Love in this club

Donna Scott challenges the image of working men's clubs

In the spring of 2009, my partner and I got involved with organising comedy nights for a local village festival. The committee were particularly keen on one venue – it had spacious seating area, a stage replete with small backstage area, PA desk, spotlights and effects lights,; mics, amps... in fact everything we needed was in situ. Plus there was a decently priced bar in the place too. What was not to like?

There was just one teensy little concern. It was a working men’s club.

I could imagine the conversations. ‘Hello? Ah yes, we’re looking for a headline act for our gig. It’s just outside Northampton – a village called Earls Barton, really lovely, very quaint. The venue? Sweet little place. Heart of the village community... Lovely little working... men’s, er, club. What’s that? No, no... not a horrible working men’s club. They wouldn’t put up with anything horrible in Earls Barton, Saxon village. In fact, WMC should really stand for Weirdly Middle Class.’

I was afraid of speaking to someone to whom such places conjured images of Bernard Manning in a ruffle shirt, smirking out at a boisterous, mostly-male crowd through a haze of tobacco smoke, stale beer pervading the atmosphere, orange and brown seventies decor looking like sick on the walls. Ugh, ugh, ugh! Or almost as bad, someone who thought any event set in a working men’s club would come off as naff as anything organised by Brian Potter in Phoenix Nights.

If there’s anyone who should know just how bad events at working men’s club and social clubs can be, it’s me. I suffered many weekends as a teenager sat in the ‘family room’ of the social club (where there was slightly less smoke than the main bar), bored stupid.

The monotony was occasionally broken by there being some ‘do’ – usually a milestone birthday, or an engagement party (quite a few of those, but strangely, I can’t remember any wedding receptions), or a magic show, or some crooner from the Sixties who’d had one hit that everyone had forgotten, or just a disco for no particular reason. The resident DJ went out and bought the Jive Bunny Megamix in 1986, and nothing new since – except La Macarena. I always used to ask if the DJ had any Jesus and Mary Chain. He never did.

There would always be a buffet that had been put out ready on a side table, wrapped in clingfilm since 5pm, but untouchable until 9pm when the main lights would come on abruptly - otherwise the chicken legs just wouldn’t have been sweaty enough. And woe betide you if you thought you could just go straight for the Black Forest Gateau; it was plain bad etiquette to have cake before you’d had at least one curly sandwich. Besides, the gateau would usually still be partially frozen.

Why did my family endure such horrors in the name of entertainment? Well, for one, we probably didn’t know any better: my nan and granddad were publicans, and my other nan worked behind the bar of a working men’s club for years. My sister’s in-laws took over the running of the Black Country social club we frequented the most. It had been called The Miners’, as that had been the occupation of most of the people who lived round there, but in a post-Thatcher world, this son of a miner had thought it best to rename the club The Lakes... not, I think, because it was in Lake Street, but because that’s what the car park resembled after a bit of rain, thanks to the mine shaft subsidence.

But still, I used to go there and wonder: what if we put on a college band night there? That would be cool! We never did, though.

When I moved to Northampton, I found attitudes to clubs to be completely different, not only in Earls Barton, but in Northampton itself. There’s always something happening in a club nearby: music gigs with the cool local kids, or intimate gigs with established bands and artists, spoken word nights, comedy nights, film club, swanky magazine launches (Alan Moore’s Dodgem Logic was launched in a club)... Granted, some clubs will have a creative crowd behind them making things happen, while others stick to the safety of beer and dominoes. But over here, people do seem to appreciate that clubs are a valuable community resource – and we use them!

So, to begin with, I dreaded having to go through the rigmarole of explaining to agents that the venue wouldn’t actually be bad. On the whole, though, most comedians and agents have been pretty comfortable with the concept, and we’ve been able to put on gigs with some smashing acts that the village has absolutely taken to their hearts. The village takes real pride in their festival and supporting events, and the inhabitants feel really involved, so we get to hear what they think.

Sadly, generally across the UK, the social club is in decline. The impact of the smoking ban and the recession has led to a sharp drop in memberships. Young people are heading to the sports bars and pubs in droves to grab their slice of drinking culture, lured by the lager-thin veneer of waggish glamour.

Well, let them get on with it. In order to survive, clubs do need to reach out to their wider community and do something innovative with the resources they have. It does take time for clubs to change their outlook, but if you want your local club to survive, why not get involved?

The Lakes in Gornal has been demolished now to make way for houses, which is really sad. But I am extremely grateful to the people of Earls Barton working men’s club who have let us use their venue, to the festival committee, to the acts who said yes, and to the people who come to the gigs. And thanks, too, to people in other clubs who put on gigs for me to go to. Let’s all go clubbing!

Published: 8 Sep 2010

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