AMONG THE MORE SURPRISING APPOINTMENTS MADE BY NEW LABOUR MAYOR OF LONDON, SADIQ KHAN, FOLLOWING HIS ELECTION VICTORY IN MAY 2016, WAS THAT OF AMY LAMÉ AS THE CAPITAL’S FIRST EVER NIGHT CZAR. CARY GEE TALKED TO HER ABOUT HER PLANS FOR THE CAPITAL’S NIGHT-TIME ECONOMY
Comedian, writer, presenter of Gaytime TV and a former mayoress herself (of Camden in north London), Lamé is, of course, best known as the hostess of London’s “anything goes” gay nightclub Duckie.
In the fickle, here today, gone tomorrow world of nightclubs, Duckie’s survival after more than 20 years is a remarkable testament to Lamé’s own staying power and perseverance, qualities she continues to draw on in the even more uncertain world of city hall politics, as adviser to Mayor Khan on London’s night-time economy.
Night Czar. As job titles go, it’s right up there. But is it as exciting as it sounds and what does Lamé actually do?
“I have a special super power, a superhero costume I change into when the sun goes down. I wave my magic wand and make all of London’s nightlife instantly fabulous. Other people think that I work all night and sleep all day. But unfortunately, none of those things is true! My role really encompasses every single aspect of life in London – except that it all happens in the dark.
“We have a mayor and a roster of deputy mayors whose portfolios range from business to crime to the environment to culture to transport. Take a bit of everything they do, and then slip it into the dark. That’s my brief. I work closely with all the other deputy mayors, to make sure the work they do takes into consideration everything that happens at night. They advise me on everything they are doing that will influence my work in a positive way.”
Lamé’s role comes with a salary of £35,000 per year for a 2.5 day week, paid for by London’s tax payers, and the kind of scrutiny that inevitably accompanies any such high profile position. Is Lamé comfortable with this level of public scrutiny?
“Everyone who is in public life has a certain level of scrutiny. I’m certainly used to it, having worked as a broadcaster. It’s a different type of scrutiny now, but just part and parcel of the job really.”
Lamé has attracted criticism from opposition Tory members of London’s assembly, who have accused her of being a woman without a coherent plan.
‘Well, members of the Greater London Authority have hopefully all read our plan for a 24-hour London, which was published in July and sets out our plan for the next year. It’s a roadmap with action points.”
In the absence of a magic wand what powers does Lamé possess to make any real, practical changes to the night-time economy?
“Well, you’re right. The Mayor’s office has limited power, but we do have convening powers. Some people might call that ‘soft’ power. I just call it power! It’s important to bring people to the table who may not necessarily have been willing to meet before.
“For example, when trying to preserve the Joiner’s Arms [a popular venue in Hackney, east London] as an LGBT venue I could convene a high-level meeting between community groups, the developers and the local council to reach an agreement to ensure the Joiner’s Arms would come back as LGBT. I would say that being able to achieve that was one of the proudest moments of my first year.”
At Lamé’s insistence, developers of the Joiner’s Arms were only granted planning permission on the condition their plans included an LGBT pub on site – a first for London.
Of course, anyone who has attempted to enjoy a night out in Soho recently might be surprised to learn that London has a night-time economy at all. Outside the West End the city grinds to a halt even earlier. Are Londoners really any closer to living in a city that is genuinely open 24 hours?
“The night-time economy stretches far beyond just bars, pubs and clubs. One in eight jobs is supported by the night-time economy. It’s worth £26.3 billion to London’s economy. We have a 15 per cent increase in women working at night, mostly in essential services such as the NHS. The number-one employer at night is deliveries. I’ve encouraged people to try and think more broadly. We have an opportunity to grow the night-time economy in a sustainable way. Bars, pubs and clubs are simply the most visible part of that economy.”
But increasingly difficult to spot. London has lost almost 60 per cent of its LGBT venues during the last decade, including many much-loved community venues. What can local LGBT communities do to help prevent their cherished venues being turned into unaffordable flats and convenience stores?
