Working Men’s Clubs are funny things. I think I’ve only ever been to about 4 in my entire life and up until last Friday they were solely to attend private parties or functions, hence the patrons stuffing their faces with cake alongside my own were not what anyone would in any way term “regulars”. They were all interlopers like me.
Friday, however, was different.
Friday was set apart by an invitation by my Sign Language tutor that invited us (his class) to come along during the evening and meet some Deaf people in a proper social environment. To be honest, there are a number of such opportunities that we can choose from – some later in the month to attend a proper Deaf Club in Coventry and others in Solihull – but this one attracted me because of (a) the proximity – it was in walking distance from my house – and (b) I have my second formal assessment tomorrow night and I figured the extra practise would be no bad thing.
So I’m walking to the Working Men’s club and I’ll be honest, my vision of the clientele and the whole ambience was of a very quiet snug (akin to the one in The Rovers Return), half full of men and women of a certain age sporting a certain hardy Northern-esque look, a dog or two asleep at the foot of the bar and a barman who spends the entire night giving non-locals pokey looks from his permanent place in front of the optics rack.
But what I got in actual fact was a lounge bar very like something out of Coronation Street, sparsely populated by people of a certain age who could quite easily get roles as extras in Heartbeat, a single dog (a hearing dog for the Deaf funnily enough) and a barman who gave me pokey looks as soon as I stepped foot inside the bar,
In fact his first words to me were, “How did you get in here?”
This made me think that maybe (a) I’d somehow slipped through the minefield and the barbed wire gun emplacements without seeing them or (b) I’d broken both my legs without noticing it or (c) he was confusing me with some bad-ass whippet owner he’d barred from the premises in another life.
As it was I could only answer sheepishly that the guy on the door had let me in after I’d paid a 50p entrance fee (and no sexual favours asked for).
As soon as I explained I’d come to meet the Deaf group though he relaxed, served me my whisky (though he diluted it with unasked for coke – plainly he thought I was a wuss; plainly I was because I accepted it without complaint) and left me alone for the rest of the night.
Naturally, being at heart a saddo, I was the only one from my class who’d bothered to turn up; everyone else is obviously saving themselves for the relative cool of the Deaf club in Coventry.
So it was just me, 5 Deaf people and a hearing dog. And a raffle that I couldn’t enter because I wasn’t a member,
I was at 42 by far the youngest person in the entire building.
As for the Sign Language... seeing it at work in a social context highlighted to me just how little I know and how paltry my level of expertise is. Making Signs is only half of it – having an instant visual recognition of other people’s Signs is the very important other half and that lack of immediacy really tripped me up on several occasions.
Thankfully one of the Deaf people there – a sprightly 84 year old named Billy – could talk (he’d lost his hearing due to being caught in a bomb blast in Glasgow during WWII when he was 10) and though he Signed simultaneously, if it wasn’t for his vocal narrative I would have spent much of the night staring into my whisky and coke feeling that everyone else was talking about me but not to me in a language that was whistling way over my head.
As it was, they were a very friendly group and made generous allowances for my ham-fisted level of expertise. I also learnt what a small world it is: Billy had been a soldier at the barracks during the same period and in the same street in Glasgow where my dad grew up as a boy. A big hello to everybody reading this from Maryhill.
The biggest thing I learnt though was how many different types of Deafness there are, how many different levels and experiences, how people’s Signing is not uniform but is as varied as their handwriting and just how distracting a jukebox can be when you are trying to concentrate and you are the only person who can hear it.
All useful fodder for the novel I am currently writing which features a Deaf character... though whether it will help me pass my formal assessment tomorrow remains to be seen.
And certainly not heard.