There is no longer, social commentators would have us believe, a working class. We are all of us, they claim, middle class or else lumped into one general mass, described as an “underclass”. Chris Coekin’s Knock Three Times refutes the supposition.
Primarily a document of Acomb working men’s club in York, photographed over a decade from 1996, Coekin’s opus reveals itself as a personal exploration of his own background, upbringing and social identity within a family in which such clubs have played a significant role.
Acomb club, Coekin implies, in the published conversation with David Campany that appears at the front of the book, is much like others of its kind; a place for social gathering. It has a bar, a games room, a lounge and a concert room. These are the fixtures, but what makes it much more than simply a building is the people who use it.
As we are introduced to them visually, although it is in no way a formal greeting, we meet ordinary people. Probably some of them are “characters” but Coekin does not seek them out as performers, gurners for the camera. Instead he affords them the dignity of being themselves; people who are revealed simply talking, sitting, drinking, laughing, holding hands, or lost in thought.
Interposed between meeting the club’s members we are introduced to its furnishings: functional tables, strip lighting, coat hooks, a condom machine in the gents’ toilet – shot from a child’s viewpoint (Coekin reveals why in the aforementioned interview) – and the club’s performers, whose dressing room walls we see bedecked with the artists’ “z” cards, often crudely defaced, presumably by fellow performers.
The third layer to Knock Three Times is the Coekin family’s relationship with the working men’s clubs. The book is dovetailed with black and white family snapshots: firstly the Coekin clan in a Blackpool club in 1963; lastly, his grandfather posing for a photographer, standing with seven fellow men, incongruously drinking pints through straws, at the family’s local club, Latimer Road, Leicester, circa 1935.
Elsewhere, in a picture from the early 1980s, Coekin’s Dad, a champion darts player, is seen holding a trophy. Later, his one line redundancy letter is presented to us: “Dear Barry Coekin,” it reads, “Please be advised that as from today’s date we have made you redundant. Yours etc.” This one-sentence dismissal, comes after 46 years working for the company. On the opposite page is Coekin’s paternal grandfather’s leaving certificate that tells of his 49 years’ service with British Railways London Midland Region. Coekin corrects this casual carelessness: he worked for them for 52 years. The three missing years matter in a lifetime of labour.
The documents’ inclusion, and Coekin’s telling of the stories that lie behind them, as well as his family’s connection with clubs, make the book an altogether more vital work. Similarly, the historical family snapshots juxtaposed with the contemporary portraits of Acomb club members highlight how far and yet how not at all far we have moved over the intervening decades.
Some people may view Knock Three Times as a “moment in time and place” piece. They would be wrong to do so. The time and place of Coekin’s book – whatever demographic “experts” may have us believe – says as much about the way many of us in Britain live today as it does about yesteryear.