NIGHT OUT / Once you're in, it's very hard to leave: Pandora Melly meets the English Martyrs at their drinking club in east London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE APPROACH is promising: under dimly lit and crumbling railway arches, years of pigeon droppings and rusty water have run their course, leaving what look like blood-stains on the pavement. On the wall opposite, a small sign reads 'The English Martyrs'.

The Martyrs is actually a social club, and once inside, rather disappointing. No hard benches or gas lighting; the main room is warm, smoke-filled and tidy, containing 20 or so well-behaved east Londoners in suits.

Having been shown the church behind the club, and snooker-tables in the crypt, I wondered what sort of evening I was about to have. Mimi, the Martyrs' organiser, led me towards a group of middle-aged men standing round a table. 'This is a young-lady-journalist from a newspaper. She's come to find out about the Martyrs; perhaps you can answer her questions.'

A dangerous-looking man bending beer-bottle-tops between his thumb and forefinger showed me how it was done. He turned out to be a jellied eel merchant. 'If you want to talk to me about eels, then come round on Monday, because right now I'm knackered.' I showed him how to punch a hole in a beer-mat with his little finger, and they all had a go.

The man on my right was a policeman in charge of a particularly sensitive section at New Scotland Yard. He asked for an assurance of my discretion and then began a sort of confession: the difficulties of his work, how irritating other people were. As he paused for breath he was interrupted by the jellied eel merchant: 'I'll tell you what gives me the pip - my dad. When I was 15, I sort of admired him. When I was 20 I hated him.' The father had spent a lot of time in pubs, leaving his wife to feed and marshall 12 children. 'When I began to make some money with the eels, I was able to send her to the seaside: 57, and she'd never seen the sea.'

I began to see my role as a sort of Mother Confessor. What absolution could I possibly offer? Led by the policeman, we began to talk about crime. A retired shipping man asked him why not everyone steals. 'I'll give you two reasons: fear of being caught and fear of being punished.'

'So burglars have overcome fear?'

'Not exactly.'

I told them about a man in a sweet-shop years ago, who had cured me and my brother of stealing by giving us chocolate when he knew our pockets were stuffed with palmed gob-stoppers.

Seeking more opinions, I sat down on a padded bench with 10 giggling young men in white shirts and kipper ties. 'Tell me, what is it exactly that you do?' produced howls of laughter. 'Computer systems in the Stock Exchange, but we're celebrating because Mike's leaving. We've given him some juggling-knives. We could go to The City or Minories, but we come here because of the atmosphere.'

Mimi came over and added that many of the members had discovered the club through losing their way or taking short cuts.

Back with the group at the table, the retired shipping man clasped my elbow. 'Here comes Ernie, he's a character, you want to talk to him.' Ernie sat down, speechless and characterless for a few minutes until I asked him if his beard indicated that he was a fan of jazz.

'I like any music except rapping. I've got to go on the late shift. I come in here for a pint and I can't get it down quick enough.'

Walking back under the arches, I had a sort of revelation. This is indeed a martyrs' club. Not for those with extravagant afflictions, more of a temporary respite from working the computers in a clearing bank, from dealing with the horrors of other people's crime. The Martyrs welcomes those who earn their wage through back-breaking or soul-destroying work. As Mr Jellied Eel put it: 'Once you're in, it's very hard to leave.'

The English Martyrs, 62 Chamber Street, London E1 (071-709 0137). Annual membership: pounds 2. Members: stockbroking computer operators, policemen, shipping company workers and boxers.