Fuck Boris Johnson; Save London's Nightlife
A love letter to People's Club in Holloway – one of many life- and city-defining nights out under threat from the forces currently shaping London.
It's no secret that London's nightclubs are under attack right now. In fact, it's a citywide outrage. A war on fun that a thousand petitions can't seem to halt. From those that have already closed – Plastic People, The Buffalo Bar, The Joiners Arms, Madame Jojo's – to the numerous others that've been threatened with closure, including the totemic granddaddy of them all, Fabric, we are witnessing a miserable purge against the dark rooms that shape the lives of young Londoners and in which the city's cultural identity is forged.
There seems to be a wide-ranging arsenal available to anyone who wants to shut down a club these days. Madame Jojo's, a Soho club so archaically seedy that Kubrick filmed part of Eyes Wide Shut there, was closed and will be bulldozed after bouncers pulled out baseball bats on assailants hurling glass bottles that struck them and members of the public. Fabric, a venue that people will happily get on a plane to visit, has only just managed to retain its license by promising to provide sniffer dogs at the entrance. The Astoria and Sin were knocked down to make way for Crossrail, London's new Stargate to the suburbs, and the Joiners will make way for flats. Gentrification has many ways to get what it wants.
The latest London institution to find itself in the crosshairs is People's, a club on Holloway Road that has been serving a predominantly Afro-Caribbean clientele for over 30 years, only to find itself at Highbury Magistrates' Court last week, fighting for survival. The details of what it's in the dock for are sketchy. Apparently there have been complaints from locals about problems with parking and pissing, as well as a few scuffles outside. This is apparently enough to put the 24-hour license of one of London's longest running nightclubs – and by extension, the nightclub itself – on death row.
In the last year or so, the story of People's has become a personal one to me and my friends. Having lived nearby for a while, we'd often wander past on our way home and wonder if we could put on our own party there. Soon, a monthly club night called Eternal was born, which became a Thursday night fixture, packing out the 200-capacity venue with people from all across London and DJs you just wouldn't expect to find in a place so small and intimate. It also led to us becoming unlikely friends and allies (they call us "the whiteboys") with owner Tony "Bossman" Hassan and the rest of the People's management.
As the hearing for the club's future got underway, I went down to February's Eternal to speak to the people involved and try to understand what People's means to those who party and work there, why it's come under threat, and what chance it really has of staying open.
A typical Saturday morning at People's
The place has existed just off the map of London's club scene for over three decades now. Officially a "social club" rather than a nightclub, it retains a loyal cast of regulars and is a cult concern for a chunk of London's Afro-Caribbean community. Its Friday and Saturday nights play a raucous cacophony of reggae, pop, bashment, rap and slow jams, and it's almost always rammed.
It's a basement club with an upstairs bar, the kind of place you don't see very often any more; all low ceilings, wooden fixtures, sticky floors, with a bassy soundsystem and bottles of lemonade behind the bar. It calls to mind a strange hybrid of a seaside bungalow, the bar in Goodfellas and Lee "Scratch" Perry's Black Ark Studios. Warehouse Project it is not.
The club has been run by the same family since the day it opened, and it shows. It speaks to an old style of going out, one that's more about community than line-ups, constancy rather than novelty. It's a club that keeps it down and dirty, (which is probably part of the reason the council want it gone), yet its welcoming air seems like something from a bygone era in the age of wristband rave.
In the short time that Eternal has been running, we've managed to book acts that never get to play places like this any more. Since last February this reggae club in Lower Holloway has seen the likes of Jamie xx, Jacques Greene, How To Dress Well, Oneman, George Fitzgerald, MSSNGNO, Koreless, Evian Christ, a PC Music takeover night and much more. These are acts who usually play Croatian festivals, who do events at the Barbican, who work with Kanye, but they come to People's because it's different.
Running alongside Eternal is the club's real draw: the historic regular nights they've been doing here since the early 80s, when the sounds of Burning Spear and Black Uhuru ruled the dancefloor. To come to People's on a Friday or Saturday is to experience something increasingly rare in the city Boris is building. A truly organic, truly London clubbing experience. The crowd is multi-racial, mono-up-for-it. From original Rastas to rudeboys, to white girls and suits, it's totally real, totally London. It's Carnival under a roof, twice a week.
There are no wristbands here, no fleecing promoters, backstage passes, early-bird tickets, call-times for the DJs or street teams outside. They sell rubbers and Rizla behind the bar, and keep the fridges stocked with peach wine and Dragon Stout. The queue isn't full of misplaced students bombing their supplies before the dogs get to them, rather people who are there to soak in the atmosphere of the place and let the music take control. It's a nightclub, not an airport with a DJ.
