London’s best gay boozer returns in all its raw glory

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It may have just been a lucky coincidence that the announcement of the £100,000 cash needed to rebuild The Joiners Arms arrived on the same day as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s archaic, inflammatory statements about gay sex. To anyone familiar with the spit and sawdust gay bar Hackney Road, it didn’t feel that way. The late Joiners landlord, David Pollard (RIP), a garrulous socialist with a neckerchief, walker and opinions about it, once described his patrons to me as “the happy sinners”. Pollard would have laughed loud and hard at the timing of the victory for the established resurrection of his old boozer. Bless his soul. The Joiners closed shop in January 2015, another nail in the growing coffin for LGBT+ venues; destroyed by digital sex apps and London’s insatiable appetite for mediocre new construction.

For 15 years after I first stumbled into it, The Joiners became my beloved local. I quickly warmed up to his mythical state of lawless chaos, where I housed a semi-legendary, one-armed speed dealer who could do his trade while playing a useful game of pool. It was rough, ready, fast and loose. The smoking garden echoed with the laughter of cackling queens of class, race, and sex. Familiar faces passed by. Lee McQueen, Rufus Wainwright, Rupert Everett arrive in an incongruous limousine, just like the real Queen. The Turner Prize winner, