Any Brit who moves abroad, no matter how much he or she loves their new home, will always find a pang of nostalgia for the good old British pub, with a name that evokes centuries of history, oak beams felled during Shakespeare’s era, a warm atmosphere and hearty food.
Family pubs don’t really exist in Australia. The closest equivalents are ‘hotels’ but these don’t tend to be as family-friendly, and certainly don’t have the same atmosphere as a traditional community pub.
What Australia does have is the members’ club, which is a big thing here.
Describing a members’ club to any Brit younger than 50 is a tough ask. Because the frames of reference for these places are the working men’s clubs of 60s and 70s Britain, or the dining and entertainment halls of Butlins or Pontins holiday camps which had their heyday in the same era.
As the name suggests, facilities are only open to members (although you can sign in as a guest if you are from out of town or only visit occasionally). Annual membership is usually a nominal fee – say between $1-5 – and allows you to come and go as you please, and to sign additional guests in too.
The clubs I’ve visited – three now – have a plethora of rules that seem puzzling to outsiders. You aren’t allowed to wear a hat, children aren’t allowed to come within a metre of the bar and have to leave the premises by 10pm and, while screen upon screen will show live rugby, football, AFL and other sports, the wearing of any sports jersey is prohibited. Some of these rules are enforced religiously (hats and children), others not so much (you could see plenty of sports jerseys in the clubs I visited).
You have a membership card which is swiped by staff every time you make a purchase and your spending accumulate points which translate into credits against future purchases. There are promotions too, with prize draws nearly every night and if you drop in during your birthday month, you are given some free credit on your membership card and entered into a birthday draw for a cash prize at the end of the month.
Members can buy food and drink at a slightly lower price than non-members, and there’s a large, sectioned-off, adults-only area where row upon row of fruit machines, known as pokies, attempt to extract money from guests. Other promotions – and again, evocative of 1970s Britain – include a regular meat raffle, and I’ve seen many a happy member trot off home grinning and carrying a tray of pork chops and sausages.
Some of the bigger clubs put on regular events and excursions. The excursions are reminiscent of the ‘works day out’ type trips – again from a different in the UK. While the events can be impressive – the Southern Cross Club, one of Canberra’s biggest, has an 80s night coming up with live performances from Paul Young, Go West, Nik Kershaw and Cutting Crew. Not tribute bands, the real thing, all on one night.
Many of the clubs’ regular promotions are baffling and would take years of study to understand. In our last visit to our local club, multiple screens were showing what looked like bingo cards, with numbers flashing up at regular intervals. I have no idea why. Around the walls were posters reminding members to enter for the ‘Fast 50s’, ‘Jolly Joker’ and ‘Spinners are Winners’. Again, no idea.
For families, the club seems to take the place the local pub holds in British culture and, while we do visit them from time to time, in truth, it’s no substitute for possible the only piece of Britishness I still really miss.
Now, who’s for a tray of a beef joint and some lamb cutlets? Go on, you know you want to.