As the beloved George and Dragon closes its doors to a beloving set of punters one last time, news that the LGBT venue’s owners have ACQUIRED a new venue has relit the spark and given one last middle finger up to gentrification. As a relaunch special, trans woman, writer, performer Kaye Crawford writes how the opening of The Queen Adelaide is more than just another gay pub.
The Dragon may be dead, but the Queen lives on…
“It was tiny, Julia’s living room, full of retro knick knacks and quirky Crisperanto characters but always warm and inviting with no sense of danger or judgement. I was thrilled to hear that the landlord has now acquired another venue, the Queen Adelaide, which promises to be the next episode in the George & Dragon series but I can tell you from experience, it will be far more than that.”
In the Queen Adelaide, you have a chance to take back all that was lost.
Much like the dear departed Duchess of Windsor, I am now somewhat of a self-imposed exile. On the odd occasion I do take a dainty mincette through the streets of Soho, a twink-turned-hipster will stop me and after much air kissing and a quick rundown of the latest news, gossip and scandal, the conversation inevitably turns to the “good old days” and “Do you remember when?”.
And I do remember. I remember when the aforesaid twink, now complete with Brian Blessed style face furniture, eschewed all the venues with character he now misses so dreadfully to pour his money into cheap neon-coloured booze in the meat market that is G-A-Y because he was more concerned about playing Mummies and Daddies with a Harry Styles lookalike than he was about supporting the historical venues now facing demolition or worse; being turned into yet another bubble tea café.
When a march was held last year to save Madame Jojo’s from closure, I was amused (and irritated in equal measure) that in my six years at that venue, I hadn’t seen one of those marching down Old Compton Street at the bar buying a drink and contributing to paying Jojo’s bills.
“I will concede that in Vauxhall and Shoreditch, gentrification is decimating LGBT nightlife but in Soho, the villains are not Qatari princes or Tory landowners – it’s the LGBT community itself.”
Picture it. Madame Jojo’s. 2012. Resident hostess and the undoubted Queen of Soho, the Very Miss Dusty O, and I began work on a live stage production of the popular 1980s sitcom, The Golden Girls with an all drag cast. We had spent the last two years producing pantomimes and I doubt that anyone who was in the audience for our version of Cinderella will ever forget the sight of an inebriated Princess Julia staggering across the stage as Buttons in true Mrs Overall fashion, upstaging the entire cast with no effort required and with the entire venue united in its adoration of this legend of our community.
For all three shows, Aladdin, Cinderella and The Golden Girls we received little to no encouragement or support from the management. Everything we did, we had to do ourselves and whilst the gay press were hugely helpful, what we really needed was what every venue needs – punters.
The management quite rightly only cared about profit, gay venues are not community centres, they are businesses and if they can’t afford the rent then they can’t stay open on goodwill alone. But to fill the venue was a struggle. Not because the show was crap or the concept weak but because we had to try and prise the baby gays from their beloved pop factories where all they seemed to want were the same tunes by the same artists, the same drinks shared with the same faces and the same venues offering the same thing. How on earth could we possibly compete?
“Now, there is no alternative. The Joiner’s Arms, the George and Dragon, Madame Jojos, Escape, The Stag, The Astoria, 79CXR, The Green Carnation – all have gone and with them, the opportunity to see LGBT culture at it’s finest.”
I will never forget watching the late great Joan Rivers torture and savage at the Astoria, that filthy former cinema in a state of permanent collapse which was probably only held together by the trysting couples in the alcoves. The George & Dragon where the legendary Lavinia Co-Op gave us her own unique interpretation of the Dance of the Seven Veils, a kind of emaciated Barbara Cartland casting off layers of pink chiffon to a spell bound crowd.
And Jojo’s. My beloved Jojo’s. Walking down those stairs and stepping into the Art Deco interior was like taking a walk into another age. Beautiful girls with victory rolls and perfect white panstick faces, a slash of red lipstick and divine fashions danced with middle aged men in tea dresses, a twink dressed as a sailor would be necking with a 90 year old transvestite in a nun’s habit and the stage was bright, colourful and inviting, the endless parade of 80s legends and the best talent the scene had to offer filling the dance floor with laughter, character and the odd hokey cokey.
We danced the hora for birthdays, we swooned over Mari Wilson and Boy George, we purposely ignored the interminable Lady Gaga tribute acts and in that one venue each week, we built a dysfunctional but devoted little family. And then it all collapsed. I was reminded the other day in the middle of Old Compton Street that during one residency of mine, a bar owner interrupted my performance to put on the X Factor. An audience which was bemused but overjoyed to find they had been forced into an impromptu knobbly knees competition suddenly had the life sucked out of the venue and I apparently proclaimed, “This is the end of Soho” there and then.
I must have been having one my psychic Shirley MacLaine days. But I was right. I watched in disbelief as the bar filled, people sat in silence, their faces upturned to watch a live entertainment programme….in a live entertainment venue. One after the other, the venues began to close and with them, any chance to make memories. Soho had been built upon a collective need for a supportive, creative and tolerant atmosphere, it was carried on the backs of remarkable individuals such as Dusty O, Tasty Tim, Rose Garden, Maisie Trollette, Ruby Venezuela, Lavinia Co-Op, Lady Imelda, Mrs Moore and Myra Dubois and it survived because each new generation made its own unique contribution to the vibrant patchwork quilt that was our cherished scene. But where did you go?
With every passing week, there were fewer faces. The management became nervous. They wouldn’t let us try new ideas or take a gamble as we had once done. We drifted away, you drifted further and before we all knew it, we woke up one day and found that it was impossible to recapture. How tragic. How devastatingly sad. And yet, how unavoidable.
The George and Dragon in Shoreditch was one of my favourite venues. It was the only place in London where you could get a port and lemon, listen to Renee and Renata and then watch an episode of Hi-de-Hi! (and Su Pollard was probably in the corner in full Peggy regalia). I was thrilled to hear that the landlord has now acquired another venue, the Queen Adelaide, which promises to be the next episode in the George & Dragon. It will become the last vestige of the nightlife so many people say they miss.
It will be your opportunity to indulge your creativity and build your own warped take on the bright young things of yesteryear. It will be your safe haven and your place to run to as the corporate gay venues suck the charisma and eccentricity out of Soho and replace it with reality TV stars, body image fascists and cheap and tacky diversions.
In the Queen Adelaide, you have a chance to take back all that was lost. And if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. Ignore it, take it for granted and a wealthy Shoreditch hipster will have it turned into ‘Haircuts for Hamsters’ within the fortnight. Gentrification is destroying the scene. But it can only be successful in that aim if you let it. Make the few venues you have left special and precious, make them profitable and make them non-negotiable and in ten years’ time, you won’t talk of “the good old days”.
Because they won’t have disappeared.
Words – Kaye Crawford
Images – Courtesy of Emily Rose England