remembering the joiners arms

With news coming through that The Joiners Arms in London is about to close, we revisit Paul Flynn's ode to the after hours boozer from 2008's The i-Disco Issue. A pub where worlds collide, where at any point you could expect the freaks, the fabulous...

by Paul Flynn
06 November 2014, 6:31pm

I am sitting outside a Shoreditch cafe with David Pollard, Publican of this parish and Landlord for the last decade at Hackney gay pub, The Joiners Arms. A note-worthy interchange emerges out of the conversation.

i-D: What would you describe as being the purpose of the Joiners Arms?
DP: Purpose sounds very energetic. What we have is a pub for grown- ups. Adults who want to have adult fun. And I don't mean 'adult' in that nasty, dirty, mean-spirited, shameful, Sun-reading way. I don't mean anything in a Sun-reading way, ever. The Joiners is a theoretical impossibility. That's one of its joys. It shouldn't exist, legally even. But if enough people want to have fun they can sustain somewhere like it. It certainly goes against any economic theory of success.

Does a night-time culture like the one that goes on at The Joiners only happen when you get a unique mix of high and low cultures?
Maybe. I sometimes think, in more vainglorious moments that being around here generally and being at The Joiners, more specifically must feel something like it did to be in Greenwich Village in the '40s or '50s. Fortunately we don't have the racial or political persecution that was going on then. So we don't have to be as radical.

But there is certainly a radical spirit to the place.
There is, yes. I'd been watching a situation emerge with the smoking ban just before it happened. I was aware that some people didn't go to pubs because they didn't like the smoking. But I've never been worried about getting those people in. Those people are not Joyful Sinners. What we provide for at The Joiners is Joyful Sinners. That is our purpose. Joyful Sin.

Over the past two years, something unexpectedly magical has happened partway up the Hackney Road, at numbers 116-118, just opposite the car wash. It is quite as if the lay lines beneath the foundations of The Joiners Arms have shifted. The pub with the Tobacco-coloured frontage, with the tattered roof garden staring out onto a polluted main road, with the jukebox and fruit machines and pool table, the ill-fitting coffee machine at the end of the bar, the 'cock-tales' list, the staff mostly wearing tracksuit bottoms, shaven heads or high fashion, the communal toilet queues and the cast-list of engaging characters with a story to tell - Bob the cloakroom attendant, Shane the topless straight teen - have all metamorphosed into something important. Seen mostly by its regular and faithful denizens as simply a grotty gay boozer that's always good for an after-hours knees- up, The Joiners Arms is stealthily turning into a star.

In February 2007 Bloc Party contained a lyric about the pub on their loose concept album about the amorality of the East End of London, A Weekend In The City. The line was 'I will wait for you at The Joiners Arms'. Speaking with singer Kele Okereke (himself a one-time Joiners Friday night fixture) just before its release, he deflected the significance of his choice of pub to distil the essence of the area. "It could be anywhere around there," he said, "The Old Blue Last or The Griffin." But it wasn't the more self-conscious hipster bars. It was The Joiners Arms. It turned out that Okereke was prophetic in pinpointing the cultural resonance of The Joiners in song. Incrementally, a polarity of social types gravitated towards the place, leaving it mostly road-blocked behind a Heineken pavement pen, Thursday- Saturday until closing time (3am- 4am, depending). Fashion editors, Turner Prize winners and gilded pop people rub shoulders with the scallies pumping selections from Euphoria 18 out of the jukebox, the resident estate transsexual with the beehive and the occasional City Boy dropping by out of a forbidden sense of curiosity. The superb interior designer and perennial night-time face David Collins, another Joiners regular, says "I only go there to play the Deal Or No Deal game in the corner. And I don't even like the TV show." The Joiners implicit sense of casually spun hedonism is democratising the gay East End, bridging the gap between its old estates and the newly gentrified fashion and arterati now synonymous with the surrounding area.

The sense that anything could and probably will happen at The Joiners Arms hangs in the air, filling the gap left by the missing nicotine cloud. Last year, at 1am on a Sunday morning, I saw a chauffered Mercedes pull up outside and Rupert Everett walk through the door for the tail end of a night out. The weekend prior to writing I'd seen the unlikely combination of superior New York art-house songsmith Rufus Wainwright and Mark Feehily from the boyband Westlife aligning on the same social grid to find themselves propping up the bar. In the wake of the magnetic pull of The Joiners, the razzy private member's club Shoreditch House a quarter of a mile down the road has been christened, wittily, by some as "The Joiners with jobs".

The time line of the Joiner's impending cultural weight continued post Bloc Party. The New York Times travel section ran a cover story on how the East End and most particularly Shoreditch, were becoming the gay destination of choice for a certain aspect of Londoner and its rapt visitors. The journalist began and ended his whistle-stop and commendably comprehensive tour of the area at The Joiners Arms. Vauxhall was not the new Soho after all, he concluded. Hoxton was. "Soho and Vauxhall may be the heart of London's Queer as Folk-watching, muscle-boy scene," he said, "But Shoreditch - fuelled by the creative energy of the city's East End - has emerged as a grittier, fashion-forward and often outrageous hotbed of gay night life."

For locals who had seen a proper countercultural gay sensibility gravitate towards and eventually blossom in the East End this was not a new story. The phrase 'Gayditch', to neatly condense the area, had been coined within three weeks of The Joiners near neighbour, The George and Dragon - a venue considered by the leftfield art establishment to be such a bellwether of its moment that it was rebuilt, measure-by-measure in the ICA as an art installation - opening in 2002. But for a lofty institution like the NY Times to uncover and document the moment at The Joiners was surely proof that word of its simple, unfussy, Bacchanalian charms were going not only international but positively intellectual.

To confirm The Joiners' Arms two annus mirabilis', something even more curious happened to the gaff. Already immortalised in song and in print, next year The Joiners should become a film star. The Joiners Arms is due to debut as a character at Sundance. Many patrons will have missed the lined-paper notice on the corkboard by the cloakroom, but one drunken night it struck me that The Joiners was escalating beyond momentary resonance towards finding its own legend. The hand- written note from Pollard himself asked regulars to come down to take part as extras in a scene for the first feature film of the esteemed Northern screenwriter, Paul Abbott. Abbott is perhaps best known for the brilliant, semi-fictionalised council estate drama that he drew from his own upbringing, Shameless.

It makes perfect sense that Abbott should be filming at The Joiners. As Pollard understood it, Abbott was making a movie about a gay serial killer, loosely based on the story of Dennis Nielson (who myth has it, incorrectly, picked up one of his victims at The Joiners: it wasn't even a gay bar back then), then of course they should choose to film some of it in the venue that is now attached to the most sublimely unhinged portal of new gay London. The Joiners duly opened up at 8am and welcomed in its first feature film crew. It will appear in the movie, says Pollard, "not just as a gay pub. But as The Joiners Arms." All the staff came down for it. The extras were regulars. Predictably, they had a similar kind of experience to the one that goes on every weekday and weekend night at The Joiners. "It was," says Pollard, unequivocally, "a riot."

London nightlife had been building itself on the shaky, nervous premise of exclusivity for the entire decade. It had been fashioned on the premise of who you know and not what fun you might bring to the party. The aggrandising '90s adjunct 'super' (club/star/DJ et al) has been replaced for the bespoke noughties with 'special', or its commoner variant 'luxury'. A velvet rope here. A guest list there. Somebody unpleasant with a curt word for you at the door. Astronomical bar tariffs. Membership waiting lists. It wasn't to be long before all these puffed-up, claustrophobic social hierarchies would be uncovered as riddled with wrongness.

