real ale

BOOK REVIEW: Cask by Des de Moor

With Cask: the real story of Britain’s unique beer culture, Des de Moor has found a new angle, rather to everyone’s surprise. Why hasn’t CAMRA published a book like this before?

It’s not a beer or pub guide but an attempt to think about cask from every angle: its history, the culture that surrounds it, the science, and the appreciation of the beer itself.

It is largely successful, pulling together numerous sources as it grapples with big questions like why, exactly, so many beer drinkers prefer cask ale to any other form.

The author hasn’t simply relied on books and online archives. He has travelled up and down the country speaking to publicans, cellarkeepers, brewers and other experts. They’re often not the usual suspects, either.

Alice Batham, the next generation of the Midlands brewing family, is a particularly insightful voice. Her account of being fed teaspoons of yeast from the brewery as a child is the kind of detail that adds magic and romance to this story.

Several wooden casks on racks with a complicated system of pipes and tubes.
Wooden casks in the cellar of a Benskin’s pub.

Cellar keeping in particular is made to sound delightfully complicated, more of an art form than a process. He uses the phrase “creative cellar keepers” at one point, highlighting just how much room there is for the beer to change between brewery and glass.

In particular, there’s the idea that a good pub will let cask ale sit for around a week before it is tapped, and then aim to sell it within a few days, depending on its strength and durability.

Mark Dorber, who perhaps does count as a ‘usual suspect’ at this point, gives a fascinating account of sourcing his own hop plugs for dry-hopping Bass in the cellar when the brewery decided to abandon this practice.

The flipside of this is a tension between commercial aims and the romance of variability. De Moor explains how breweries have continued to try to find ways to sell beer that is technically cask ale while being shipped in an essentially stable state.

And, of course, for every “creative cellar keeper” there are perhaps a hundred careless, poorly-trained or lazy ones. Do we want them to have any influence on the beer before we get to drink it?

Lovers of the arcane language of beer and brewing will enjoy the way interviewees and correspondents talk about cask ale. The idea that it can be “tired” is an important one.

And we especially liked the suggestion that Scottish air pressure dispense creates beer that is “smoother, more knitted together”. We think we know what that means!

Why is cask better?

As the book winds on, de Moor’s argument begins to cohere: what makes cask special, he argues, is its lower carbonation and slightly higher temperature. And that’s about it.

It should never be flat and he suggests that the perfect pint should “effervesce on the tongue” without being fizzy.

Unfortunately, most cask ale isn’t sold in this condition, and de Moor has the stats to back it up based on analysis from beer festivals. (Admittedly, not cask ale’s ideal habitat.)

He suggests that it’s a problem in pubs because too many publicans find it easier to handle beer when it is flat, without all that troublesome foam. What they don’t consider, he adds, is that “they’ll likely end up pouring it less frequently as fewer customers will want to drink it”.

Two other lesser factors are acknowledged as influencing the distinctive character of cask ale. First, one of his experts says that “The absence of filtering also makes a difference”, contributing flavour complexity and more proteins, making the beer “richer, more mouth-filling”.

Then staling, our pet theory, gets a passing mention via brewer John Keeling, formerly of Fullers, who says that some drinkers of London Pride prefer it when it is just beginning to show the early signs of oxidation, after day two on the bar.

When it comes to the thorny question of sparklers, he deploys words like ‘slightly’, ‘some’, and ‘typically’ to gently argue that, really, there’s not much in it, and it should probably be up to consumers to choose, if they’re really that bothered.

Though clearly a passionate fan of cask ale, he isn’t an unquestioning cheerleader and points out that it doesn’t work well for every style. American-style IPAs and sour beers, he argues, rarely benefit from cask dispense.

He comes right off the fence when it comes to the price of cask ale:

[If] cask beer is to have a sustainably healthy future, its average price will have to rise in comparison to the pub prices of other drinks… One argument for cheap cask is that it helps drive sufficient turnover to keep the product fresh, but that effect has surely reached its limits when price becomes a barrier to maintaining quality.

For balance, he quotes others who disagree, and who worry about cask ale becoming an expensive, niche product, rather than an everyday pleasure.

As a reference guide, it’s likely to be our go-to whenever we need information on the technicalities of dispense, types of beer pump, cellaring, and so on.

A tighter focus on cask

The book isn’t perfect, though. It’s more than 300 pages long and might have been better with a sharper focus at 200.

