The night started out predictably enough.
I was back in London for the weekend to visit friends. I spent most of Saturday afternoon trudging around, not being able to get hold of any of them, dodging gigantic hordes of tourists as I wandered eastwards away from Victoria coach station.
Later, I ate falafel south of the river with a close friend before taking the bus up to Camden. We sat in a pub drinking over-priced cider, waiting for a third friend to join us before we headed to Koko as we had all scored cheap tickets to a dub/drum and bass night.
Congo Natty was warming up as we arrived – playing two Bob Marley tracks and then drifting from his usual ragga/jungle set by including a live reggae band. It started off well, but then flatlined. He saluted the audience for being a ‘junglist army’, but I wasn’t quite convinced. A good chunk of the crowd looked like they had turned up from their jobs in the city, still in button-down shirts, clutching exorbitant cocktails and looking uneasy at their messier counterparts trying to skank it out as though it was still 1994. The vibe was stale. I couldn’t tell whether it was the fault of the promoters – Soundcrash – or of London in general, which sometimes feels like it’s slipping into some kind of hellish IKEA catalogue mirror-image of its former self.
Om Unit could at least be relied on to bring some depth to proceedings – playing an awesome set of roots, dub and minimal drum and bass. Closing time rolled around at 3am and one of my friends left but I wasn’t ready to go home. I had nowhere to crash: one friend had a boyfriend staying over. The other had parents heading to church the next day who wouldn’t have taken to kindly to finding stinking, delirious revellers on their sofa.
As the two of us left, ravers a decade younger than us were assembled on the steps outside, jaws grinding and pupils spinning from copious amounts of MDMA while the annoying hiss of laughing gas canisters went off in the background. My friend and I smoked a joint on a wall and wondered what to do next, seeking inspiration from the North London pavements.
We meandered up Camden High Street stepping in and around spilled kebabs and the howl of drunken catcalls. I noticed what looked like a boarded up pub on the left hand side of the road. The front of it was covered in banners and posters and a small group of people were sat by the entrance, looking a little wasted. We noticed a few people stumbling out of the apparently locked doors.
We approached the man at the entrance – a ‘bouncer’ in the loosest sense of the term – who confirmed that yes there was a party going on inside and yes, it was ok if we went in. Not realising that we were about to slide down a very peculiar rabbit hole, we entered the pub and mined our pockets for loose change to chuck in the donation bucket. It was a benefit party; what it was in aid of we weren’t yet sure.
The first thing we saw when we entered the main room were four huge screens mounted above the bar, all showing the same clip on repeat: a man in a gimp mask getting brutally fisted up the arse. No one else seemed to be paying much attention; the group of four or five men at the end of the bar, dressed all in leather, were too busy listening to the techno that was emanating from the small dance floor at the back.
While my friend had trouble tearing her eyes away from the next clip, of an unreasonably large cock getting fellated, I asked one of the people at the bar, which was hawking cans of Scrumpy Jack and Polish lager for two quid a can, what the fuck this place was. When he noticed my friend’s eyes still glued to the screen in horror he mumbled affably, ‘oh don’t mind that, it’s all natural’.
He gave me a brief history of the Black Cap. One of the oldest and most established gay pubs in London, it had been a drinking den for almost 200 years, and a gay club and drag queen joint since the 60s, an isolated outpost of London LGBT club life, estranged from sister venues in Soho and Vauxhall. The pub had been shut down recently, with little explanation. It had then been almost immediately occupied, which explained the motley crew of squatters from various corners of Europe, mingling with drag queens, fetish fiends and general wastrels.
The shift in vibe from the high street outside was extreme but we slotted in quite nicely to our new surroundings and proceeded to have a series of surreal conversations
A man approached us at the bar telling us he had just been released from prison, but wanted to remind us that below the chattering of our thoughts, we were beings of pure consciousness. An Italian woman also running the bar was listening, bleary-eyed, as she tried to construct a rollie with the detritus of her tobacco stash and filter tips that were dripping in spilt cider.
Deciding to take a break from the intensity of the hardcore-porn-and-techno madness, we ventured upstairs, where calmer vibrations prevailed. A group of Geordie men were sitting around on sofas tucked into a corner, having a smoke and a beer. Around them were a gaggle of cabaret performers in drag and a young dude enthusiastically offering lollipops to all who wanted them, while trying not to have a heart attack from the colossal quantity of stimulants he had just ingested.
A fellow with smudged make up gravitated towards us, giving us a lowdown on the legal situation of the pub; who owned it and why they wanted it sold. It was around 5 in the morning now though and much of what he said passed in a blur. An incredibly intense man regaled us with tales of the more than 30 buildings he had squatted in the past few months, trying to survive in an increasingly precarious legal grey area following the criminalisation of squatting in residential buildings.
I went for a piss and noticed two pairs of feet underneath a toilet cubicle and heard the unmistakable grunts of two blokes fucking.
By now I was desperate for sleep. It was impossible though, what with the gigantic Alsatian barking at anyone who came in, not to mention the young heavily-pierced German woman who came storming in, yelling about a friend who had let off a fire extinguisher in her face. Also sitting around the table were a young lad with a massive gash on his hand, a Montenegran cabaret performer and several people passing round a bottle of poppers.
My attempts to curl up on the sofa were futile: the German woman was still screaming about the fire extinguisher, and several others, nervous systems flooded with serotonin, began rolling around together in a huge huddle on the floor. At some point, a woman with two ferrets nestled under her hair appeared, but my sleep-deprived brain couldn’t handle any more.
It was 7am when I stuck my head outside again and wandered off – still in search of somewhere to crash. It had been a while since I’d had any contact with the London squat scene – which I had lived in and on the fringes of for several years. It was a huge relief to see that spaces such as the squatted Black Cap could still exist in the middle of a neoliberal citadel that is making it harder and harder for any deviations from the mainstream to find any expression.