Proper nightclubs started taking notice. In June of this year, Dan Beaumont, this year's nightclub star as one of the trio responsible for the sensational Disco Bloodbath parties, took over Thursday nights at The Joiners for a rampant session of peak era High NRG, Macho City. His co- hosts are i-D Fashion Features Editor Charlie Porter and ex-Saturday night Hacienda resident Dave Kendrick, playing music they love just for the love of it.

The curtain has been drawn back and the wizard of the night time Oz revealed. The aggressive night time consumer culture that was making hard work of getting every penny out of your pocket turned out to be no fun whatsoever. A crease in the fabric emerged and The Joyful Sinners were ready to rip it to shreds and stitch it back up in their own image, to wear at their church, The Joiners Arms. The Joyful Sinners and their new parish priest read from a very specific hymn-sheet in order to declare themselves at the vanguard of theassault on expensive emptiness.

"At The Joiners," says David Pollard, "we aren't impressed. We have a Libertarian outlook. And not in a stupid Neocon sense. We believe that people come here because it is a free and easy place. This isn't a commercial stance. It is our actual outlook. It's who we are as people. This is how it goes. If you like it, then come and join us at The Joiners." David Pollard became the custodian of the Joiners Arms on May 6, 1997. "We were the first new gay bar under a Labour government and we had no challengers for that title," he says now, offering himself a moment of subtle self congratulation. In its first year, Pollard's wild Libertarianism ran to two extremes. He opened a dark room on the first floor of the venue and ran an occasional early evening speakeasy on the ground floor called Talking Heads. Tony Banks, then Minister of Sport for the New Labour Primacy, was one of its first guest speakers. "He came along and gave a little speech about what New Labour wanted to and largely did achieve with gay equality. When he finished everyone just wanted to talk about sport. They were ready for what he had to say but it didn't really absorb." Right from the outset, Pollard knew what he wanted the place to be. "I never saw The Joiners as just another gay bar."

He describes the venue as being "a rather rough, straight, dance-type place" when he took it over with his then partner "who was supposed to know about running pubs but didn't. We needn't go into that. I had to turn it gay. It was dying on its feet. There were always fights outside. Hackney Road would often get cordoned off for all the trouble going on outside there. Not people having a good time, people trying to kill each other. One of the doormen was shot dead, the son of a police inspector. It turned overnight and the bloke that owned it went bankrupt. A holding company [Enterprise Inns] took charge and I took it over in that state. It was a straight pub on the Hackney Road ten and a half years ago, which is very different to today. And we had the freedom flag up straight away."

The neighbourhood reacted "remarkably well" to their new gay establishment. The East End had already fashioned a gay name for itself aside from its most obvious historical touchstone, Reggie Kray. The Cock and Comfort on Bethnal Green Road was then operational as a sort of gay Queen Vic. The Spiral Staircase on Shoreditch High Street operated at a slightly more upscale wine bar and karaoke level. On account of its pivotal use to the market traders of Columbia Road flower market, The Royal Oak had become a hotbed for the techno teddies that needed a drink from 6am on a Sunday morning, before being gentrified as a dark wood-finished gastro-pub. The fondly regarded London Apprentice on Old Street had yet to be taken over by the woman many see as the godmother of modern Shoreditch, Vicky Pengelly, and turned into the hip straight nightclub space, the 333. (Vicky also owns Hoxton Street's Red Lion, run by local legend Sam Bidmead with its Girls Aloud/Britney Spears soundtrack and sexy staff is fast becoming the place to spend a drunken gay hour). None of these establishments have kept their pink roots in the decade since The Joiners first put up its rainbow flag. Chariot's sauna ('The Joiners with towels', natch) opened the year after the gaying up of The Joiners. It was supposed to open at the same time but problems with council planning permission - ironically for the installation of the bar rather than any licentiousness that was likely to happen inside it - prevented them from sharing a birthday. Septembers gay nightclub further up towards the Mare Street end of the Hackney Road was about to shut its doors for demolition.

