I moved to London at the age of 18 to train at dance school. Moving on to this new stage of life meant leaning in to cultural practice and creation, and leaving behind my study of history (my favourite academic subject at the time), in particular a very selective knowledge of Russia. As you can imagine, I didn’t think I’d be hearing the word Czar mentioned in conversation for a good while. I turned out to be wrong about that.
Back in 2016 I first saw the advert go out for a new position in London’s cultural scene: the Night Czar. It was a role dedicated to ‘championing the value of London’s night time culture whilst developing and diversifying London’s night time economy ‘. Basically, the goal was to keep London’s night time venues open. Despite being known for our culture, these venues were closing at an alarming rate. Nightclubs, music venues, bars, pubs, and comedy clubs were all affected by the mix of rising rents, soulless property redevelopment, licensing and other issues, but the Night Czar was introduced to change that. Amy Lamé was appointed for the role: a performer, writer, activist and broadcaster who’d been co-running LGBTQ+ club night Duckie at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern weekly for 21 years. She’s been in the job for just over a year now and, while the highs and lows of the last twelve months can leave people to decide for themselves how successful she’s been to date, it does make me think of a larger question at hand.
As an artist myself, my commitment to culture and supporting artists has been ongoing for years. I’m quite a fervent believer that if I’d be willing to shell out 75 quid to see a famous musician, I sure as hell can afford to support the art my friends make and, unless I’ve been really skint at the time of showing, I’ll always buy a ticket rather than ask for a freebie. However it was only recently that I connected this commitment to the idea of supporting local.
In the past I’ve often thought of ‘support local’ as a purely sustainable or social movement. When we think about supporting local business it’s common to think of the groceries and clothes we buy, or the political policy that affects our local area, we rarely think to connect it to the culture we consume. It was really only when visiting Australia last year that I started thinking about it more. Yes, London was seeing nightlife (especially LGBTQ venues) decreasing, but by 2017 I realised this is something that’s been happening globally. When staying with friends who run an amazing theatre company in the city, I learned about how strict new laws have dramatically affected the nightlife of Sydney, decreasing footfall by as much as 84% in areas and having a huge knock on effect on artists due to multiple venue closures. I suddenly became acutely aware of how important it can be to support local cultural events and venues as part of a holistic, sustainable lifestyle.
‘It’s abundantly clear that the cultural steamroller of gentrification is the largest contributing factor to a situation that is now at breaking point. Destroying cultural hot spots in favour of empty blocks of luxury flats is the worst thing that we can do to this city.’ (source)
The thing is if you’re not supporting local, you’re often supporting big business, an area that’s generally good to avoid if we’re wanting to think sustainable. If you go out and decide to spend your evening at a chain restaurant, bar or cinema, you might unwittingly be depriving small local business people of money, and yourself of a rich cultural experience. This isn’t to hate on anyone who does go to chains of course; sometimes they’re really convenient, especially if you have specific dietary or lifestyle requirements that you know a certain chain can meet. We all end up in them from time to time, but today I’d like to make the case that if we’re thinking sustainable, let’s try and expand our ideas about supporting local. Let’s get out there and get involved with the local culture and arts, let’s see what the places we call home really have to offer. Maybe it’s time to say no to luxury flats, generic coffee shops or run of the mill food chains. Maybe it’s time to seek out small, independent and interesting instead.
This week, upon finally returning to London, I was lucky enough to try out something like this basically as soon as I got back. At the back end of 2017, The Blues Kitchen in Shoreditch asked me if I wanted to come in for a meal (something that has never ever happened to me before & which I really appreciated). I think they originally thought of me because they were putting their new vegan burger on the menu and they thought I might like it, which I definitely did, but it was actually the local culture element that really got me excited. Despite the fact that 40% of London music venues have closed down in recent years, The Blues Kitchen has live music every night of the week. It’s owned by The Columbo Group who, asides from the three Blues Kitchen locations, also own The Camden Assembly, The Jazz Cafe, XOYO, Phonox and The Old Queen’s Head, aka some of the best music and night life venues across the city. Ok, they aren’t the smallest business ever, but they’re definitely not a giant chain and they definitely do know what they’re doing. Each venue that they own has its own very distinct flavour and culture; keeping the independent artistic spirit that makes London night life so great, fervently alive.
Though we went on a Thursday night, The Blues Kitchen was absolutely packed out, and alongside the delicious veggie platter, vegan burger and the best espresso martini I think I’ve ever had, what the Blues Kitchen had was life. Real life. Instead of forgettable background music and a sea of garish uniforms the place was buzzing, people were dancing and we ended up staying for nearly four hours. It was a total dream. (Also here is a fun story because I’m an idiot: we listened to the music until we absolutely had to go because it was great, 10/10. I only realised two days later that we had actually been listening to Mud Morganfield, eldest son of Muddy Waters and amazing blues singer. Good job me.)
Supporting local is certainly sustainable, on a practical level alone local production for local use keeps our impact smaller. But by keeping it local we also share resource, investment and skills between smaller businesses instead of feeding more into the capitalist, globalised model of buying every throwaway thing possible and continually coming back for more. We work together and we collaborate but, most importantly, we have a bloody great time. There’s something so special about those smaller nights and smaller businesses, because it provides space for all. Just like those of us in the UK ethical blogging community who’ve been talking about collaboration over competition, it leaves space for everyone to be heard. It’s not just a world where the biggest musicians, the biggest venues and the biggest brands get everything, but instead we can support a whole bunch of independent artists who are working their butts off. We help each other and get to have more diverse experiences because of it, which is a pretty solid win all round. You could go to The Blues Kitchen every night of the week and have a different live music experience each time; not only is that amazing, but it provides real, tangible opportunities for artists. As someone who’s performed in many a dingy pub, community art space and cafe-come-gallery in my time I love and value that just as much as the other ethical businesses I’ve come across, and I hope to see that spirit thrive for many years to come.
So here’s to 2018 and beyond. Not just buying sustainable in my shopping, but also in how I choose to spend my nights out.