The Brunswick Club: An elegy

in Art

In the centre of Bristol the former working man’s club on Brunswick Square has been abandoned by as a private social club. The bar, the skittles room, the cabaret space, all no longer providing recreation opportunities. The relics of those days are all around us, posters, leaflets of events, regulations and health and safety warnings pinned to the notice boards lining the corridor that runs from the Georgian front door round to the converted rooms, still ready for a stream of beer-drinking, smoking audience to arrive for old-fashioned charitable entertainment.

WE’RE HERE FOR THE MUSIC (PRS)
VISITORS PLEASE PRESS & WAIT FOR REPLY
MIND THE STOP
BRUNSWICK CLUB MEMBERS ONLY (accompanied by large red arrow)

I first came here after Melanie Clifford and Howard Jacques moved in, two sound artists on the run from London stress and housing crisis. With her links to the Bristol Experimental and Expanded Film (BEEF) collective who were already making their mark in the building, Clifford had found her and Jacques a refuge among likeminded people. The Brunswick Club, with its multiple groups, its activities, would be a place where they could live and work in a space conducive to productivity. They could stay among artists who would understand what it means to be progressive, alternative. Community. Communal. Creative.

Jacques and I crept and ran around over the moulding, creepy Axminster, turned on all the fans (how many were there?), played in the bowling alley. Jacques showed me the incipient photochemical darkroom, a facility later to assist artist Laura Phillips in creating her chemograph-cyanotype-dyed canvases for her solo exhibition at Plymouth College of Arts. Building work was put in for no financial reward by artists for artists in this club become artist-led community and venue. Capitalism, you are not the dream. Humans want other rewards than money. We need each other. We need to make art. We need what The Brunswick Club claims as its mission, a champion of alternative culture and new ideas.

Has it only been two years, possibly not even that, since this Brunswick Club came into being? Now we are looking at a new abandonment, as the artists prepare to move out. Previous evictions have been fought and challenged. Now the fight has finished. Even the fighters talk only of mildly subversive and radical protest. Their mood is dark. The fight appears over. No one expects a last minute reprieve. It has been a glorious sojourn but these are the last days of this Brunswick Club.

Alongside the BEEfers there are more collectives: CHAMP, Thorny, Residence, Action Hero and the escapees from London, Bermuda Triangle Test Transmission Engineers (BTTE). It appears BTTE is also falling through the gaps of the Georgian floorboards, leaving us. They were always headed for disappearance, being a show about quiet sounds: the rubbing together of glass; the sound of the engineers working when show transmission is down; the test card; or disembodied whispers and the plucking of a microphone spring. After fifteen years on Resonance FM, one of the first broadcasters, the show is taking a hiatus. The test is over, for now.

Georgian floorboards, sounds grand, and it is because this building has a history that goes further back than working class culture stretching into the days when this townhouse architecture was considered too good for the likes of us. This dilapidated grandeur makes it fun and no doubt cheered the hearts of the working class club members. They had finally made it. Taken over the rich people’s house. How disappointing to be turfed out as a result of mismanagement or whatever poor dealings had led to this point! Capitalism is not beaten after all. But its subjects must enjoy the minor victories and celebration is essential for mental survival. Fun. Expression.

In the noticeboard there is wedged an RIP sheet in gay italics, in a short-trendy font that mimics handwriting and is not the easiest to read. A little headstone and the years 1901-2016, telling us how a club has been here, on this very spot, since the middle 1800s. ‘Now sadly, it has all come to a sorrowful end’. Tears are shed, anger and frustration, despite the rainbow gradation of the title lettering. This lament recalls ‘the countless memorable experiences at this wonderful club … the years of Wednesday evening sequence & ballroom dancing with Archie & Kate, (and in more recent times) generously continued by Mo & Jeff deserve a special mention, as do the twice weekly bingo sessions unselfishly run by Ray Dael. The summer skittles competitions, the weekly fun raffles and of course the Saturday evening varied musical “extravaganzas” which gave us all a chance to forge some enduring friendships.’

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The RIP sheet takes its own dig at those who let down the club. Yet, unlike a lot of social media trolling, it does not mention them by name. ‘alas, a significant lack of support from too many “missing members” made the task impossible; with the inevitable result”‘ This is a common failing of community ventures run by committee. The lack of attendance makes things unworkable. Although also members, depending on their skills and personalities, can also be known to make collective management pretty unworkable too. Personally I am not a fan of meetings. I am an avoider of meetings, a doodler, eager for the end. Meetings frustrate me. But I know they are necessary to combat those at the winning edge of capitalism, to band together the rich, the imposers, the rulers.

The struggle for the Brunswick Club is also recorded in these spaces, and elegantly so, which is no surprise given the design skills of the current occupiers. There is a nod to Soviet graphics in more than one leaflet. A little leaflet pinned to the noticeboard with a faded picture of the beautiful frontage and the exhortation KEEP Brunswick Club is much more professionally created than the RIP leaflet, yet, it appears, ultimately as ineffectual in stopping the roll forward of that capitalist steamroller, which leaves beautiful Georgian buildings intact, in fact it restores them to a contemporary grandeur as it goes, but which crushes the people inside.

In the end I’m glad to get out because I can’t stand the heartbreak anymore. Leave the sad dilapidation to the artists who enjoy the melancholy bliss of nostalgia and decay in the work, for there are many. Last one out, don’t switch off the lights.

If this is an elegy, its stuck on phase one and two on repeat. Grief followed by praise, followed by grief again. The way it’s looking we’re not going to reach consolation and solace anytime soon.

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