The bloat comes from sections we’ve read time and again in other beer books. We don’t need another account of how beer is made, how to taste beer, glassware, how to pair beer with food, and so on.

These sections are to some degree tailored with cask beer in mind but often feel as if they’ve come from a more general book about British beer.

And, most crucially, the book feels as if it’s missing a passionate opening essay to help readers understand why they should care.

By the end of the book, the case has very much been made, but the casual or sceptical reader needs their imagination firing from the off.

Even in its current form, we suspect it might inspire some publicans to take cask more seriously and reflect on how they can turn good cellar practice into a selling point.

We bought our copy of Cask from CAMRA’s online shop for £14.99, including delivery, with a member discount.

Blogging and writing

BOOK REVIEW: Desi Pubs by David Jesudason

Desi Pubs by David Jesudason provides a new angle on pubs (and British culture) and acts as a practical guide for finding good grub.

It opens with a long essay (or a series of short ones) synthesising, sharpening and developing award-winning articles the author has written for various publications.

If you’ve been following his career for the past few years, you’ll already know many of the arguments and stories from this section.

Tied together, though, they present a unified account of the British-Indian experience, with pubs as a powerful lens through which to view it.

We’ve observed a tendency to talk coyly about ‘demographic change’ as one of the challenges facing pubs. Jesudason challenges this from multiple angles.

First, he asks us to think about what Asian means. It’s a word that covers a whole range of different cultures, religions and nationalities. He explores the meaning of Desi, of British-Indian, of South Asian, of brown and black, providing an informal crash course in the language of race and ethnicity in the UK.

Secondly, he makes one point very clearly: if British-Indians don’t visit pubs, it’s at least in part because they haven’t been made welcome.

From racist ‘banter’ to colour bars, white publicans and drinkers have said, “No, you do not belong here.” (We touched on this ourselves in a 2016 blog post.)

Thirdly, Jesudason introduces us to a whole cast of British-Indian people who love pubs, and enjoy drinking. Not as a stunt. Not as a protest. As part of everyday life, as natural as breathing.

The Desi pub, he argues, is neither new nor contrived. The earliest example he has been able to pin down dates back to 1962 and was opened by Soham Singh, a working class crane driver.

There is also one final, more hopeful challenge: why can’t everyone feel at home in these pubs, and even feel pride in them?

“When I first visited Smethwick in the West Midlands, I was taken aback, not only by how this was an Asian-majority town dealing with a post-industrial world, but how the white population loved their – and ‘their’ is crucial here – desi pubs… They lived lives far removed from gentrified areas, with many friends who were Asian, and even knew a smattering of Punjabi. Instead of running away or complaining about ‘immigration’ these ordinary people embraced change and discovered their lives could be enriched by it.”

We saw something similar first hand when we visited the Island Inn in West Bromwich, where both white and Asian people go to (a) watch football together and (b) eat great, good value food.

If there’s a problem with this book, it’s a sense of an author struggling with his own feelings about the topic. Has he quite worked it out in his own head yet?

He is scrupulous about balance, almost as if engaged in an argument with himself.

And, at times, with critics whose comments he is anticipating, such as those who might query why CAMRA Publishing is promoting pubs that serve mostly lager.

That provides credibility in terms of journalism and history, but conflicts with the celebratory tone the book otherwise strives for.

It works for us – this is a book we can trust, exhibiting depth of thought – but don’t read it expecting tweeness or surface-level cheery-beery jollity.

As a guidebook, it’s exciting, adding a new layer to cities we thought we already knew.

It makes you itch to visit Southall, Smethwick or, closer to home, Fishponds, and go somewhere new. Perhaps somewhere you’ve previously ignored because the signals it sent weren’t ones you were primed to read.

Each guide entry tells a story about the origin of the pub – how did it become ‘Desi’, why, and when? (Jesudason is a journalist and is strong on the 5Ws.)

We get stories from the publicans, from the punters, and from Jesudason himself.

And, of course, we get detailed notes on the food. From momos (dumplings) to scarily spicy fries, there’s an endless parade of enticing dishes that you probably haven’t seen on the menu at your more traditional local curry house. (Just don’t get him started on the subject of ‘authenticity’ in British-Indian food.)

Overall, this is one of the most exciting books about beer and pubs to have been released in recent years.

We hope for, and expect, a new edition every couple of years, as more Desi pubs are found, or founded.

We bought our copy direct from CAMRA for £12.99 with a member discount.

20th Century Pub pubs

Pubs of England in the winter of 1963

In 1963 writer Nicholas Wollaston toured England, visiting cities and towns such as Blyth and Burnley. He was naturally drawn to pubs.

We acquired our copy of Winter in England, published in 1966, when Ray saw a copy in a charity shop and fell in love with the cover.

It wasn’t until we sat down (in a pub, of course) and really looked at it that we realised why that might have been: it depicts the quayside in his hometown, Bridgwater, in Somerset, including a Starkey, Knight & Ford pub.

Wollaston’s idea was not especially original.

We’ve got quite a collection of similar books in which a university-educated writer, academic or journalist hits the road to take the temperature of the nation.

The spines of various old books about England on a shelf.

There’s sometimes an angle, such as a focus on a particular region, or on small towns, or social problems.

More often than not, though, they feel quite random and organic – the record of a kind of purposeful drifting.

And because they’re supposed to record reality, taking middle and upper class readers to places they perhaps wouldn’t go themselves, pubs feature more frequently than in other types of writing.

When we were writing 20th Century Pub we found ourselves quoting them often.

There’s Orwell on inter-war pubs in The Road to Wigan Pier, for example: “As for the pubs, they are banished from the housing estates almost completely, and the few that remain are dismal sham-Tudor…”

Or J.B. Priestley in Bradford where he finds a pub that has “five or six hobbledehoys drinking glasses of bitter” and annoying the barmaid. “Nothing wrong with the place”, he writes, “except that it was dull and stupid.”

Winter in England, written 30 years on from Priestley and Orwell, is sharply observed, a little sour (“dyspepsia benumbed my appreciation”), and does not flatter its subjects.

There’s a portrait of a Lowestoft herring boat skipper, for example, that might have got Wollaston duffed up if he dared to go back after the book came out.

The book is worth tracking down if you’re at all interested in how Britain felt at this time (through a privileged lens, at least) and not just in the corridors of power. But let’s look at the notes on pubs and beer in particular, that being our beat.

First, at Ramsgill in “Yorkshire’s Little Switzerland”, Wollaston found that the pubs had “fallen to outsiders” – that is, become gentrified:

The Yorke Arms… is probably less of a pub, more of a hotel, than it used to be, with more copper and brass about the place, and a breathtaking upper-class waitress on holiday from a domestic science college… Though some of the beer is still kept in wooden barrels, most of it comes from steel casks or bottles, and I suppose that the customers are not quite what they used to be, either.

A touch of the SPBW tendency there, perhaps.

At Blyth, in the North East of England, Wollaston found winter in late summer:

Although it was still August coal fires had been lit in the pubs. Men were standing at the bars speaking an unknown language. It might have been better if I could have spoken it too. I asked for a Scotch and the girl gave me an Edinburgh beer… “Oh, you mean a whisky,” she said when I complained. These were foreign parts.

The front of a pub with a brewery sign.
The Fountain, Bridgwater, in 2007.

As hinted at by the cover, there is, in fact, an entire chapter about Bridgwater – a sign that Wollaston was serious in his intent to go to places other writers might have overlooked. Growing up, Ray had the impression that Bridgwater was an unusually well-pubbed and boozy town. Wollaston’s observations support this:

[In one pub] a middle-aged couple was hopping among the tables, while a man punched away at a husky piano. ‘Somebody stole my girl’, they all sang, and the darts were flying wild. When a pint glass crashed to the ground the pianist switched into ‘Marching through Georgia’. A pearly-coloured woman with a bronchial cough, ageless and rather tight, came in; she had been to the pictures, Tom Jones, which was partly filmed in Bridgwater, but nothing had impressed her except the actresses: “They’ve got wonderful bosoms on them, right up here,” and she demonstrated with her own.

His notes on Bridgwater also provide one of those useful reminders that pub culture can be as much about excluding people as making people welcome:

To me the only jarring note in such a genial town was the notice, stuck in the window of almost every pub, “No gipsies served here.” It showed a vehemence quite out of character, and nobody could really explain the reason. “The gipsies, you see,” one man told me cryptically, “come down from the Quantocks,” as though that explained it all; while another man said, “The gipsies, you see, come down from the Mendips.” A third said, “They come for the pea-picking,” and a fourth said, more plausibly, “They get a skinful of cider.”

On cider, he gives an account of a conversation with an old man in the pub next to the town hall (probably The Mansion House) who complains about the decline of cider drinking.

