A weird ending to a very weird year.
While most of us spent a good deal of 2012 trying to forget the innate tragedies of our own existences by going to places we've fooled ourselves into thinking we enjoy, I spent a lot of mine looking in on other people's tragedies. In the service of this website's Big Night Out series, I frequently found myself a long way from home, examining the darker sides of the human party experience – my own Jägerbomb-stained version of The Kinsey Reports. From Hollister homophobes in the student sprawl of Newcastle, to lurking Kabuki-masked goths off the City Road, the various photographers and I have been on some kind of twisted year-long subculture safari. Something that's obviously had a strange effect on my psyche, because I've started to find myself at places like the Sports Cafe out of choice, like a lorry driver who insists on driving via Felixstowe on the family holiday.
This weird year deserved its own weird finale, and this grand send off came to me in the form of an invite from "The Imaginarium", an end-of-year/Christmas bash for just about every subculture that has some kind of presence within the M25 – think Jools Holland's Hootenanny with less Rowland Rivron and more gimps. I imagined it to be something akin to the beginning of The Warriors; a tribal gathering, an aesthetic amnesty in the interests of uniting against the norm. From psytrance heads to steampunks to "cyburlesque" fetishists, they were all on the cheap list. I wondered if some kind of goth Guevera figure was going to make a rallying speech before they all took arms and decimated Tiger Tiger, slashing the leopard skin seats and pissing in the vodka fishbowls.
Batteries charged, it was time to get balls-deep in 2012's last Big Night Out.
Weirdly, the theme of the night was "beachwear/swimwear", which isn't exactly the kind of dress code you'd expect the legions of darkness to be prepared for. Afraid that if I didn't conform I'd be brought out in front of the baying crowds as some kind of seasonal sacrifice, I had to do as the locals were doing, so dug out a Hawaiian shirt that seemed to have been used to plug a drain since I last wore it in the summer. I was looking more like a Newquay surf shop employee than an amphibious steampunk overlord, but it was enough to guarantee me entry.
If there's another thing that doing this series has taught me, it's that if you ever find yourself thinking 'A multi-subculture Christmas bash? Where on Earth would you hold that sort of thing?' The answer is always Vauxhall. The whole place is inundated with enough cavernous dens of iniquity to exist as a kind year-round, all-day Burning Man for Westminster lackeys who need to let off all that admin-induced steam with the occasional 15-hour GHB binge.
I've often wondered if the Starbucks opposite the station gets much spillover from the Vauxhall Triangle scene – if guys like this ever wander in asking for a hazelnut latte and a key to the Stargate, or if 2CB-loaded turnaways from Fire and The Hoist ever mistake a graphic designer's yellow cords for being code for "into watersports".
This being a festive extravaganza, part of the venue had been overtaken by some kind of mini-market for those among us who find Chapel Street's selection of batteries, cut price shower gel and knock-off Lonnie Donegan CDs a bit limited. This stall seemed to specialise in brightly-coloured trinkets that I guess had something to do with being "alternative". I wasn't sure of the appeal, but it probably was the only place on the planet where our man here could finally find that elusive weed grinder to match his trousers.
It being the season of goodwill and all, there were also a few novelty gift ideas going on. I struggled to see who would part with their hard-earned cash for a bright green pillow with a crudely drawn penis on it. Porn impressarios? Brothel interior decorators? Perhaps, but the problem there is you're always going to hit a glass ceiling in terms of profitability, I can't see DFS picking this line up any time soon.
It quickly became apparent that the best way to treat the night was as a kind of subculture treasure hunt, a tick-the-box Michelin guide in which you seek out steampunks and Prince Alberts rather than Beefeaters and windmills. It wasn't long before I came across these two – a standard-issue cybergoth type and a woman who looks like the madam of a dystopian whorehouse from a Philip K Dick novel. These two seemed like they might have been "together", which confused me, because I always saw cyberpunks as strangely sexless creatures – future-world eunuchs consigned to huffing Vicks-filled gas masks, unable to pursue physical relationships due to their amphetamine dependencies and tight trousers. Still, good luck to them, I can't wait to see what the bridesmaids will be wearing.
Then of course you had your classic middle-aged steampunks. Are there any steampunks under the age of 35? It seems like something you get into in your advancing years, like real ale or swingers parties.
To be honest, I'll never really "get" steampunk. I mean, who actually thought Wild Wild West was worth seeing a second time, let alone basing your entire life around? I know half of Dalston dresses like Will Smith in the Fresh Prince, but Wild Wild West really doesn't warrant that sort of reconsideration. In what scenario outside of a desert steeplechase would anyone need a top hat and goggles anyway?
Naturally there were a few people there whose hearts just weren't in it. I got the impression that these ladies had probably read something about how Torture Garden is "actually a lot of fun" in Cosmo and had decided to give the Imaginarium a whack. They probably thought 'I've seen a few episodes of Sexcetera, I've read the dirty bits in Fifty Shades of Grey, I can handle this.'
But nothing could prepare them for the true horror of the Imaginarium. They had expected frivolities, fetishisation and flirting, and instead they got this. A man who looks like a Lucien Freud painting that's been possesed by a spirit demon stalking the corridors of South London clubs. They expected suggestion, they got a shaved phallus swinging against their frilly skirts like a medieval booby trap. They wanted titilation, they got indecent exposure. It was as if a gaggle of tourists had stumbled across a real-life dead prostitute on the Ripper walk.
