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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.

Categories
20th Century Pub News pubs

News, Nuggets & Longreads 1 December 2018: Stats, Social Clubs, Suburban Pubs

Here are all the blog posts, articles and news stories around beer and pubs that grabbed our attention in the past week, from Norway, Maine, to Canley.

First, something with a bit of weight behind it: UK government’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) has published a report on the health of the pub market. The overall conclusion it reaches is that, yes, lots of pubs have closed in the past 20 years, but “the total turnover of pubs and bars has held up, remaining flat since 2008, once inflation is taken into account”.

There’s also an interactive tool which will give you a readout for your town or city, e.g.

ONS chart on Bristol pubs -- down from 375 to 285 since 2001.

The report suggests increasing employment in the pub trade might be down to the growth in food service, and a trend towards bigger rather than smaller pubs. (But we wonder if the introduction of RTI in 2013 might also be an influence, effectively ending  informal (unreported) employment in most sectors.)


Children's party at a social club.

Historian of clubs Ruth Cherrington has written about her memories of playing bingo with her parents at the Canley Social Club and Institute in Coventry, and what it all meant:

Our local club was conveniently situated just across the street from our house on a postwar council estate. Mum told us that Dad was thrilled to bits when plans for the clubs were drawn up in the late 1940s. Having a local place to drink and play games like billiards and cribbage over a pint or two meant he would no longer have to trek to his old haunts on the other side of town. Like many local men on the estate, he threw himself into setting up the new club on the land allocated by the Corporation specifically for that purpose. The club opened in a wooden hut in 1948 and affiliated to the Club and Institute Union in 1950.

(PDF, unfortunately.)


Norway, Maine, brewpub.

At Beervana Jeff Alworth has taken a moment to breathe and reflect on how ordinary it has become to find decent and interesting beer in unlikely places:

Human experience requires constant recalibration, and mine occurred about halfway through my dry-hopped pilsner, Impersonator. I was focused on the overly American hop character and lack of assertive malt flavor when it hit me: I am in a brewpub in Norway, Maine. My critical apparatus had been set to “world standards.” I quickly recalibrated to “18-month-old brewpub in rural Maine,” and all of a sudden it was looking mighty impressive. There were no flaws in that or any beers we tried, and part of my complaint was, admittedly, preference (I don’t want to taste IPA in my pilsner).


Debit card illustration.

We wrote about cashless/cardless pubs and bars earlier this week, and it’s a topic generally in the air. David Holden at Yes! Ale reports the reality on the ground where consumers are expected to carry both cash and cards if they expect to visit more than one venue in the course of an evening:

Yes, I had to go back out in the wind and rain but at least I am in a position to get cash out at six o’clock in the evening. I don’t have to go into an open branch to get cash. In Koelschip Yard I was in the position to open my wallet and draw a card out to make a payment. There are many reasons why not everyone can do this. These reasons may be why one potential customer has to “give this one a miss” or ask their mate “Do you mind getting the round in here?”.


Hofmeister lager.

And here’s another reality check, from Paul ‘no relation’ Bailey: beers that you can’t actually buy, even if you really, really want to, might as well not exist. His experience was with the award-winning revived version of Hofmeister.


Vintage illustration: McSorleys

We were surprised to come across someone this week who didn’t know Joseph Mitchell’s brilliant 1940 essay on New York City tavern McSorley’s, AKA ‘The Old House at Home’. So now, in what might be a one-off, or could become a regular feature, welcome to Classics Corner:

It is equipped with electricity, but the bar is stubbornly illuminated with a pair of gas lamps, which flicker fitfully and throw shadows on the low, cobwebby ceiling each time someone opens the street door. There is no cash register. Coins are dropped in soup bowls—one for nickels, one for dimes, one for quarters, and one for halves—and bills are kept in a rosewood cashbox. It is a drowsy place; the bartenders never make a needless move, the customers nurse their mugs of ale, and the three clocks on the walls have not been in agreement for many years.


And how can we not finish with Hilary Mantel doing her version of 20th Century Pub?

https://twitter.com/blogmywiki/status/1068614165605085186

Want more reading? See Alan.

Categories
20th Century Pub Beer history

So They Brewed Their Own Beer — The Northern Clubs Federation

There’s been a bit of talk lately about working men’s clubs and the breweries established to supply them and we thought we ought to flag an apparently little-known book on the subject.

So They Brewed Their Own Beer by Ted Elkins was published in 1970 and tells the story of the rise of the Northern Clubs Federation. Elkins was a journalist from the North East of England whose career started in the 1950s and as a freelance PR man he wrote a few official company and organisational histories relating to brewing and hospitality.

Cover of So They Brewed Their Own Beer.

