Sunday, 12 June 2016

In the Club

There’s been some debate recently as to the merits, or otherwise of including clubs in the CAMRA Good Beer Guide. As I stopped buying the guide several years ago, and  even longer ago stopped from having any input to it, I have no strong opinions one way or the other, but before going any further I have to confess that I’ve never been a fan of clubs.

It’s hard to pin-point the reasons why and if I’m honest I can’t even remember exactly where and when I first became aware of the existence of your typical “Working Men’s Club”. In my mind, at least, clubs have always been regarded as something of a northern phenomenon, but I don’t think I ever set foot inside one during the four years I spent as a student in the Manchester area. Instead, it was my return to Kent which introduced me to the world of clubs; a world I took an instant, and long-lasting dislike to!

In essence, Working Men's Clubs are private social clubs which first appeared during the 19th century in industrial areas of Britain, such as the North of England, the Midlands, Scotland and parts of the South Wales Valleys. Their prime aim was to provide recreation and education for working class men and their families, in the form of a “controlled environment in which to socialise and drink”. (Where have we heard that before?)

Typical Working Men's Club interior
However despite their lofty educational ambitions, most working men's clubs are purely recreational. Today they provide an affordable way for local people to meet, enjoy live entertainment and play games. Typically, a club would have a room, with a bar for the sale and consumption of alcohol. Games such as snooker, pool or bar billiards are also pretty much the norm, as are televisions which are primarily for sport entertainment.

Most clubs will have a larger room, sometimes referred to as the concert or entertainment room, and here there will be a stage and a layout of tables, stools alongside more comfortable chairs. These rooms are used to provide night time entertainment, mainly on the weekends such as, live music, cabaret and comedy, but bingo and raffles are also popular activities. Many clubs are also known for their charitable works, and some these days will also provide food.

Eyes down!
In recent years, declining membership has seen many clubs close down and others struggle to remain open. In fact, despite the pleasure clubs afford to so many people, over the last three decades the number of Working Men’s Club (WMC’s) has halved from 4,000 to 2,000, and clubs continue to close at an alarming pace.

Some groups have attempted to raise the profile of individual clubs, pointing to their historical legacies and their community roles, but despite this the WMC’s are struggling to find their place in contemporary British society.

This situation is mirrored where I live in Tonbridge, with the Royal British Legion and the Constitutional Club now the only establishments remaining in the town. When I first moved here, 30 years ago, Tonbridge could boast its own Working Men’s Club, plus a club which belonged to one of the large printing companies (White Friars Press), which were once prominent in the town. Printing, as an industry, has vanished from Tonbridge and with a dwindling of retired employees remaining on the books, the White Friars Press Club closed its doors for the last time in the autumn of 2010.

Despite their legacy and role in the nation’s social history, I still find clubs (Working Men’s or otherwise), soulless and lacking in atmosphere. Their supporters would say that’s because I am not a member, and they would be right, as the fact that admission is limited almost exclusively to members’ means that most people belonging to a club will at least know some of the other members. It is this which gives the clubs their social cohesion and provides a feeling of belonging.

Tonbridge Working Men's Club (Nigel Cox) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Fine if that’s your thing, but as far as I am concerned I don’t want to join the club; preferring instead to spread my choice of watering hole to wherever happens to take my fancy. On those occasions where I have visited a club, (usually when there’s something connected with CAMRA taking place), not only do I find the whole rigmarole of “signing-in” a real performance, I also see it as something which sets a club apart from the all encompassing inclusive nature of a pub.

Then there’s the décor, with many clubs resemble a rather faded airport departure lounge, and with fixtures and fittings which seem little changed from the 1970’s, why would I want to spend my time in such ghastly places?

CAMRA’s interest in clubs stems from the fact that many now offer a wide range of interesting cask beers, often sold at subsidised prices. This at least is a much welcome change from a few decades ago, when all that you could find in a cub were national keg brands and well-known international lagers. I accept that many club stewards put in an inordinately amount of extra work, far in excess of what might normally be required, in order to offer a decent range of cask ales, all in tip-top condition. 

Including clubs in the CAMRA Good Beer Guide therefore does show recognition for the work these club stewards put in, but I wonder how many ordinary buyers of the guide, visit clubs which are featured in the guide? It’s OK to say for the guide to state that the club will admit card-carrying CAMRA members, but most GBG users are ordinary members of the public, and do not fall into this category. Also, my experience is that many clubs are far from welcoming of strangers.

CAMRA goes as far as holding an annual Club of the Year competition – COTY; although I dislike that acronym nearly as much as POTY – Pub of the Year! Many branches struggle to find, let alone nominate suitable candidates, but running this contest at least gives a CAMRA committee or two something to do.

The only club I have experience of, is the Tunbridge Wells Constitutional Club, where my local West Kent Branch hold their AGM. There is a nice quiet meeting room upstairs, along with a private room on the ground floor, next to the bar where the inevitable post-meeting buffet takes place. The club itself though, seems painfully quiet; although Saturday afternoons in late November might not be the time when people venture far from their homes. I hate to say it, but it reminds me of “God’s waiting room”, and by the time the meeting has concluded, and the buffet consumed, I cannot wait to leave and to head for a proper pub.

Perhaps political clubs like the Constitutional, and their Labour Party equivalents, still have some form of a future. The same could be said for the Royal British Legion. It is interesting that the latter organisation has now dropped its requirement for prospective members to have, or have had, some connection with the armed forces or the emergency services. So in effect, although continuing to raise money for the Legion, the RBL has turned into just another social club with about the same appeal of the others I have previously described.

