Can I have order all around the room? Thank you, please. The book I’ve been wanting to write for eighteen years is finally here.
What does the phrase ‘working men’s club’ evoke for you?
Anything at all?
If you’re under fifty, I’m guessing the first place it will take you is Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights. Looking back at that series twenty years later, it’s obvious there’s a deep fondness for clubs at its heart, but even back then, some of its humour came from the fact that clubs seemed anachronistic in the 21st century, a humorous throwback to a previous age that had outlived its relevance.
If you’re a bit older, you might remember the Wheeltappers & Shunters Social Club. Shot in 1974, when clubland was at its peak, it’s already taking the piss (Colin Crompton, who plays the clubs concert secretary, was later overheard describing club-goers as ‘peasants.’)
It is – obviously – very easy to laugh at working men’s clubs. They’re old-fashioned and northern (except that’s not quite accurate), and that’s enough. Dig a little deeper, and they are also weighed down by accusations of sexism (the clue is in the name) and racism (subtly poking its head into the programme below at least once).
Next Tuesday, 14th June, marks the 160th anniversary of the Club & Institute Union, an umbrella organisation that was founded to help clubs work together to support each other and thrive. The clubs themselves were designed to provide working-class men with an alternative to the pub or music hall, where they come could come together and relax without being pressured into drinking to excess – something which temperance campaigners at the time saw as the cause for men stumbling home and beating their wives and families (the welfare of women has always been at the heart of the working men’s club movement in one way or another – which is not to excuse the inarguable sexism that did colour much of its history.)
I first became aware of this broader, deeper history of clubs when I was researching Man Walks into a Pub, my first book. Clubs obviously exist as an alternative, a rival to pubs, and some establishments blur between the two. But I soon realised that clubs were much more than, as George Orwell described them in The Road to Wigan Pier, “glorified cooperative pubs.” Owned and run by their members, there was no need for them to make a commercial profit. Beer could be sold more cheaply than pubs, which meant they were busy, and still made money.
That money was invested back into the clubs, building concert rooms, snooker and billiards rooms, and then, as their scale and ambition grew, services such as baths and showers for people living in slums with no bathrooms, summer seaside trips for kids, scholarships for members who had had no choice other than to leave school at 12 or 14, welfare schemes for those who couldn’t work due to accident or illness, and convalescent homes when members could no longer live by themselves. Working men’s clubs provided a welfare state for those who needed it decades before the real thing came into being. As the welfare state is dismantled, there’s an argument that clubs are needed once again.
Later, as those concert halls grew and club members got a bit more money in their pockets, the biggest stars of stage and screen were brought to the doorsteps of miners and steel-workers. When clubs weren’t booking major celebrities, they were creating their own – from the 1960s to the 1980s, pretty much any comedian, gameshow host or presenter on TV had come up through the clubs. Singers and musicians from Very Lynn and Tom Jones to The Jam and The Fall all played their clubland dues.
The important role that working men’s clubs played in shaping 19th- and 20th-century culture and society has been erased from history books – there’s just one other book in print on the subject apart from this one. Clubs are ignored in any history of working class leisure or British light entertainment. This project was a working of thrilling discovery, stretching way deeper and broader than I ever thought when I started it.
In the book, I speak to snooker legend Steve Davis, who credits clubs not only with the start of his career, but the survival of the entire sport. I talk to Les Dennis and Bernie Clifton, who went from club stages to being household names, and to the campaigners who fought for equality for women in the club movement and eventually won it – decades later than you might expect.
So, please buy my new book. It overlaps with writing about beer and pubs but covers so much more. It’s political, social and cultural, and at times, deeply personal too. In writing it, I think I finally resolved my conflicted feelings around being born into a traditional working class community and deciding to leave it as soon as I could – a decision that, it turns out, was shaped significantly by my own interactions with working men’s clubs.
Clubland: How The Working Men’s Club Shaped Britain, is published on Thursday, 9th June by Harper North as a hardback, kindle and audiobook (which I read myself!) It’s available for pre-order at Amazon or, if you prefer buying from an independent bookshop, bookshop.org.
I’ll be hosting an online launch party for the book tomorrow, Wednesday 8th June, via Zoom. Tickets are free but places are limited – book yours here.
Advance praise for Clubland:
‘Pete Brown is a brilliant master of ceremonies as he brings the history of these fine institutions to life and demonstrates their importance in working class communities across the country.’ Alan Johnson, author of This Boy
‘A compelling mixture of social history, vivid reportage and candid autobiography, Clubland makes a crucial contribution to our understanding of Britain in the last century and a half.’ David Kynaston, author of Austerity Britain
‘Leave any flat-capped clichés at the door: Brown offers an earnest exploration of this crucially formative area of British social history.’ John Warland, author of Liquid History
‘Pete Brown writes poetically and with great authority on a slice of culture that has been ignored or derided for many years. He illuminates these arts centres, debating halls and palaces of carefree delight with love and care.’ Ian McMillan, author of Neither Nowt Nor Summat
‘At last the working men’s club gets its turn in the cultural spotlight. Pete Brown has written an important history and a heartfelt tribute to the friendship, organisation, humour and community to be found in these remarkable institutions.’ Ian Clayton, author of It’s The Beer Talking: Adventures in Public Houses