London was my Holy Grail as a teenager.
A few family trips from Edinburgh during school holidays whetted my appetite for all things smog-fugged and cosmopolitan. But when I arrived in 2012, seventeen, I was overwhelmed and adrift. The dazzling, brilliantly sordid history of London’s LGBTQ+ after-hours world was one I had very little knowledge of during my first year in the city. I still had fun. Endless bus journeys from Battersea Park, stomach knotted, fake I.D. in hand, led to house parties and dingy club nights as far afield as Tottenham. But it wasn’t until later, midway through university, that I began to explore the spaces that make up London’s queer patchwork, and the continual, vital efforts to revise and repair them. Nights like Sink the Pink with drag-superstar pals, and later working behind the bar at Cambridge Heath’s queer boozer, The Queen Adelaide, gave me a sense of kinship, and an introduction to a weird, wonderful, but precarious world.
Richard Mortimer, editor of Ponystep magazine, told me about his first night out in London after arriving in the capital from Leeds, aged nineteen. ‘I’d shacked up with the most amazing lesbian couple, who insisted they take me out “on the scene”. The scene at that time, 1999, was still very much centred around Soho’s Old Compton Street, which was only just recovering from the catastrophic bombing of the focal Admiral Duncan pub. ‘It was an eye-opening evening – I’d never seen so many gay people in my life, all spilling out onto the streets… it was a Sunday night, too; people were carrying on like it was Friday!’ This school-night soiree set the tone in many ways for Richard’s subsequent adventures in nightlife; he later went on to found – among others – the legendary BoomBox club night.
Alex M. Hanson remembers another Soho night, on November 24th, 1994, in sharp focus against the heady blur of London in the mid-1990s. The basement of Freedom Cafe was packed out with a crowd of legendary calibre; Björk, Lee (Alexander) McQueen and Lucien Freud were among those gathered to witness the mind-bending, toe-curling genius of Leigh Bowery. What none of them knew, however, was that it was to be the artist’s last performance. Alex, a photographer of late-night antics for i-D Magazine and others since the late 80s, managed to snap a few hasty shots of the ensuing madness onstage, and of the captivated audience. ‘[Leigh] was giving birth to his wife, Nicola,’ Alex tells me over the phone, ‘it was really out there. But back then the venue really prided itself on giving space to that kind of work.’
Alex had been introduced to Leigh a couple of years earlier by their mutual friend and collaborator, Richard Torry. Typical of the creative encounters borne out of late-night idea sharing in bars and clubs, it morphed over that period into a working partnership, and Alex took a number of photos of Leigh over the years. Lyall Hakaraia, current owner and founder of the diverse Dalston night spot, VFD, remembers a similar atmosphere surrounding early 90s club night, Smashing: ‘We all worked, played and imagined together, from making clothes, to appearing in each other’s music videos, sharing houses… It was my first cultural family.” Lyall now brings a similar spirit into the basement space that VFD calls home: ‘When we first opened VFD, we only had curtains across the doors of the toilets and this meant that people had to talk to each other and hold the curtain closed for the next person. There were so many friendships and collaborations that started this way!’
Those with the goal of othering and ostracising LGBTQ+ people have historically used the word ‘decadent’ as shorthand for ‘useless’, ‘reckless’ and ‘dangerous’. When broken down – de-cadent – it suggests stepping out of a dominant rhythm, shedding the bonds of society’s oppressive structure. It’s a word that has been radicalised and reclaimed in many instances, and it is precisely this ongoing re-articulation and weaponisation of decadence that makes many queer venues hotbeds for creativity and discussion today. ‘What I love about our queer spaces now is how inventive a lot of them are,’ says DJ and nightlife-doyenne Princess Julia. Over the years since the late Seventies, Julia has played parties across the world, and she is still impressed by the venues on her home turf: ‘The Glory… VFD, [both are] striving ahead with diverse agendas. All our clubs, pubs and spaces have something different to offer!’
When I asked Lyall for his view on the ever-undulating landscape, he was eager to point out that the demand for queer safe spaces has not waned, even if their number has. ‘The biggest change is the emphasis on who needs the underground and the retreat and protection it offers. Instead of the white gay male needing this space, it is now being occupied by the queers, the non-binary and trans people. There are still many communities that are not equal and need to find space to come together and to make change.’
Artists and partners in crime Jender Anomie, and Joey Fourr, run Jender and Joey’s Femmetopia, a night based at VFD that celebrates all things non-binary. ‘Everything we do is inherently political,’ says Joey, ‘getting on a night bus as a group of us, being obnoxious and taking up space is radical.’ They are at the forefront of the debate over what some feel has been a dip in radicalism and political engagement in younger LGBTQ+ circles, alongside a pronounced rise in commercialised nightlife. ‘It is totally being de-politicised’ says Jender, ‘and it’s repackaged and made palatable to a more normal audience. But nothing ever fades away, it just goes underground, which, to be honest, is where all the real shit happens!’ Richard, too, has seen a notable change in the years since BoomBox’s final bash in 2007. ‘The last decade has seen the club scene really become about business,’ he says, ‘many of today’s clubs masquerade as progressive while selling out to the lowest common denominator. Money talks.’
LGBTQ+ venues frequently find themselves at the mercy of gentrification’s oncoming tide. University College London’s Urban Laboratory revealed last year that the number of queer venues had dropped by 58% between the years 2006 and 2016. In response to these worrying statistics, Princess Julia gives a call to arms for nighthawks everywhere: ‘New spaces are opening, and if people are interested in them surviving they need to go to them!’ The survey’s respondents also made clear that they were keen to support spaces in the city with a distinct sense of community and grassroots involvement. Proving this statistic right, an online campaign to raise money for a new LGBTQ+ community centre in the East End recently surpassed its crowdfunding target. ‘I like to think of London as an entire kind of “studio”, that’s my hope at least,’ Alex tells me towards the end of our discussion, ‘it felt that way when I first fell into it … and what I see now, with the younger generations, is new energy being forced into older spaces; that makes me really hopeful.’ When I ask Jender about her hopes for the future of the scene, her answer is short and sweet: ‘That it keeps producing super intelligent, fucked-up people for centuries to come!’ Amen to that.