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Gentrification: how was it for you?

What happened when a rundown patch of inner-city London got a makeover? For a start, crime fell and property prices soared. But as local resident Mandy Richards discovers, gentrification hasn’t pleased everyone

By Mandy Richards

Newington green

I moved into my apartment overlooking Newington Green in 2000. The green was pretty grotty back then, but I had chosen to see through its dilapidation, clocking instead its rich history and cultural diversity. Its shabbiness seemed vaguely chic. I was unaware then that the area would be gentrified. It was affordable, and that was the clincher.

Having lived in nearby Hackney, I knew what social problems I could expect. Even so, I was surprised by the green’s unruliness: a youth snatching a handbag on the pavement outside; an intruder escaping along my garden wall, accompanied by shrieks from my neighbour’s balcony; a female vagrant pretending she lived in our block so she could shoot up in our communal hallway.

Looking out on to the green, it was clear how petty crime and antisocial behaviour could prosper. Cut off by multiple lanes of traffic, the green was virtually hidden behind house-high thickets of bushes. Screened off in this way, it had become a haven for crack addicts, their dealers, and street drinkers. It was a transitory place. People seemed to hurry through, en route elsewhere.

Things have changed, thanks to a relatively small-scale regeneration of the green, led by local people, backed by the local council. The bushes have gone. There is a new children’s playground and relandscaped gardens; the pavements have been widened and traffic rerouted; there are new street lamps; some of the oldest terraces in London have been relaid with reclaimed York stone; there is a new student hall of residence and an influx of bars, cafes and venues. Crime is down, not least because of the support of a “safer streets” police team.

Last year, George Ferguson, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, addressed a 200-strong audience at the Unitarian chapel on the green and praised the efforts of the campaigners who had brought change to their area – an example of what he saw as a national upturn in “pride of place”. He cited Newington Green as a prime example of how people power can reverse the fortunes of an area formerly defined by crime, poverty, drugs and prostitution.

For the green’s newer residents such as myself – writers, teachers, social workers, musicians, environmentalists, architects, filmmakers and artists – the value of this social and aesthetic makeover is obvious. For some, there is also a financial bonus. Property prices have risen by 80% in five years. A two-bedroomed apartment costing £145,000 in 2000 might fetch £260,000 today.

For me, Newington Green simply looks and feels like a better, safer place to live. But I was curious what other residents from its disparate communities thought about the changes. I wondered how cohesively the community was managing to shape its own destiny; whether people thought the green had lost its character. Did residents feel displaced by the changes?

The answers they gave me suggest that neighbourhood renewal has worked, but not for everyone. Comunity activists leading the change claim to have consulted widely, but that process has excluded certain already marginalised voices and interests. Newington Green will become more white, more middle-class, more prosperous (it is now more difficult for someone like me to buy here). What has been achieved is remarkable, but it reminds us that gentrification comes at a price. It creates winners and losers.

·Mandy Richards, formerly a full-time teacher, is a journalist and filmmaker.

‘Slowly, the neighbourhood came together’

Eric Rousseau, owner of the Belle Epoque patisserie on Newington Green’s north side

Right away, we loved the building. It was [built in] 1806 and it has got a lot of character, but it was derelict. Aesthetically, it fits our product. My concept is art nouveau – that’s why it’s called Belle Epoque. It’s the beginning of the century, it’s Mucha, it’s Tiffany! That’s the ambience I wanted to recreate. When I came here, the whole area was very poor. Above me, the flats were rented to a housing association and there were prostitutes, people who were really displaced mentally, physically, and drug addicts. They were trying to help them, but it was very difficult to manage. The park was always full of drugs and alcoholics. I got broken into six times in two years, and our delivery van was burned. The police helped me throughout. They got me brand new CCTV. Then the Newington Green Action Group came along and slowly, slowly the whole neighbourhood came together.

‘We like to think of it as our village green’

Nicky Southin, 30 years a local resident, heads the Newington Green Action Group, set up seven years ago to drive forward a renewal strategy

The action group is a grassroots organisation that was formed in response to the neglected state of the green, which we like to think of as our village green. The objective was to restore it to its popular use. There were four lanes of traffic going round the green and it was very difficult to get access to it. It was not being used by the locals at all. We felt that regeneration really had to start in the centre. We went round and talked to everybody and we had exhibitions. The consultation process was very lengthy. It was more than a series of discussions or verbal proposals. The best thing about all this is that it has brought the community together. And there’s something about a square, where you’re all facing one another, that sort of helps that community feel.

‘The action group rejected me’

Abdul Yildirim and his father have been running their Turkish social club for six years

It’s mainly Turkish customers. It’s like a meeting place for the Turkish community. I don’t see any complaints from the English community, but Newington Green Action Group tried to close me down. They thought it was me who was influencing the prostitutes and burglars in this area and I got letters from them to the council suggesting this very blatantly. I was really shocked. They were saying these prostitutes were coming in and out of my shop and that they might even have been operating from my shop. But these “prostitutes” were beggars. They just came in to beg for pennies and cigarettes. We lost out on our business trying to get them out – and yet people suggest that we’re the ones who are persuading them to come in! Why would I persuade them to come in? What benefit would it be to me? Newington Green Action Group is suggesting that they represent the whole community, but I have never met them; no one has come to talk to me. I applied to become a member of the action group but they rejected me. They said my actions in this community didn’t meet their criteria as friends of the green. It’s meant to be an open organisation, and it’s a charity as well, yet they rejected me.

‘I don’t know how long I’m going to last here’

Ahmet Kamil, who has run a shoe repair business on the Green for 22 years.

I see no benefits. It’s a testing time now because of all the changes – especially with the narrowing of the roads, stopping the traffic. Will the public be able to come into the area with their cars? And what’s the point of having a loading bay? People stop there for two minutes and they get a parking ticket. The traffic wardens come along and say the bay’s for vans and lorries, not for cars. There’s no sign, and it’s not a yellow line, but they still get tickets. In any case, there were four lanes and you could stop with ample space, but now you can’t. People are coming up to me and saying: “Who needs this big empty sidewalk? Why have they narrowed the roads?” We were sent forms and we filled them in, saying what we wanted, but as far as I’m concerned they took no notice. I think most of these businesses will be closing up, with estate agents moving in and people going out to do their shopping somewhere else. That’s the impact that I see. You are getting more sort of yuppie people coming into the area looking for cafes and wine bars. With the different type of people coming in, I don’t know how long I’m going to last here. We’ll just have to wait and see.

‘When we first arrived, it was a no-go area’

Ian Frost, manager and joint owner of Cava bar

I thought it was an interesting building. I used to pass it quite often on the bus going to my office and thought: “Well, I can’t believe that has not been let.” This site was empty for quite a long time. They were quite choosy about what kind of business they wanted to take the space and we managed to satisfy them in that respect. I think they wanted something that would definitely add something to Newington Green, something to offer to the local people as well as people coming into the area. I don’t think they were looking for another Turkish restaurant or something like that, or even a pizzeria, because there are already so many around here.

Roberto Cioccari, co-owner of Cava bar

When we first arrived here two-and-a-half years ago, it was in effect a no-go area. A year ago, there was a crime forum held in the Unitarian church just across the road from here and a lot of residents attended. It was a full house. The police were there, there were representatives from Islington and Hackney councils, and I think it was quite obvious at that stage that the regeneration was going to be a success. So the crack houses weren’t tolerated any more. They were tackled very seriously. The drug addicts were moved on. I wouldn’t want to think that they were simply moved on elsewhere, but obviously they’ve been dealt with according to what was available. Locally, people haven’t really taken on board the significance of the change, the extension of the pavements, the remodelling of the park. But people outside have really noticed and say: “Gosh, this place is really coming up. It looks really good. It’s gonna be really good round here.

