Madame Jojo's, a renowned cabaret club, closed last year. Photo: Flickr/Radio Saigón
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Closing time: the loss of iconic gay venues is a nasty side-effect of London's sanitisation

From Soho to South London, our capital's most loved gay bars and clubs are being forced to shut down due to the sweeping sterilisation of London nightlife.

It’s midnight and outside The Glory, one of London’s newest gay bars, I’m part of a pick ‘n’ mix of queers that’s trailing down the Haggerston end of Kingsland Road, towards Shoreditch. We’re waiting, in the January cold, to get inside, have several G&Ts and dance with some drag queens. The bar is co-owned, after all, by East London’s doyenne of drag, Jonny Woo. When I reach the packed downstairs club, ABBA is playing and I start to wonder if the gay scene is now stratified with so many layers of irony that its about to collapse in on itself. My own kitsch-induced existential crisis aside, the queue I just waited in did not exactly scream “gay scene in distress”.

Over the past few years, the recession has pummelled and squeezed London like a Skittle-fed toddler let loose on the Play-Doh. It’s reshaped things. Gentrification has made entire boroughs of the city uninhabitable for anyone on anything less than an £100k salary. A lot of small businesses have suffered, but none more so, it seems, than those catering to the LGBT community.

At least 12 gay venues have faced closure in recent years. A handful more, including South London’s celebrated Royal Vauxhall Tavern, which was sold last year, are now at risk. Although there have also been closures in Brighton and Manchester, two major gay hubs, it’s in London where the issue is becoming serious.

G-A-Y, one of London's most famous gay clubs.

For 20 years now, the internet has been instrumental in uniting LGBT people. With dating apps like Grindr at out fingertips, anywhere with 3G signal, be it a farm in Warwickshire or a suburban bedroom can be transformed into a meeting place for gay people looking for love, friendship or a quick fuck. To quote Channel 4’s new gay comedy, Cucumber, “everywhere’s a gay bar now”. But there’s some sense in which the glut of digital ways to hook up is driving real, meatspace queer culture underground. When we can so easily access other LGBT people outside of specifically queer spaces, opening a new gay venue becomes risky.

So, wasn’t this the case for Jonny Woo and his business partner and boyfriend, Colin Rothbart, when they decided to open The Glory in December last year?

“Me and Jonny had been looking for venues for three years,” says Rothbart, “We didn’t know that so many others were going to shut down. When we started looking, Haggerston was up and coming. Now it’s up and come.”

Rothbart, 42, is a filmmaker whose East London drag documentary, Dressed As A Girl, premieres at this year’s BFI LGBT film festival. He started going out on the gay scene in the mid-Nineties, when he was a student in Manchester.  

“I didn’t have any gay friends for quite a long time,” says Rothbart, “The only way I met other gay people was by going to gay bars, and I used to do that by myself. Before things like Grindr that was the only way to do it.”

Nowadays, Rothbart points out, as well as new technology making gay life that bit easier, social attitudes towards LGBT people have changed significantly. “In a lot of straight bars in London, if two men kissed, most people wouldn’t bat an eyelid,” says Rothbart, “And now we’re protected by a lot of legislation, which wasn’t around in the Nineties.”

Rothbart’s experience of the Nineties gay scene is similar to that of journalist Feargus O’Sullivan, who also started going to gay venues in London when he was seventeen. “I actually started by accident,” he said. “I used to go clubbing every weekend with a straight friend and we didn’t always have much of a clue which clubs were straight and which ones weren’t.”

O’Sullivan explains that, 20 years ago, if you were gay and looking for love or sex, your options were limited. “It felt like a given that there were only a few specially set aside rooms – bars, clubs – in the city where such things were to be found. If you were looking for sex you had to either make do with whoever was in the room or make an endless trawl from bar to bar.”

The Royal Vauxhall Tavern has been sold. Photo: Flickr/Ewan Munro

But if technology were playing a significant part in shutting down gay venues, wouldn’t it be happening in places other than London? “Some Manchester venues have been experiencing difficulties over the past few months,” says Sian Payne, a director at the Lesbian and Gay Foundation (LGF), a charity based in the heart of the city’s famous gay village. But she explains that the ones that do are usually quick to reopen.

Payne says that closed gay bars in Manchester tend to reopen quite swiftly, refurbished or under new ownership, and remain gay bars. Payne says, if anything, the gay village is diversifying and, these days, is home to LGBT cafés as well as clubs and bars.

Payne is overwhelmingly positive about the wellbeing of her city’s gay scene. She says that when Queer As Folk (for anyone a little bit clueless about gay culture, that’s a TV series that came out – pun most definitely intended – in 1999. It was set in Manchester’s gay village) became popular, gay life in Manchester had a bit of a moment. “We’ll see if that happens again with Cucumber,” says Payne. Cucumber is Queer As Folk writer Russell T Davies’s latest creation; it’s also centred around being gay in Manchester.

Canal Street, the heart of Manchester's gay village. Photo: Flickr/Tecmark Ltd

Moving west, filmmaker Tim Brunsden speaks to me from Liverpool. Brunsden’s Save The Tavern is another film on the BFI Flare (LGBT film festival) programme. The 45-minute documentary began as a collection of videos celebrating the 150th birthday of the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, one of London’s most historic gay venues. Towards the end of filming, the Tavern was sold. At this point, the film took on a whole new, even more poignant, meaning as the future of the much-loved Vauxhall pub is now uncertain. Brunsden tells me that the venue was sold for around £2m (this is unconfirmed). “But its cultural value is so much more than that,” he says.

