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Save London clubs

The cultural purge of London’s most debauched clubs

We’re not going to convince anyone that the nightlife we love is worth saving, if we keep pretending it’s something clean and wholesome

One more time: Peoples. Joiners. Herbal. Dance Tunnel. Plastic People. Madame Jojo’s. 333. Turnmills. The End. The names of closed-down clubs in London are starting to sound like long-forgotten discos from a Sister Sledge track, rather than checkpoints for a not-too-long-ago night out. The capital’s nightscape has been altered beyond recognition, and the places we used to go now entombed in scaffolding and hoardings with hashtags on them. The dominant culture has gone from shots and sleaze to mimosas and wellness; pints to pintxos; ashtrays to ashtanga; dubstep to dust.

The clubs that still stand have started to look like the rare pie ‘n’ mash shops or reggae outlets you occasionally see: anomalies for one reason or another, living on borrowed time and suckling off the past. Newly opened venues like The Cause in Tottenham and The Fold in Canning Town have gone some way to stem the bleed, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that they are only temporary; placeholders, path-clearers for the luxury death march towards Romford.

With lonely Deliverflix culture on the rise and collective experience at a low, councils and local government authorities have been pressured by nightlife punters and industry figures into finding answers to the onslaught of club closures. Various campaigns, committees and czars have all been positioned as the antidote to the rot, but there is growing feeling that these people who were meant to protect culture are either deeply negligent, or complicit in the situation.

Recent announcements from Hackney have cemented the sense of hopelessness for many. Firstly, the borough’s ex-radical Labour council passed new legislation stating that any new bars and clubs to open in the borough would likely not be allowed to open past midnight. The council defended their decision as economic, not cultural – a simple case of clean-up costs versus money brought into the borough – but it was interpreted by many as an anti-nightlife statement from a borough with a changing demographic. Hackney built its monied metropolitan status off the back of its original nightlife spots, but things have changed a lot since the days before the Overground. That first wave of yuppie settlers have grown too old and rich for a night out at The Dolphin, empty apartments make more money than packed bars, and restaurants have proven more profitable and less troublesome for the police and council alike. “For some, nightlife has positive benefits; for others, it means anti-social behaviour, noise and people from elsewhere using Hackney as a weekend playground with no thought for those who live here,” said local mayor Philip Glanville in The Guardian.

For all Glanville’s too-late pleas for the pissheads to consider the hard-working long-time residents of Shoreditch, the feeling remains amongst the young and broke: London is a city for buyers and babies, not renters and ravers.

Soon after Hackney’s decision to impose core curfews and extend its Special Policy Area, making it harder for clubs to get licenses, long-standing Dalston clubs Visions and The Alibi suddenly closed within the space of a few days. Both have hinted at returning in a new capacity, but it’s not hard to imagine that the council’s measures played some part in these decisions. What they’ll come back as and where, remains to be seen.

Amy Lamé, the TV-presenter-turned-Night-Czar appointed to stop this very kind of thing from happening, found herself in the firing line after the Hackney news broke. She quickly went into lockdown, helpfully reminding us on Twitter that ‘Local authorities are responsible for licensing decisions, not the @mayoroflondon or the @nightczar’. A nothing-y public statement written a few weeks later did little to convince anyone that her role was working.

Of course, most of us knew that the Czar’s and the Mayor’s attempts to save nightlife were always tokenistic. Sadiq Khan has a lamentable record in saving well-loved spaces, and for every Boiler Room appearance or Pride float he turns up on, there was never going to be any significant change on his part. He was only riding the rapids that Boris had carved through the city some years before. The councils, who have now found ways to monetise ‘nightlife’ with street food markets and underwhelming disco festivals in the parks they own, don’t seem to want to put up with the necessary grimness of club life. As for the Night Czar – well, she seems to have been totally miscast for the role she is playing. Hailing from the friendly, Time Out-approved scene of improv, themed karaoke and drag events, she appears to have rose-tinted view of the pissy, sometimes nasty world of clubbing proper.  

For me, the Mayor’s choice of Night Czar and her often-misguided version of what nightlife is reflects a wider failure in the discourse around club closures. It is also the same point where most of the endless slew of brand-sponsored panel discussions about saving clubs have fallen flat.

Quite simply, nobody wants to be honest about what nightlife is, or why we do it. The Night Czar’s whole modus operandi is filled with misguided references to creativity and vibrancy, as if we were trying to save a community arts centre rather than a cathedral of wasteful debauchery. Her manifesto was polite; it was nice, it was romantic, but it was inherently dishonest.

“The Night Czar’s whole modus operandi is filled with misguided references to creativity and vibrancy, as if we were trying to save a community arts centre rather than a cathedral of wasteful debauchery”

The truth is that clubbing is an inherently dodgy thing to do. Yes, nightclubs are places to express yourself and escape, rites of passage and incubators of music, fashion and art – but the real reason people go to clubs has to do with the baser instincts of life; fucking, fighting and throwing a load of shit in your body. We may set out with aims beyond those, but the things that keep us going back every weekend aren’t necessarily the ones we’d like to admit.

As much as journalists, right-on DJs, and worried club-owners in the Night Time Industries Association want to paint clubs and bars as places of refuge and learning, they still mostly, places of turpitude and excess. Creating misleading narratives around clubs ignores the fundamental truths about them: they’re hard to manage, hard to police, hard to control and even harder to justify to a governmental task-force.

When clubs are judged on the very New Labour-sounding parameters of ‘value’, ‘culture’, ‘community’, they often come out looking quite lacking. Although it’s hard to fault the intentions, it really is like trying to pass off Stringfellows as a school for the blind. You’re not going to convince anyone that nightlife as you love it is worth saving, if you keep pretending it’s something that it isn’t. It’s time to be honest with ourselves and the authorities about what we love about going out and why we do it.

Perhaps we – the social media public, the journalists and the panel speakers – are guilty of over-politicising what is actually a fairly simple right: the one to lose our fucking minds. Perhaps in over-thinking the realities of nightlife, we’ve created a strange new set of parameters and targets that most of the places we love to get mash-up in just don’t meet. We’ve come at the authorities with a list of claims, and they’re throwing them back in our faces, as if we can’t meet our own standards.

The Mayor of Hackney’s statements seem to suggest that nightlife is wasteful, stupid and expensive – far too tasteless for the residents of his borough. But maybe we need to say ‘wasteful, stupid and expensive’ is what we want and what we need. We want the places we go to feel like nightclubs, and hope that good things can come of that. Otherwise we’ll be riding this state-sanctioned version of culture all the way to a Chukka Umuna-curated day festival on Peckham Rye.