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Down the club

2006 June 27
by Paul Vallely

“Where’s me Gran?”

“She’s out”


“She’s at the club.”

This didn’t make sense. It was Saturday afternoon. Gran never went to the club on an afternoon. My Uncle Con was in on his own. He was listening to his Frank Sinatra records.

“She won’t be that long. Come in and wait.”

“No,” I said. “I’ll go down the club and wait outside for her.” I didn’t like Frank Sinatra. Swanky Frank, us kids called him. Uncle Con would bang the sides of his leatherette armchair in complex rhythms, or drum impressively on his plate with his cutlery, depending on whether he was being Nelson Riddle or Billy May.

The club was a spanking new building. It has just been built. There were bricks at the bottom but the rest of it was rectangular sheets of frosted yellow glass with plate glass windows to match. It was the Sixties. But the sign looked like something from an earlier time. CIU, it said. It’s affiliated, my Gran had told me, explaining nothing.

I sat on the low wall, and then decided I looked too obtrusive. Someone would come along and tell me to get off home. I started to walk back and forth, peering in to this citadel of adulthood. Children were not allowed in the club.

Women weren’t really all that allowed in it either I knew. So it was very odd that my grandmother was in there anytime other than a Thursday evening – which was Ladies Night, organised by the Ladies Committee, of which her friend Mrs Mac was a leading light – or a Saturday evening when husbands and wives went in together and sat next to one another all evening without saying much.

It didn’t matter. After the bingo, which everyone called Housie-Housie, there would be a turn on. “Quality turns, you know,” my Gran would say as she got ready to go, taking her rollers out, patting her buoyed-up hair under her hairnet, taking off her pinny and  pulling on a pale blue cardigan or a powder pink one which always looked as if it belonged to someone else.

“Some of them go on to be famous after they’ve been on at our club, you know.”

And when the turn went off  – it might be a comedian or even a juggler, but most likely a singer –  to take a break mid-act there would be pie and peas. Pork pie with marrowfat peas that had been soaked overnight and were sometimes a dayglo green depending on whether someone had put in too many of those bicarb tablets.

But that was Saturday night, not afternoon. What was she doing in the club now? I walked back and forth, and eventually emboldened , press my nose against the window.

There were green leatherette banquettes all round the room with stark formica tables before them. Round them sat rheumy-eyed old men in ones and twos, dark pints before them. And there in the middle of the room, at a little round table, sat my Gran with Mrs Mac, pouring the last from a stubby brown bottle of Mackeson.

Then she saw me, and came out.

“I’ve come to see you.”

“I won’t be long. I’ll just finish up.”

“Can’t I come in?”

“No, you can’t. You’d need to be signed in.”

“Well you sign me in”

“I’m not allowed. I’m only an associate. Anyway you’re not old enough. Just wait a minute and I’ll be out.”

I had been in before. At Christmas the club put on a Kiddies’ Party. Sausage rolls and fairy cakes on plates with doyleys. And jelly in a ribbed paper bowl with a rim like an upside down cowboy hat. A beery Santa giving out big presents in thin wrapping paper that tore easier than the stuff the real Father Christmas used on the day. But while you were in there you got a glimpse of the hidden adult world with its huge utilitarian urinal troughs, its beer mats that flaked when you soaked them in the spilled beer and Mrs Mac tiddly from drinking seasonal Snowballs, each with a cherry on a stick.

“Can I have your cherry?”

“Go on then you little monkey.”

But that was Christmas. Not now. The club had reverted to its sacred purpose, a place where grown-ups stopped being Dads and Grans and uncles and became boasters or bickerers or daft jokers, liberated by the booze. Not a place for children.

Cargo Fleet, Grandad’s club, had been different. But then it was a works club. Grandad had been a steelworker and a union man who collected a penny a week for his workmates to finance the union hospital down London for people who’d been injured on the job. He and my Dad would drink on the balcony, up rickety green-painted wooden stairs while we kids sat below on the edge of the cricket field with our lemonade and crisps that came in bags containing little blue-wrapped paper twists of salt.

Sometimes he would sneak me upstairs and give me a sip of his beer. It tasted of malted-milk biscuits, treacle and dark chocolate and yet it was so bitter. Below the teams readied themselves in their cricket whites, their shoes blanco-ed with stiff white starchy paint. They had days for kids too, sports days with relays, sprints, sack and wheelbarrow races and stalls to throw wet sponges at the committee members – anything you could put on for free. But Grandad had died when he was 72, which was old then.

Gran’s club was different. Except it wasn’t really Gran’s. It was a working men’s club. She was, like me, an interloper. My Uncle Jim belonged there. Every Sunday lunchtime we would see him walk past Gran’s house, on the far side of the road, on his way down to the club. A couple of hours later he would return, still on the opposite side, waving, but never coming in. “There goes Jimmy Riddle, off for his Sunday dinner,” his mother would say. Riddle was his wife’s maiden name. He was his own man in the club.

When I got to be 17 I went in once. I had a pint of beer and a pickled egg from the tall jar on the bar. “You can’t sit there, it’s so-and-so’s seat,” said one old gadgee in a collarless shirt with a muffler at the neck. My Gran ushered me silently elsewhere.

“Shall we go in there?” I asked.

That’s the billiards room. Women don’t go in there.”

“The inner sanctum,” I laughed.

“It’s not a laughing matter. They have all the say, the men. Look there’s Mrs Mac.”

We went across.

“You remember our Paul?” she said to her friend. “I thought I’d bring him in for a drink before he goes off to university,” she added with quiet pride. “Cheers,” she said lifting her port and lemon.

“Cheers,” I said and went off to university, and never came back.


One Response
  1. A Neil permalink
    April 18, 2010

    Reminds me of the Cochran’s club, when Chris and Nana would take us over Christmas. Even the relays, sprints, sack and wheelbarrow races, over the summer. I guess things don’t change that much in the Boro. A lovely article and beautifully written

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