‘I didn’t anticipate having to be a community service’

Karen Holland, joint owner and manager of the Fifty Six restaurant on the green’s south-west side

It has actually caused me some serious damage – 25% of my business has gone. Why? Because after 6.30pm, all of my customers could park. I was told by this Newington Green Action Group: “Oh, it’s going to be great for the area.” Bear in mind, we had just come here, so we didn’t want to fight these people. We didn’t want to be the only people seen to be not coming into line. So basically they said to us: “Don’t complain, you’re gonna get a terrace.” As you can see, I’ve got a loading bay! As long as the Newington Green Action Group are prepared to say that “we talk for everybody” and “we’re really happy with this” and “blah di, blah di blah”, then it seems to be OK with Islington council. And that seems to them to be a consultation. I think putting a kiddies’ playground right by the road is disgusting. It’s hazardous and unhealthy.

We opened in December 1999. When we came here this area was derelict and this shop had been empty for quite some time. We had a big problem with what they call “feral” children. Right there, right on my door, one of them bottled a man and cut his head open, about two inches deep across the eye. I was coming to the door as the fracas broke out. Three of these girls, who were about 14-16 max, were punching and kicking this man. One of my customers chased them and found out where they lived. So the police came, and do you think they were the slightest bit interested? Nothing was done about it, so in the end I had to have a word with these three girls . I said: “I don’t care if you go to borstal or if you get a criminal record, but if I see you every day I’m going to make it my business to get involved. If I don’t see you again, I’ve completely forgotten.” It seemed to work and we haven’t had much of a problem since. When I opened my business I didn’t anticipate having to be a community service. I don’t think a business person should pretend to care about the community. I think it’s wrong and hypocritical.

‘The £2,000 houses are now nearer £1m’

Carol Taylor, resident of Newington Green for 45 years

We moved here in 1960. We could afford it. It was cheap. People moved into these Georgian houses because at the time they were only about £2,000. Now they’re nearer £1m. Before we moved in, a closure order was put into place on the house because it was infested with vermin. That will give you some idea of what it was like. Basically, I’m the last house in Islington. The [Hackney] border runs down my wall, and if you look at a map you can see that Newington Green is a little kind of sticky out bit by itself. It’s not the centre of anything. It’s the edge of something.

‘The regeneration is an enormous waste of money’

Stephen Leslie QC, a barrister who bought Cromwell Lodge, a 17th-century building on the green, 11 years ago

There is no community! The posh people in the area tend to mix with people outside the area. Then there’s the younger upwardly mobile population, who tend to be interested, but don’t really participate. Then you have the people who live in the council flats, who are at the sharp end, sadly, of the local situation. This isn’t a particularly cohesive area because it’s quite transient. There’s a very powerful Turkish community, which is fairly insular. It would be a fake to pretend this is a cohesive area. I’m not saying people don’t mix, because they do. People have similar concerns, but that doesn’t mean the area is cohesive.

The regeneration is an enormous waste of money. It’s completely and utterly unnecessary and absurd, completely disproportionate. The new bendy buses can’t get around the corners. It’s causing accidents, and it’s costing people who haven’t got lots of money, substantial sums of money. It is done to appease a very limited group of people. It is not done with the greater interests of the residents of the area. There is no consideration at all for residents who actually live on the green.

‘This is just finishing us off’

Brenda Brown, who has sat on the committee of the Mildmay Working Men’s Club and Institute Union (est.1888) for seven years

They’ve killed it. People have trouble parking now. We have trouble getting beer in. I lived in the next road to here for 30 years and I’ve seen three changes to that green. Without being rude, every time it’s started off lovely, but then it’s gone back to what it always was: a knocking shop, people urinating everywhere, drunks just sitting on there. Do you honestly think people are going to change? You have prostitutes every Sunday morning out here, young Russian girls. The Turks round here call them “Natasha’s pussies”. That’s why I moved out of the area.

I feel bitter because I’ve been driven out my home, and now it looks like I’m being driven out of the club as well. We lost two very big weddings this year. We cancelled them because we had no parking and the guests were coming early in the day. That’s a loss to us of about £7,000 in takings over the bar. We’ve been struggling for the last seven years and this is just finishing us off. When it goes, everybody loses, because in the wine bars and these other pubs you only see adults. We wanted to get families back because there’s a big gap now between the children and old people. I’m gutted.

