Night tsar, Amy Lame: bringing a bright future to London nightlife

09:39 04 January 2017

Sadiq Khan with Amy Lame

Sadiq Khan with Amy Lame

PA Wire/PA Images

Innovation in the role of the night tsar is transforming the nightlife offered by European cities

“I would go out tonight, but I haven’t got a stitch to wear.”

In a career defined by dramatic proclamations this line, taken from The Smiths’ ‘This Charming Man’, is arguably Morrissey’s most famous. It perfectly encapsulates the mentality of the stay-at-home introvert, too self-conscious to take a punt on the endless potential of the night.

Fortunately Amy Lamé, new ‘night tsar’ for London and self-confessed Smiths obsessive, hasn’t listened to her dear Steven Patrick too intently. Born in New Jersey she’s now lived in London for more than 20 years. In that time she’s started the LGBT uber arts collective Duckie, stood as mayoress of Camden, ran for Labour parliamentary candidacy, been a presenter on BBC program GayTime TV, written and produced three socially-conscious one-woman shows, and been the driving force behind a campaign to save legendary LBGT-friendly venue the Royal Vauxhall Tavern.

A wilted daffodil she is not, and she’s now been chosen by Sadiq Khan to be the face of London’s £23.6bn night time economy.

It couldn’t have been a more timely appointment, with the recent closure (and subsequent reopening) of London clubbing mecca Fabric lighting the touch paper for arguments about a night life scene that has seen 50% of venues closed in the last eight years. Khan himself has said that there needs to be a dramatic addressing of these closures if “London is to retain its status as a 24-hour city with a world-class nightlife”.

A sizeable task it may be, but she won’t be short of people to ask for advice, as we are currently seeing a spate of night mayors appointed across Europe. Foremost among these is Amsterdam’s Mirik Milan, a former club promoter with a poetic flair almost as deft as Morrissey. “The night is for hearts and minds,” he says. “It’s where creative people can meet each other and be inspired to do beautiful things.”

Milan was elected into his role as nachtburgemeester in 2012, though he says it only “got serious” in 2014 when the role effectively became an official, independent NGO. Since then, his impact has been stark with his biggest achievement thus far, the agreement by the city to allow 24-hour licences.

“It’s the first time the night mayor really made a difference,” Milan says. “We were very closely involved on explaining to the mayor, to the council, why they should pass the bill. But it was a long process. The night is a delicate thing and you have to work really hard to bring all the stakeholders together.”

Of course, Amsterdam has long held a reputation as a den of vice with its relaxed attitude to marijuana and world famous red light district. It means the city is a magnet for stag dos and beery lads on tour, and changing this perception lies at the heart of everything Milan wants to achieve.

As an example, he points to the fact that 24-hour licences are only being given to selected venues like De School, and currently none in a city centre that – being the focal point for the city’s 17 million tourists, with 23 million predicted in 2025 – is already at bursting point.

“We ask: will the venue innovate? Will it attract people from elsewhere? These 24-hour venues are multi-disciplinary in use – they might have a bar, and a restaurant as well as a nightclub. They could have a kindergarten in the afternoon, a gallery space, sometimes a gym. It’s about 24-hour use rather than partying 24 hours day, though obviously there are also some excellent raves there.”

This idea of clubs being a creative incubator has long been at the heart of Berlin’s approach, with 24-hour licences being invoked since 1949. Lutz Leichsenring is the public face of Clubcommision in Berlin; a organisation that represents the city’s nightlife. “If you’ve got regulations, like a bank, then you won’t be bringing our new music, new fashion or new art.”

Berlin has more than 350 music venues, 112 night clubs, 450 underground music collectives and a 16 billion euro annual income from its creative industries, so it’s a city purring with the kind of artistic innovation that drives the engine of cultural and economic growth. Of course, in a situation mirroring London’s, the secondary effect of this prosperity is often gentrification and a razing of the spaces that made that growth happen in the first place. Leichsenring states: “The biggest challenge for Berlin is affordable space for creatives in the city centre. If the city wants to have an innovative and unique nightlife, space must be a playground for artists and affordable to experiment in different arts.”

Isabelle von Walterskirchen is the president of the NachtStadtrat Zürich (Zurich Night city council), which only came into existence in August 2015. As with Berlin, von Walterskirchen admits that spaces for nightlife to thrive in Zurich’s city centre are in short supply, though admits she is working on a much smaller scale with 396,000 living in her city. She says that Zurich is the most progressive city in Switzerland when it comes to attitudes regarding its night time economy – “nowhere else has a night mayor,” she laughs – yet says that her primary battle is “to make authorities to value it more, to set the lines for it [nightlife] to grow. There is often focus on the problems – like noise pollution, or littering – rather than the many benefits it brings.”

Over in Toulouse, Christophe Vidal, night mayor since 2013 and now head of the Toulouse Nocturne association, has managed to affect some pragmatic changes that have improved public safety. The organisation helped set up the Night Prevention Bus, that provides beds, shelter and medical support for those people that have gone a little too hard on the 1664s. It negotiated with the council for a later metro time of 3am for weekends and, as of this month, will also independently operate a bus that runs until 6am. These might not quite have the headline glamour of 24-hour licensing, but they actually represent the nuts and bolts of the night mayor’s work. Because it’s all very well crafting uber creative space for young wilds to run amok, but if the guys and girls working the bar can’t get home safely after their shift then those places shouldn’t open in the first place.

Lamé has already had one success under her watch, namely 
the re-opening of Fabric, albeit with a slew of pretty draconian measures designed to keep drugs out of the club. Keeping people safe that are taking drugs will be one definitive parts of her role, with chat of the police-approved, drug testing that was debuted at two English summer festivals being rolled out in the form of city centre kiosks. But there’s an awful lot of work to be done besides, and much of her role 
will surely be flitting between the powers-that-be, convincing them that a good night out can have a far more profound effect than a pounding hangover. Best, then, that she invokes the tentative hope of the protagonist of another Morrissey / Marr vignette, ‘How Soon Is Now’.

“There’s a club if you’d like to go/You could meet somebody who really loves you.”

David Hillier is a Brighton-based writer. You’ll find him in The Guardian, Vice, 
Wonderland and tweeting @Gobshout

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