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Bad vibes: why Britain's nightclubs are closing

New police measures and the lingering effects of the recession have both been blamed for contributing to the decline of the industry.

The Arches was one of Glasgow’s most popular nightclubs, renowned for its music and independent spirit. But last June the club closed down after its licence to stay open beyond midnight was revoked, making the business untenable.

The decision can be traced back to a Saturday night in February 2014. A 17-year-old girl called Regane MacColl fell ill at the Arches (which had an over-18s policy) and later died in hospital. She had taken “Mortal Kombat” – a pill with the image of a dragon printed on it – possibly before entering the venue.

In the months that followed, the police insisted that the Arches introduce “airport-style security”, says Scott Forrest, the club’s former music programme manager. Visitors were subjected to full-body searches on arrival and they weren’t even allowed to bring in chewing gum.

Those who had drugs on them were treated far worse there than at many other clubs, Forrest tells me. In a typical weekend, of the 2,000 people crammed into the venue, about 15 would be found to be in possession of illegal substances. “We followed the law to the letter,” he says. “Even people caught with a joint would be reported to the police. Everyone got searched, even artists and DJs.”

Yet the club’s success in finding and reporting those carrying drugs may have worked against it. “The police took the statistics and used them to close us down, which was just sinister,” Forrest says. Soon, the Arches was forced to shut at midnight instead of 3am. It could no longer make enough money to survive.

The story of the Arches resembles those of numerous clubs and party spaces around the UK. The number of nightclubs in Britain has almost halved since 2005 – down from 3,144 to 1,733, according to the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers. Even in London, with the help of the city’s tourism, 24-hour transport and world-famous venues, the number of clubs has declined by a third.

The Arches was just one example of the extreme pressure being imposed by law-enforcement authorities and local councils. The police force has lost 17,000 officers since 2010 because of budget cuts and this has had a terrible effect, says Alan Miller, the chair of the Night Time Industries Association, formed last year to lobby for the sector. “The police fear that they’re running out of resources,” Miller says. “Venues are seen as a strain and blamed for poor behaviour, even off the premises. Some local councils are imposing more and more conditions on nightclubs: extra security, CCTV, metal detectors, sniffer dogs, breathalysers.” All of this creates new costs, which are passed on to customers.

Changes in the law have also damaged clubs. Alcohol prices have risen significantly in real terms since the 1980s, mainly as a result of government taxation. The ban on smoking, which came into effect in 2007, has had a knock-on effect. As club owners have become more vigilant, some partygoers have been put off. “If people want to score drugs nowadays, they know where to go,” says an insider. “And it sure as hell isn’t a nightclub.”

The law has changed nightlife in other ways. Being the only place to drink after 11pm was once a unique selling point of nightclubs, but since 2005 many pubs and bars have been allowed to extend their opening hours. Where once clubs had few rivals after midnight, punters today can stay in one place from early evening until the early hours.

Another problem is property prices, especially in London. Nightclub owners can often make more money by selling their premises to developers than by operating them as a club, Miller says. Party venues have always come and gone, thanks in part to gentrification and changing tastes, but high rents and strict licensing laws are making it far harder for entrepreneurs to break into the business. Those who manage to do so are expected to accept new costs; say, as more residents complain about noise, clubs have had to invest in expensive soundproofing.

No wonder disillusioned clubbers have increasingly taken to partying overseas, making use of low-cost airlines. “London used to be the king of clubbing. Now it’s Berlin,” Forrest says. When British clubbers go abroad, they find a more dynamic and varied scene where booze is often markedly cheaper. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK.

But clubbing has been affected by something more fundamental: the changing tastes of young people, who are better behaved than previous generations. The proportion of those aged 16-24 who are teetotal increased by more than 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013; a quarter of those under 25 don’t drink at all. The use of drugs and cigarettes has also declined.

The lingering effects of the recession and an increasingly competitive job market have made going out and getting wasted seem less appealing. At the same time, modern technology has created innovative forms of entertainment that won’t leave you with a hangover. The internet has made it easier to discover new music indoors and those who in the past would have gone out hoping to find romance can now use dating apps such as Tinder.

The history of nightlife in the UK is cyclical and it is entirely possible that the industry will renew itself. But, in order for this to happen, clubs will need to adapt to evolving tastes and will need greater support from local authorities that recognise and value their contribution to the economy, to communities and to culture as a whole. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred

Photo: Tashphotography / Stockimo / Alamy
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The Negroni fools no one – it’s easy to make and contains nothing but booze

It is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

The cocktail is designed to lie about its origins; no wonder it reached its apogee during Prohibition, which forced everyone with an unrepentant thirst to lie about their cravings. Even today, when only extreme youth, religious belief or personal inclination prevents a person from draining the bar dry, the cocktail continues its career of dishonesty. It hides ingredients or methods. It provides a front for poor-quality booze. And it often dissolves, within its inscrutable depths, mountains of sugar, enabling drinkers to pose as sophisticates while downing something that tastes like a soft drink – to get drunk without leaving the playpen.

This is why I love the Negroni, which fools no one. It is easy to make and contains nothing but pure booze. Despite being a third sweet vermouth, it isn’t saccharine: the other two thirds, equal measures of gin and Campari, may have something to do with this. And it is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

They say it was invented in Florence at the request of a Count Negroni, who wanted a drink unsullied by club soda – a drink stiff enough to get a man back on a bucking horse, perhaps, since this Count may have been a rodeo rider. I prefer to believe that the Count, if Count he was, came in, tossed down enough strong liquor to start telling stories about his American adventures, and, when he finally staggered out into the night, the exasperated bartender poured three straight shots into a single glass and baptised this wondrous reviver in grateful homage to the fabulist who had inspired it.

In a former glue factory a very long way from Florence or America, the East London Liquor Company now makes very good gin – Batches One and Two, the former tannic with Darjeeling as well as cassia bark, pink grapefruit peel, and coriander seeds; the latter redolent of savoury, bay, thyme and lavender. Transforming these plants into excellent alcohol seems an improvement on boiling down horses for adhesive, and the company also makes superb Negronis from Batch Two.

We sit outside, in a carpark made marginally more glamorous by border boxes of Batch Two botanicals, and marvel at the transformation of this grimy part of East London, next door to a park intended to give Victorian working men brief respite from lives all too lacking in myth or fantasy. It is a reincarnation at least as miraculous as the transformation of three strong and entirely unalike spirits into the delectable harmony of the Negroni. The sun shines; a fountain plashes. Nuts and charcuterie arrive. All is right with the world.

I leave my herbaceous bower and dangerously pleasing drink for a peek at the large copper distillery behind the bar, walking in past the fountain, a whimsical stone construction that pours vermilion liquid into two, tiered basins topped by a chubby putto clutching a rather reluctant fish.

And then I stop. And double back. Vermilion liquid? It is, indeed, a Negroni fountain. There are even slices of orange floating in the basin. I dip a finger: the taste is slightly metallic but still undeniably that potent mixture of booze, botanicals, bitterness, and just a hint of sweetness. A streak of citrus from the orange slices. It turns out that the world’s most straightforward cocktail lends itself to a decadent neo-Renaissance fantasy. There’s a message here, one forthright as a temperance tract: without imagination, we would have no lies – but no Negronis, either.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder