Fabric's Closure & The Rise Of A New British Puritanism
, September 8th, 2016 08:29
The news that London nightclub Fabric is to close has stunned the music community. Here, Luke Turner argues that this is another battle lost on Britain's rightwards shift towards a bland, corporate new puritanism of the strange post-Brexit landscape. Photo thanks to the Islington Tribune
This past Tuesday evening Islington Council revoked the licence of Fabric nightclub, putting nearly 300 people out of work and ending an institution that has fostered so many musical careers as it brought millions together in the communal joy of the dancefloor. The police naming their surveillance operation inside the club Operation Lenor arguably suggests a gigantic stitch-up, just the latest in a long line of club closures that have blighted London in recent years (see Ed Gillett’s Wreath Lecture for The Quietus here), largely to the benefit of property developers. With one of London's biggest clubs now gone, a dangerous precedent has been set - how long will it be before councils and the police start cracking down on smaller institutions like Corsica Studios, where the new luxury flats of the class-cleansed former Heygate Estate now loom ominously over the road? One notes that Baron James Palumbo's Ministry of Sound has never received the same level of scrutiny as Fabric, and that London's hip ACE Hotel (which derives the cachet that allows it to charge £300 per night from its association with underground music) never faced censure despite its owner dying of a drug overdose in one of its bedrooms. I don't need to point out that far more people die of issues related to the consumption of alcohol each week than do from ecstasy use.
The whole Fabric farago points towards a depressing, retrogressive trend in British culture towards a bland new puritanism. Last year at Berlin's CTM Festival I attended a lecture by Professor Rupert Till of Huddersfield University on the human need for dancing and ritual, how we developed language by moving around the edges of darkness as drums beat and fires flickered, likely as not under the influence of psychedelic roots and fermented liquids. As he said then, "Music making is a communal technology. The community that sings and dances together, stays together". The decision to close Fabric is about more than any one nightclub. This is about our divided nation.
The overwhelming rhetoric since the financial collapse of 2008 has been a rightwards drift that has succeeded in creating a 'them and us' society split between 'strivers' and 'shirkers'. The message, led by an increasingly rabid right wing media and abetted by a hapless mainstream opposition, comes from the Cameron and Osborne Tory narrative that if you're a 'hard working family' who knuckles down and gets on with life, then it might just be bearable. Never mind the nonsense spouted at the Islington Council hearing that faster BPMs might cause heart attacks - the repetition of that hackneyed phrase over the past decade has nearly tipped me to join the silent majority. What's so snide about it is everything that it sets itself in opposition to: the 'hard working family' to which we in Britain are supposed to aspire to be immediately sets itself in opposition to hedonism, the queer, the single, anyone who does not see that work and money ought to be the central motivating role in life. It is a phrase that demands absolute conformity.
Other dangerous chasms have emerged. The Baby Boomers have hoovered up the wealth in vast property portfolios which they now rent out at exorbitant prices, directly affecting the ability of younger generations to afford to participate in culture. The memory of the 60s and 70s as a universally hedonistic era might be a mythic one - most got on with their lives in fairly ordinary ways - but the mass media still celebrates those decades, and their hedonism, as a high point in culture. At the same time, those same media outlets will come down on the conformist, conservative side on a decision like that to close Fabric, or to ban certain drugs. Those who enjoyed the new freedoms of the post-war years now seem incredibly keen to close them down for the millennials, who they then brand as feckless and indolent.
The make-Britain-great-again narrative is of course a fiction. Its proponents dream of a day when the union flag might crack stiffly from poles outside sensible pubs and a pint of mild, where deference has returned, where full employment keeps hard working families in proper shirts and home. It has no room or time for the vast, swirling, colourful solar system of culture that has come from these islands, usually created, improved, made spectacular by the many who have come here as immigrants.
This new puritanism that we now face, which has closed down Fabric and so many other venues, works in two oddly opposing ways. On one hand there's a 1950s conformism that wants everything sanitised and above board, no risk, nothing naughty. It would rather have artisan coffee shops, boutique hotels and luxury flats than places where, just occasionally, something might go wrong when people take drugs. 'Hard working families' goes alongside 'Keep Calm And Carry On' in the Great British Bake-Off as it looks forward to a society where at night each room in every house glows from an HD TV set above the fireplace and a laptop in the kids' bedrooms. Perhaps Netflix and DVD box sets might be prescribed as useful societal control measures, like the telescreens of Orwell's 1984.