“That’s a really important point. I would say that if you are a patron of a local LGBT establishment keep your eyes and ears open. It’s important that we keep our venues open and help them to thrive. I really depend on communities across the capital to get in touch with me if they suspect something is going on, if a local venue is under threat. The earlier they let me know the better. I operate an open-door policy. I need people to contact me and let me know. I can’t be everywhere all the time. The LGBT community needs to help me.”
So, how do we that?
“Twitter. I always answer direct messages. Or you can email me @london.gov.uk.”
Of concern to Lamé is the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, not least because this celebrated venue has been home to Duckie for 22 years and counting. Lamé founded RVT Future, a community group determined to keep the venue open and reports that they have so far done an amazing job.
“They are preparing a community bid, to purchase the tavern, as a co-operative. They are just putting the finishing touches to the bid, so I would say watch this space.”
With the loss of so many of our venues is the LGBT community affected disproportionately by development in London?
“We feel the loss more sharply because we are a community in flux. Equality is a very new thing for us. And we greatly depend on our own spaces to be able to express ourselves fully, 100 per cent without fear of recrimination or abuse. The Mayor understands this which is why he is fully behind the work we are doing with LGBT venues.”
Lamé herself is from New Jersey. What is the biggest difference she has noticed in her adopted home town, since arriving here in 1992, more than half her lifetime ago?
“A lot. London is a very dynamic place. What we have to ensure is that we don’t lose the many things that make London London: like our grassroots music venues, our independent businesses, all things that make going out at night in London so fantastic. In the past we didn’t pay enough attention to that. But it’s something the Mayor is putting a lot of attention on now. Things are looking better now than they ever have done before.”
Maybe the extension of the night tube would help?
“We are launching the overground ‘Ginger line’ or ‘Hipster’ line’ in December and will be opening up more lines as and when. It’s complicated. A lot of work has to happen on the underground overnight so that we can all live our lives during the day, but again, I would say, watch this space.”
I’m curious to know what time Lamé arrived at her desk in City Hall this morning?
“London never sleeps, and neither does the Night Czar!” Lamé laughs in her by now, familiar throaty cackle.
”Actually, my time is very flexible. A lot of time I’m working at night. I think it’s important not to put restrictions on that. Of course, I don’t like meetings at 9 o’ clock on a Monday morning. But then who does?’
Is there a danger that with assimilation we risk exchanging an irregular, but non-conformist nightlife for a sanitised version of the city that appeals to no one?
“I’ve been very outspoken against the blandification of London. If we lose the quirkiness of London we are really in trouble. That’s something I keep my eyes on all the time.”
Maybe what London, and Lamé, really needs are specific economic powers to protect the city’s nightlife. The ability to charge lower rates or even taxes, when a particular venue is deemed to be of special cultural significance?
“The Mayor doesn’t control business rates, although I think he’d like to. Sadly, that is up to central government.”
Has Lamé’s role given her a taste for power? Would she ever consider standing as an elected politician?
“I already have the best job. Together we can make really positive changes for London. It would take a lot of convincing for me to leave an amazing job like this and stand for parliament.”
I’ve just time to ask Lamé what the future holds for Duckie.
“This is our 22nd year. I can’t believe it! We will close Duckie when people stop coming. But new people come all the time. Every week I ask Duckie virgins to put their hands up. We even had a gay male couple, who had children with some lesbian friends, and the whole family came along for the evening. Their kids are 21 now!”
Talking of kids, Lamé recently published the UK’s very first LGBT history book written for children, From Prejudice to Pride. Why did she feel it was needed?
“There wasn’t one! I was really shocked. I did part of my degree in history, I love history, and I know the value of knowing where you come from and where you might be going.”
When Lamé left New Jersey, did she ever imagine she might one day be hanging out in No 10 Downing Street (where she held her hen night as a guest of Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s wife Sarah) or sitting alongside London’s first gay-friendly Muslim mayor in City Hall?
“No. I came to London with a backpack and $500 in my pocket. In fact, my parents still don’t believe me!”