‘Now everyone wants to come here’

Akil Bilgili runs Cafe on the Green and has rented commercial properties in the area for 36 years

Nobody wanted to move here in the 1970s. Everyone was trying to get out. The shops were empty. It was a forgotten area, like a ghost town. Since the late 1970s, people started to come from Turkey – Newington Green was a Turkish community and still is. But in 1990, British people started to move in slowly and the council started to make new developments in the area. Now everyone wants to come here. But if I sell I will die because I’m a workaholic. Where will I go? This is my place. I can rest here, see my friends, I can serve the community.

‘There’s lots of effort to prevent class divides’

The Rev Cal Courtney, minister at the historic Unitarian chapel on the green

We’ve recently been confronted with a proposal for a block of flats, to be built on the east side of the green, with space underneath for a chainstore food hall. There’s no way our local traders, who’ve given good service to Newington Green for years, would survive if that happened. I feel that the people of Newington Green, like people everywhere, deserve a good neighbourhood. They deserve good relationships among people – and they deserve businesses and relationships that work together to make things better. Lots of effort is put in to ensure that there isn’t a divide between the middle class and the working class – or the class that does not have work.

When I was walking on the green last summer, seeing these kids from diverse backgrounds, screaming and running around enjoying themselves, I thought: “Yes, it’s worked!” I’m from Ireland, where I’ve seen the damage caused by communities being divided, and it’s desperately important that that doesn’t happen here. My position is that we don’t have two or three or four communities in Newington Green. We are one community, and we must all work to make that as coherent as it can possibly be.

First published in The Guardian Wednesday 20 April 2005 

Uncertain age

The African-Caribbean community has always cared for older relatives, but that tradition is now under threat

Traditionally, for people of African-Caribbean origin, the idea of entering a care home is alien. For those born “back home” in the Caribbean, the term conjures up images of alms houses that were strictly the preserve of the poor. Older African-Caribbean women in particular – some of whom will have spent their working lives as care assistants or domestics in “old people’s homes” or nursing older people in British hospitals – wholly resist the prospect. The notion that they will be cared for in old age by their families is generationally ingrained. “We don’t put our people into homes” is a familiar mantra.

Things are beginning to change, however. Previously strong and tight-knit African-Caribbean communities are fragmenting and cultural traditions are being diluted. Patricia Reilly, 69, who worked as a care assistant in the West Midlands for over 20 years, views with trepidation the prospect of being looked after in the British care system. She is confident that her own old age will be comfortable, having been financially prudent, and she is also reassured that at least two of her six children are willing and able to provide long-term care should she need it. However, she fears for other West Indians her age. “Some black people they got nothing in this country and their children don’t give them bread,” she says. “They’ll just go into old people’s homes the same as white people. It’s happening now.”

Dedicated care

Many women of Reilly’s age and background tend to have large extended families. In these families, there are often unspoken agreements among the children about who will look after the parents should they come to need dedicated care. Most accept the responsibility willingly; this is, essentially, how “things are done in the Caribbean”. But with successive generations this sense of intergenerational responsibility appears to be dwindling.

“By the time my kids are my age all the black culture will be out,” says Reilly. “They don’t pass on the culture to their kids. Unless black children take up their own culture there will be none at all, and you got to think what the hell is going to happen.”

Modern black British families of Caribbean heritage have, more than any other black and minority ethnic group, bought into a British way of life. A “2.2 kids” family average, compared with 4.5 for the largest Asian communities, together with an individualistic attitude to health, wealth and prosperity and many interracial marriages, have all served to undermine what was once a culturally tight-knit community.

For young black people born in Britain the rates of intermarriage for both men and women are high: nearly 50% and 35% respectively, compared with a rate of just 7% and 6% for Indian men and women.

National statistics for age distribution according to ethnic identity reveal that, next to white Irish, black Caribbeans have the largest proportion of people aged 65 and over, at 11%. That’s 62,000 of the 566,000 Britons living in the UK who categorised themselves as black Caribbean at the last census count (2001). This reflects the first large-scale migration of non-whites to Britain in the 1950s.

Increasingly, then, in recent years, black Caribbeans in their 30s and 40s have become more conscious of their own parents’ mortality. Relatives and extended family members who had provided the community infrastructure are dying, and with them goes some of the sense of a distinct Caribbean way of living.

Llewellyn Graham, chief executive of the Birmingham-based Nehemiah Housing Association (NHA), specialising in black and minority ethnic (BME) care, says that what is happening to the UK black Caribbean and Asian communities is what happened to the British mainstream community some years ago. The younger generation, with young families and more onerous work responsibilities, haven’t necessarily got the time to provide care. “Social services and local authorities used to say: ‘We don’t need to do anything for Asian people, they all look after themselves.’ But suddenly it’s all broken down,” says Graham.

One of over 60 such specialist associations up and down the country, NHA’s rapid rate of expansion in the past two decades bears testament to the growing need for culturally specific community care for older people. It recognised that isolated black elders living on their own in high-rise blocks or council flats were simply dropping off the social services radar, unable or not wishing to access services that they felt didn’t cater for them.

NHA is now joining forces with United Churches Housing Association. With a joint spread of 500 properties, available to rent or buy, they aim to arrest the trend towards community disintegration by providing schemes that enable residents to stay connected with the family through retirement schemes with a black bias.

Retirement complex

The comedian and actor Lenny Henry has lent his family’s name to one of NHA’s newest developments in his home town, Dudley. Named in honour of his late mother, Winifred, a member of the church that founded NHA, the £4.4m retirement complex was opened by Henry last year. With 38 one-bedroom and two-bedroom flats for a diverse multicultural group, older and frail residents have the luxury of specially designed facilities, including a quiet lounge and events room, dining room, laundry room, library/craft room and a beauty salon.

It also provides a day centre for the older community of Dudley in partnership with the Dudley Befriending Service. It’s a safe and comfortable environment for supported independent living.

Talking of Winifred Henry’s generation, Graham says: “They were the pioneers within our community. Now they are the ones who are retiring and in need of our help.” NHA provides them with their own homes, with their own front door, surrounded by their own things in an environment reminiscent of communal living in the Caribbean.

Graham, now 44, is optimistic about his own future retirement plans and that of black Britons like him. He is hoping to spend time here and in the Caribbean when the time comes. And he is confident that the work of NHA, along with other larger organisations such as Ujima in London, will have demonstrated that many people now don’t see themselves ending up in one room with a single bed and a television. The whole concept, he says, is so outdated that “not even white people want to go there anymore”.

By Mandy Richards – First published in The Guardian Wednesday 23 August 2006 

Working men’s clubs, once the hub of communities, are in decline. But ditching the dour old image is helping some to stay alive and thrive. By Mandy Richards

Survival of the Slickest


The revival of the working men’s club: A different beat … a night at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, East London. Photograph: Stuart Griffiths

The Mildmay Club and Institute Union is one of the few surviving working men’s clubs in London. Established in 1888, its dark Victorian facade, though crumbling and caked by the elements, stands defiantly, if somewhat subdued. Rich in terms of space and equity, the north London club is struggling to sustain itself due to spiralling maintenance costs. The huge four-storey site could fetch over £10m on the open market if the circling property developers got their way.

Welcomed in by a Saturday night soundtrack of John Holt and Jim Reeves, I’m met by Brenda Brown, a middle-aged club committee member for the past eight years. Brown and her partner, Alan Fitzgerald, have witnessed working men’s clubs dropping like flies. Once the hub of working-class communities, they have been in steady decline since the 1970s, when there were more than 4,000 clubs affiliated to the Club and Institute Union. Of the 2,500 remaining, many have seen membership halved in the last 20 years. At that rate of depletion, they will be virtually extinct by 2025.

