Seeing this article in the Guardian today about the eviction of the squatters on Denmark Street in Soho, London made me think a bit. A few years back the 12 Bar Club was one of my regular haunts. It was a chaotic and dirty, but personal and charming in a rock 'n' roll kind of way. Its demise is indeed indicative of what for me is a 'paradigm shift' (horrible phrase) in how we live now in London.
Previously areas were defined by the shops, pubs, businesses and clubs that had grown there. They had regulars, locals and passing trade that grew organically and without planning. The people who ran these places were legends and the places themselves, whether a shop, pub or venue had a huge presence and truly defined the area. In essence, these were very private establishments; owned and run people who had usually been in the area their whole lives: but because they were private, they were public. They were ours, not ‘theirs’.
The people who ran them had very little concept of branding. They were selling what they liked, in the way they wanted, to people who wanted to be there. They understood about repeat trade and customer satisfaction, but they wouldn’t change just to meet some ‘market demographic’. The result was, of course, that these places where quirky, unique, difficult and exciting, and probably not as profitable as they could have been because they reflected the point between what the boss wanted to do and what locals wanted to buy. So because they were local businesses, run by the people who owned the building, everyone who went there had a chance to influence the place. If you wanted some weird beer or record you could ask, and the owner would say yes or no or maybe, but either way your request was heard by the person who could decide.
Case in point: for a couple of years I lived in Bethnal Green, where I was a regular at the Old George. It was a proper boozer for scary geezers: sticky carpet, smoke billowing out of the door, Elvis impersonators on Sundays and no worries about closing time – the lock-in ran every night. The governor was a huge bloke called Tommy with a Kevin Keegan perm and two hands full of sovereign rings who once put me in a headlock for offering to buy him a drink: “Why would I want a toe-rag like you to buy me a drink – I own a fackin’ pub!”
And here’s a picture of it now:
We all have to move with the times, but sometimes the juxtaposition between what was and what is seems unnecessarily cruel. Of course, stinking boozers full of people who may or may not be petty criminals aren’t most people’s idea of a destination venue, but the point is that whatever it was, it was the real deal. Somewhere in between the space of Tommy’s long-planned retirement in Spain and a place where there was never any ‘bother’ to drink six pints of cockney fizzy keg on a Tuesday afternoon the terms had been agreed and signed.
So when we are invited to “interact with the brands we love in exciting new ways,” I could really vomit. We all know these places – the chain stores, the market-focused vertical drinking establishments, the consumer experience venues. There is nothing that belongs to the public here any more, there isn’t any deal, any give and take. The punters have been completely excluded from the entire experience as anything other than consumers: bring money, buy stuff, leave. The owners are far away and so are the managers. The whole area becomes soulless and boring because nothing is real – nothing of which you can really think you own a piece.