Gay Times January 09 - Issue 364
Britain's Trendiest Gay Dive
How did The Joiners Arms, a run-down East London bar, end up being the most exciting gay venue in the UK without so much as a lick of paint?
Ask someone if they remember the first time they went to The Joiners Arms. If they’ve only been once, you’ll get a relatively lucid narrative. Any more than that, and you’ll have to unpick one long re-occurring dream, an alcohol-fuelled haze, where you can’t quite remember when or just exactly what did happen, but you’ll never forget where it was. For me, going to The Joiners is like having a one-night stand; often spur-of-the-moment, drunk, passionate, sordid and flavoured with the slightest hint of regret. But somehow, against all the odds, it turned into a long-term relationship.
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You might have heard about it. Over the past year, it’s become the enfant terrible of the London scene. It’s been name-checked in French Vogue and The New York Times as a place to go. ID Magazine’s four-page eulogy made it sound like Studio 54. Realistically, it’s gone from somewhere you end up to somewhere you can go – which is unusual, since it’s been plagued, says barman David Shenton (former GT cartoonist, no less) by the adjective ‘dodgy’. “But ‘dodgy’ is a Dickensian word. Dodgy and artful.”
David Palmer tells me about the pub’s dodgier, less artful days since it opened and went gay in 1997. “You’d come in Friday and leave Monday morning! When the bar was in the middle, I fell over ‘cos I went round and round and round... I lost my job because I stayed here for three days getting pissed.” Fast-forward a decade, and now he’s one of the managers. The place is steeped in such family values and tradition.
Another question you might ask someone is, “What kind of people go there?” There are several sets of identifiable cliques that blur into mythological hybrids – like the local East Enders and Hoxton fashionistas. Some people bandy around the word ‘Chav’, others ‘Slebs’. Then there’s your macho men and your trannies. To re-appropriate trans-baiting Julie Bindel for a second, “It is all a bit of an unholy alliance”. She recently complained “I, for one, do not wish to be lumped in with an ever-increasing list of folk defined by ‘odd’ sexual habits or characteristics.” On any given night The Joiners contains just such a dramatis personae – the kind of people your mother warned you about. They’re also the kind of people who know how to have a good time.
“You get city boys and strippers, you get homeless people, and they all come in and listen to the same music.” Says Ozzie, the only barman in London who has said hello to me from the second time we spoke and every time since. Music has been an essential part of The Joiners’ renaissance. The place has been immortalised in song by Kele Okereke (Bloc Party singer and JA Regular), and they’ve gone from one regular DJ playing all week to a new face each night. Then, of course, there are the famous faces you can spot. Any night, you’ll spot more minor celebrities than an episode of Britannia High. We’ve had drunk chats with Jon Savage, Patrick Wolf, members of CSS and Wolfgang Tillsman to name-drop a few frequent frequenters.
“They all mix around with all the others,” says cute young barman and fashion student Giacomo, “so unless you know the face, you don’t actually recognise them. You might end up serving Christopher Kane or Alexander McQueen and not even know.” Which is kind of baffling. Why are many famous fashion designers flocking here? “You’ve got to remember we employ some of them as our staff,” says Ozzie. “After a couple of beers they don’t care what corner they fall in. It’s a vibrant mix – the Hoxton gay mafia, they all just amalgamate and want the same thing.” The slow death of hipster club nights has helped. Giacomo explains: “Two years ago it was all about clubbing, but now things have died down. Places like Boombox, All you can eat, Anti-social, all the places people used to go to, all those places disappeared and the people started coming here.”
The cynical will say The Joiners Arms' popularity is because it’s a Last Chance Saloon; it’s open late, and you don’t have to pay to get in. Then there are the sexual implications; the toilets have a unique popularity all of their own – which everyone’s quick to deny to a national gay magazine. Argas lets a little slip. “I didn’t know! Maybe I should check out the toilets… well, not just the toilets… on the dancefloor as well, really. I had to take someone outside because they had their dick hanging down here and wouldn’t put it back in.” We laugh. There aren’t many bars where that’s a regular occurrence.
The real key to the Arms’ success is down to the integrity of owner and republican David Pollard. A well-mannered, polite old gent, a dandy extraordinaire with a flair for epigrammatic delivery, his lines often set up by longtime partner-in-crime (metaphorical, obviously) David Shenton. (Sample quip: “You don’t have to be called David to work here. But it helps.”) And:
Pollard: “We don’t revere anything.”
Shenton: “That’s not true! What about the obscurity, the anarchy?”
Pollard: “You have to maintain it. People don’t understand how much organisation is required for good anarchy.”
So is The Joiners Arms a lasting treasure, or just a moment's pleasure? Will we still love it tomorrow? When I ask what plans they have for the future, they tell me, East End style, that they could tell me, but then they’d have to kill me. But I can say it will go onwards and upwards.
Words: Bob Henderson
Photo: Joe Heaney