Squatters reopened Camden’s beloved Black Cap last Saturday, bringing one last eclectic night of performances to its historic stage. Dubbed as unofficial, unsanctioned and unapproved, Chris Godfrey spoke with the event’s organisers and carousers.
In an act of delicious insubordination, the Black Cap welcomed patrons once again last Saturday night, as squatters occupying the building briefly reopened the pub for business. A colossal middle finger to property developers, private landlords and an increasingly beige London, it was a night of queer cabaret and anarchist poetry, celebration and defiance – all brought to you by the Camden Queer Punx. No corporate sponsorship necessary.
For over a week now the dozen or so strong group have been occupying the space, hoping their presence will help publicise the venue’s struggle and apply pressure on those responsible for it’s current demise.
“We’re just locals living in the area and identify as queer and punk,” says George, one of the squatters occupying the building. “We figure this is two parts of Camden which are getting eroded by the gentrification of the area. There’s a real need, an urgent need, for spaces not only to live but to use as community hubs as well.
“There are examples of these kind of occupations helping to reopen places. The hope is we’re generating a lot of press attention and then reinvigorating the campaign through occupying, which brings more pressure on the developers and Camden council to maintain it as an LGBT cabaret venue.”
The Cap had already fallen into a state of disrepair by the time the squatters moved in. The lights had stopped working, many of the venue’s fixtures had already been stripped, while black sacks lined the floor, filled with broken frames and indeterminate refuse leftover from the pub’s hasty gutting.
But since last Monday, squatters and old patrons of the Cap worked together to pump new life into the old girl’s veins, dragging it out of morbid darkness back into vivacious glory, ready for its envoi.
It was a valiant effort. Disco balls hung from the ceiling, red neon glow sticks lined the skirting and the now working again spotlight illuminated the stage. The floors were cleared, bar restocked and decorated, while two rainbow flags were proudly draped form the wall, flanking that of a London anti-fascist banner. Even the screens above the bar were brought back to life, playing the same ambiguous three-minute clip of Edward Dildohands on repeat.
The night, carefully ‘advertised’ through social media and word-of-mouth, attracted over a hundred revellers, most of them old patrons of the Cap, keen for one last soiree. “It’s just nice to be back inside,” says Karen. “We were here the Friday before it closed and we were gonna come on the Sunday…and then it was closed. Money before people I’m afraid isn’t it. That’s why we’re here tonight: to support.”
With the safety of the 200-year-old venue paramount, organisers kept the doors bolted to avoid overcrowding (and any unwanted drop-ins from the local constabulary). But even with this pseudo closed-door policy it was likely the most inclusive private party in London – just as you’d expect from the Cap.
“The last two years we’d been regular and being a tranny, point is, you’re so welcome,” says Louise, a regular since 1992. “I swear to God we haven’t been welcome anywhere like this have we? I swear. Nowhere. You don’t have to be gay you don’t have to be lesbian. Everybody’s welcome. And that’s the Black Cap, that’s what it’s all about.”
The show itself was as diverse as you’d expect from the Cap, with the usual mix of drag acts and cabaret, as well as performances from the BDSM community and spoken word artists. There was even room for a spate of anarchist poetry; it may not have been the Cap’s traditional serving, but its raw aggression and cutting rhetoric aimed at the usual suspects – the 1%, exploitative developers, capitalism – resonated with the crowd, many still in a state of disbelief and despondency that the venue remains closed (legally, at least).
“What’s most upsetting about it is we are losing queer history when these buildings go,” says Jill, who’d been coming to the Cap since the eighties. “You still now get young queer people wanting to know queer history and these buildings hold queer history. I came here as a 20-year-old in the eighties and there were older gay people here, queer people, that gave me a sense of history and that I belong somewhere to a culture.
“I learnt a lot about my queer history from places like this and I think that’s really important that you don’t lose that, that young people that are coming into the queer nights. I think it’s quite depressing. These are really important buildings.”
The night drew to a close with a cabaret performance from Lucy McCormac and some naked crowd surfing. It was a fitting finale to a successful night, but the organisers are hoping that it won’t be the last bout of nude flesh shamelessly displayed in the confines of the Cap.
“We would love for it to become a regular thing,” says George of the Camden Queer Punx. “We have been served papers already, so we’re already in the legal process, so it’s unlikely we will be here much longer because the Bailiffs are on their way in a couple of weeks. But ideally, yes, we would love for it to become a regular thing and for people in the community to come down and use it.
“We’re very keen to keep it to the community so we can protect our space and protect each other. We’ve had various offers of people wanting to put on plays that were set in the back cap, it was just very short notice for a lot of people but a lot of them have shown their support.”
When the Camden Queer Punx are inevitably removed from the premises, the fabled pub will once again slip into darkness. But whether Saturday night was the first in a sequence of similar events, a defiant call-to-arms against it’s closure and catalyst for further action, or simply an epilogue in the venue’s rich history, the Black Cap finally got the send off it deserved – one Mother Black Cap herself would have been proud of.