Well, there it is. The decision has been made: fabric is closed. Countless nights out over 17 years and the efforts put in by hundreds of staff were undone by a handful of tragedies. Islington Council’s Licensing Sub Committee refused to allow the club to keep operating because of a “culture of drugs at fabric which management cannot control,” as Sub Committee Chair Flora Williamson put it in her closing statement.
This is a horrible time for our culture. But as denizens of clubland, we have to acknowledge a few things.
Our world can be as much of an echo chamber as any other. It’s easy for us to all agree with one another on untold social media threads that our music and culture is a positive force in the world, that dance music deserves to be recognised as an art form, that the health risks of drug taking are a price worth paying for the pleasures of clubbing, that harm reduction is just a matter of education and light touch, and so on and on. It’s easy for us to snigger at someone who imagines that reducing the BPM of the music being played can decrease drug taking, as one councillor now infamously suggested last night.
But these things are not obvious to all. To someone who doesn’t know one end of a glowstick from the other, let alone who’s currently the biggest new DJ in Berlin, the dance floor can be an alien and even hostile world. Imagine you know nothing of club music but regularly see teenagers doing nitrous in the street and blasting out house music, or have your sleep ruined by a neighbour’s afterparties, or are of an age to have teenage kids of your own, with all the visceral fears that entails.
The wheels of public institutions are rarely set in motion by any one person or idea. Local councils, police forces, media outlets and all the rest are made up of individuals—individuals who are variously good, bad and mediocre at their jobs, and who have a broad range of social attitudes. These are, for the most part, ordinary people with overloaded inboxes, not enough sleep, and worries of their own, who just want to get through the day with minimal hassle.
They may have had many negative experiences of club music, and no positive ones. They may, in perfectly good faith, hold views that are hostile to clubland, and they may feel it’s their duty to represent the many members of the public who hold similar views. Nightclubs are a place where people take drugs, young people have died, and the pressure to show that something is being done is huge. It doesn’t require a conspiracy of puritanism or corruption for something like this to happen. Many people involved certainly believe that they are doing the right thing for the right reasons.
All of that said: what’s going on now stinks to high heaven.
It stinks above all because not one life is going to be saved by this move, not in Islington, not anywhere. Young people in all eras and all nations seek intoxication and socialisation: removing one arena for this will simply send them to another. Many will take illegal drugs elsewhere, in significantly less safe and less regulated spaces than fabric, where there won’t be first aid facilities or friendly staff. Others will revert to this country’s default night-time activity: heavy drinking, in high-street temples to alcoholism where cocaine, sexual harassment and violence are rife.
Nobody thinks that six deaths in fabric over its lifespan is somehow acceptable. But to put it in context, this is a club that has had six million people through its doors over the years. To think that partying at fabric carries some terrible risk is to get things fundamentally upside-down. The idea that going to any dance club is in itself dangerous is wrongheaded, when you look at the rate of alcohol-related health damage and violence that take place in other types of venues across the nation every night of the year.
But inevitably the police and council—their ability to keep order at night stretched to the limit by ever-worsening funding cuts thanks to the ideology of austerity—see a place like fabric as an easy target. They play on the fears of those who see clubland and its associated drug use as alien and terrifying, they create folk demons for those who fear for their own children, they blow up the risk beyond all proportion, and they clamp down on a recognisable brand so that they can appear to be responding to the cries of “something must be done!”
The way this has been done stinks too. The police depositions to the enquiry, and police statements to media, consist in large part of tittle-tattle, hearsay and scare tactics. Statements like “the venue was very dark” or “a man was wandering around with his shirt off”, or the suggestion that someone was high on ecstasy because their eyes were red, smack of Reefer Madness-style, moral panic propaganda. The quotes given by the police to media from 18-year-old “witnesses” don’t read like the spontaneous words of any 18-year-old we’ve ever met. They sound like someone in fear of being arrested saying what they think the police want to hear: “bigger boys did it and ran away, sir.”
And as for the Evening Standard publishing photographs of the two boys who died this summer, on the day of the Islington council sub-committee hearing… the mind boggles. That was truly gutter-level emotional blackmail, and the fact that—like the prurient “witness a brutal stabbing as it happened” videos that pepper the Standard‘s website—it was probably done mainly as clickbait rather than for any perceived moral purpose makes it all the more nastily cynical.
Finally, that it’s fabric in particular that’s been targeted also stinks. fabric may not be to all underground music fans’ tastes as a venue, but nobody would question that it has been run from the beginning by and for people with deep love for club music and club culture. Its team, including its record labels, are renowned for their musical knowledge, and for being some of the soundest, nicest people in the business. All of whom have now had their livelihood snatched away.
The programming has never gone for lowest common denominator commercial sounds boshed out by ego-monster superstars, instead focusing on the kind of music with enduring international networks. fabric is part of an international musical family. It has supported this city and this country’s young talent and provided huge opportunities for many, many brilliant creative minds. And just one look at the live commentary on Twitter last night as the hearing was going on shows that the punters who love fabric love it for that reason: even as people were railing against the treatment of their favourite club, they were universally demonstrating levels of intelligence, wit, friendliness and community way above any normal group of music fans.
The message sent by the decision to force fabric’s closure is terrible. It tells us that no club is protected. If this venue, which has worked tirelessly over the years to be friendly and safe, and to build this sense of community can be targeted like this, what motivation is there for any good people to get into nightlife? No, fabric was not able to stop drugs coming through its doors, even with some of the most rigorous security in the whole of clubland. But where in the country are drugs not present? If London’s prisons, with X-ray machines and random full body searches, can’t prevent drugs from entering, what hope has a nightclub with a few hundred staff?
Make no mistake: this symbolic attack on a much beloved institution that was a nexus for London’s culture will only cause harm. Drug deaths will continue to happen, but in worse, less-regulated, more violent spaces—whether illegal parties, mainstream clubs or simply on the street. No young person will look at this and think the police or council have their best interests at heart—the instant reaction across the board is that this has been done either as a vendetta against a club that has been seen to cock a snook at authorities, or to clear the way for developers to turn Smithfields into yet another block of dormitory flats and offices, continuing the systematic blanding-out of our supposedly vibrant city. No young person is going to have more respect for the authorities’ approach to drug use as a result of this. No young person is going to be saved.
So where do we go from here? Well, this can’t be left to lie. It’s certain that if there is any possible channel through which this decision can be challenged, then it will be challenged. But if the decision stands, fabric’s team will find new ventures, so the musical and cultural history that they have built won’t go to waste, and we will of course support them in whatever they do. But maybe more importantly still it’s down to all of us—all the 140,000-plus people who’ve offered support so far, and the millions who’ve enjoyed fabric the club and the music that’s emerged from it—to not give up and walk away.
Whatever happens to fabric, the energy that has been put into fighting its closure needs to be channelled into letting the world know why the attack on it is fundamentally, practically and ethically wrong. We as a community need to hear and understand the fears that have led to this decision, and we need to enter into dialogue with the people who propagate those fears, whether in good faith or cynically. We need to push the evidence-based case for harm-reduction approaches to drug use, and to celebrate our culture as something absolutely integral to the life and identity of London and the UK. The battle for fabric may have been lost, but the battle against ignorance must now begin in earnest.