, so that even the London public house is becoming public.

What does he mean by that? It’s a hint, we think, of the beginning of ‘chainification’ – of pubs centrally managed, in line with central policy.

It’s also a literal reference to the more open layout of post-war pubs, as the following paragraph makes clear:

But most pubs are still divided into bars, screened and provided with quiet mahogany corners where the like-minded can protect themselves against those of different mind.

Later on, in the final chapter, he returns to the theme:

Many of the new ‘democratic’ pubs where the separate bars have been abolished are dolled up with arty iron and glass work, coloured glasses, artificial flowers, fake Toby jugs, plushy wall-papers, and chains of coloured lights. Thank heaven there are plenty of simple places, in the old varnish and mahogany, some with the beautifully etched Victorian glass and lettering, where one meets the old mild pomposities, where one can be reassured by an aspidistra and a stout barmaid who calls you “love” or “dear” and overfeeds her dog.

There’s a sense here of a crossing point – of the slow passage from one era into another, but with the old clinging onto existence.

We wonder if the specific pub he had in mind when talking about “dolled up” ironwork might be The Nags Head in Covent Garden, arguably the first theme pub, overhauled by Whitbread in the 1950s. But it could be any number of others.

Pritchett also observed changes in how pubs reflected class hierarchies:

Clearly, between the saloon bar and the public bar there is, or was, a class division; nowadays, the public bar is where men play darts. In the public bar, there being the thirsty tradition of manual work, you drink your beer by the pint; in the saloon, in the private, you drink it in half-pints; occasionally there is a ladies’ bar, and there ladies – always in need of fortifying, for they have been on their “poor feet” – commonly order stout or “take” a little gin in a refined medicinal way.

We’ve never heard the phrase “ladies’ bar” before but guess he’s referring to the pub lounge.

Jumping back to this theme in the final chapter, he notes the then new tendency for well-to-do young people to frequent pubs instead of gentlemen’s clubs, “being careful to put on their pullovers”.

Of the atmosphere of the pub, along with his observation about “mild pomposities”, Pritchett seems to find it pleasingly bleak:

The London publican cultivates a note of moneyed despondency and the art of avoiding “argument” by discussing the weather… There are pubs where the same people always meet, where they tell the same stories, where they glance up at the changing London sky and sink into mournful happiness or fatten and redden with natural bawdy – I do not mean dirty-stories but with licence of their own invention. One is reminded that this is the city of the riper passages of Shakespeare and the sexy London papers… There is a touch of ‘Knees up, Mother Brown’ in all of them…

Where Pritchett sounds most Edwardian is when he talks about Empire and immigration. There are numerous passages that no doubt sounded fairly liberal-minded when published but which, to a modern reader, exhibit a distinct colonialist attitude.

That overlaps with his commentary on pubs when he touches on London’s large and historic Irish community:

The pubs catering for the Irish are rather different; the Irish like to swarm in public melancholy, their ideal being, I suppose, a tiled bar resembling a public lavatory and a mile long, and with barmen who, as they draw your draught stout, keep an eye on you, show their muscles, and tacitly offer to throw you out by collar and coat-tail. This is not the London English fashion, which is livelier, yet more judicious, sentimental, and moralizing.

Rude though those cultural generalisations might be, this remains an evocative description of a particular type of London pub.

We’d recommend reading the snippets above in context, along with many other interesting observations about London. Pritchett’s London Perceived is available as a paperback from Daunt Publishing at £10.99. Our copy was £2.50 from a branch of Oxfam Books.

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Blogging and writing

BOOK REVIEW: Modern British Beer by Matthew Curtis

Modern British Beer (RRP £15.99, 256 pages) by Matthew Curtis comprises a series of short pieces covering 80 or so beers that the author feels reflects the breadth and range of beer on offer in the UK today.

As in our review of the official history of CAMRA, we’ll start with an observation that this is an interesting choice of book for CAMRA to commission and publish.

It suggests they’ve moved quite comprehensively past the debate about whether it is ever appropriate for the Campaign to support or endorse beer that isn’t ‘real’.

The book features a good spread of breweries, from the very new to stalwarts of the real ale scene such as Durham and Oakham. It’s fair to say, though, that the book leans towards those founded in the 21st century.

We often feel we’ve fallen out of the loop since writing Brew Britannia and all too often fall into the trap of writing off a lot of modern beers as hazy and/or sweet, and not to our taste. A book that provides a manageable hit list and helps us find our way to the good stuff in a crowded market might, we hoped, make us feel more on top of things.