On the flip to this, though, the drift towards bland homogeneity does permit a certain sort of very British hedonism. We have always been great enthusiasts for intoxication, from the days when water was so dirty everyone drank beer instead, via the Georgian gin craze, to Victorian opium dens and slum boozers. We're a nation that excels at getting wasted, and you can bet your bottom dollar that councils, the government and police are going to do nothing to stop that. Sure, the government has brought in ridiculous new 'safe' levels of alcohol consumption that'd make even a modestly-tippling nun feel like a Special Brew enthusiast, but little else is likely to change. The pub piss-up, the house party, the mainstream end of clubbing more likely to be fuelled by Malibu than MDMA, these are all happily condoned or even encouraged by the authorities. Often conducted in premises controlled by huge chains, this culture-free hedonism is a mass guzzle at capitalism's boozy teat, unthreatening, simple, easily understood by our out-of-touch elite.
This all feels very British. It embraces this country's tendency towards anti-intellectualism, a particular fear of the other, of things that are a bit weird. It feeds on the assumption that anyone taking drugs is in some way 'damaged', that they need protecting from themselves. It does not understand that the millions who take drugs every week are fully aware that something could go wrong, just as every time we step into a car a part of the subconscious knows that the next half hour could see it going blank wrapped around a tree. The new puritanism seeks to control the uncontrollable, to remove all risk from life, to squeeze us all into a blandly conformist vision of Britain decided by on one hand the Little Englanders (of all classes) scattered across the landscape outside our big cities, and on the other by politicians who have never experienced life outside their dry, risk-averse bubble. It’s worth noting that politicians of all stripes are responsible for this. For all his promises and the imminent appointment of a Nightlife Czar, new London Mayor Sadiq Khan has been hopeless throughout the entire Fabric process, constantly making the excuse that the decision is out of his hands. Yesterday, Jeremy Corbyn’s press conference to announce his endorsement by half of UB40 was yet another example of a political class utterly out of touch with popular culture, let alone anything that might be considered from the artistic leftfield.
It is tempting, though perhaps should be avoided, not to see all this as an echo of Ali Perc’s 2014 track ‘London We Have You Surrounded’, imagining the capital as an island of liberal enthusiasm for clubbing, non-conformity, strangeness and tolerance amid a dead sea of conservative attitudes. This is of course very much part of the narrative of the divides exposed by Brexit. A city with a rising population needs more cultural amenities, not fewer, and although scenes around the country are increasingly vibrant, London continues to attract people who want to create networks and work in music and the arts. Yet our wider society continues to show disdain for those who want to choose this route for their lives. There’s often a sense that to either create art or to work in the supporting industries is not a ‘proper’ job. Envy is of course a powerful emotion.
London’s position of dominance within the UK is shifting, and this is no bad thing, but to have the capital as a place of 10 million people with barely anywhere to experience repetitive electronic music at high volume would be madness. In the same way as the Brexit vote may well remove opportunities to explore, grow and share from the generation now in their teens and for many more to come, the closure of Fabric and spaces like it is about denying futures, and forcing people down limited paths. Nightclubs are places where sexualities, genders and races meet, mix and understand each other - just as Professor Till put it, "The community that sings and dances together, stays together".
Nightclubs have been incredibly important spaces for me. Without the contacts and friendships made in them and the exposure to new music that I'd never have found trawling the internet, there is no way I would be writing this now. Without them The Quietus would not exist. Without them much of the music this website loves and has supported in our eight years would not exist. For all the freedoms and new networks of the internet, they're best complemented by a physical space in which people can meet, speak, dance, exchange ideas, kiss, fuck. Our nervous systems are stimulated by the presence of others, by the movement of the group, in a way that can never be replicated when online and isolated in small and overpriced flats. The closure of Fabric is another loss in what feels like an increasingly bitter and difficult war between those of us who love, live and breathe culture ranged against the conformist force of hyper-capitalism and its useful idiots in positions of power. I don't know quite how we can fight the new puritanism, but fight we must, in words, in music, in action, in debate, in love.