Clubland: How The Working Men’s Club Shaped Britain, by Pete Brown
Working men’s clubs are often dismissed as relics of a bygone age – bastions of bigotry and racism – but there’s a seven-line paragraph in Clubland that explains everything there is to explain about about their raison d’etre: “Sure, the booze is cheap here. But it’s even cheaper at the off-licences round the corner at Lane Top. People don’t come here for cheap booze. They come to be out of the house. They come to be close to others, if not quite with them. They come not just for the Carling or the John Smith’s and they certainly don’t come here to get drunk. They come to talk, to share, to relax, to live with the beer and over the beer. But not because of it.”
The perceptive phrase is “they come to be out of the house”. Succinct, accurate, well observed and sadly, true.
I wasn’t far through Clubland when it dawned on me that working men’s clubs are autobiographical by nature. Every one of us has a totally different life and a different take on their club membership experience. Mine hardly touches Pete Brown’s, nor should it, because the subject – beautifully covered here – is too vast for one book and most of it is very personal.
Brown swings in and out of clubland much as a Phoenix Nights experience with explorations into entertainers who were once unknown to even their own families but are now – or were – household names like Tom Jones, Marti Caine, Les Dawson and Les Dennis.
He explores the clubs’ role in defining masculinity, community and class identity for generations of men in Britain’s industrial towns. They were, at their best, a vehicle for social mobility and self-improvement, run as cooperatives for working people by working people: an informal, community-owned precursor to the Welfare State.
He explains the movement’s early beginnings, the dream of teetotal social reformer, the Reverend Henry Solly. And he delights in people such as Sheila Capstick who fought for women’s rights in a male bastion not completely breached until the 2010 Equalities Act (though suspicions over female members remain raw in some quarters).
Unless I missed some references through ‘skimming’ Clubland for review, there are a few gaps; for instance, no mention of annual summer club trips (with chartered train). Ours regularly went to Burntisland, an appropriately-named ‘resort’ on the Fife coast close to Kirkcaldy’s linoleum factories – then there’s the pigeon racing, carrier bags swapped regularly between allotment holders, or the Gateshead Sunday night ritual of unwrapping tinfoil-covered sandwiches made from that day’s joint and passed around the company. Before the bingo or after it, I don’t remember.
No doubt situations like that are in Brown’s notebook, ready for a follow-up (hopefully with an index for quick reference). This could – should – turn into a lifetime’s work.
*Clubland: How The Working Men’s Club Shaped Britain by Pete Brown, Harper North, £20.
United Kingdom of Beer: 250 Top Beers in Bottle and Can by Adrian Tierney-Jones
United Kingdom of Beer unveils a comprehensive guide to the numerous types and styles of beer available in modern Britain. It’s complete with tasting notes and fascinating background stories about each beer as well as an insightful look into how to pair the beers with food, mood, and occasion.
This is not a new idea, of course, and there’s a tremendous amount goes into the research, but by Tierney-Jones’ own reckoning there were several brewery economic casualties even before the 288-page book left the printers. That can’t be helped, it’s the nature of the beast and there are no doubt different reasons for the likes of Kelham Island in Sheffield (see Pale Rider page 160), Fallen in Stirling (Platform 3 page 83 and Chew Chew page 189), Manchester’s Beatnikz Republic and Caledonian in Edinburgh to close with the likely loss of their brands.
Nevertheless, whether you're after a muscular Best Bitter or in need of a brooding, midnight-black Imperial Stout, sitting at home in front of the fire or gathered with friends for a barbecue in the garden, this book will direct you to the best beer for the occasion or your particular whim.
As the writer himself puts it: “Whether on a day out or meeting up with friends, extraordinary beer helps to make great days even better. Coming out of the pandemic, 2022 is a fantastic year to enjoy the many delights that the exceptional breweries across the UK have to offer.”
This is a book painted with a broad brush with no long lists of hops and malts used – partly because brewers tend to tweak their beers, even highly popular ones, in the constant search for perfection. And anyway, lists of ingredients tend to interrupt the flow of a good story.
Tierney-Jones spoke to as many brewers as he could on their motivation and adds his own tasting notes and serving suggestions – many of them recommending comfy armchairs, roaring fires or bracing walks with or without a dog.
He firmly believes that for him writing about beer has always been about people and this is why he wanted the brewers tell the tales (tall or otherwise) behind their beers. This is a book for travel and exploration, for outdoor drinking and indoor contemplation. Comfy armchair optional.
*United Kingdom of Beer: 250 Top Beers in Bottle and Can by Adrian Tierney-Jones, Camra Books £17.99.