A wander through nights out of old – and their decline in the face of a growing city
I’ve started writing manuscripts of times gone by to fill in some of the gaps in the various diaries I’ve kept over the decades as a parallel stream to my current research project on Cambridge’s history. The reason being that as we get closer to the modern day, this was a history that I lived – irrespective of how ‘detached’ I felt to what was happening in Cambridge civic life during my childhood. For all of its reputation of being this seat of learning, young people in and around Cambridge outside of Cambridge University have generally gotten a raw deal from both town and gown.
I was talking to a couple of friends recently about a small group of us going to a club night before realising that the only places that run them are smaller than The Junction in Cambridge. The reason why I mention this is because in the 1990s The Junction used to host regular club nights for a host of different music tastes. My last club night there was in September 1999 with a couple of friends just before I left Cambridge to go to university – I was the last of our cohort to leave bar those going to Cambridge University from Cambridge in that year. A week before we’d seen off one of my childhood close friends who is now a headteacher in one of our schools. Turns out that for the music night out we’d spotted, the venue was The Q-Club, where I went for his birthday bash in the mid-1990s. Since then, I’ve lived through a generation and more in terms of years. Hasn’t Cambridge grown to sprout some newer premises?
Cambridge has grown by a town the size of Haverhill since I left to go to university
…or about 30,000 people. So in my book this means that the civic amenities and infrastructure that Cambridge should now have should be the equivalent of what Haverhill already has plus more. That means there should be at least one reasonable-sized night venue that is additional to what was there. That’s not to say it’d be guaranteed to succeed. It was poetry-slammer Sally Jenkinson who spoke about the joys of the single market-town night club at Hammer and Tongue in Cambridge recently.
So…why haven’t we got anywhere that’s high profile new?
This is something I’m examining in the context of Cambridge’s history. Young people in Cambridge in the 1980s had an occupation at a former bike shop on East Road in 1986 in order to persuade Cambridge City Council that it might be a good idea to build a new venue for young people – hence The Junction getting built. You can see by the materials alone how it was a minimum cost job – the outlines of the concrete blocks being visible on the outside as well as the inside. This being before the J2 and J3 were added after the Millennium.
Showing my age – the big four-zero is getting bigger
This also means that the nights-out of my mid-teens are not the sort of thing I could even hope to replicate.
One diary entry from the mid-1990s is from one epic night out at the start of Year 11, GCSEs year. Me and my friends from school were going to the indy night ‘Supersonic’ and were introduced to people from other schools en masse through mutual friends. Many of us paired off and we didn’t get back in until 3.30am. Not only that, none of us felt the effects of the alcohol we’d consumed earlier that evening the following day. These days it takes me a good 2 days to recover from a drinking session! (I’m more picky on what I drink too). Looking back now, there are a number of things that stand out.
Everything we saw was in the context of school
And school isn’t great for everyone. I was watching First Dates on C4 recently and one chap who hadn’t been on a date in his life got an outpouring of sympathy from Twitter because it was a really rough time at school that scarred him long into his adulthood. A couple of the teachers – some of whom I still see in our neighbourhood today, remark that my year group / cohort was polarised like no other they had experienced. By the time we got to Year 11 different groups disliked each other to the extent that they wanted to see the back of each other as soon as possible. Fast forward a generation and in my voluntary and community work I discovered that young people’s desire to meet and interact with children and teenagers from other schools is just as strong. Which then makes me ask why us adults are not facilitating more of this.
Alcohol (plus narcotics too) and how we deal with it has a massive impact
It’s a national policy area that has a massive impact locally. I had no idea that Cambridge City Council and the police had been pressured by other local civic institutions to clamp down on underaged alcohol sales. This led to the side-effect of driving under-18s into the hands of dealers because the latter don’t ask for ID to check if you are over 18 or not.
It was also the difference between getting drunk round the house of a friend who had open-minded parents, a pub that turned a blind eye to the law, or on the streets in a park somewhere. (Funny how as I write this, Liam Gallagher is singing on telly). My parents at the time not being liberal-minded at all meant that I had to acquire booze from elsewhere, though it was often my place after a late night/early morning at The Junction that friends would crash over, followed by a cooked breakfast afterwards. So it wasn’t all bad! The lesson I learned from those days was from the open-minded parents who let us drink on their premises simply because they said it meant they could step in before things got really out of hand, and also we’d all talk to them and they’d listen. After however many cans of beer they probably found out far more about us as a group of teenagers growing up in the mid-1990s than all of the other parents put together.
It was only when I turned 18 that I didn’t have to worry about getting ID’d all the time – which meant I stopped going out at a time when everyone was. But the other thing that didn’t help (especially with an undiagnosed anxiety disorder at the time) was the low level aggression and violence. It was by sheer luck that I avoided the two beatings that some of my friends from school got in the mid-late 1990s. Both of them were alcohol related, and dare I say it had a vague school or college link. Funnily enough, one of the pubs where one of the violent teenage gangs that carried out one of the attacks – and was known for serving underaged drinkers, has since been demolished.
One of the things venue owners and proprietors tell me is that teenagers today are far more ingenious about getting hold of alcohol underaged than we were. So much so that in Cambridge it they hit the headlines recently. A decade before that, The Varsity Newspaper investigated the drugs scene in Cambridge.
“Wouldn’t having one big venue just concentrate all of your problems in one place?”
In one sense The Regal in Cambridge – formerly a cinema and concert venue – is more than well-known as being that sort of place. Big, spacious and lots of cheap alcohol. But as a building I still think it is splendid, and during the day it serves a purpose of providing cheap, hot meals in an otherwise expensive city. It’s also one of the few venues in Cambridge that is wheelchair accessible.
Fashions change, and towns and cities have to adapt to them
The history of rollerskating in Cambridge is one such illustration of it – as I explored in this blogpost. In the late 1800s there was a huge rollerskating craze. Then new sound and cinema technology was invented and a number of old rinks were built over for new cinemas and theatres. (That plus changes in laws removing the University’s veto on new theatres & cinemas).
In my case I stopped going clubbing in my early 20s because I got involved in one of Cambridge’s large dance societies. In that decade we were big enough to organise our own events that could more than match what was happening in town anyway. Then I left Cambridge to live and work in London where you are more than spoilt for choice. Thus between leaving Cambridge in 1999 to leaving the civil service in 2011 I was more than pre-occupied in terms of nights out. In the time that has elapsed, the one thing that is more prominent – not surprisingly, is the growth of international student parties and club nights. A few years ago local police were reporting on the increased case load associated with alcohol-fuelled incidents at these places too. On the bus back from town one evening we spotted one such incident between two groups of males that had spilt out onto the main road. It has also become a planning issue in Cambridge too. But then if irresponsible firms are going to cram in lots of young people from all over the world and not give them either enough to do, enough facilities and/or enough supervision especially in the evenings, it can hardly be surprising that bad stuff happens. Don’t blame the kids for problems designed in by adults.
Land prices distorting what gets built and where
To be honest, I don’t really know where you’d put a new venue or a new cluster of venues in Cambridge as it currently is outside of the ones I’ve moaned about (eg the old bingo hall/art deco cinema). Also, at the same time I don’t want the whole debate to become ridden in social class splits. Let’s face it, with Cambridge’s history we’ve got form when it comes to rich aristocrats rocking up and trashing places. When the Cambridge Corn Exchange was opened to the public in 1875, large numbers of Cambridge University undergraduates (all men in those days) smashed up the opening ceremony – such was the violence that a dozen or so were hauled before magistrates (after which their chums smashed the windows of the former mayor’s house), and led to headlines and grovelling apologies in The Times.
So…complaining about not feeling safe at night in the centre of Cambridge in that regard is not a new thing. Question is what urban design changes can we make in order to change this? Ditto with a cultural change? That also goes for the colleges who own the land in Cambridge as well: What would it be like if you all functioned as if you were responsible for everyone in Cambridge rather than just your college members?