save the george tavern, save london
As East London's beloved George Tavern faces the possibility of closure thanks to developers, we contemplate the tragic irony of demolishing the capital's rich cultural history in order to sell property to those seeking it.
It's a Tuesday night and a Theresa May lookalike is writhing, legs akimbo on a battered platform, heavy metal-screaming her latest slam poetry offering down the mic. Boozy Eastenders are getting in countless rounds, perturbed by our new PM's penchant for hardcore Slipknot-cum-Keats poetry battling. There's only candle-light, a vague smell of boot polish and drying hops, and the screeching bleats of the endless traffic from London's busiest road piercing conversation. It can only be one place: the George Tavern.
The iconic East London music venue is over 700 years old. Mentioned in the writings of Chaucer, Samuel Pepys, and Charles Dickens, the George is a landmark on the historical map of London — the halfway house in the middle of Whitechapel was once home to the rarest botanical garden in the UK too. Fast forward 675 years and new owner, artist Pauline Forster reopened the George after a two year closure, "I opened the bar, that's the first thing I did. I didn't really move to London [from Stroud] with any intentions of opening a bar, I'd never worked in one and I really had no experience. But I come from a family where all my children are musicians and artists, and I thought it would be a great platform," Forster told i-D.
And she was right. Since her ownership, Forster has given the stage to endless up and coming bands and artists from Anna Calvi to Factory Floor to ACM; stars from Grimes to Grace Jones, Kate Moss to Justin Timberlake, Amy Winehouse to Georgia May Jagger, have been photographed throughout the building's warren like interior. But amidst London's current frenzy of knocking down historic spaces to make way for flat-pack luxury flats, the George has unsurprisingly been the target of gentrification.
The battle to Save The George started nine years ago. I said I wouldn't sell it for any amount of money. I want to leave an amazing legacy for London behind, and not have a load of cash in my pocket.
"The battle to Save The George started nine years ago," Forster continues. "I said I wouldn't sell it for any amount of money. I want to leave an amazing legacy for London behind, and not have a load of cash in my pocket. And so for this recent round of planning [with one previous] Swan Developers put in their new set of plans: six flats with balconies and a roof terrace on top of commercial space, because everything must have commercial space now apparently. Six flats — which is not going to solve any housing crisis is it? — next to Commercial Road which is a dual carriage way 24/7, next to a pub with a music license. And when you think of what I'm providing for the community in comparison to six flats."
Since Swan developers' first set of plans fell through the door, the fight to Save the George has been non-stop: from the Tower Hamlets council, to appeal, judicial court review, appeal, appeal again, and finally the crown court, where two weeks ago Pauline Forster won the fight to stave off the building of the six new flats at the back of the George. Saving their late license and all the light they use for their location business, it is incredibly rare to see a small, local business win out over the money of developers here in London. "It seemed like the judges wanted to help me, they know I love the building so much. The pub down the road went, a thriving and busy pub, because the guy who owned it was offered a couple of million and he took it, and it was demolished the next day. It was the Duchess. And now those people — local to the area Eastenders — don't have a pub. And that has a knock on effect, because they don't have a place to go. It's disenfranchising. We need all these little pubs. There's not enough now."
As a resident of Commercial Road, the irony is that the George is one of the main attractions to the area for people seeking an 'authentic East London experience'. The very people who are demolishing London's cultural histories are the people who move here seeking it. This occurrence is endemic in London currently: we have lost countless iconic nightlife venues from the George and Dragon, The Joiner's Arms, Madame Jojo's, Candy Bar, the Black Cap — the list goes on. Last year the Royal Vauxhall Tavern won its listing as a site of LGBT cultural and community importance — the first of its kind — preventing its redevelopment. Now, a year on, the venue is being threatened by developers once again.
When you consider how many luxury flats have been built in the last decade, or how many giant chain stores arrive daily on our doorsteps, you recognise the brevity of what London has lost creatively and historically.
In a London where being prioritised over Big Money is certainly not the status quo, The George's nine-year battle, and eventual triumph, against six private flats pays testament to Pauline's unwavering will to maintain a historic and artistic site where bands and performers who don't have any money can get up on a Tuesday night dressed as Theresa May, on the eve of her Prime Ministerial inauguration, and bring their work to an audience. Hatty Carman, a local resident, and regular at The George, told i-D "we just walked up to the bar and asked if we could launch our album there, to which they readily agreed. The George's commitment to nurturing new talent gave us a platform we would seldom be allowed anywhere else. If we lose spaces like the George — which we have — we lose new, interesting, original artists and music. The things that London is known for will just disappear: our once radical queer punk existence will move to the museum if it's not keep alive, and given stages on which to breathe."
When you consider how many luxury flats have been built in the last decade, or how many giant chain stores arrive daily on our doorsteps, you recognise the brevity of what London has lost creatively and historically. At The George every single pint, pork pie or packet of crisps you bought would be followed with an ask to sign the petition or to buy a 'Save the George' T-shirt, and it is a signal to so many spaces that an unwillingness to move-over can sometimes prevail. And as these rare spaces which allow people to experiment and to mess up become fewer, it is integral to support and fight for the last dozen that are standing here in London, because culture does not grow from smug roof terraces and cocktails served in jam jars, it comes from the layer upon layer of difference that places like the George allow.
Text Tom Rasmussen
Image via savethegeorgetavern.com