The place is known for its array of hand-drawn signs, which range from the understandable "no drinks in the DJ booth", to the niche "no vulgar bashment tunes please". So iconic are the signs at People's that Turner Prize winner and local legend Jeremy Deller even immortalised them in his work.
All these component differences create a feeling of uniqueness; I can't stress enough how different it is to everywhere else. And a major part of that difference is down to its 24-hour license, which was known to manifest itself in barbecues on the roof terrace, until the authorities put the cosh on that.
People's is a club designed for you not to be able to stand at the back and nod your head, it's a club where you have to take your coat off, it's a club where you have to dance. It's a club where your personal space and state of mind are going to be invaded, whether you like it or not. It's not a club where you can catch a quick DJ set and get the last tube home.
Presiding over all this is Tony "Bossman" Hassan (pictured here next to a mural tribute to himself inside the club), a Londoner who's been running the club for 16 years now ("It's a part of my soul," he tells me). I ask him why he thinks the club is under threat.
"We've got a 24-hour license, which is easy to get, but hard to keep hold of. I don't know whether it's part of the cleansing which seems to be going on in this part of Holloway, but they're giving us a hard time about it.
"We don't want the residents to have sleepless nights; I wouldn't like it either. So we put security round the corner, brought in resident's parking like they do with Arsenal [the football club's stadium is a five-minute stroll away] but they didn't seem to want to hear any of our offers. In 30 years, the radar has never been on People's Club – until now.
"You can see what's happening: all these little clubs closing down, turning into coffee bars. They're treating us like children, they all want us to be in bed by 10PM. Where's a Londoner supposed to go any more?"
But just how important is the 24-hour license to People's? Could Hassan run the club without it? "It's very important to us, because it allows us to run the club the way we want to run it. We only open Fridays and Saturdays, and Thursdays once a month. We usually close at 6 or 7, I don't think we've disturbed anyone too much," he says. "If we can only stay open 'til two, it's all over. It's called bankruptcy, it's called the jobs of 16, 17 people. It'll finish it. It's just not really worth it after that."
And what will he do if Islington Council decide to shut the place? "It'll hurt me badly. It's not about the money, it's about what we've built up over these 30 years." Nevertheless, he remains defiant. "But you know what? I'll still run it; I'll still open up like normal until they handcuff me and take me away. Because I haven't done anything wrong."
Earlier this week, Hassan, some of People's staff and regular promoters went down to Highbury Magistrates' Court for the hearing regarding the club's future. After listening to the prosecution witnesses, including some local council types and the two residents who complained, the hearing was postponed until April after questioning overran. Which, at the very least, buys People's a couple more months.
Everyone's optimistic about the case, but the wider question that concerns all of London's nightlife is whether anyone in authority is really that interested in keeping somewhere that holds no appeal for them open. Alas, for all its cultural weight, nightclubs just aren't that viable in London any more.
If People's does go, the effect of the club's closure will be devastating. More so than perhaps any of the other closures I mentioned earlier, because People's is a club that's still relevant, hosting some of the most cutting-edge acts on the planet in an affordable, unusual setting, and remaining a vital place in the city's Afro-Caribbean culture. Not to mention the people who work there, the people who love it there and the area of Holloway to which it belongs, which is slowly seeing the grim spectre of Upper Street consumerism creep up its ancient path.
On the surface, a bunch of London hipsters there to see Jamie xx and the predominantly local, Afro-Caribbean crowd that flock to the place on Fridays and Saturdays don't have much in common. They don't listen to the same music and they don't wear the same clothes, and one is of course undoubtedly more privileged than the other.
But what both groups do have is an interest in the real culture of the city, in its nightlife, its music, its fashions and its chaos. It's very easy to accuse any kind of change of being part of the gentrification cycle, and maybe there are elements of truth to that. But the fact is that cities need to stay cool to survive, they have to push forward to stop themselves becoming museums, and clubs are vital to that process. But the people ruling this city, the people moving into places on Holloway Road and complaining about People's, don't want nightclubs, they want coffee shops. They want to watch Wolf Hall, go to bed and have a few pale ales on a Friday night.
But London wasn't built on coffee shops and pale ale; it was built on innovation, tradition, integration and urbanism. You can get artisan foodstuffs in any First-World city on Earth, but you won't find another People's. It's a place whose specifics could only really exist in London, and yet the forces that are shaping the capital are trying to trample it in the rush to this city into Geneva-on-Thames.
I understand that not everyone wants a nightclub on their doorstep, but you know what? Maybe don't move to one of the most heavily populated areas in Europe, on what is essentially a massive A-road, with four or five other clubs in close proximity (including The Garage, where somebody was shot a few months ago), if you're the kind of person who tries to get places shut down. London is a city, and cities are noisy, dirty and full of nightclubs. A lot of us like it that way.
In short: Fuck Boris, save People's.