Brown and Fitzgerald suggest that the club will become a block of fancy apartments before then. They talk of being under threat from an encroaching community that has insidiously undermined their way of life.

“It’s the middle-class whites,” Brown says. “They are a different race entirely. A lot of them come from up north. They go to college and start telling the white working class how to treat different races, when we’re born and bred in a mixed environment. They don’t mix with other races, and are patronising to black people, who can fight for themselves. We’ve got Filipinos in tonight having a function. With them, it’s share and share alike.” Regulars are invited to have any leftovers.

Chris Giff, 58, who came to London from Ireland in 1980 and has been trustee of the Bethnal Green Working Men’s club for five years and a member for 25, says: “There’s no bullshit or racism.” But he fears that working men’s clubs get a bad press. “There is an assumption that they are racist,” he says.

When Henry Solly, a Unitarian church minister, set up working men’s clubs 150 years ago, they raised funds for local causes, provided informal employment networks, and offered sport and light entertainment for recreation.

Brown believes they were also about keeping the working class in check, but says they now provide a haven against “the youngsters taking over the pubs”.

Yet to many they appear to be a throwback to a monocultural and sexist age. Although most clubs welcome women, “lady members” pay less subs, and some 20 single-sex clubs still exist.

Malik Gul, a community facilitator dealing with social cohesion issues for Wandsworth Community Empowerment Network, south London, argues that sticking with “the known” allows for certainty, and provides an element of comfort and security. He warns that society is in danger of leaving behind whole sections of the community who, for whatever reason – age, culture, environment – are not able to change and adapt to new rules. He draws his lessons from working with local communities where older white men and women who weren’t part of the white flight from these neighbourhoods were socially excluded from services and support. In these circumstances, he feels that working men’s clubs can provide an important unifying experience, an extension of home.

More surprisingly, Gul also draws parallels with his own Muslim community. “Neighbourhood mosques, often in converted houses, are essentially congregated by men of a certain age and background – first generation working-class immigrants,” he points out. “The ritual of going to the mosque provides them with a sense of identity and certainty. You could, if you scratched the surface, identify within this group elements of bigotry and xenophobia. But these gatherings, like working men’s clubs, do provide a service to their community, and provide a sense of identity in an age of rapid change.”

This was certainly true of Bordesley Labour Club in Birmingham, which is situated at the heart of what is now an area densely populated by Muslim communities. Club secretary John Aspery, 61, says: “We had a mass exodus of people. They flattened this part of Small Heath to rebuild and to regenerate – it was the old pre-war back-to-back houses – so obviously we had a lot of members of the club who left to go to other areas of Birmingham – mainly Yardley, Hay Mills, Sheldon. Bordesley Green is not that far away, but far enough for them to form other friendships and find new pubs. There were 12 clubs in a square mile in Small Heath 20 years ago. I think there are four now.”

Good housekeeping

But Aspery attributes the club’s dwindling membership – its 400 members are half the number 20 years ago – to more than people moving away. “Young people don’t follow their fathers and grandfathers into the clubs like they used to,” he says. “Many years ago, it was more a family-orientated thing. We’ve only really survived by good housekeeping and a big reliance on Birmingham City FC; it’s very busy when the football matches are on. We get surveyors, accountants, as well as labourers. We’ve got a whole spectrum of people coming in.”

Aspery identifies the blanket smoking ban voted for by MPs last week – which will prohibit his members, 60% of whom are smokers, from lighting up on the premises – as a nail in the coffin for working men’s clubs. “It will affect us in the same way that cheap drinks from supermarkets have already driven people away from clubs and pubs,” he warns. “It will drive even more people to invite friends round for drinks, rather than going to their local pub or club. If I was still a smoker, it would definitely stop me.”

The Idle Working Men’s Club in West Yorkshire has sustained its appeal, and currently boasts a membership of 1,200. Pop singer Michael Jackson is an honorary member, as was the late TV presenter Richard Whiteley. Frank Johnson, the club president, reveals the secret of its success: “A good, hard-working committee – willing to ensure, if possible, that what the members want the members get. When the dinosaurs were in charge – my dad and everybody like him – they were ‘men’s clubs’, but you have to think forward, because when you think about it women were the backbone of the clubs anyway. They sold all the raffle tickets, ran all the bingo, did all the functions.”