To sum up, give me a pub any day. Somewhere I don’t have to be a member, and somewhere I can just walk into when I fancy a drink, something to eat, or just want to meet up with a few friends.


Anonymous said...

It's hard to comment from outside, but I rarely see any commonality of purpose in the many Clubs I visit, apart perhaps from cheap beer. All of the Beer Guide pubs seem to function largely as social clubs, and perhaps they have more entertainment than the usual pub, but not always.

Clubs seem quieter than previously (that one in Idle was packed on my visit a decade ago),particularly mid-week. In some towns I'm sure the Wetherspoons has mopped up the custom, and often can undercut the Club anyway.

Aesthetically they're not often to my taste, but as long as they welcome CAMRA members I've no problem with theire inclusion in Beer Guides if the beer is good.

RedNev said...

I too prefer pubs. I was for a while a member of the local Labour Club, partly because our Labour Party constituency meetings were held there, but I let that lapse when I left the party because I never went there except for party meetings and socials. No loss from my point of view as the beer was keg.

Clubs often provided somewhere for people to go for a night out in areas where pubs were scarce, dodgy or both. The discipline imposed by a set of rules to which all members had to agree before they could be admitted meant that bad behaviour would result in a penalty such as fine or a fixed-period ban. For this reason, they were seen as safe places to take your wife. It is easy to forget how popular these places were until fairly recently: in the 1970s there was even a TV variety show based in a fictional Northern club, The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club.

They're not our cup of tea, no doubt, but they have been, more in the past than now, the focus of the social lives of many people living in areas with few other attractive options.

paul said...

It's all very well for the GBG to state that a club will admit card-carrying CAMRA members, but is the book not aimed at the general public just as much? Perhaps clubs should be moved to a section of their own.

RedNev said...

Motion to conference, perhaps?

Paul Bailey said...

I agree with Nev’s point about the rules which operate within clubs, and the way this helps govern behaviour. This was an area I hadn’t really thought about when I was writing the article, but I can see why now, that back in the last century, playing by the roles was instrumental in attracting the right sort of clientele to join and patronise their local club.

This social role seems to have gone by the board, and as you point out Martin it is likely that Wetherspoon’s have drawn in many former club customers. Perhaps Spoon’s today does fulfil a similar role as a place where people, and especially women, feel comfortable and also safe?

I’m not sure there would be sufficient clubs in the GBG, to warrant a separate section Paul, and the likelihood of getting such an idea adopted at the national conference, is practically zero. I’m certainly not going to stand up and propose it; especially as I feel the Good Beer Guide has had its day anyway.

Curmudgeon said...

My dad would regularly meet up with friends to play cards and snooker at a local club, but never went to any of the nearby pubs.

The point about clubs is that they're simply not intended to appeal to the casual drinker, so it's not surprising that they don't seem to have much to offer. You *have* to become a regular in a club to appreciate it.

Paul Bailey said...

If clubs are not intended to appeal to the casual drinker, you have to ask the question, why then are they even considered for inclusion in the Good Beer Guide?

RedNev said...

Good question, Paul.

I'm sure there are many reasons for the decline of clubs but one I feel is significant is the increasing reluctance of people to join things. It seems people tend to prefer to be customers rather than participants who belong. This even applies to some extent to the idea of considering a pub to be your 'local'.

Sic1314 said...

The one type of club that probably isn't struggling too much yet would be the golf club, some of which do serve a decent pint.
Some clubs in the GBG do allow admittance for people carrying the guide as well as Camra members.

Anonymous said...

Paul - I do hope the GBG hasn't had its day or Simon Everitt and myself are going to feel like those followers when Forrest Gump stops running across the States !

Personally I think there will always be a role for a publication (paper or virtual) which differentiates the good or bad real ale, which is a unique product. I would have missed out if Kent CAMRA members hadn't judged the Dartford WMC to have very good beer (it did), or separated the good and average in towns where I'm never going to be able to visit every pub in it.

Clubs may not be aimed at the casual drinker, but you could argue that many food-led pubs aren't either, but that's an issue Pub Curmudgeon has touched on recently.

Interesting debate.

Paul Bailey said...

My comment about the Good Beer Guide having had its day is purely my own opinion Martin, so I wouldn’t worry about CAMRA dropping it any time soon. Given the amount of copies sold each year, it’s extremely unlikely the Campaign would want to discontinue it, as it’s a highly lucrative source of income for CAMRA.

It’s only moaning old buggers like me who think this way, and I would actually agree with your comment that it does help users like yourself, select the best pubs in an unfamiliar town or area.

What will eventually kill the Guide off though will be the lack of volunteers willing to carry out inspections and surveys. With the numbers of active CAMRA members continuing to fall, branches will eventually reach a point where they are unable to make their contribution to the guide.

Within my own CAMRA branch, the job of surveying, and filling in the forms, is falling on a dwindling number of members. This means even more work for those volunteers still willing, and able, to carry out the task. For the Guide to remain viable, the information therein has to be as up to date as possible. It is also important that the pub descriptions vary from year to year; even where the same pubs appear year after year, otherwise the Guide becomes stale.

CAMRA unfortunately tends to take the good will of its members for granted at times. I have written before about the amount of time the post-surveying work takes; with each entry having to be re-checked, and missing information added. In some cases the pub descriptions have to be completely re-written because the surveyor’s standard of English is either so poor or the descriptions they have come up with make little sense.

Time will tell whether I am right, but I’m sure there are other branches in the same position as my own.

Paul Bailey said...

Sic1314, you are correct in what you say about some clubs admitting people carrying the Guide and realistically, if a club is selected for the guide, this policy should automatically apply.

Unfortunately, it isn’t always the case.

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