An “institution”, a “global beacon of club culture”, the “greatest underground club in the world” – is Fabric really going to be consigned to the rubbish heap of history? After Islington Council’s decision to revoke its licence on 6 September, it certainly looks that way and London’s nightlife will be all the poorer as a result. But how did we allow such a cultural travesty to take place and what can we do to ensure this doesn’t happen again?
Is Fabric a cultural asset?
As a nation, we might be shy about championing our successes – much more so than our friends across the Pond or our former friends across the Channel – but we don’t tend to purposefully sabotage ourselves if we are a world leader. Fabric is the only club on these Isles that is internationally renowned; the only club to be voted the world’s best by DJ Magazine; the only club where people would go with their suitcase, having come straight from the airport. Yet, there seems to have been little attempt to preserve it.
Last month, Times Higher Education ranked Oxford University as the best in the world – a first for a UK university. Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck in Bray spent seven consecutive years as one of the top three restaurants in the world – sitting top of the pile in 2005. It’s hard to imagine that they would receive the same treatment as Fabric were a comparable accident to happen.
Universities and restaurants may seem an unfair comparison, so why don’t we look at something a bit closer to the bone: Glastonbury. According to Fabric’s co-founder Keith Reilly, Fabric’s three distinctive rooms have been graced by over 6.75 million people – the equivalent of two Glastonbury festivals a year – and this comparison is appropriate, given the two of them can be rightly mentioned in the same breath. In an interview with trackitdown.net in 2011, techno DJ Chris Finke was asked where he got his ‘big break’ – his answer: my first set at “Fabric in London, my first set at Glastonbury”. Like Fabric is for nightclubs, Glastonbury is the only world-revered festival in the UK; a place renowned for good music; a place where people will inevitably take drugs; a place that has strict security and sensible safety measures – sound familiar?
Visit Britain claims that ‘Glasto’ is a “world-famous 5-day festival celebrating the best music, arts and culture from around the world”; a festival that attracts all age groups and, according to Staysure Insurance, is the number one choice for those aged over 50 – ahead, even, of the BBC Proms. So what’s the difference? Most people would agree that Glasto is part of the national fabric – a cultural leviathan that is celebrated by all age groups? Is Fabric not the same?
Let’s take them in turn. Culture is not easily definable, but most of the larger dictionary websites maintain that it is the characteristics of a particular group of people – a way of thinking and behaving – beliefs, customs, arts. As a home for live music, I think it’s a safe bet to say that Fabric is a cultural hub; a place that has “huge cultural significance to an entire generation” according to the local MP Emily Thornberry. Yet, as Ms Thornberry adds, this generation is “too often ignored and overlooked by politicians and policy makers”. If members of Islington Council’s Licensing Committee aren’t regular patrons of Fabric, does it suddenly not count as ‘culture’?
Different cultures should be preserved and celebrated. I think all politicians would agree with that – well, maybe not Trump. Jamie Jones, Ricardo Villalobos and Carl Cox may be household names for Fabric clientele, but they probably mean as much to Islington decision-makers, as Francesca Hayward (Ballet dancer), Jonas Kaufmann (Opera singer) and Peter Doig (painter) are to Fabric regulars. This isn’t a problem – the arts are subjective – there just needs to be an appreciation that people’s tastes are different and a respect for that.
Secondly, is Fabric for all age groups? Well, if we take the example of the Polish couple in their late 70s who danced away in Fabric until 5am in May this year, then yes, but I think it is reasonable to say that the average punter falls in the 18-40 bracket. Thornberry clearly agrees, while Chase & Status lamented that “the youth” will be the biggest losers of Fabric’s closure. As we have already noted with culture, music tastes are highly personal. Electronic music was not a feature before the 90s, so it’s hardly surprising that it’s not the genre of choice for the Baby Boomer generation. There is also undoubtedly a slightly older crowd at the Royal Opera House, so the fact that Fabric attracts a ‘younger’ crowd cannot detract from its cultural importance.
