One of Pete Brown’s earliest memories is being “held in someone’s arms, in a space that glowed”. This was unusual in Barnsley in the 1970s, he writes, recalling the Technicolor tinsel and fairy lights in his local working men’s club every Christmas. They provided solace from the slag heaps and the permanently grey Pennine skies.
But be under no illusions: this is not a romantic book, lost in misty memories. It is a deeply political one, about the community-owned cooperatives that fuelled the welfare state and the idea of culture for all throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. They rarely get mentioned in conventional historical narratives, Brown writes, despite many books being published about gentlemen’s clubs, their upper-class equivalent. National membership of gentlemen’s clubs at their peak was 200,000. In 1974, 4 million people – about 10% of the UK adult population – were working men’s club members, my family among them, my grandpa sustained by old friends over pints of mild two nights a week.
Many stars’ careers began in these heady rooms, such as musicians Tom Jones and Paul Weller, and comedians Les Dawson and Les Dennis
An award-winning food and drink writer who has always blended social history and cultural commentary into his warm, witty work, Brown writes this study with humour, but also rage. He packs his story with lively character portraits, from overactive social reformer Henry Solly (who also came up with the idea for garden cities and charity organisations – he often slept in his office) to Wakefield’s wonderful Sheila Capstick, who campaigned for women to get equal rights as club members (shockingly, this only happened in 2007: Brown confronts this history without fear but with nuance).
Many stars’ careers began in these heady rooms too, such as musicians Tom Jones and Paul Weller, comedians Les Dawson and Les Dennis, and snooker players Alex “Hurricane” Higgins and Steve Davis. Brown weaves their words around the work of cultural critics such as Richard Hoggart and George Orwell, amplifying the importance of club audiences and surroundings in British cultural life.
Brilliantly, Brown also tours today’s haunts to view these histories in hindsight, finding them still buckled by the 2007 smoking ban as much as Covid-19, encountering regulars such as the “grizzled, head shaved” Rambo in Sheffield, while he deftly unseats our prejudices. “People come to clubs to be out of the house... to be close to others, if not quite with them,” he writes, nailing the togetherness all classes crave, and the social institutions that need preserving, for us to preserve ourselves.
• Clubland: How the Working Men’s Club Shaped Britain by Pete Brown is published by HarperNorth (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply