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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 But last June the club closed down after its licence to stay open beyond midnight was revoked, making the business untenable.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

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist