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Interview: Amy Lamé, Night Czar

Words: Simon Wicks

How does a girl from a small, conservative town in New Jersey become a celebrated LGBTQ campaigner and London’s first Night Czar? Amy Lamé tells all to Simon Wicks

It started with the Royal Vauxhall Tavern (RVT), reputedly London’s oldest continuously used gay venue. Sold to Austrian developer Immovate in September 2014, it seemed ripe for closure and residential redevelopment.

But the community that had formed around the pub had other ideas. With writer, performer and broadcaster Amy Lamé as chair, they formed campaign group RVT Future and pursued every avenue to protect the venue. First, the 1863 Victorian pub was declared an asset of community value; then, in September 2015, it was given a grade II listing.

Immovate nevertheless marketed the pub for sale. In June 2016 RVT Future applied to Lambeth Council to have its use class reclassified as sui generis. Last February this was granted, meaning the future of RVT must now be as a gay venue.

Immovate is still trying to sell; RVT Future is plotting a community buyout. The battle continues, but the campaign to save the RVT has shown how planning can be used strategically to stem the loss of night-time venues. England’s capital has lost 58 per cent of its gay venues in the past decade, and 35 per cent of its small music venues, mainly to residential and retail development. By any measure, it’s a crisis.

“All of my knowledge of planning has come from trying to save the Royal Vauxhall Tavern”

For Lamé, it was a dramatic introduction to planning. “All of my knowledge of planning has come from trying to save this building,” she explains. “I learned about how to leverage things like agent of change, assets of community value and section 106. So now in my role as Night Czar, I’ve been able to use that knowledge with other venues.” 

She is particularly proud of using a section 106 agreement to have the demolished Joiners Arms in Bethnal Green remain an LGBT venue when rebuilt. But, she stresses, she’s not using her role merely to continue her long-standing activism on behalf of London’s LGBT community.

“We’ve been able to do really interesting work stretching the possibilities of planning permission with other venues that are under similar threat. We’re looking at different ways of using planning law to help them be more robust.”

The night shift

Lamé likes to joke that her original job title was Night Mayor, a title her longstanding partner considered particularly fitting. It’s really ‘Night Czar’ within London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s team, in a nod to the night-time mayors of cities such as Amsterdam. But Lamé points out that her role is rather wider than her counterparts elsewhere.

“It’s really important to know that the night-time economy is not just bars, pubs and clubs,” she stresses. “If you take every deputy mayor, the deputy mayor for planning or business or transport, take a slice of everything they do and flip it into the dark – that’s my watching brief.

“We would be doing a big disservice if we only focused on bars, pubs and clubs,” she continues in an accent situated halfway between New Jersey and London. “The largest employers in the night-time are actually logistics, and then the NHS, and then bars, pubs and clubs. It is important to look at every aspect of life at night.”

If London is to meet its aspiration to be a 24-hour city, then Lamé is integral to the endeavour. Her brief puts her at the intersection of the multiple forces that keep a city functioning through the night. There is considerable scope for conflict.

How do you manage deliveries if you’re simultaneously encouraging people to stay out? Where do people go the loo? How do people get home? How do you ensure the city at night is a safe and accommodating place for all?

"I’ve worked on the front line of night-time industry for my whole career. It’s in my blood"

She seems undaunted. A lifelong political activist on the Left, she’s no stranger to the cut and thrust of debate (and has been criticised on occasion for her sharp political commentary on Twitter). She also has a track record of making things happen and keeping many balls in the air. She strikes me, for all that her act is essentially risqué, as a very sensible person. I can easily imagine her as the responsible student who manages both to go to the party and get her work in on time.

But why should Lamé be given this ‘landmark’ role? “I’ve lived my entire life in this city at night, from the early days of working in a community café bar, through to starting my club, Duckie, at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern,” she explains. “I’ve worked on the front line of night-time industry for my whole career. It’s in my blood. I felt that I had something unique to deliver.”

Though open, agreeable and funny, she’s also focused. Mindful of her audience, she steers the conversation towards planning at every opportunity – so we talk about the recently published draft London Plan.

Three policies in particular, HC5, 6 and 7 – ‘Supporting London’s Culture and Creative industries’, ‘Supporting the night-time economy’ and ‘Protecting public houses’ – have obvious resonance with her role. Indeed, HC6 could have been written by Lamé herself.

Not quite the Pearly King and Queen

Night Czar is not, in fact, Lamé’s first foray into politics or civic management. A Labour Party activist, she was the Mayoress of Camden in 2010-11. Her friend and openly gay Labour councillor Jonathan Simpson found himself with no consort when he was appointed Mayor of Camden in 2010. So he asked Lamé. “He said ‘I’m a gay man, you’re a lesbian, let’s have the first LGBT mayoralty ever’, which is what we did. It’s London, nobody batted an eyelid.”

Economy and diversity

HC6 requires boroughs to develop policies to support the night-time economy in their development plans. They are encouraged to take an “integrated approach to planning and licensing, out-of-hours servicing and deliveries, safety and security”.

Boroughs are also encouraged to be more imaginative in finding alternative evening and night-time uses of existing daytime facilities such as shops, cafés, libraries, theatres and museums. There is also a requirement to make London’s nightlife more inclusive, which brings us back to our overarching theme.

The big project of planning is, arguably, to ensure that our towns and cities cater to the entirety of their populations and not just those that are the most visible or wield the most influence. Diversity and inclusivity are at the heart of ideas about equality, fairness and democracy. The London Plan, for example, mentions accessible toilets, catering to people with disabilities, and to families, and to those who don’t see evening entertainment as going to the pub.

"That isn’t the kind of place we live in London. It’s not the kind of society that we have. We want to live in a place that is inclusive and accessible"

I ask why we should take all these people into account when we think of the night-time city? Lamé’s answer is a defence of everything the city has come to represent for her and everything that was in her mind when she left small-town New Jersey in 1992 (see right, From Keyport to RVT).

“What’s the other option? Thinking about white heterosexual men all the time? That isn’t the kind of place we live in London. It’s not the kind of society that we have. We want to live in a place that is inclusive and accessible. That is a core belief of this country and of democracy, and to think any other way  I find bizarre.”

It is, she says, “the most cultural and inclusive London plan” ever. “It’s a great opportunity for planners to step up their game a bit as well, and think about creative ways to be inclusive.”

No plan survives first contact, however, and Lamé will need her considerable skills of persuasion and persistence to make it work as intended. She’s already drawn flak from campaigners to preserve Denmark Street – London’s Tin Pan Alley – for her pragmatic take on its redevelopment. Lamé argues that Camden Council has done its best to preserve the spirit of place in a changing city.

“When I went to the ground breaking, I was stood on the site where I washed dishes for five years. It was really moving, and I thought ‘How do I feel about this?’. Really sad that the venue was lost, but I also know that London is a place where things change and I also know that the plans for developing new music venues on that site are amazing.

“The council has designated that street a special area so it will remain focused around music. These grassroots music venues are so essential to our community life, but also to the town pipeline of music. If we lose these venues we lose our standing around the world.”

Here, as elsewhere in her career (she once toured a one-woman show called Cum Manifesto about safe sex around gay cruising grounds), she’s walking a tightrope. But it’s taken courage for Lamé to take the steps that have got her where she is – and you sense she’s not about to fall off balance.

From Keyport to RVT

Lamé was born Amy Caddle in Keyport, New Jersey, a “working-class resort town” that’s “kind of like Margate, in that it’s very beautiful, but also there’s some harsh realities there around poverty and exclusion”.

It was a conservative kind of a place. Her parents were Republicans and the family business is plumbing – father, uncle, brother, sister and cousins are all plumbers. But young Amy knew her future was elsewhere.

“The knowledge that I got from growing up in that environment has put me in good stead for the job I'm doing now,” she insists. “I was working as a dispatcher for my dad from 16 and I was in charge of sending guys out on the road to do all sorts of work, from big construction jobs to repairing broken water mains to unplugging toilets. It’s not very glamorous.”

Before she was even old enough to vote, Lamé campaigned for Democrat Michael Dukakis’s doomed presidential bid. She studied modern languages at a liberal arts college in Maryland. As soon as she was able to, in 1992, she left the USA.

“I came to London, to be who you really are. It was a much easier place to be LGBT than the States"

“I came to London, to be who you really are. It was a much easier place to be LGBT than the States. We still had Section 28, but the atmosphere was different – it was a lot more accepting over here. I got a job at a little LGBT community café just by Centrepoint. I thought ‘I’ll work in a gay place, where I can be myself’.”

Her one-woman show Gay Man Trapped In a Lesbian’s Body, was accepted by the ICA in 1994. Here, it was seen by a television producer who invited Lamé to try out for TV. She’s hosted Gaytime TV on BBC Two, a Channel 4 panel show and a radio show on Greater London Radio. 

She’s co-presented with Danny Baker on BBC Radio London, written two more one-woman shows and a book about the history of the LGBTQ movement, formed an award-winning performance collective, Duckie, and she runs a weekly club night at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern.

She’s even curated a Tate Britain exhibition on art and faith and recently took on the Sunday afternoon slot on BBC 6 Music. There is more besides, and more still to come; Amy Lamé is a force of nature.

Simon Wicks is deputy editor of The Planner

Photography | Pal Hansen

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