STBTOB opens on 24 May 1919 at the Social Club in Prudhoe, a village on Tyneside, where the founders of what would become the Federation Brewery met for the first time to discuss the idea. Elkins, possibly scrambling to reach word count, or perhaps just to make the job more fun, lays it on a bit thick:

These were new men, bruised and bloodied in mind and limb by the carnage of slaughter and survival. They came back [from war] with a sense of comradeship, buoyant in triumph, each humbly aware of his obligation to his fellow man, the need to right the wrongs of a world irrevocably changed by the torment of war.

Categories
Beer history pubs

Clubs: Shadow Pubs

Clubs, or working men’s clubs as they have historically been known, are all but invisible to many pub-goers but once you tune into them it can be like discovering a whole new town.

The best and snappiest history of the development of clubs can be found in Ruth Cherrington’s 2012 book Not Just Beer and Bingo (£3.49 for Kindle via Amazon):

Working men in the late 19th century wanted their own clubs and members of the upper class thought that these would be better places than pubs. Clubs fitted into the perspective of the rational recreation movement that aimed at halting a perceived moral decline in society…

After much debate, however, clubs did win the right to serve alcohol from the central organising committee and in the 20th century their character changed:

[If] the club bought in the beer, it could supply it to members without the need to make a profit, so prices could be lower than in the pubs. This gave clubs a reputation for providing subsidised drink. The downside of this was that clubs came to be viewed only in this light with their other services and features overlooked.

Clubs thrived as industry thrived, serving individual factories, local trades such as the railways, or particular political groups and parties — Liberal, Labour and Conservative clubs. With two world wars, several smaller ones and national service until 1963, clubs allied to individual branches of the armed services also became common.

Which brings us to 2017 and our recent efforts to visit clubs in and around Penzance which kicked off at our local, The Farmer’s Arms. We were sat in our usual place, at the corner in the back, when we noticed a bloke at the next table, with his partner and some friends, trying to get our attention.

‘Alright. Ever go to the Legion, do you? You should come down sometime.’

Categories
Beer history pubs

Supped it Like Bloody Wolves

Detail from the cover of Working Class Community by Brian Jackson, Pelican, 1972.
Detail from the cover of Working Class Community by Brian Jackson, Pelican, 1972.

We’ve found more evidence in our efforts to understand the extent to which British people were discerning in their choice of beer before the Campaign for Real Ale came along in the 1970s.

Brian Jackson’s Working Class Community was first published in 1968 and reprinted by Pelican in 1972. It belongs to the ‘working class people as aliens’ genre of academic writing so popular in the 20th century, though it is rather more readable than most examples, and occasionally even funny.

Amongst chapters about brass bands and bowling greens there is one called ‘At the Club’, which includes generalisations based on observations of several working men’s clubs in the north of England. It contains a fair bit about pubs, which were apparently considered expensive and ‘stuck up’:

Ah never go into a pub at all now. Clubs are much more sociable, like. Look at this. Ah couldn’t rest me legs across a chair in t’pub. Here it’s like being at home. As long as Ah don’t put me feet on t’seat, Ah’m all right.

But we were mostly intrigued by the section called ‘Drinking’. Unlike pubs, which were mostly tied to breweries and thus offered a limited range…

Working men’s clubs are a cooperative venture in the purchase and sale of beer and spirits. Each offers a choice of several draught beers, and the brews are changed ruthlessly as members demand…

Club members, it seems, were ‘discriminating and demanding’ in their choice of beers, and so, despite competitive pricing, it often had the best ale in town:

There is an excellent draught beer brewed which is sold in surrounding Yorkshire. But it cannot be obtained in Huddersfield public houses because the pubs are in possession of rival concerns. The beer, though good, is blocked out. Except for the clubs. In almost every one a pint of this ale could be bought. The beer was chosen and sold on its merits, quite regardless of the major brewery strategy which limits the range of the pub drinker.

(What can it have been…?)

There is also an amusing worm-that-turned narrative in the clubs’ resistance to advertising and salesmen from big breweries. They would, according to Jackson, take loans and gifts from breweries, without feeling any obligation to then buy beer from them. Here’s an account of an attempt by a rep from Yarnold’s to win over punters at one club:

Ah remember a traveller bringing a barrel. It were free while he was here, he paid for t’lot. They supped it then, y’know. They did that! They supped it like bloody wolves! But when he were gone nobody would touch it. It’s like lead in y’belly is that stuff. When Ah had some, Ah felt as if Ah’d swallowed yon plumb-line from t’window there.

So, they were discerning, but what did it mean, in this context? Were they interested in flavour, strength, or something more abstract? Unfortunately, that’s where the book lets us down, though who knows what more detail might lurk in the original field notes.