Knees-up at the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Social Club!
On an especially cold afternoon just before Christmas, I walked over to the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club in Pollard Row to meet the personalities behind the cult reputation of this legendary venue. As I stood outside freezing on the pavement, taking in the club, I thought that it looked like something out of a novel by Arnold Bennett – apart from the twenty five foot yellow flower on the side painted by Banksy.
Then the door was thrown open and I was quickly hustled inside by Warren Dent and Charlotte West-Williams, both bundled up in their overcoats. As we walked into the atmospheric dark empty dancehall I could see my breath, it was no warmer inside than outside, because they only turn the heating on at night. Once the lights came on, I discovered that although the club has been going since 1896, it was as if time mysteriously stopped here somewhere in the nineteen fifties. This charming palace of pleasure and seduction is still furnished with old red carpet, formica and leatherette – the club that time forgot.
Warren, a fancy pants events-organiser with the same furrowed brow, curly hair and droll romantic attitude as the young Orson Welles, explained to me that several years ago when it was due to be closed he pleaded with the few remaining senior members to save it. “Give me a try and I will turn the place around!” he declared with nonchalant heroism. Granting his wish, those senior members retreated into their inner sanctum of a private bar in the basement, giving Warren carte blanche to organise hullabaloo for a younger crowd upstairs. Successfully reinventing the place for a new generation, he has pulled it off with a witty cocktail of burlesque parties, game nights, fancy dress events and arty-farty mischief – mixing together traditional East End club performers with the new fashionable crowd to create a common ground where everyone can have fun together.
While Charlotte (the sassy manager) switched the heating on, and various spotlights and strings of fairy lights flashed into illumination, Warren ran through his line up for New Year’s Eve with the inspired rhetoric of a fairground caller. As I listened, I cast my eyes around the empty dancehall with the bar at one end and stage framed with a heart in pink lights at the other. The presence of all the expectation and delight that generations of Bethnal Green folk have brought to their mating rituals in this sacred place was almost tangible. I have never been in an empty space that was so full of people. I could feel the place coming to life as Warren, his eyes shining with affectionate anticipation, described his star attractions, conjuring Mike Myers, the eighty-year-old crooner (who lives upstairs in the Spitalfields Market) and Igor, the Russian accordion virtuoso. At once, I was hooked.
When every source of heat and illumination had been turned on, Charlotte tossed her long glossy chestnut hair in triumph and, with characteristic professional efficiency, came to join the conversation at the table just in time for my portrait of this pair of professional party animals, as they braced themselves for one last long night before the Christmas break. It was clear that these two love their club. So, when I asked them about the downside of their work, they searched their minds, exchanged a glance, and smiled, before explaining graciously that the promoters of the different nights become friends and party together till very late in the night, so that Warren and Charlotte find themselves working eighteen hours in the day sometimes.
I was awestruck at their stamina, and grateful to make my way home through the frozen streets to Spitalfields to light the fire and settle down at my day’s end, while their night was just beginning. But I have made a resolution to return and write first-hand accounts for you of some nights at the Working Men’s Club next year. Meanwhile, if you have not made plans yet, Warren and Charlotte promise “A classic New Year’s Eve” and are waiting to introduce you to Mike and Igor, the crooner and the accordionist. Find out more at www.workersplaytime.net