This book delivers precisely that. Like the book we started out with all those years ago, Michael Jackson’s 500 Great Beers, it offers page after page of delightful descriptions accompanied by enticing photography.

Perhaps wisely, the choice of image goes beyond glossy product or pack shots and instead seeks to convey a sense of what ‘modern British beer’ means in practice. That is, lots of stainless steel, industrial units and taprooms.

We’ve drunk maybe only a third of the beers listed. There are a few breweries in the book we’ve never come across in the wild and which, having read Curtis’s impassioned tributes, will definitely be seeking out.

We know we won’t like everything he recommends but the hit rate is likely to be higher with a guide than without.

Particular kudos is due to the author for making the effort to list plenty of beers that aren’t hazy IPAs.

As with Michael Jackson, the tone is positive and uncritical – perfect for generating enthusiasm in the reader. There is a sense that the text takes the various breweries’ marketing lines and origin stories at face value, usually with a personal recollection of where the author first tasted Beer X or first met Brewer Z.

In a couple of cases, this highlights the weakness of books as a format for covering the here and now. For example, between writing and printing, the environmental credentials that form a large part of the BrewDog story here came under fire in the national press. And a passage about the head of one brewery who ‘has always done things her way’ prompts an involuntary cringe in the wake of bullying allegations which led to her recent resignation.

Books can only ever be snapshots, however, and capturing the moment is worthwhile, too. We can presumably expect a new edition of this guide every two or three years and it will be interesting to see who is in, and who is out.

One final quibble: we’re also not sure about the definition of modern British beer, or whether it even needs defining.

That is, we’re not convinced that being focused on ingredients, or being rooted in the local community, is something that sets the breweries listed here apart from, say, Bathams, or Adnams.

The point isn’t laboured, though, and is hardly that important. Really, it’s all about the list, the guiding hand and the sense of infectious glee.

The book is already well-thumbed and is, as we speak, informing our plans about where to go on holiday later this year.

We bought our copy direct from CAMRA at a pre-order price of £13.00 plus delivery.

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opinion

BOOK REVIEW: 50 Years of CAMRA

The decision by CAMRA to commission a warts-and-all official history by Laura Hadland made something of a statement: it is keen to balance celebration with reflection – and perhaps ready to show its sensitive underbelly to the world.

50 Years of CAMRA (RRP £16.99, 245 pages) will be most interesting to CAMRA members, either nostalgic or curious, and to scholars of British beer history.

It is built around a combination of archive research, with special emphasis on What’s Brewing, the CAMRA newspaper; and interviews with longtime CAMRA members, both in leadership positions and the rank-and-file.

Until now, we’d have said our own Brew Britannia offered the most detailed and balanced account of the early years of CAMRA, but Hadland’s book benefits from the space to zoom in on certain details that we had to summarise.

She also has input from founder member Graham Lees – something we never achieved, despite many grovelling emails.

Before opening the book, we had a particular test in mind: what might she say about the founding date of CAMRA?

Researching Brew Britannia we worked out that the official founding date didn’t tie in with another detail of the story – that the founders read a story in the Mirror about the poor quality of British beer on their way home from the trip to Ireland on which CAMRA was formed.

It’s a minor detail, it doesn’t really matter in terms of the grand narrative, but it is a flaw in what for decades was the accepted origin tale.

In a footnote to Brew Britannia we suggested that the trip must have been a week later than supposed and that the article probably prompted the founding of CAMRA; Hadland, based on new testimony from founder member Michael Hardman, argues otherwise.

What matters to us, really, is that this point is considered at all. It’s a sign of due diligence.

Throughout the book, similar rigour is displayed in terms of pinning down the facts, with reference to original sources and first-hand testimony.

Elsewhere, criticisms of the Campaign, arising both internally and from outside, are clearly set down and thoroughly interrogated.

“With nearly 200,000 members it is not surprising that CAMRA cannot always present a united front”, she writes. What it does present, through this book, is the ability to look at itself with clear eyes.

From institutional sexism to the constant debate over the organisation’s focus (is it ale, pubs, or something else?) and the failure of the CAMRA Revitalisation project, Hadland makes space for thoughtful comments from veterans, newcomers and objective outsiders.

Most talk sense, even if they often contradict each other, giving the sense that the instinct to debate and to compromise are among CAMRA’s strengths, not its weaknesses.

Although clearly and engagingly written, the book isn’t a narrative history to be read from cover-to-cover. Instead, it is arranged around big themes, each chapter or section bouncing the reader back and forth through the decades like a tiddly timelord.

We were particularly pleased to see space given to topics such as the role of women in CAMRA over the years and to a note on the founding of the Lesbian and Gay Real Ale Drinkers Group (LAGRAD) in 1995.

If you’re interested in the history (and future) of CAMRA, you’ll want this on your shelf. Every time you dip into it, you’ll learn some new detail; and as a reference, it will prove invaluable.

We bought our copy from the CAMRA bookshop. It’s also available via, for example, bookshop.org.

Categories
20th Century Pub pubs

The joy of Glasgow pubs in 1901

In 1901, James Hamilton Muir conducted a survey of life in Scotland’s biggest city, including notes on its pubs and the drinking habits of its citizens.

Now, Glasgow is well off our beat, though we very much enjoyed our stay there a couple of years ago. When we wrote 20th Century Pub, after a little hesitation, we decided to focus on England rather than wade into the complexities of cross-jurisdictional licencing law and drinking culture.

Still, every now and then, we stumble upon something interesting about Scotland and decide it’s worth flagging, more in the hope that someone with local knowledge will dig deeper.

This time, it’s Muir’s book Glasgow in 1901. Who was Muir? Apparently, he didn’t exist – it was a shared pseudonym for James Bone, a journalist, and churchman Archibald Charteris.

In a section entitled ‘His Howffs’, they describe the late-Victorian Glaswegian’s preferred haunts starting, perhaps surprisingly, with tea shops, or tea rooms:

It is not the accent of the people, nor the painted houses, nor yet the absence of Highland policemen that make the Glasgow man in London feel that he is in a foreign town and far from home. It is a simpler matter. It is the lack of tea shops. You  understand and sympathise with the question that he never fails to put to his southern friend, ‘A say, whit do you folk dae when ye want a good cuppa tea?’ And the Londoner, what can he answer? Barring gin palaces and restaurants (where tea is equally tabooed) he knows no middle between, let us say, Fuller’s on the one hand and a shop of the Aerated Bread Company on the other… Glasgow, in truth, is a very Tokio for tea rooms. Nowhere can one have so much for so little, and nowhere are such places more popular or frequented.

A while ago, we wrote about the erotic fixation on barmaids which marks much Victorian and Edwardian writing about pubs. Tea shops, it seems, had a similar appeal:

The girls who now are waitresses in tea shops would have been domestic servants fifteen years  ago… Once installed, she may discover that a covey of young gentlemen wait daily for her ministrations, and will even have the loyalty to follow her should she change her employer. This is the only point in which she resembles a barmaid, from whom in all others she must be carefully distinguished. She is less the Juno, and more the Cricket on the Hearth; less knowing, less familiar with the eccentricities of bibulous man, more quiet and domesticated… To other people she has a more human interest, and to a young man coming without  friends and introductions from the country, she may be a little tender. For it is not impossible that, his landlady apart, she is the only petticoated being with whom he can converse  without shame.

Some, ‘Muir’ tells us, saw tea shops as a newfangled distraction, luring young men from the pubs where, by rights, they ought to be:

It is said that the tea shops have done away with the daylight drinking which used to be common among Glasgow clerks a decade or two ago. Of these stirring times legends still exist in many offices, and the raw novice is told how, when the first of the month fell upon a Saturday, the whole staff, braving the ‘guvemors,’ would sally forth in the forenoon to a howff in Drury Street and leave the porter to keep the office; or how the process clerk of a lawyer’s firm would each morning, punctually at ten, leave his desk under the pretext of ‘business at court,’ and late in the afternoon return warm with liquor and less than steady of foot. These days have gone for good or bad, and the clerk of the period must, at least by day, be reckoned among the sober  people… And so perhaps there is something in the complaint of men who have come back from the hard drinking of their youth, that tea shops are a snare for the feet of the young. In the old days, they say, to frequent a public-house demanded of a man a certain inclination towards licence, a certain disregard for propriety ; in fact, a certain pronouncedness of character. Hence youths of rectitude passed by on the other side. Nowadays, the very innocence of the liquid purveyed in a tea shop is the devil’s own device for soothing the conscience of the strictly bred. They enter, thinking no evil, and at the end issue as tea-sodden wretches that are worse than drunkards. Moreover, they inhale the smoke of cheap cigarettes. 

Having read more than one recent elegy for the death of daytime drinking and the lunchtime pint, it’s amusing to think that this was written more than a hundred years ago.

