Murdering the dancefloor

Who would want to go to a government-approved 'safe' nightclub?

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

After a handful of shootings in London nightclubs in 2001, the UK Home Office has urged club owners to install metal detectors or handheld scanning devices to keep guns out of clubs.

The advice isn’t only being targeted at establishments affected by gun crime, but at every club owner in every major British city. The Home Office booklet Safer Clubbing gives tips on ‘harm minimisation’ and how to protect Britain’s four million clubbers from the ‘risks’ of clubbing. Just how dangerous is clubbing in the UK?

Recent shootings at a few UK Garage club nights in south London might have made the headlines, but such incidents are extremely rare – and are usually a consequence of feuds that originated outside of the clubs themselves. Clubs that do experience a bit of antisocial behaviour usually have owners or bouncers who are savvy and streetwise enough to deal with it.

But the Home Office’s guidelines aren’t only concerned with extreme and uncommon incidents – they’re more interested in the very activities that are synonymous with a night out clubbing.

Safer Clubbing‘s guidelines have little to do with bullet-proof vests and tips on dealing with gunshot wounds, and are more concerned with how club owners should deal with clubbers getting off on drugs and booze. Call me old-fashioned, but isn’t that part of the clubbing experience?

The New Labour Home Office isn’t pursuing an aggressively prohibitive line, as the Tory government did with its ‘war on drugs’ in the 1980s. Indeed, Home Office minister Bob Ainsworth seems to take pride in his government’s ‘controversial’ tactic of being ‘soft on drugs’: ‘We are not asking club owners to condone the use of drugs on their premises. But we have to recognise that some clubbers will continue to ignore the risks and carry on taking drugs. If we cannot stop them taking drugs, then we must be prepared to take steps to reduce the harm.’ (1)

Safer Clubbing is a continuation of the Safer Dancing campaign pioneered by the Manchester drug agency Lifeline in the mid-1990s – after the Criminal Justice Act famously outlawed gatherings playing ‘repetitive beats’ and when ravers were rightly suspicious of interference from the authorities. Instead of telling clubbers to ‘Just say no’ to drugs and to get home early, the Safer Dancing campaign appealed to clubbers’ ‘commonsense’ concerns with health and safety, and reminded them not to get so wasted that they wouldn’t be in a fit state for ‘Planet Monday’ (otherwise known as work).

Safer Clubbing reprises many of Safer Dancing’s recommendations: that first aiders should hover around the dancefloor in case of emergency, that there should be easily accessible chill out/rest rooms, that free drinking water should be available. Such ‘preventative’ measures have little basis in medical fact (Ecstasy-related fatalities have been triggered by numerous causal effects) – but clubs that fail to comply face closure.

Many superclubs, including Cream, Gatecrasher and Ministry of Sound, already have permanent First Aid teams on standby – which brings something more sterile to the party than just the whiff of bleach and bandages. Their presence undermines a club’s carefree and sexy atmosphere. Not only does the presence of first aiders suggest that clubbers can’t be trusted to look after themselves, like children in a nursery who might need a plaster on their knee and some soothing words – they’re also a reminder that, hey, potential dangers exist after the next pill or pint. Cheers.

Add to that the anxious-looking bouncers, enough CCTV cameras to rival the Big Brother house and prison-style gates and stiles, and anybody would think that clubs are full of potential psychopaths.

‘They are horrible and sterile places’, veteran hip hop and dance producer Trevor Jackson told me during an interview last year. ‘I always think the music has to be blasted up so loud to compensate for the lack of edge and atmosphere. For me, clubs should be sweaty and hot, they should be about fun, they should be about flirting and getting off with sexy girls. Nobody seems to want to carry on partying at somebody’s house after these events either. It’s as if clubbers just don’t trust anybody anymore.’

With campaigns like Safer Clubbing and Safer Dancing stoking their fears, who can blame clubbers for being untrusting? Much of the advice warns clubbers about the greatest danger of all: other people. The 1990s Safer Dancing literature warned clubbers about accepting lifts from strangers, of going home with strangers (traditionally known as ‘a result’) and of having sex with strangers (remember to use a condom). Unless you’re one of those sad trainspotters who mills around the dj booth saying ‘wow, a rare import’, it is precisely meeting new people (strangers) that makes clubbing fun.

Of course there are sometimes bothersome incidents in nightclubs, and most of us have had the experience of waking up with somebody we wish we hadn’t. But we can deal with these situations by ourselves. The authorities’ anxieties over clubbing and socialising, however, imply that we need a helping hand with the most basic human interaction.

Clubs may have grown bigger, flasher and louder, but there’s little to suggest that they are any more dangerous than before. But unlike the days of Northern Soul all-nighters, today we’re expected to enjoy ourselves a lot less and mistrust others a lot more.

Neil Davenport is a film and music journalist for Uncut magazine.

(1) Guardian, Friday March 8 2002

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Topics Politics


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