Why was Fabric allowed to close?
So – as we’ve discovered – Fabric is (you’ll notice I’m using the present tense, as I’m ever-hopeful) a vibrant, cultural institution – something that politicians should be trying to save – so why was it allowed to close?
Let’s recap. On 25 June and 6 August, two teenagers tragically died after buying and then taking drugs on the premises. This isn’t the first time it had happened; there has been six drug-related deaths since 2011. These deaths led to a review of Fabric’s licence and Islington Council’s Licensing Committee voted to revoke the club’s licence due to the “culture of drugs” that the management and security were perceived to be “incapable of controlling”. The Committee maintained that “staff intervention and security was grossly inadequate”, as was the searching of people coming into the club.
All those that have been to Fabric will know that simply isn’t the case. No other club will pull out women’s bras to see if something falls out or check the soles of people’s feet. Alan Miller, Chair of the Night-time Industries Association (NTIA), noted that “Fabric upholds a gold standard of professionalism in their operations”. DJ and producer Plastician acknowledged that “Fabric tried harder than anyone to stop drugs coming in”. If Fabric’s searching is “inadequate”, Gold help the rest of them.
Was there a hidden agenda?
Covering its closure, the Guardian reported that the Met Police “asked” the Council to shut down the club following the deaths. Many people have since suggested a police vendetta as the catalyst for the club’s closure, not least Fabric’s owners, who said that “the police no longer want to work with us… they started from the end point, and gathered [evidence] accordingly.” So is there foundation in these claims? Was another factor outside of these tragic deaths to blame for Fabric’s closure?
The Met first called on the Council to review Fabric’s licence in 2014, after four drug-related deaths at the venue in the preceding three years. In a letter to the Council, the police suggested a raft of unprecedentedly strict measures that should be imposed on Fabric if it were to stay open. These measures – such as paying for sniffer dogs to be on patrol – were accepted by the Council, but subsequently overturned in December 2015 after a successful legal appeal by Fabric’s owners, with the presiding Judge declaring that Fabric was “a beacon of best practice”.
The police were clearly unconvinced by this legal judgement, as they subsequently conducted an undercover operation into Fabric – aptly named ‘Operation Lenor’. Some of the findings of the Operation – namely that Fabric was a “safe haven for drugs” because its clientele was “manifesting symptoms” of being on drugs – was a key component in the Council’s “culture of drugs” verdict.
Maybe it’s far-fetched to say that the police were looking for reasons to shut down Fabric after the legal judgement, but enough of a connection has been made that the police were recently forced to deny that the Operation was an attempt at “getting the club back” for undermining its authority.
Rumours be rumours, but it seems that the police are not the only ones that have been criticised for their role in the Fabric closure conspiracy: an Independent article suggested the police were just “pawns” and that Fabric’s closure was a “long-term plan orchestrated by a hard-up council”. They point to the fact that Islington Council has had its funding cut in two since 2010 and is set to miss out on a further £70 million until 2020 as evidence of being “hard-up”. They point to fact that the Council only listened to selective evidence with regards Fabric’s safety and security practices before making its final decision. They point to the fact that the Council considered the club a nuisance and not a cultural asset.
A councillor for the Clerkenwell ward, Cllr Raphael Andrews, pleaded with the Licensing Committee to pull the plug on Fabric, as he felt the “management of this club really doesn’t take into account the safety of its patrons.” A view that is at odds with that of a member of the Fabric bar staff, who said that “Fabric really takes a lot of precaution when it comes to customer safety”. Noting the medical team, the first-aid room and the instructions given to staff when spotting someone who is unwell, the staff member reiterated that “the club really cares about the people coming there”.
As it turned out, Cllr Andrews’ views were more widely held on the Committee than those of someone who actually worked at Fabric and witnessed the safety measures first-hand.
Is there hope for Fabric?
