The cover doesn’t do it justice. Utilitarian in the most prosaic of ways, it gives little indication of the sheer poetic sweep of the interior it obscures. Rather than the smoke-filled tap rooms its blunt facade suggests, putting it aside reveals something more welcoming, spacious and brightly lit.
Pete Brown’s passionate account of how the Working Men’s Club first rose and then declined is one that maintains his romance with the institution even in the face of the occasional shattered illusion.
Part unofficial history, and part – as these things are nowadays – personal memoir, it treats the reader to a range of ‘turns’, be they artistic, sporting or educational, flitting in the process from club to club, from the South to the North, and from then to now. Its achievement is that, in the selection of its running order, it does not rely on the cheap tricks of nostalgia acts, but gambles on less comfortable recollections. Not the least of these is the point that, growing up working class in the North of England, the personal, more often than not, is the political. For instance, Brown wrestles to reconcile his class identity at birth with the accent he has all but shed along the way.
In the process, Brown not only acknowledges the stereotypes that have come to be associated with the Club – familiar to all those old enough to bring Granada television’s The Wheeltappers and Shunter’s Club to mind and perpetuated in Peter Kay‘s more recent Phoenix Nights – but considers how their half-truths have conspired to trap them, in the popular imagination at least, in the nicotine-hued amber of the 1970s. Although The Jam’s Paul Weller played his first gig at Woking Working Men’s Club, punk largely passed them by. Worse, and even more out of step with the times, women were only granted equal members’ rights as late as 2007.
This tardy acceptance is all the more ironic in the face of a history that turns up evidence (time and time again) of how the working class were made subject to double standards, held accountable to laws and strictures that the gentry were able simply to rise above, and how ‘culture’ itself was defined in the narrow terms of what was acceptable to the middle and upper classes.
Too often, in fact, even those who sought to improve the lot of the working classes took a paternalistic approach, appointing themselves the arbiters of what would be best for them, and despairing of their obstinate insistence in having minds of their own on the subject. One such figure, looming larger in life than the others, the Reverend Henry Solly, was instrumental in establishing the Clubs. In spite of his efforts, the men themselves, some of them recently enfranchised by the 1884 Reform Act, simply voted with their feet, staying away in droves. Perhaps the most salient sticking point was what came to be known as ‘the beer question’. Solly, in keeping with his Christian Socialist background, argued for temperance. His potential members, eventually determining for themselves, were inclined to the contrary.
For me, Brown’s book is at its most intoxicating when his heart, rather than his diligent research, is visible on his sleeve, as when he rails against the self-satisfaction of bourgeois dilettantes like The Hackney ‘Colliery’ Band or gives the likes of club greats such as Marti Caine their overdue moment back at the top of the bill. Rhapsodically written – lines such as “elderly couples alight on banquettes like crows on a fence” are worthy of club-forged comedian Les Dawson – its tale, having taken in bingo, snooker and Tom Jones’ first manager, Bryn the Fish, ends with a note of cautious optimism for the future. Clubs such as Stoke Newington’s Mildmay, while retaining the bingo and turns on which they have been built, are opening their doors to a slightly younger generation, one for whom punk and rave most assuredly did happen.
Left on the ropes by Wetherspoons, left in the wake of changing tastes, Brown suggests that although the Working Men’s Club may have been in decline, there’s reason to hope that its turn will come again.