A restaurant in central London. Photo: Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images
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If you want to know how socially conservative Britain still is, go to a restaurant

Lesbians have been asked not to kiss because “this is a family restaurant”, and a woman having afternoon tea at Claridge’s was told that she wasn’t allowed to breastfeed her baby. We aren’t always as liberal as we think.

When I was about three, my mum explained the rules of restaurant-going to me. You stay in your seat. You use cutlery. You say your pleases and thank-yous. You, preferably, don’t have a tantrum. In adulthood, I like to think I’ve remained true to these instructions. One restaurant rule she failed to mention though is that, if and when I grew up into a great, honking dyke, I should probably put the kibosh on my sexuality until after dessert.

This week, a lesbian couple in a branch of Canteen on London’s South Bank broke that rule. And, horror of horrors, they made their sexuality known to their fellow food-eaters and restaurant staff by briefly kissing. The two women were asked by a member of staff to stop showing each other the most basic human affection, because “this is a family restaurant”. Translation: “Your sexuality is rude.”

Even in the UK, where same-sex marriage is now legal and legislation protecting LGBT people from discrimination is in effect, these sorts of stories are all too common. Sometimes it’s hotels, sometimes it’s restaurants and sometimes it’s Sainsbury’s – on a fairly regular basis, gay couples are asked to either tone down their gayness or leave.

Why is it that in so many cases, every time we go for a burger we’re entering Victorian Britain? And it’s not just the queers who break the rules, and fall under the scrutiny of any given establishment’s selective prudishness. Also this week, a woman having afternoon tea at Claridge’s was told that she wasn’t allowed to breastfeed her baby without pitching a kind of linen tent around the entire situation. According to this batshit, backwater restaurant protocol, getting out a tit for a hungry baby (literally the most innocent thing a person can do) is the equivalent of getting up and having a wee all over the table. Pissing should be done in private, and so, according to restaurants, should feeding babies and being a homosexual.

A restaurant is somewhere you can get a decent idea of just how socially conservative British culture still is. Many gay Londoners, myself included, see the South Bank as a kind of safe haven. It’s an artsy area, full of people in creative industries, which usually translates as – “here be a buttload of queers”. This makes Canteen’s recent homophobic moment even more telling. Even in the areas that LGBT people have come to trust, deep down, we’re not welcome.

London in particular is somewhere in which gentrification is eating into the gay scene. Venue after venue is shutting down with Madame Jojo’s in Soho and Hackney’s legendary gay club, the Joiners Arms, most recently getting the chop, to make way for “nicer” (read: less gay) things. As a result of this, it’s more important than ever that essentially heterosexual spaces become gay friendly.

As the Canteen incident has proven, same-sex couples are still forced to be careful about where they choose to kiss or even hold hands. Most non-heteros will know just how draining it is, having to consider warily when and where you show your partner even the slightest affection.

As for self-described “family” restaurants like Canteen, someone badly needs to let them know that the definition of “family” is changing.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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