Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Working Mens Clubs and me,

The phenominum of social clubs is not an exclusively British thing, nor is the need and demand for such places in mainly working class neighbourhoods, but there is something uniquely British about the local Working Mens Club (WMC) and indeed the umbrella association that most of them belong to, The Club and Institutes Union (CIU).

Uniquely British working class they may be, satisfying a demand for social inclusion and a lynchpost for numerous community groups, but they are dying on their arses.

I was brought up with the WMC principles buried deep in my genes, my dad was a committeeman at his local WMC for most of his life, eventually becoming a patron, the highest accolade that a WMC members could bestow on you, what does it mean ? Nothing really, only that you can have a drink after closing time and get to make up some seemingly random and ridiculous rules for the dross that passes for your club's membership, apart from that its prestige in your local community were people will point at you as you walk past and whisper in admiration, "he's a patron at t'w-ukkin mens club tha knows".

When I was old enough my father inducted me into his club and gave handed to me the holy grail of membership - your CIU card, the membership of which cost you a princely sum of several pence per year and yet entitled you to visit any other club in the country that was "affiliated" - oh how we sought out those words on illuminated signs wherever we were, "CIU Affiliated" meant that we could enter those premises as honoured guests and drink of their cheap beer.

Cheap beer is what the clubs were all about, being non-profit organisations and benefitting from an almost guaranteed income from their extremely regular membership the clubs were able to negotiate hefty discounts from the brewers when they all ganged up together under the CIU banner, indeed in the North East they even bought their own brewery for their exclusive and extremely cheap beer brewing two types, "ordinary" and "special", neither of which were special but instead were rather ordinary.

And it was cheap beer that got Brian Hessian into big trouble one night.

Brian Hessian was a big shot in the world of the Leeds Working Mens Club, a concert secretary at East End Park Club (above photo) it was Brian who auditioned and booked all of the "turns" who would entertain the membership on Saturday and Sunday nights in the huge upstairs concert hall, East End Park Club was arguably the biggest and best in the Leeds district and Brian booked the best acts on the circuit for his members, many is the time that I've been sat with Brian and mentioned a TV star for him to reply "I booked him at East End Park when he was a nobody" or "I paid him off after twenty minutes at East End Park when he was a nobody and crap with it".

And so it was suprising, to say the least, when the club's committee met on that fateful Monday night and voted to impose a one months ban on Brian attending the club, suprising and befitting the description "cutting your nose off to spite your face" as Brian never again ventured across their doorstep.

It had all been so inconsequential, the visit from a local police officer who had a quiet word in the bar stewards (that is he was a proper steward of the bars, not that he was a right bas'tad) ear to inform him that his Chief Inspector was taking a dim view of licensed premises who let their clients drink on long after the 11pm closing time and could he keep an eye on the matter as licences were at stake - a committee meeting laid down the edict to the bar staff to get the glasses collected quickly that following weekend.

Sure enough 11pm on Saturday night came around and in the manner of all club concert secretary's Brian flashe dthe lights in the concert room while some poor hapless singer was belting out "My Way" or similar, then five minutes later he cut off the singers microphone feed to announce "Can we have your glasses please" before fading the singer back up again to continue with his now completely ruined act.

Brian was well pleased with the nights efforts as by ten minutes past eleven most of the beer glasses had been emptied and collected, Brian could see this was so for in time-honoured tradition his concert secretary's desk was raised up from the rest of the room to give him a panorama of the place and flash the lights on whoever was talking during the bingo, or similar.

And just as he was patting himself on the back for a job well done he noticed a small hand reach up to the front of his desk and feel its way along the ledge there until it found his nearly full pint of bitter which he'd just treated himself to not three minutes earlier. Brian watched in horror as the hand grasped his pint and removed it from his desk and upon leaning over the front of the hallowed concert secretaries abode he saw his pint being marched off with several other empty glasses by Paddy, the diminutive retained glass collector, who by coincidence was Irish, hence the name, even though it wasn't actually his proper name, Gordon was his proper name but it didn't sound Irish enough.

"OYE !!!" shouted Brian at the back of Paddy's head, "YOU'VE GOT MY BEER"

Paddy stopped, as did the singer on the stage who was by now reaching his finale, a rendition of "Danny Boy" which normally had the audience in tears especially when he got the ventrilloquist dummy out of its suitcase to sit on his knee and sing to.

"I beg your pardon Brian" Paddy turned to face him
"BRING IT BACK HERE NOW"
"But Brian, its drinking up time"
"I KNOW ITS BLOODY DRINKING UP TIME, I ANNOUNCED IT WAS BLOODY DRINKING UP TIME"
"Well then Brian, you know the rules"
"DON'T BLOODY TELL ME THE RULES, I ANNOUNCE THE RULES, GIVE ME MY PINT BACK"
"I can't do that Brian, its past drinking up time now"
"IT BLOODY ISN'T"
"Oh yes it is Brian, you announced it was so"
"FOR THEM IT IS..." and he pointed to the audience who by now were gaping in open-mouthed suprise at the altercation between their concert secretary and his glass collector, "FOR THEM IT IS, BUT NOT FOR ME YOU BLOODY IDIOT"
"Don;t be speaking to me like that now Brian, rules is rules you know"
"I'LL BLOODY GIVE YOU RULES..."

And with that Brian leapt from his desk and descended on the diminutive Paddy to snatch the beer from his grasp, but Paddy was made of sterner stuff and the beer glass was wrenched from hand to hand, beer frothing inside and spilling all over the carpet until both men fell to the floor kicking and punching each other in their struggle for supremecy on the glass collecting stakes.

The next evening Brian and Paddy appeared before the committee, Brian sporting a fine black eye, Paddy still wearing his only suit now with one sleeve torn almost off, and both were charge dwith bringing the committee into disrepute, a heinous crime which carried a one month ban from the premises to which Brians one and only response was "fuck off then".

He never went back, a lifetime of attendance and thousands of hours of voluntary work on behalf of the members was halted for the sake of one more beer - but he was asked to return by the committee.

In fact it was the following evening that he was asked to return by one of the committeemen who rang him at home and asked if he'd come down for "a pint and a chat" to which Brians response was still "fuck off", at which there was a long silence followed by "well can you tell us who the turn is this weekend because we have to get the posters printed", another well measured "fuck off" was all they got.

Subsequent phone calls from the committee took the line of begging for information, "who is on this weekend", "where do you keep the bingo balls", "how do you book turns", "how far in advance have you booked turns for us", "how much do you pay them" and so on, all of which were greeted with more "fuck offs" until they stopped ringing, for a long time the committeemen booked acts for Saturday and Sunday evenings only to find two acts turning up as Brian actually booked acts for several months in advance.

Shortly afterwards Brian left these shores to go and share an apartment in Benidorm with my dad, from whence many more stories have since eminated.

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