There must be an argument to say that working men’s clubs are one of the most overlooked of the great British Institutions. Not, of course, by their members over decades of national life. Certainly, when the media come to a ‘typical’ northern town looking for a low-effort, shallow soundbite or three.
It is time to go a little deeper into the story.
Well Pete Brown’s new book Clubland, How the Working Men’s Club shaped Britain, published after a couple of years of unconventional lockdown research, but informed by Pete’s many years of writing about beer, pubs and the underpinning culture, gets to the real story. And the venue for his talk about the book couldn’t be more appropriate, the Mildmay Club.
The club is arguably from the more radical end of the ‘club scene’ as befits the local area, but it has plenty of tradition too on this very traditional weekend. We even hear tell that many decades ago Dame Vera Lynn performed here. Now, as the growing membership shows, the club is in the midst of a mini renaissance.
So, what can you expect from the event? Well, it is a London venue, but it will involve plenty of northern heart and soul. Class runs through the book as it does, for good or ill, through the rest of the national story.
Historically, the working men’s clubs were something of a reaction to gentlemen’s clubs, when working men decided that they too needed an alternative to licensed premises and the increasingly restrictive opening hours. The movement’s founder a teetotal social reformer might not have recognized the boozy heyday in the mid 20th century. Pete has anecdotes to spare and urban myths with more than a grain of truth. (Perhaps)
As the title suggests the cultural importance of clubs cannot be underestimated. Clubs played host to stars like Shirley Bassey, Louis Armstrong, and the Bee Gees arguably bringing them closer to the people than any other venue could. They were a refuge – maybe in modern terminology, they provided headspace to men after the the world wars. Those who might not have talked about things, at least knew they shared the company of those who had gone through similar experiences.
Were the clubs at the vanguard of the sexual revolution and indeed other social change? Mostly no. It took a while for change to come. Quite a long while in some instances. But Pete will bring some understanding to this topic as well and challenge the classist and cliched views.
Serious points will be made, but to be clear, this will be a jocular, jovial event full of the usual Brownian anecdotes.
Yet after a couple of difficult years, we may all have a better sense of just how important places for people to gather are. This talk will bring insight and challenge to certain prevailing views but most importantly laughs (no pressure Pete). We really hope to see you there and to share a drink afterwards
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