Today, social media has been awash with rumours that three of London’s iconic Soho-based LGBT bars – the Admiral Duncan, Retro and the Kings Arms – are at risk of permanent closure, despite the company that owns them denying that this is the case.
All three bars are owned by Stonegate Pub Company. In an email to Pink News journalist Josh Milton, a Stonegate representative said:
“The Admiral Duncan, Retro Bar and the Kings Arms have been closed since March when the government ordered a national lockdown. The myriad of restrictions placed on pubs and bars has meant it is not possible to reopen these businesses at the current time and they will remain closed until restrictions are eased […] The combination of these factors and subsequent impact on sales and volumes, means that we are having to rebase our business accordingly, while the restrictions remain.”
As a number of social media users pointed out, this statement did not answer the question of whether the venues have a viable future. When VICE News contacted Stonegate, a representative said that the pubs “will remain closed until restrictions are eased”.
Responding to rumours that redundancies are being made at all three bars, a Stonegate representative told the Evening Standard: “Whilst we are continually working to protect jobs, the challenges of curfews and Tier restrictions have had a significant impact on many of our businesses. The introduction of the JSS scheme is simply not practical as it stands for our closed late-night pubs and our severely restricted hospitality businesses. We continue to assess the scheme and fully intend to access this support where it makes commercial sense for us to do so to protect as many jobs as we can.”
On Twitter, in a public reply, the company’s official account said, “It is a top priority for us to preserve and maintain job security during these difficult times. We are doing our best to relocate any staff at risk into current vacancies across our business.”
Venue owners throughout the UK have warned that the current 10PM curfew and lack of late-night drinkers puts their businesses in a precarious position. While Stonegate’s statements suggest that they plan to reopen the three Soho bars when it is financially viable to do so, some are not so convinced.
“You have to wonder whether, financially, it makes sense for them,” says Alim Kheraj, journalist and author of Queer London, a forthcoming guide to the LGBT culture and history of the capital. “Each of these venues is in prime West End real estate. I wouldn’t put it past Westminster Council to encourage a sale of these premises for residential or other hospitality or retail usage.”
The possibility of losing the Admiral Duncan is particularly painful for many in the gay community, who view the pub as a symbol of survival and endurance. In 1999, it was the target of a far-right bombing that killed three people and wounded over 70. This remains the deadliest homophobic attack in British history.
The closure of LGBT venues in London is nothing new: in the last decade, the city has lost over half of its queer spaces. “The state of London’s LGBTQ+ scene has always been and will always be precarious,” says Kheraj. “Some people like to blame the rise of Grindr and hook-up apps for the closure of queer spaces, suggesting that LGBTQ + folk just don’t go out anymore. I think this is short-sighted and expects the queer community to somehow be able to withstand the forces of gentrification, which is really why these spaces are forced out.”
“The Earls Court scene ended because Soho became popular,” Kheraj added, “but also because the surrounding areas of Kensington and Chelsea caused house prices in nearby Earls Court to rise. Soho was seedy and fabulous, but attempts to improve the area with Crossrail and development have meant that venues have been wiped out. The same goes for the East End. Even before COVID-19, these spaces always existed on the precipice of closure, ready to be gobbled up by London’s insatiable appetite for gentrification.”
For these venues to survive the pandemic, they may well require top-down assistance from the government. It’s true that a number of LGBT venues and collectives in London (including Dalston Superstore, VFD, Sink the Pink and The Glory) received help from the Cultural Recovery Fund, but given the government’s priorities, the chances of help arriving in the scale needed to reverse this decline seem slim.