It's a fucking awful time for London venues; this city's cultural life is under attack.
Last night, we held our collective breath, waiting to see whether Fabric would be the next victim of the ongoing campaign by local councils, the Mayor's Office and their property developer buddies to gentrify, sanitise and vanilla-fy London into an endless series of poorly built "luxury" flats and pastel-coloured "leisure and retail complexes".
Islington Council's stated reason for putting Fabric's licence under review was eight drug incidents at the club, four of them tragically fatal, over a period of three years.
This morning, it was announced that Fabric will retain its licence, but will have to enforce new security measures, including ID-scans, extra searches and seven teams of sniffer dogs. Each dog and handler combo is £300 a night, the cost of which will be borne by the club.
While this is obviously preferable to yet another cultural institution closing, it's also stupid, quixotic, arbitrary bullshit. Fabric, however, still managed to release a very diplomatic response.
I caught up with my friend Simon Parkes, who founded and ran the Brixton Academy for 15 years, to get his thoughts. He gave a weary laugh. "It's actually impressive how wrong the authorities get it. Like, they can make a club owner beef up security. But if you're a young raver carrying a couple of pills – one for 11PM and one as a recharge at 3AM – and you see extra security, are you going to throw the pills away? No – you're just going to bosh both down right there. Which is obviously more dangerous than what you were originally planning."
This realm is one Simon knows well. Back in the early days of acid house, he was the first person in the UK to receive a 6AM licence and put on legal raves. He's spent a good portion of his career chasing down ecstasy dealers and knows how ingenious they can be, and how even supposedly well-meaning (or at least politically expedient) initiatives can so often actually end up making the situation worse.
The whole thing gets steadily more fucked up. Parkes continued: "The real trouble came with the 2003 Licensing Act... if clubs got too many marks against their record they would be shut down with no due process. This was obviously meant to show the government was tough on drugs. But what actually happened was that, if someone got ill at a club, instead of calling an ambulance and having it marked as an incident on their record, bouncers would just take them out the fire exit and dump them in some alley to be picked up by an ambulance the next morning. Their only concern became to get them out of the club, or they'd be shut down."
This is what our leaders don't seem to get: the more control they exert, the more they exacerbate the problem. If they come down heavy on MDMA, people will synthesise mephedrone and PMA; if they make clubbers miserable with invasive searches, people will just take their drugs at home or go to illegal squat raves.
In the specific case of Fabric, the police and council seem especially cack-handed. One smug phrase from PC Stephen Harris's report to Islington's Licensing Committee has been doing the media rounds: "The immaturity or lifestyle of these patrons leads to them becoming actively involved in the taking of illegal drugs, and this could account for the disproportionate and wholly unacceptable number of deaths and near death incidents at the venue."
Only, I did a bit of digging through the whole report (which you can read here), and it turns out that, of the eight incidents mentioned, only two are confirmed to have taken their drugs inside Fabric, and a grand total of one actually bought pills at the club.
Perhaps the committee can explain how bouncers are meant to check for drugs already in a person's bloodstream? Or how ID scanning, CCTV and sniffer dogs will do anything other than make people take more drugs outside the club?
Suddenly this appears to be less about protecting the vulnerable and more about a council and a police force instilling a vague sense of control and unease over a venue simply because they can. It's part and parcel of what is killing so much of London's nightlife.
One might also compare these four awful deaths over three years at Fabric with the 41 deaths that have occurred "in or following police custody" in England and Wales over the same period. Perhaps we should get a committee going for that?§
About six weeks ago I interviewed Keith Reilly, the founder of Fabric, around the time of the club's 15th birthday. He's one of the least entitled or self-pitying people I've come across, but even he couldn't help wryly noticing, "When a rock star checks into a hotel and takes an overdose, no one blames the hotel... nightclubs are just easy targets to get headlines." If there's anyone who truly cares for the folks partying at his club – anyone who would keenly feel their pain or loss – one gets the sense it would be Reilly.
But, for now, it seems that politicians and police will maintain their uncanny ability to consistently and fundamentally misread human nature, culture and just about everything life-affirming and fun.
Prohibition has never worked. It didn't work on the macro-scale with booze in the 1920s, or with the War on Drugs currently ravaging America's inner cities and much of the developing world. And it certainly doesn't work on the micro-scale of organising nightclubs.
In an age when even the UK government's top drugs advisor advocates education over punishment (even if he did get sacked for it), one can only hope that the authorities will one day learn to stop pissing in the wind with their nightlife policies.
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