Clubland: ‘If that sink down the corridor were good enough for Shirley Bassey…’

Nigh on four decades of living in Pennine border town Todmorden and I’d never darkened the doors of Bridge End Working Men’s Club. Even though it sits just across the road from the primary school once attended by my daughters and granddaughter, it remained a no-go zone. As much of a mystery as the notorious alien abduction of a local copper a couple of miles away. That nationally reported incident came just two years before we became off comed ’uns in a then insular community.

These days Tod is cool thanks to an influx of young ‘creatives’ and I almost feel like a pioneer, straddling the transformation that’s not yet gentrification. Even my veteran beard was a harbinger of craft beer, our South American cantina and an Andrew Weatherall cult centred on the Golden Lion. Clubby in a different way from WMCs but, with a nod to the past, the pub also hosts UFO meetings. Very Tod.

So what finally tempted me to blood myself at Bridge End? I probably wouldn’t have but for the arrival of a review copy of Clubland by my friend Pete Brown, doyen of contemporary beer writers. His previous books have strayed beyond the grist and kettle boils of more mundane ale chroniclers into some serious (yet light-hearted) social history, notably in 2012’s Shakespeare’s Local: Six Centuries of History Seen Through One Extraordinary Pub, focusing on the rich tapestry that is The George Inn, Southwark.

Even before that break-out tome he had proposed to London-centric publishers a social history of working men’s clubs. No takers. The stereotype – just cheap drinking holes in moribund industrial communities. From The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club in the Seventies to Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights in the early Noughties they could be a ‘reet laugh’ on telly but not to be taken seriously. 

Pete does and his persistence has finally paid off with Clubland, personal experience informing even the driest of research.

Just as metropolitan mates he made after moving down from Barnsley to work in advertising earmarked him as a ‘professional Northerner’, so back home in the pit communities he was brought up in he got tarred with ‘almost a soft Southerner now’.

Like Pete (but from a cotton background) I was the first member of my family to go to university, but I was never forced to run the gauntlet of a working men’s club initiation. 

From birth he was part of a neo-Laurentian ‘muckstack’ landscape with the club as a lubrication station for thirsty miners… and a place of entertainment. In the opening chapter, ‘The Club and Me’, he recalls “one of my earliest memories is of being held in someone’s arms, in a space that glowed.” Little such warmth percolated his awkward relationship with his father. Poignant is the passage recalling a teenage Pete being taken for a pre-Sunday lunch pint at Mapplewell Ex-Servicemen’s Club, known as “The Tin Hat’. Dad wore suit and tie over a chunky jumper. Son? ”Standing next to him dressed head to toe in black, my bootlace tie beneath my RAF greatcoat, my hair in a rockabilly quiff dyed blond on top. I thought at the time he was the one who looked ridiculous.”

On his third such session he was asked by one of the locals ‘What’s tha do then?” College, management studies. Uneasy silence. A muttering from behind a pint of John Smith’s: “Tha can’t study management.” He was never invited back. A stint behind the bar at another club and he was fired; unsaid but really for not fitting in. This would have put many of us off for life, but not Pete.

His exquisitely written, affectionate account of a vanishing part of British cultural life has not attracted the number of reviews it ought (with the notable exception of Jude Rogers’ in The Observer. Literary levelling up, London? My arse, as they say in Todmorden and Barnsley. 

Great to catch up with him on the Manchester leg of the promotion tour. Not as you might expect in some approximation of The Phoenix Club but in the taproom of one of the UK’s cutting edge craft breweries, Cloudwater, in an on-stage interview with its founder, Paul Jones. Not the kind of venue where you’d find a note saying ‘These Pies Have Been Counted’. No turns on either. 

Variety was the spice of club life back in the Seventies when more than seven million, mostly working class, folk were members and mega venues such as the Batley Variety Club might squeeze in audiences of up to 3,000 to see he likes of The Bee Gees, Roy Orbison, even Louis Armstrong. Further down the chicken in the basket chain stardust was more lightly sprinkled, with performers, on the way up or down, aghast at the absence of basic backstage facilities. In his ‘The Club and the Turns’ chapter Pete tries in vain to substantiate the apocryphal Shirley Bassey ‘sink down the corridor story’, punchline “if it were good enough for her it’s good enough for thee…”

That era certainly feels the apogee of the club movement, bolstered by the bingo boom.  Yet all this was a far remove from the 19th century pipe dream of the Reverend Henry Solly in campaigning for a prototype that embraced educational, teetotal hubs for the workers. It all turned out differently, of course, and the author doesn’t shy away from addressing issues that include booziness, bigotry, racism and misogyny as he charts the clubs’ evolution and eventual decline.

Hearteningly he visits North Reddish Working Men’s Club, outside Manchester, widely regarded as the first WMC, and finds it in fine fettle, adapting to more straitened times. Two other venerable WMCs (Reddish and the monumental Houldsworth) still surviv in what is essentially now a commuter rather than industrial town..

At Sheffield Lane Club he salutes a cannily run commercial operation (not the norm); elsewhere he encounters valuable community initiatives. Yet nothing can dispel a pervasive melancholy.

So, you’ve been wondering, how did I get on in the Bridge End? Welcomed with open arms by the club treasurer. On my debut I wasn’t strong-armed into paying the tenner annual membership fee. Beer was ridiculously cheap but no cask was on during the heatwave because they couldn’t afford to rent a cellar cooler. Members of a certain age hadn’t returned post-pandemic, but there was a ‘quality vocalist’ booked for the weekend and there were darts opportunities aplenty upstairs. Even if the local leagues may be in decline. 

Would I go back to this cosy bolthole? Nay, lad. There’s this microbar down the road that supplies me with barrel-aged Imperial Russian Stout.

Clubland: How the Working Men’s Club Shaped Britain by Pete Brown is published by HarperNorth (£20). Thank to Pete for allowing me use of his pictures.