Why would you write about Coventry's Working Men's Clubs? Author Ruth spills the beans on a subject very close to her heart
Our brand new 'Dirty Stop Outs Guide to Coventry’s Working Men’s Clubs' is already proving to be one of our most popular books of 2020. Author Ruth Cherrington has been driven by a burning passion to record the stories of these amazing places that are fast disappearing from our landscape. So here, in her own words, is the story behind the new book:
"The Coventry part of the title is easy to answer! It’s my home town with many of its own claims to fame historically speaking. But why working men’s clubs?
I could point to my own experiences from a very tender age of going to our local club with my family. It clearly made a deep impression on me, being at centre of our social life, almost like an extension of our own living room. This was true for many families on the council estate in Coventry where I grew up. I couldn’t imagine our lives without the club in it and that held true for many decades.
But I never dreamt as a young girl I’d end up writing about this particular club, the Canley Social, and many others!
I started to notice changes in our club in the 1980s. It was much less busy and economic decline, especially of the car industry, was having a major impact. I asked myself a number of questions about this club and others in Coventry I wanted to find answers to. But life, as they say, got in the way.
The death of my father, in 2003 was massive wake-up call for me. I knew I would miss him very much and that included going over the club with him. I also realized that I’d missed the chance to write down some of his many club memories.
He had been a regular at the Canley Social: it was such an important part of his daily life. He loved the games and was a skilled bagatelle, snooker and bowls player. I saw his generation of club founders was fading away fast and I asked myself, “who’s collecting their stories and memories of the clubs?”
I thought of dad sitting around the bagatelle table with his pals in years gone by, right from when I was a very little girl. Their number was dwindling fast and an important piece of social history was not being preserved. I felt a huge sense of responsibility to that generation and decided to try to collect some memories of club life before too many more were gone. It was time to return to my questions of two decades earlier.
So, thinking about and researching this book has been a long-term labour of love. I began with the idea of just writing about the Canley Club, its history, development and central place in the community. But then it expanded to include all of Coventry’s clubs and later to the whole club movement. This was big task to undertake on my own, in my spare time, with limited resources.
I was fortunate to have the support of former CIU General Secretary Kevin Smyth. When I enquired in 2006 if I could visit Head Office and chat with him about my research he agreed. I began to trawl through over 100 years of Club Journals as well as interview club users and officials. In 2012 I brought out Not just Beer and Bingo! A social history of working men’s clubs. Whilst pleased with this, I still hadn’t written that book dedicated to Coventry’s club and their histories.
The prospect of writing this book as a Dirty Stop Out Guide came up a couple of years ago after writing two about Coventry’s nightlife in the 1970s and 1980s. I started to envisage how a book on Coventry’s clubs could fit into that format and discussed this with the Dirty Stop Out Guides founder, Neil Anderson. Also brought up with clubs, he was very keen! I finally went back to my club roots and started collecting memories, stories and pictures.
I have many memories of clubs in Coventry, not just in the Canley Social but other clubs. But I needed to collect other people’s stories as well as any visuals they were willing to share.
I went to my Coventry Dirty Stops Outs Facebook group and as ever, they were forthcoming with entertaining stories and useful information. I tapped into several other local Facebook groups too and found some lovely people very eager to share their memories, some from back in the 1940s!
What always comes across when speaking to those who grew up and used clubs regularly is a strong sense of familiarity, of shared experiences. There are many important reference points that trigger stories, such as the children’s Christmas parties and the club trips. The memories come across so fresh and vibrant that you can almost taste the pop and crisps we had at the clubs and the feel the excitement of heading out on the coach for the seaside.
Stories about the concerts, some from club entertainers, are often humorous for we all know that increasingly they were fitted in between the games of bingo- not the other way round! Memories of the bingo and all the rituals involved including the demand for quiet are crystal clear.
And the games! Many stories came through from women as well as men about the games, which were hugely popular in Coventry. Such was the range of activities and number of people involved that Coventry clubs had the largest games leagues in the country in the 1970s. They needed a whole chapter and I reckon I could have written another just on that theme!
I was always very determined, long before I put pen to paper (or rather fingertips to keyboard) that I would bring out the community and charitable roles that clubs played in Coventry and, indeed, right across the country.
I feel these have not been recognized enough in recent
decades by those who have never stepped inside a club, know little of their history, their strong community links, amenities and wide-ranging support they provided for members and their families. It’s as if they don’t exist for some politicians who don’t understand that these are not-for-profit community centres that just happen to sell alcoholic beverages for those that want them!
I made sure there was a chapter in the book about the community links, support and activities. These were often facilitate by the strong links between Coventry’s clubs, local councillors and MPs. Many were club members and supporters but those links have largely gone.
I also needed to include some of the faults and failings of clubs over the many decades they’ve been around. No social institution is perfect nor everyone involved in running them and clubs had their share of those who let them down sometimes.
With so many clubs gone for good, I aimed to point to the positive roles they played and that remaining clubs still do.
They provide social spaces for a whole range of activities, as they always have. We still need such places, perhaps even more so in these difficult circumstances we all find ourselves living in due to Covid-19.
In some respects, this is my ‘lock down’ book as I concentrated on getting this done through those months when we couldn’t go out much or very far or see friends and family.
The plight of clubs was exacerbated during this time as they were all closed. How many would be able to ride out this massive storm? As I was putting together the memories, stories and pictures I’d been collecting and mulling over for years, I knew the Coventry clubs still in existence faced perhaps their toughest challenge.
The situation was easing up when I sent the manuscript off for editing in July. Clubs were reopening but with strict guidelines which over the summer months changed suddenly, several times. And as I write this blog clubs are closed once again due to lockdown part two.
I’m not alone in hoping that clubs will all be given some help to reopen and continue to serve their members and local communities in the coming months. That remains unclear right now.
What is clear, though, is that we have this wealth of club history and I’ve tried to capture some of it in this new book. These stories need telling and sharing.
I’ll continue to get the word out about social value and social life clubs, to promote their community roles and try to get those in authority to see beyond the sale of alcohol. I’ll continue to collect and write up club memories and information. A lot of this work will continue to be online but I sincerely hope, when clubs can reopen, I’ll be speaking to people in person, and share a few laughs with them once again."