Before we get to pubs, the next category of ‘howff’ is the club – ‘If the tea shops are meant for the coming man, clubs exist for the man who has arrived, and public-houses for him who is overdue.’ These were exclusive, ‘Muir’ suggests, but hardly impressive: ‘The New Club has a most imposing house in West George Street… [but] has rather the air of being about to fall into the street’.

The Old Burnt Barns, Hamilton Street, Glasgow, in 1898, via Virtual Mitchell.

So, finally, we get to the main event – Glasgow pubs at a time when it was the second city of a global empire. Surely something special, right?

You cannot say that in Glasgow they have a distinctive character. They are of the most ordinary kind — brilliant, garish places, with barrels behind the counter, sawdust on the floor, and the smell of fermented liquor in the air. They are purely shops for perpendicular drinking, for the Magistrates, in the interests of the young, have succeeded in making them places in which no man, from the fatigue of standing, will linger long.

Oh. That’s a disappointment.

An interesting side note provided at this point concerns Manchester pubs which ‘Muir’ tells us was famous for its ‘sing-songs’ and ‘cosies’. These ‘random gatherings’ of people singing together were, ‘Muir’ suspected, fundamentally ‘un-Scots’: ‘It offends one’s sense of reserve, even one’s self-respect, and perhaps it is incompatible with the drinking of whisky.’

The prevalence of whisky drinking, the lack of seating and the foul weather seem, in the jaundiced view of ‘Muir’, to have made a big night out in Glasgow something of an ordeal:

[The] public-houses of Glasgow are crowded, garish, inhuman, unmerry places, to which men come for  refuge from the rain. They have no provision for a continued sojourn. So rare are seats, that if there chance’s to be a sitting-room in the shop a ticket is placed in the window to announce the fact. Thereby they encourage drinking, if not in one particular public-house, at least in several. For, after a while standing grows wearisome, and the frozen stare of the barmen at your elbow makes you unwelcome if you do not drink up and have another, and so your idle person goes out in the wet street, and once more, when the desolation of the rainy night has seized upon him, enters another public-house, to find as before that the relief is short. Then out again, and in once more, and so on till the clock strikes eleven, and the devious direction is home. A natural instinct for comradeship and brightness has driven him from a squalid home into illuminated streets, and from these the weather drives him for shelter to the public-house. Tis his only refuge from discomfort and weariness, and if he goes home drunk, he never meant to, and you cannot blame him.

What’s really interesting is the conclusion to which this leads ‘Muir’: to tackle the problem of excessive drinking, make pubs nicer places to be. This is very much in line with the trend towards ‘improved public houses’ in England at around the same time:

And if that is a task too great for a municipality, or even for the State, then as a makeshift the publicans must be persuaded to change their shops into open as well as actual club-houses for the poor, in which not the only attraction shall be drinking. The drawings might shrink, but the publican must bear in mind that he is a social pariah only because he is a social parasite, and that the loss to his purse might be the price of his advancement to esteem. The wish is Utopian, of course, and the very hopelessness of realising it will give the advocate for municipal public-houses another argument for his cause.

This theme is hammered home later in a section on the personality and life of the typical Glaswegian working man, who is ‘not plump and genial like the Englishman, but a spare, reserved, sardonic person… [unwilling] to be seen with his wife in public’:

He could not, without offending a convention established among decent folk, take her into a public-house, and if he were to leave her outside he would hardly mend the matter. At a bar he might fall in with men he was ‘weel acquent wi,’ and might share in the round that was going; to withdraw then without returning the favour were the part of a sponge. And to say his wife waited for him on the pavement were worse than no excuse. The finger of scorn would rise and the sardonic chaff, for which he and his kind are famous, would play about him. ‘A merrit man, God help ‘um, a merrit man.’ And so his wife remains at home while he follows his own life. Partly the Magistrates are to blame. Their praiseworthy object has been to prevent the public-house from becoming what it is in England, the family sitting-room. They have made it an unlovely place, where the solitary person is not tempted to stay long after his liquor is over his throat. And women, except the poorest, do not frequent it. But the men by favouring the practice of ‘standing drinks round,’ have made it into their club, and so long as it is thus used, it works, together with overcrowded tenement houses, to make family life rather an impossible thing. 

This little dip into one view on one part of the history of Scotland’s pubs has made us think we need to read more. Anthony Cooke’s A History Of Drinking: The Scottish Pub Since 1700 looks like the obvious place to start.