Introduction into The Cowley Club, Brighton

“The Cowley Club is a social centre/co-operative named after a local grassroots organiser and chimney sweep who lived in Brighton called Harry Cowley. We bought a building on a Brighton high street with loans and mortgages in 2001, and it’s financed through renting out the flat above it, running a bar, café and radical bookshop, and room hire. It’s a diverse space, re-created on a daily basis depending on what it’s being used for and who is using it.”

MEP Migrant English Project

New students are welcomed at door and given a basic assessment and wait to be matched with a teacher for one to one free English class. Regular teachers and students who know each other well get a cup of tea and a biscuit and sit down to work, or chat. Some students are cooking today, making a lovely curry and everyone shares food midway through. “It’s great to make a connection with someone and be able to help with really practical stuff and local information. We don’t follow a syllabus but the students can ask for what they want that day. For some, they don’t want a lesson at all but would rather just have a natter or get help to fill in a form.”

Gig Night

The fire regs limit on capacity at the Cowley is 100, and we have definitely reached that. The band are playing in the far corner of the room which serves as the ‘stage’ (although you need to squeeze past to get to the toilet or the back yard) with a lamp on the floor providing some dramatic uplighting. Throngs of young punks are passionately rockin out and the bar volunteers are ignoring potential customers as they stand on chairs getting absorbed in the music. When the bands are finished, people file out, taking leaflets as they go and some people lend a hand to clear up, while cheesy 80s rock tunes take over.

“Most of the bands that I have organised gigs for say that the Cowley Club has a very special atmosphere, because everyone involved is there because they want to be and not because they are being paid. It’s great to be able to put on gigs at a venue where nobody is making any profit.”

Women’s Self Defence

The tables and chairs are piled up in a corner to make space to run around. Five women are shouting and hitting pads, while some people working in the office are slightly afraid to pass through to go to the toilet. Then they stretch off, sit down and discuss when and how to tell someone to stop doing something, whether it’s staring at them, groping them or asking to borrow money.

Cocktail and Karaoke Night

SOME people have bothered to dress up as befits the occasion of a cocktail and karaoke night, although most people of course haven’t. Cocktails on offer are called Black Makhnovist instead of Black Russian, Queer Sex on the Beach, or of course Molotov, and should encourage people to get going on the karaoke, which as yet remains untouched in the corner… It’s DIY karaoke so who will be the first brave soul to have a go??? “I can’t liiive… liiiive without yooouuuu…”

Prisoner Solidarity Brekkie

It’s a Saturday before Xmas so the streets are busy and people are coming in to check out the Cowley Bookshop. The menu offers full vegan breakfast and a few variations, the proceeds of which will go to prisoner support. Some Anarchist Black Cross members are frying away and burning themselves repeatedly in the kitchen, while others are encouraging people to sign Xmas cards to political prisoners (“Don’t let the bastards grind you down!”) or pick up leaflets. A large group of people who have been having a meeting in the backbuilding come in wanting to have some lunch and other smaller groups are sitting around chatting, most of them obviously nursing hangovers. The fundraising goes well, and the cards are posted with lots of messages of support from Brighton people.

Buy Nothing Day

The 24th November is Buy Nothing Day, a globally promoted day for anti-consumerism. So the Cowley Club is a hive of activity – there’s a free shop at the back including a big bag of bay leaves with a sign saying “freebay” in the appropriate font, and a section for ‘bookcrossing’ i.e. free books handed on. A bunch of kids and adults are crowded around a table making candles, some people are deftly creating more tetrapak wallets than anyone could ever need, and others are sitting around drinking free tea from a choice of nettle and other wild herbs, and others yet are debating the impact of peak oil around the free info table.

“Buy Nothing Day illustrated beautifully what I mean when I talk about the need to rebuild community. Children taught adults how to make things they’d just learned to do themselves, a needle-shy man planned his own sewing project and a fifty-year old woman munching on a cheese straw mused aloud, “so, you really get this food from skips? What a terrible waste to throw it all away!”

Games Night on Sundays

“Games night is a chance for people to interact socially with people they may have never met in a light-hearted atmosphere. In an effort to recreate the days before an evil monster called television ate the brains of the general population, we’ve played everything from Scrabble to Twister and Guess Who to Guess who can drink the most shots before they fall over… Well, I always wanted to play that one anyway.”

A Talk

About 50 people are sat in untidy rows, as the DVD of parts of Spike Lee’s film ‘When the Levees Broke’ comes to an end. A woman stands up and starts explaining how she is learning to be a herbalist, and went to New Orleans to work as a volunteer in a free clinic that was set up there to help address the needs of the many people affected by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.
“What happened there, who was affected and how people responded is a very political issue. And really inspiring to hear these thoughts straight from a fellow member of our community, who made a direct connection with this community across the ocean.”

The Allotment

There’s a lot of weeding to do, so some people get on with that while one person cuts leaves off the wildly growing salads in the polytunnel and fills a large bag. The allotment has been turned into a small scale community garden, with some Cowley Club volunteers giving the owners a hand to grow things both for themselves, and for the Cowley Cafe. Salad leaves and maybe other surpluses such as herbs or courgettes are taken down every week during the summer so the cafe can dish up properly organic and locally grown greens.

The Cowley Café

There’s Carrot and Coriander Soup, Butternut squash risotto or Empanadas with rice and salsa on the menu, all vegan and homemade of course, and the prices range from £1.50 for the soup to £3, which is less than half price of most trendy veggie cafés in Brighton. It’s pretty busy. There’s people smoking, drinking coffee and chatting in the backyard, and the front is somewhat dominated by a group of small children who made friends a few minutes earlier and are now tearing back and forth, tripping up the volunteer cooks as they walk through calling out the order numbers.


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