Severing The Links With London’s Past
London grows, and in doing so it sheds the past. The fabric of much that made the city special to Londoners is unravelling. Here’s another small example.
The city’s drag & cabaret pubs can trace their origins back to the old music halls. They hide in plain sight in high streets around the city – or at least until very recently they did. In Camden Town there were several of particular fame; The Black Cap and the Mother Red Cap (named after local witches) were conflated into one pub for the film ‘Withnail & I’. The Mother Red Cap was sold off without notice and gutted. Another, the Lemon Tree, simply vanished overnight. This week the area’s flagship, the grand old Black Cap – a veritable repository of music hall history, with unique tiling depicting the Camden Witches in its hallway – was suddenly closed by aggressive developers looking to flog it off as flats. Now there have been protests from the local community, who are appalled at the sudden closure.
Madame Jojo’s in Soho was closed under false pretences and The Joiner’s Arms in Hackney has shut, but I suspect this is not a conspiracy, just a sign of the times. It leaves just one more venue to go, in South London. The Royal Vauxhall Tavern (1863) looks like a Victorian coliseum. I first went there with my dad, when it had two separate bars with a stage and a trapeze. Dancers, drag acts and low comics would race along the bar, so you had to whip your drink up pretty sharpish not to have it kicked through the window.
It was never a genteel pub, but there were famous faces in the audience – Princess Diana once slipped out of the palace disguised as a man to see a show. I finally appeared there as part of the Hot August Fringe Festival. They had many strange and wonderful acts – I remember the night they gave a joint to every customer to test Lambeth’s relaxed one-joint-no-arrest attitude to marijuana – and it was a privilege to finally be taking the stage myself. Bear in mind that you’re within spitting distance of the Houses of Parliament, and the thought of drag queens on ceiling swings singing Gilbert & Sullivan arias takes on a strange new resonance.
If you grew up in central London there was a good chance you’d end up in one of these polysexual innuendo-filled places with your mates or even your parents. In his biography, Ray Winstone points out that he used to go to the only remaining venue in the East End, Benjy’s.
Now the Royal Vauxhall Tavern is shutting. Like predators circling wounded prey, developers play a waiting game, hoping their target will tire first. London’s connections with its past grow more tenuous every day, but the paradox is that this past is the very thing that attracts admiration. On the surface the city’s most obvious features remain, but the things that truly bound each street to its inhabitants are vanishing with incredible speed.
A few Victorian working-class pubs – who cares that they’re going? Another fund of stories turns into legend and is soon lost. Each neighbourhood has names associated with its history – Angerstein, Vanbrugh, Thornhill, Bedford – and many places carried these names into the present. So the names are removed and the buildings vanish, Soho turns into an upmarket housing estate, high streets homogenise – and with them a little more colour drains from the city I loved.