Johnson says that keeping the punters happy also means low beer prices (“£1.70 a pint as opposed to £2.70 down the town”), and opening every night. It was packed on the Thursday I visited – with a bingo session in the concert hall, pool, snooker and Sky TV for the “young ‘uns” downstairs. The more mellow crowd occupied the modern and cosy pub-style lounge, which was formerly a cold Formica and lino canteen before a £140,000 makeover, facilitated by brewery assistance and accumulated annual surpluses. As non-profit-making organisations – whose members pay an average sub of £5 a year to become, in effect, a stakeholder and investor – any surplus is ploughed back into the clubs.

Nationally, the clubs that thrive have evolved. In Bethnal Green, Giff sees his club as “a living canvas”, a forum for fostering new talent. Cabaret artist Polly Cupcake, who hosts specialist Friday night events such as “Toot-Sweet” and “Stars Up Your Arse”, has a full house of style conscious young people aged around 20 to 30, crammed into the very kitsch concert hall upstairs.

Seeing a space like this so vibrantly alive provided a stark contrast to the sepia haze of most of the other clubs visited. Club promoter Warren Dent, whose brainchild it was to run a separately licensed club out of the ailing venue, is pleased with its success. Local to the area, he used to DJ at the Bethnal Green working men’s club himself, with the Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker. A 60:40 surplus split with the club means it is now well on the road to breaking the back of the £40,000 it owes the breweries.

So for Bethnal Green, with a current membership of only 200 (due to “natural wastage – people bleedin’ snuffing it”, says Giff) the initiative should forestall closure. And, as the months roll on, there may even be some seepage between upstairs and downstairs.

If more of the clubs could see their way to exploiting the needs of the communities they have come to inhabit by cooperatively diversifying their operation, perhaps these shadowy corners of Britain’s heritage could enjoy the kind of renaissance being achieved in east London.

Smoking ban: ‘It’s a class thing. A large percentage of non-smokers are middle class’

John Aspery

Ex-smoker; Bordesley WMC, Birmingham

“To be honest, we thought we were going to be exempt because we’re private clubs, owned by the people who use the club. The fact that they’ll still be able to smoke in the House of Commons doesn’t sound very fair to me, but they’re a law unto themselves. I don’t disagree with people smoking. I mean, it’s a fact of life isn’t it? Although I don’t like smoking, I don’t really agree with the fact that they banned it completely.

It’ll affect us in the same way that cheap drinks from supermarkets have already driven people away from clubs and pubs. The smoking ban obviously might drive even more people to invite friends round for drinks rather than going to their local pub or club. If I was still a smoker, it would definitely stop me.”

Frank Johnson

Ex-smoker, Idle WMC, Bradford

“We’ve had a policy that, with any children’s parties in the club, we put notices on the table asking parents not to smoke. So we did minutely ban smoking a couple of times a year, such as Halloween and Easter Bunny parades. On Thursday nights, which is a bingo night in the concert room, it’s like a fog in there, so we have to keep putting the extractors on to get rid of it. The occasional member you may lose, but en masse I wouldn’t say it’ll affect anybody. If anybody wants to smoke, I know it’s cold but they can go outside. That’s what they did in Ireland. There may be a motion at the annual general meeting that we will put some sort of hood up outside the door so that people don’t get wet when they’re having a fag.”

Chris Giff

Former 60-a-day man; Bethnal Green WMC, east London

“We knew the smoking ban was on the cards because all the people that are against smoking were smoking every bleedin’ thing going back in the sixties. But now they’ve got into positions of power. It’s a class thing, really, because the working class smoke too much, and because quite a large percentage of non-smokers are middle-class people. That’s what it comes down to – that’s their prerogative. The Labour party will pay the price in the next election, both the local and national elections.”

First published in The Guardian Wednesday 22 February 2006