Interestingly and somewhat worryingly, this guy also popped up in one of our previous excursions into the underground wearing a remarkably similar outfit. It became clear that he must be a fixture on the scene. I wondered if he turned up and other people in the fetish crowd thought, 'Oh look, it's naked John again,' in the same way that I always seem to see Jaime Winstone whenever I'm out.
Some people were still up for making a bit more effort than getting the birthday suit out of the dry cleaners. I'm not sure what the thought process behind this look was, but at least it required some more thought than 'Lynx under me pits, shoes for the walk home.'
Maybe this was the dark side of the onesie generation, the first example of a teen who said: "I do like wearing fluffy all-in-ones, but I'm more into Type O Negative than One Direction, tbh." This man could well be the Charles Manson to Harry Styles' Paul McCartney – the dark heart of the post-Skins era.
Ladies, I appreciate the effort you've made for your mate's 25th, but those looks are calling to mind a saucy production of The Mikado at the end of a very short pier in a dilapidated seaside town rather than something out of the Marquis De Sade's boudoir.
Ever been on a flight to Japan and thought, 'That guy looks a bit old to be travelling ecomony class to Tokyo. Why's he on his own?' Well, I've never been on a flight to Japan and I doubt I ever will, but these girls are probably the reason why. There's something in their eyes that tells you they do very weird things to very weird men for lots and lots of money.
I genuinely had no idea what this guy's deal was. Are Nuts getting on the Big Night Out hype and sending their own correspondent down? Or did this poor bastard mistake this as an easy place to get laid? Did he think that Jamie Jones was playing here tonight? I wanted to point him in the direction of 93 Feet East, but strangely he seemed to be enjoying himself.
In hindsight, he was probably enjoying himself because the night's soundtrack consisted of some of the hardest brostep this side of an Illinois frat house beer pong 'n' buttchug session. The constant assault of the pancreas-vibrating bass would have been enough to make Rusko come over to the DJ and say, "Listen mate, you might wanna turn the mid up a bit. My fillings are coming out."
For some reason, this guy started doing this. Nobody seemed to mind. Much like the neon juggler at the psytrance night I went to a few weeks ago, I couldn't work out if this guy was employed by the club or just doing this on a voluntary basis. My recollection is hazy, but I think his stick did light up at some point. I can't imagine the venue would have just let him wave what looks like a crutch for a gigantism patient around without it at least lighting up.
Also, congratulations to the top hat raver for wearing arguably the most horrific clubbing accessory I have ever seen. It takes a lot to worsen the act of wearing a top hat to a club, but scrawling the words "rave on" in neon pen on it might just manage that. If this hat was a band, it would be Phish covering Sam and the Womp songs.
As the night wore on, the real creeps came out to play. I don't want to cast any aspersions on this lounge lizard, but as a general rule of thumb, it's probably best not to trust a man who's willing to take off his trousers before his T-shirt.
The night was slowly morphing into a kind of phantasmagoric mash-up of every look that's ever gotten somebody's head kicked in in a mill-town. It was every tribe of weird under the sun, all gathered together to worship at the twin idols of flesh and unlistenable music. I imagined this is what both Liz Jones and Abu Qatada think every club in Britain looks like; a cathedral of sin, a subhuman city of filth that deserves to be smited by the Lord and local council alike.
On realising this, I started to enjoy myself a little more.
I've said this before, but subcultures really do play an important part in our societal make-up, and one that's getting more important with every day. I've visited a lot of different parts of the country this year, and when you do that you begin to realise it's places devoted to nightlife, subculture and drinking that best retain a sense of identity in the face of sweeping homogeneity.
Portsmouth and Newcastle might be indistinguishable in the bland, pedestrianised daytime nightmares they force the people who live their to dwell in when the sun's out. But at night, you know exactly where you are. It seems to me that in the age of consensus politics, Jack Wills Blackshirts patrolling the high roads and Ellie Goulding, it's our nightlife that defines the nation. In an era of uniformity, it's not until we get fucked up that we truly understand who we are.
The great thing about studying parties is that people are at their most honest. Yes, some of them obviously look a bit stupid, but humans are a bit stupid, aren't they? We are simple creatures. We like melted cheese, soft flesh and just about anything that fucks with our pleasure receptors. We like to paint neon symbols on each other's chests in the misguided idea that it makes us look cool. I'm not really sure what these guys are aiming for.
It's my firm belief that Ibiza Uncovered is as much a defining text for British culture as any Chaucerian tale, Labour Party manifesto or Plan B "social opera". The common link between most of the people in this sinking state is not the way we vote or the TV we like, it's the way we get fucked up.
It's one of the few aspects of society that every class, both genders and almost every social group get involved in. Cambridge University students and satellite town emo kids might not listen to the same music, but believe me, both groups fucking love downing Jägerbombs. There's something inherently amusing and heartening in the fact that bros in Superdry hoodies and bros in PVC scuba masks will both dance to "Tainted Love" if it's played at the right time. Going to parties to observe drunk and high people makes you see humanity at its purest – the superficial differences and the deep-set similarities.
The depressing part is you realise that almost all clubs are the same: overpriced, black-walled black holes populated by disinterested staff, over-keen promoters, Freudian textbook-case bouncers and bar staff with crushing FOMO complexes. And every one of these places seem to play "Au Seve" and Rihanna tracks. British nightlife might be growing more homogenous, but there's still enough naked guys out there to keep it interesting.
Follow Clive on Twitter: @thugclive
The biggest Big Night Outs of the year: