On Wednesday 12th August 2015, I attended ‘London’s Vanishing Queer Spaces’ at London’s British Film Institute. Where BFI National Archive Curator Simon McCallum presented fabulous rarely-seen footage, which included rarely-seen and rediscovered footage, of the Black Cap, South London’s world famous Royal Vauxhall Tavern and Derek Jarman’s videotape tour of long gone Benjy’s in East London.
My car journey to the evening began from my home in north London, driving past King William IV which has been at the heart of Hampstead village for over 200 years. One of the oldest gay pubs left still going in London. I had memories of when I first came out to myself around the age of 17. Borrowing some fake ID from a friend at college, pacing up and down outside 15 times; taking a deep breath and pushing the door to be greeted by the waft of cigarette smoke and musty smell of stale beer. I recall someone trying to chat me up, me knocking my drink back and dashing out the door. Hoping none of my parent’s friends or family had seen me.
Then in an air of nostalgia, I decided to take a different turning and drive past the now closed down Black Cap in Camden, my midweek haven when I was coming out and finding my identity. The pub was initially called the Mother Black after a local legend concerning a witch that had that name, according to licensing records (1751). In the winter of 1965/66 the pub becomes predominantly known for a gay clientele, and in the later 20th century it became known for its drag queen cabaret. A notable regular performer at The Black Cap was Rex Jameson’s drag persona, Mrs Shufflewick. The character Mrs Shufflewick was celebrated by artists such as Danny La Rue, Roy Hudd, Bob Monkhouse, Barry Cryer and Barry Humphries.
Whilst driving in my head I got into a political rant. Whilst there are those in the LGBT community trying their best to support us in not losing our queer spaces, I wonder is it just about gentrification and property development that we are losing them. These were the community’s hubs, a place to connect and come together, when we were still fighting for our rights. Or during the height of the HIV/ AIDS epidemic when we were commiserating the loss of our friends, where is that community now, is there a community?
I then drive past the turning for DPTM RIP, I smile recalling messy Sunday evenings with friends there. Then my car takes me near the original Trade, Warriors & FF Sundays, R.I.P once lived. Trade being the first ever club in the UK that opened its doors at 4am when people still made a real effort to go clubbing. So many faces and memories, aged 171/2 one of the first clubs I went to. Partied till the lights came on and went home had my mother’s lovely chicken soup and crashed for 14 hours. If only we had Smart or Apple phones back then we’d have an amazing archive of images and video footage, as unless you’d been there you would never know what the club achieved. Now where it stood is a multi-million block of flats. I wouldn’t like to sleep there, the ghosts of Trade past may haunt me at night.
I finally arrive at the BFI, bump into friends, walk into National Film Theatre Screen One. Why is it that the BFI attracts a whole different crowd of people? Where do these people hide all year round, a few familiar faces from my scene days or through work, BFI Flare the LGBTQ Film Festival attract a different side of the community? It strikes me that perhaps the community is seeking new spaces to go to away from the scene. Or even a community space where one can choose to be away from the club & bar scene. Or is it that places are not surviving as dating apps have been our community’s downfall?
Hearing and seeing footage the likes of clubs like Kinky Gerlinki I found it hard to breathe as memories flooded back of the friends I once met there. The panel discussion after was lead by Neil Bartlett Director, Author & sometimes performer. Panel members included Justin Bengry an Honorary Research Fellow at Birbeck College, University of London & current Project Researcher for the Historic England Leeds Becket University initiative ‘Pride of place: England’s LGBTQ Heritage’ which seeks to identify and celebrate England’s LGBTQ heritage. Tamsin Bookey an archivist by day and by night a DJ and cofounder of the long-standing Unskinny Bop, a queer feminist club in Bethnal Green. Ben Walters a critic who writes about cabaret, moving image queer and DIY culture for his blog nottelvision.net. Ben also is a member of the campaign group RVT Future and wrote the application to make the RVT a listed building.
The most interesting aspect for me of the BFI films were seeing from the footage shown & following the conversations that have not changed, we are more visible in the world as an LGBT community, but some still feel safer sitting on the fringes of our community, still have a real fear of homophobia.
After working in the LGBTQ community for the last sixteen years, I wonder whether now is the time to have a London based LGBTQ & Allies Community Centre, like many other cities around the world, a place where we can connect, come together and celebrate the spectrum of our sexualities in different ways.
On my journey home I drive past the Vauxhall Tavern, known to most as The RVT by those that frequent it. The RVT was built in 1863 at Spring Gardens, Kennington Lane, on land which was originally part of the Vauxhall Pleasure Garden. The RVT survived local redevelopment throughout the 1970s and 1980s and maintained its independence as a gay venue. Many of London’s top drag artists performed there like Hinge and Bracket, Regina Fong, Adrella, Diana Dors and where Lily Savage the drag persona of Paul O’Grady. I cross my fingers that this community venture survives.
I was met with a heavy heart as I made my journey back to North London. Remembering the fun times I have had in all these places, fun times of losing myself and finding my sexual identity, as many in my community may be able to relate to.
All I ask is please save our community spaces!