The last bar standing? For some, coming here changed their lives

Its landlords defied the far right and the skinheads – and 30 years later are still here. Charlotte Chambers visited Central Station

Friday, 4th February — By Charlotte Chambers

Duncan Irvine and -- at Central Station

Duncan Irvine and John Egan at Central Station

A UNIQUE pub in King’s Cross is preparing to celebrate its 30th birthday on Saturday – a milestone moment for the borough’s last surviving gay venue.

Duncan Irvine, co-owner of Central Station, said he was proud of the role the bar had played in local LGBT+ history in the borough – pointing out how when other venues closed down, his pub became a focal point for groups that had nowhere else to go.

He added that when he opened in 1992 there were around eight other spaces catering to the LGBT+ community.

Now, he believes they are the last.

Mr Irvine had left Scotland 50 years ago and came to London aged 24 to find a thriving gay scene here because “the word gay didn’t even exist there, although there were lots of other words for us”.

Describing how he and his partner at the time, Martin Mason, took on the lease at the venue completely unaware of its past as a far-right pub, he said they were subjected to bricks through the window from “skinheads” in the early days and had to install metal shutters for protection.

In the years subsequently, many organisations adopted Central Station as their meeting place of choice, including Peter Tatchell’s Outrage!, Rank Outsiders, who campaigned for equality within the military, and Gay Men Fighting Aids; the Channel 4 drama It’s A Sin highlighted the plight of people dying of Aids in the 1980s and 90s and the role the group played.

“We think we have an almost unique history,” he said, adding that for many of the souls who walk through his doors, his place offered a safe haven – and the only place – for them to truly be themselves.

“Some of them are married, most will pay cash because they don’t want it on their bank statements but I’ve been told by many that we have saved their lives,” he said, talking about his customers – many of whom are transvestite and transgender.

“For some, just coming in here and being able to chat to other girls – it’s life changing.”

Mr Irvine, who reflected that his time as a pub landlord may be nearing its end as he and his business partner grow older, said he was looking forward to marking their birthday with an exhibition later this year featuring the many photos, letters and articles they have saved.
When they do retire, the future of the venue is uncertain, he said, and they are currently still dealing with the fall out of the pandemic and the massive loss of business.

‘Pink plaque’

The history of Central Station and its contribution will be part of a LGBTQ+ History Month talk on February 24.

Journalist Alim Kheraj, who wrote a book called Queer London about the changing face of London’s queer scene, said that while many venues had closed down, he had noticed a “cyclical” nature to the scene, with more pop-up parties in less traditionally queer spaces appearing to be the current trend.

As part of his talk, due to be held online, he will also look at other significant LGBT+ Islington venues such as The Bell – which was on the site of The Big Chill House, also in King’s Cross – and the important role it played in politicising the queer movement.

There were a number of other venues in Islington that also contributed to politicising the queer scene, he said, such as Sisterwrite bookshop, Britain’s first feminist bookshop and the squatter-run Molly’s Cafe, both in Upper Street, Angel, as well as Highbury Fields, which was the location of the first gay rights march, in 1970.

Many LGBT+ people chose to live in Islington at that time because “it was affordable,” said Mr Kheraj, pointing to the proliferation of squats that ran alongside Upper Street in the 1970s and 80s and its rise as a focal point of radical left culture.

In 1985 the Gay and Lesbian Centre opened in Cowcross Street, Farringdon, with public funding but closed down some years later.

“It was significant because it was one of the first times a public body had given money to a queer community space in London,” said Mr Kheraj.

To this day, London remains without an official replacement – but Mr Irvine feels that in many ways that became his pub.

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