Having lived in London 15 years, Brunsden has now moved up north. So what’s going on in Liverpool, gay scene-wise? He says that there have recently been a few drugs raids on gay venues in the city. This month, Garlands, one of Liverpool’s biggest gay clubs, was temporarily closed by the police. There haven’t been any permanent closures though.

Back in London, it’s another cold evening. I’m outside Tower Hamlets town hall and, once again, I’m surrounded by queers. Though this time they aren’t drunk; they’re angry. Towards the end of last year, the Joiners Arms, one of East London’s most-loved gay pubs, fell victim to the closure epidemic. The plan, it emerged, was to demolish the venue to make way for luxury flats. Now, if there’s one way to piss off London’s queer socialists (of which there are a buttload), it’s to gentrify one of their favourite hangouts into yet another giant yuppie crate that no one can afford to live in. So, in an attempt to bar this redevelopment, a cluster of angry queers, armed with placards and banners, are standing outside Tower Hamlets council HQ. I speak to some of them.

“Isn’t this horrible?” says Dan Glass, 31, a community worker and activist. He motions towards the imposing and dead-behind-the-windows stack of glass and concrete that is the town hall. It’s no Taj Mahal, I’ll give him that. “All of London’s going to look like this, eventually.”

A protest to protect the Joiners Arms.

But what, exactly, is the aim of this protest? Charity worker Jane Clendon, 48, explains that she and the rest of the Save The Joiners group successfully attained asset of community value (ACV) status for the pub. This helps to protect it from developers’ wrecking balls. Recently though, property developers Robobond managed to get the Joiners’ ACV status repealed. Not only do the protesters want the ACV status reinstated, they’re also aiming to turn the Joiners into a much-needed LGBT community centre.

“There’s no queer community centre in London, which is horrific,” says Glass, who believes that, in failing to recognise the importance and cultural significance of venues like the Joiners, the government is to blame for the recent spate of closures. And the apathy (when it comes to all things queer) by those in power, combined with market forces really does seem to be eating away at London’s gay scene.

“When a developer wants to redevelop a venue, they don’t give a flying fuck if it’s a gay bar,” says Michael, aka Sleazy Michael, a sex worker and self-described “male escort with a conscience”. “The sterilisation and sanitisation of social spaces in London all comes down to money.”

This view is certainly shared by those behind Save Soho – a group campaigning to preserve Soho’s cultural heritage and protect it from redevelopment. It's founder, the musician Tim Arnold who has been running his own music label from a Soho bedsit for a decade, tells me: “In the last few years, I’ve seen all the venues I’ve been performing in throughout my career shut down.”

Madame Jojo's, Soho's famous cabaret club, has closed. Photo: Flickr/Radio Saigón

Save Soho, backed by the likes of Stephen Fry and Benedict Cumberbatch, has fast become one of London’s most vocal and starry anti-gentrification movements. Its focus isn’t on any one given facet of Soho, like the gay scene, but rather the area’s cultural significance as a whole. It just so happens that the gay scene forms a sizeable chunk of that cultural significance. Arnold, although not gay himself, comes from what he describes as a “gay family”. His mother, actor and singer Polly Perkins, is a lesbian who presented London’s first Gay Pride in 1979. In light of his connections to and affection for gay Soho, I asked Arnold for his thoughts on the recent closure of cabaret club and queer hub, Madame Jojo’s.

“Madame Jojo’s was more than just a music venue,” he said, “It was an emblem of alternative performing arts. And an incredible place of inclusion, which was enjoyed by the transgender community as well.”  

Who, though, does Arnold think is to blame for the ongoing blandification of the West End’s little pocket of glitter and filth?

“People talk about developers and landlords being the cause of all this, and I don’t agree,” says Arnold, “They’re just doing their job. The government, on the other hand, have overlooked the fact that Soho should not be an area that’s affected by development.”

According to Arnold, Crossrail, London’s new railway due to open in 2018, has, and will continue to have, a harmful impact on the area.

“Soho has never been a destination point,” said Arnold, “It’s somewhere most visitors discover when they’re trying to get from Regent Street to Charing Cross Road, or Fitzrovia to Leicester Square. It is and always has been the happiest accident. To suddenly [make it a destination point] is going to dramatically change that happy accident.”

The development of Crossrail, it seems, is to blame for a great deal of the chopping and changing going on in Soho. Last year, it was reported that the area’s Curzon cinema may be demolished to make way for a ticket office. A petition to save the cinema, posted on 38 Degrees, now has over 20,000 signatures.

Back to Tower Hamlets town hall. Michael is something of a fixture on the London gay scene in general, be it Soho, the East End or Vauxhall, and has a lot to say about what’s going on. “It’s about time our community bloody woke up,” he says from behind a cloud of e-cigarette smoke. “This is not just about the Joiners Arms. This is a real and present danger to our whole community.”

I ask the protesters whether they think the LGBT community in particular is under attack by councils keen on “sanitising” their boroughs. Glass is quick to answer.

“I think it’s a very British, stiff upper lip, conservative way of making a specific attack on the community,” he says. “These politicians just don’t have a clue. Their world is predominantly rich, white, straight, able-bodied Etonites. I don’t know if they’re inherently evil, they’re just clueless about what real people have to face.”

To me, it seems unlikely that gay venues are being singled out. Closures of LGBT bars, pubs and clubs, it appears, are just a very nasty by-product of a far broader programme of sterilisation currently underway in our capital. Sky-rocketing rental costs, of both commercial and residential properties, are bleeding areas like Soho of creative energy. And, as a wise man called Sleazy Michael once said, we need to wake up.

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

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”