As another one of London’s most important queer venues shut down on Sunday, we spoke to the people who knew it best.
We wrote earlier this week about Paul Magazine, the new publication from Vivienne Westwood’s children, conceived of as a kind of political protest piece against the gentrification and sterilisation of Soho’s nightlife. The erosion of London’s underground scene isn’t just limited to Soho though; all over the capital and especially in East London, important spaces and venues are being closed down because of increased rents and the other problems associated with rapid gentrification – such as the imposition of blank homogeneity and conventionality onto unique and exciting areas. On Sunday, London’s underground culture suffered another blow with the closure of noted Gay pub, The George & Dragon. Never one to miss an opportunity for a party, The George gave itself a proper send-off (that we were sure to capture in these images below by Rebecca Zephyr Thomas).
As a popular midpoint between Vauxhall’s super-clubs and Soho’s ever-increasing sterility, The George was sometimes considered to be the gateway into East London’s queer scene and was instrumental in the gender-bending, subcultural club-fashion movement of the mid-00s. When we spoke to Richard Battye, The George’s owner, about the pub’s beginnings and he told us that “it came along at the right time, with the right people and it kickstarted something special. We decided to let things happen and they did. We started off with a range of events including guacamole making, jumble sales, both Jonny Woo and Prince Nelly worked the room with a mic which really pulled people together.”
From those early days, the venue quickly garnered a reputation for, in Richard’s words, “bloody good fun!” When we asked Omar Romanini, The George’s longest serving barman, the secret to the venue’s character, he said it was “the “DIY attitude” and the sense of freedom that it inspired. It wasn’t pretentious and people from any kind, gender, sexuality, race always felt welcomed and felt to express themselves. People knew there was a place for constant fun and creativity out of any rules or standards.”
In fact, the more we talk to The George’s queer cognoscenti, the more it becomes clear that the place gave new and beautifully subversive meaning to the term ‘family atmosphere’. London club-royalty Princess Julia was quick to talk about the communal dimension to the place: “it had a real family feel attached to it. A local boozer with a camp touch. It brought together a community not only in the area but became a real destination point. Everyone that worked there, played there and drunk there felt art of something wonderful.” Then there’s iconic DJ and figure head of the underground clubbing scene, Jeffery Hinton, who has similarly positive things to say about the pub’s reputation: “The George has acted like a friendly lighthouse and often a gateway for people to first meet other likeminded people, act up and play. Be it in its sleepy early evening form or messy nights.”
How did these messy nights play out? Well, it’s everything you would imagine really: in Jeffery’s words, a “chaos of bags, drinks, coats all flying in the air to the sound of random music…while dancing on the bar and tables in a kind of whirling soup of energy.” Wild nights and maelstroms of fun aside, though, The George had a deeply important socio-political role to play in London’s cultural landscape. Samuel Douek – a drag queen and filmmaker interested in exploring the disappearance of queer spaces in London – tells Wonderland that “queer spaces are vital for a city. The argument that it’s ‘fine for queers’ now is invalid in just as much as misogyny perseveres within the gay male community and racial discrimination remains a pertinent issue. However, not only are these space vital for the communities who need spaces of security and safety, they are hubs of creativity and fun that without, the city would lose its innovative integrity.” Unsurprisingly, Omar feels similarly passionate about the necessity of places like The George for London – “I think they’re essential as they’re channels for people to feel safe and encouraged to express themselves whatever they like, they create culture and strengthen communities, collaborations and exchanges.”
We know that venues like these are important – not least because, as Richard points out, we live “in a world which does not adequately prepare people for the intricacies of sexuality and gender” – but an equally important question is why these spaces are shutting down. It’s an issue too complex and multifaceted to exhaust here, but one primary cause certainly seems to be soaring rents. It was interesting, then, to hear what Richard (someone living and operating in Shoreditch during what were really the early stages of its rejuvenation and eventual gentrification) had to say about the area in the late 90s: “When I arrived in 1996, Shoreditch felt like a mad art school campus with David Lynch goings-on in a Dickensian setting, I didn’t stop to think about the community watching on as we covered their world with the next layer of regeneration. I didn’t think about buying one of their homes, which they were selling for a killing, to sell for a killing. I wish I’d thought more of both but I was enjoying being young with like minded people.”
As Samuel points out, it’s the arrival of gay culture “into typically deprived and discarded urban areas, ripe for appropriation, [that] is definitely one of the primary phases of archetypal inner-city regeneration.” From this vanguard movement things can quickly become commercial, and Samuel goes on to tell us that we “shouldn’t just point fingers straight at profit-hungry developers, although they shoulder the majority of the blame…However, decline in footfall and old business models that are no longer sustainable for 2015 have also contributed to mass closure. The AAA threat of increased Assimilation with heteronormative culture, the rise in online dating of Apps and the Austerity that followed the 2008 global recession have created a difficult climate to run any business, let alone a gay venue…” Although Jeffery also sees economic concerns as important, he reflects, “I’m older so have seen many places come and go and I see no purpose in moaning! Action is what counts and if you want a place you like to go on to then you have to support them or be involved in opening new ones.”
Wise words. But will there remain venues to support and the potential to open new ones if things carry on as they are? The guys we spoke to certainly seem to think so. Jeffery, in particular, has enormous faith in the Capital’s underground community, explaining that “London is remarkably adaptable, the most adaptable and resilient [city] in the world as far as I have discovered. I was born here, witnessed and been a part of this my whole life…It’s incredibly mixed and multi layered. I choose to spend most of my life here because of this; things always squeeze through the general complacency and find a way to shine somehow.” Even Samuel, whose justifiable anger at the eradication of queer space is obvious, believes that “the current state of London’s underground scene looks to be as strong as ever. Campaigns set up to reinstate closed venues and digital outcry towards the closure of the George and Dragon for example shows that we are not going down without a fight.”
A message of (relative) optimism, then. But as we’re all aware, it’s not that simple, and Samuel closes our chat on an ominous note: “If regeneration continues at its current pace, where else in inner city London will be left to set up the next big dance party? If Paris can be forgotten as the underground capital of the world then so can London…What’s left when it’s all Arabica coffee shops and Pret a Mangers? Nowhere I’d like to live.” Us neither.
Words: Benji Walters
Photography: Rebecca Zephyr Thomas
Photographer’s Assistant: Cressisow Butts