At the age of 14, he says, he was drinking cider with breakfast, throughout the day, and all evening. “One night, for a bet,” Wollaston writes, “he had drunk fourteen pints in an hour and a half, and then bicycled three miles home…”

His own cider was improved by the addition of hunks of raw meat which dissolved off the bone in the vat.

Wollaston seems to have found Liverpool, the only big city on his itinerary, rather depressing, with soot-stained buildings, murky air and everyone exhibiting “the bronchial Liverpool cough”. It’s stuck in the past, he suggests:

This feeling of solid out-of-dateness is reflected in some of the pubs round Dale Street; in the men in bowler hats tucking into shrimps and mussels and plates of red roast beef; in the photos of tall-funnelled steamers on their first voyage through the Panama Canal; in the stout waitress leaning over a balcony and shouting, “Any oysters left, John?”; in the notice, “Gentlemen are re- quested not to smoke before 2.30 pm.”; and in the clusters of plasterwork on the ceilings and marble-topped bars and engraved mirrors, not deliberately preserved as they would be in London, but simply still going strong.

Those with an interest in the history of pop music might also enjoy his account of a city obsessed with The Beatles – and his assumption that they’re a flash in the pan.

Exterior view of a modern pub; interior view of the same.
The exterior of the Kingfisher and a view of its lounge bar.

Arguably the most interesting passage in the whole book (unless you’re from Bridgwater) is a lengthy depiction of a post-war estate pub at the new town in Corby, Northamptonshire. These pubs weren’t often written about because they weren’t regarded as romantic, historic or symptomatic. But Wollaston rightly spotted that they meant something, even though they were “huge and quite un-memorable, like canteens”:

In the bar of the Hazel Tree, a modern pub in a housing estate called Beanfield, I found myself next to an Ulsterman. He had been a policeman in the colonial service and was now a security officer at the Corby steelworks. He was wearing his uniform trousers and heavy black boots, but had slipped on a tweed coat to come out to the pub.

This individual, an open racist, has a particularly strong hatred for a group of migrants that had come to dominate Corby: Scottish people, whom he refers to as “a lot of bloody savages”, who “brought out their bagpipes at any excuse”. He had also observed their drinking habits: “Six or seven pints a night, he said, was almost a rule.”

Despite the blandness of these new pubs, they were busy. Once again, Wollaston’s detailed, pithily expressed observations would have been handy when we were writing our book:

The bar was packed full. There were people playing dominoes and darts, and young Scotch steelworkers smoking cigars with girls drinking Italian apéritifs. The divisions were not by class but by age-groups; one generation of men wore cloth caps and bicycle clips, another wore belted raincoats and trilbies, a third wore Beatle jackets and winkle-pickers. At a table in the middle were two thin boys in skin-tight jeans, with pale hunted faces and long cavalier ringlets, dirty copper-colour… “The C.N.D. brigade,” said the Cockney. “I bet there’s many a girl’d like that hair.”

In Chertsey in the London commuter belt, he finds a pub that sounds much like you might expect to find there today: food led, rather middle class, “teacups and muzak everywhere, and china ducks in flight across the cream embossed wallpaper”.

Beyond pubs, there are also glimpses of other drinking places and cultures, such as the Viennese Beer Garden at the Butlin’s holiday camp in Skegness, and its twin, Ye Olde Pig and Whistle. We might have found space for this quote in the chapter on theme pubs in our book:

In the Tudor Bar elderly campers yawned under a gigantic plaster tree, or giggled at the plight of a real pigeon that had flown in and was battering itself among the saucy little lattice windows above them. Even the indoor swimming-pool lay under a jungle of synthetic greenery. This obsession with the bogus and the dangling may have served to disguise the architecture of the buildings, and certainly the rain that in places dripped through the roof added authenticity to the picturesque settings, but it was disappointing to find that so few modern ideas of design had been adopted.

There are portraits of working men’s clubs, too. In Blyth it was The Coronation Club:

Clubs, with their bingo evenings and old-time dancing, are more important than pubs in Blyth, and one of the reasons may be that beer costs a shilling and a penny a pint; even ‘cellar’, a stronger brew, is only one-and-fivepence. At Ashington, a mining town a few miles inland with a population of thirty thousand, there are only three pubs, but more than twenty clubs… Each club still had its leek show, and many of the pubs. There were to be prizes of six hundred pounds in one of them.

It’s interesting to read these notes on drinking culture with contemporary novels such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning in mind:

Booze, at any rate round the tables in the Coronation Club lounge where women were allowed, was the main topic, as it was also the main preoccupation. The universal aim of the club’s members… was more drink at less cost. The men drank pints of ‘cellar’ – pints and pints of – and the women drank Advokaat, or alternate cherry brandies and tomato juice. When the men had to go to the lavatory they stopped at the bar, where the women were not allowed, for a large whisky or a liqueur before going back to join the women at the tables…

Our overall impression is that what’s changed most is the density of pub life. They were everywhere, and everyone went to them, when they weren’t drinking somewhere else.

What do you think? Would it be fun to go for a night out in the winter of 1963 – or would it be an ordeal?

Your answer might well depend on whether you’re a man or woman, and which box you ticked under ethnicity on the 2021 Census.

london pubs

Geoffrey Fletcher’s favourite London pubs, 1966

In a small booklet called Offbeat in London, published in 1966, writer and illustrator Geoffrey Fletcher provided a list of his favourite London pubs.

Fletcher’s list is unusual and interesting for various reasons.

He knew a lot about architecture but wasn’t an architectural critic in the formal sense.

Nor was he a beer geek. In fact, he rarely mentions drink at all.

What really mattered to him was the vibe. In particular, he loved anything that felt like a relic of times past.

His books often focus on ghost signs, buildings that had dodged demolition and elderly people who remembered Queen Victoria.

Pubs, many of which were built in the high Victorian period, were one more aspect of this.

The pub list in Offbeat in London comes after a description of Henekey’s, “the sole representative of the vanished gin palace of Victorian London”. (It’s now a Sam Smith’s pub called The Citties of Yorke.) After notes on its fixtures and fittings, such as “the famous Waterloo stove”, Fletcher writes:

Having made a digression in the direction of refreshment, I take the opportunity to introduce a short list of my favourite London pubs, recommended for architecture and atmosphere, as well as for food and drink.

Here’s his list, with a brief quote from the more extensive notes in the book for each entry.

  • The Salisbury | St Martin’s Lane, WC2 | “You go through the doors and find yourself at once in the London of Beardsley and Wilde.” | still trading
  • The Red Lion | Duke of York Street, SW1 | “a perfect hall of mirrors, quite untouched since the Victorian age” | still trading
  • The Albert | Victoria Street, SW1 | “a curiously American-like exterior with superb balconies” | still trading
  • The Jolly Butchers | Stoke Newington | “fantastic Gothic ironwork” | still trading
  • The Crown | Aberdeen Place, NW8 | “The interior has a strong flavour of the Diamond Jubilee about it…” | now a Lebanese restaurant but well preserved
  • The Black Friar | Queen Victoria Street EC4 | “the most remarkable Arts and Crafts period pub in London” | still trading
  • Mooney’s Irish House | Strand, EC4  | “Upright drinking, talk, stout, Irish whiskeys and crab sandwiches…” | now The Tipperary, temporarily closed was at 395 Strand, now closed (see correction in comments)
  • The Nell Gwynn(e) | Bull Yard, WC2 | “Porter on draught… was sold here until only a few years ago.” | still trading
  • The Final | William IV Street, WC2 | “a pile of turned mahogany, gold lettered mirrors and stained glass” | gone, we think
  • The Paxton’s Head | Knightsbridge, SW1 | “the name is derived… from the designer of the Crystal Palace” | still trading

It’s interesting how many of these are still trading and retain some or all of the features that made Fletcher love them.

The Final, on the edge of Covent Garden, is the only one that seems to have completely disappeared. It’s not listed in any of the other ‘great London pubs’ books on our shelves, either.

So, with that in mind, let’s have a slightly extended quote:

The saloon has a mosaic floor Street to cool your feet, and a brass rail to rest them on when you are called to the bar… Best of all, perhaps, is the Schweppes advert for Soda Water and Dry Ginger Ale, with an Edwardian nymph, an Albert Moore-like figure, at a spring. Watching her from the opposite wall is a group of natty, whiskery gents in titfers, with the day’s shoot at their feet.

It turns out, however, that Fletcher wrote about The Final in a couple of other places. We don’t have a copy of London by Night but we do have Geoffrey Fletcher’s London from 1968 in which he recycles a chunk of the note above, adding that he rates it “almost as highly as Mooney’s”.

How interesting, and how sad, that a beautiful Victorian pub can completely disappear, not only physically, but also from the collective memory.

Thank goodness for Big Geoff F. and his eye for nostalgic detail.

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.