Conspiracy theories – however fun – don’t have a good record of being true, let alone a good record of changing the past. Neither do petitions: 150,000 people called for Fabric to be saved, but those signatures were only mentioned once during the Committee’s hearing. If petitions worked then this year, letting agents’ fees would be outlawed, Trump would be banned from the UK and Jeremy Hunt would be sacked as the Health Secretary. One can but always hope.
The NTIA has also set up an alliteratively-named ‘Fabric Fighting Fund’ to challenge the decision, which, at the time of writing, has amassed £310,000. Fabric’s owners may have had legal success in the past, but this is a different kettle of fish, and it may now be a case of ensuring this doesn’t happen again to another of London’s major nightclubs.
Much of the debate following Fabric’s closure rightly revolved around the UK’s attitude towards drugs. Clearly closing Fabric will not do anything to stop people from taking potentially-dangerous drugs, but, to be fair to the Council, this wasn’t actually their view point. Explaining the Councils’ decision, Chair of the Licensing Committee Cllr Fiona Williamson, stated that the “sale and distribution of Class A drugs is particularly serious and…revocation of the licence is appropriate and proportional in light of this.” Cllr Kaya Comer-Schwartz, Executive Member for Community Development, defended her colleagues’ decision stating that the “Council has a responsibility in law to ensure that licence-holders act in accordance with their licence conditions, particularly where serious crime is concerned.” The Council, it would seem, were merely following orders.
Drug policy needs to be addressed at a higher level, but this is a debate that has been raging since the UK implemented wide-ranging drug legislation in the 60’s and doesn’t look like it will be settled anytime soon. So, what else can be done to save cultural hubs like Fabric?
How can we protect London’s clubs?
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said he was “disappointed” with Islington Council’s decision, claiming Fabric was “an essential part of London’s nightlife”. However, instead of dwelling on the past, he is looking to the future and the ways that we can “protect London’s night-time economy.” So, what powers does he have to do this? By now, we’ve all heard about the forthcoming “Night-Time Czar” who will champion London’s nightlife, but what can they and Sadiq’s mayoral team actually do?
At the beginning of July, Sadiq appointed Justine Simmons OBE – of Fourth Plinth fame – as Deputy Mayor for Culture. The Mayor has made “culture a top priority” and tasked Justine to “shore up our cultural economy”. One of the first steps she should do is to recognise that nightclubs are as much cultural hotspots as museums, art galleries and theatres. In this case, Fabric would be on a par with the Tate, the V&A and the Palladium. Smaller clubs would be treated equally with similarly-sized theatres etc. City Hall only has to look to Berlin for inspiration: a German court ruled that the infamous Berghain provides cultural significance to the city and as a result should be taxed at the same, lower rate as museums and theatres to help it flourish. With City Hall looking to get broader tax powers from central government, a similar step should be taken here.
The Mayor is also in charge of policing in the capital and could direct the Met to be less zealous in their policing of nightclubs. Ben Rogers, Director of the Centre for London, acknowledged that the “police don’t have much sense of the value of the night-time economy so a couple of small infringements – like someone caught with drugs, or under age – and the venue is in real trouble”. The Mayor could also use his sway with London boroughs to ensure they are open-minded when reviewing nightclubs’ licences.
In addition, the Mayor can use planning powers to side with nightclubs that are put under pressure by developers. The precedent has already been set: his predecessor Boris Johnson intervened in the redevelopment of Elephant and Castle over fears that the building of a housing block next to Ministry of Sound could see the residents complaining about noise and the club lose its 24-hour licence. With only Smithfield’s Market opposite, residents’ complaints were not a huge factor for Fabric, but with London looking to tackle the housing crisis by building where it can, scenarios like this may become more commonplace.
A cultural wake-up call
Not only do cultural assets elicit emotions within us, but they also have unifying qualities: people from all walks of life – different ages, races and religions – can share in their delights. In light of the EU Referendum result and the recent surge in populism, these qualities shouldn’t be sniffed at and hopefully Fabric’s demise will serve as a wake-up call for action. We can’t be snobbish about what culture is and what culture isn’t. If we are, we’ll have nothing left.