Inevitably, the realisation of the Joiners into the pivotal social space it has come to occupy at the artsier end of London's margins today did not happen overnight. For the first couple of years, when official closing time was 11pm ("though we would sell the odd half of shandy after time, which I think the Statute of Limitations protects me for saying"), it was more a sex stop-off for locals. "Problems did develop," notes Pollard now, "and the police got a little bit interested. They indicated that I wasn't running it very well so I listened and took their lead. Of course when we did start behaving it became a very thin time for the pub." In 2001 he moved the bar to the side and started turning a profit, saving up money to renovate the toilets. "They were embarrassing, they were falling apart. But they had such history. Obviously."

Obviously. Are there any interesting stories from The old Joiners restrooms that Mr Pollard would care to share with us? "Don't forget," he chastises, "a Publican, if he's also the Publican of The Joiners Arms, has the same duty to his clientele as a Roman Catholic priest has to his congregation. Secrets of the confessional and all that. As it were. I do know that bits of the dividing walls between the cubicles that had been knocked out are still owned by certain regulars in memory of the times they had in there."

It's only when engaging in a conversation with David Pollard that the sinful magic that seems to have been accidentally bestowed on the Joiners starts to make any sense. He is 54 years old, walks with a stick, always wears a neckerchief, is clearly politically driven, known and liked by all the local businessmen and an erudite raconteur. He was born in Preston, Lancashire, and first moved to London on New Year's Eve in 1976, though by his own admission punk rather passed him by. His first full-time job in the capitol was at The Dickins Inn at Tower Bridge, though he later had a lengthier spell at the Golden Lion gay pub on Shaftesbury Avenue, a place mostly frequented by rent boys and interested onlookers and where Dennis Neilson did indeed pick up one of his victims.

I was first made aware of David Pollard in the early 90s, when he wrote an intelligent op-ed column for a free Northern gay magazine. His political leanings haven't dampened over the years but he is canny enough to recognise that a generation has grown up behind him that have forgotten or never knew about the fight for equality, the first onslaught of AIDS, Section 28 or the years pre-Blair and - how deliciously ironic - pre-The Joiners when gay was deemed to be a partially unacceptable 'lifestyle' choice in great swathes of the UK.

The East End that has blossomed in the footfall of The Joiners is a place that sees no line between gay and straight. It operates on levels of taste rather than orientation. It is fun, frivolous and free and David Pollard really ought to take his props for facilitating a small part of that shift to happen. Despite all the artful taste that has been encouraged in the area, the East End still needs a Joiners Arms. In the end, he will leave it to the pub to take any of the garlands flung his way. It is where his heart is. It is, after all, where he sleeps every night, in "my little cell," out the back.

Why is the Joiners Arms becoming a star, David?
He laughs at the slightly ludicrous turn of recent historical events around the funny little gay pub he took the lease of over a decade ago.

"Because we do starry things." He laughs again at his own irony.

"I cogitate a great deal on these things. It's rather old-fashioned but we buck a trend because we are genuine. That's the thing. A couple of city boys came in the other week who wanted to buy the place. They thought they could run it so much better than we do. And I'll tell you something, it would die if they bought the place. I'm not a breadhead. There are talented people who could make money somewhere else but The Joiners rests on not wanting to make money. We believe in having a good time. That's what the pub is about. Having said that it brings into question all the component parts of how you have a good time. And one thing runs through the spirit of The Joiners.

If you want to enjoy yourself, come in. But we don't want to know how important you are. Are you interesting to talk to? Are you a good shag? Can you dance? These are the questions we're interested in as a pub. I can't dance, by the way. But I know that it's a very important factor. It has to be an environment that allows dancing because all this is about the joy of sin, which is why the church suppresses everything, of course. So here's to Dionysus."

Here's to Dionysus.

"He makes Bacchus look like a fucking Methodist preacher if you ask me."


Text Paul Flynn
Photography Rebecca Thomas
Originally published in The i-Disco Issue, i-D No. 294, December 08

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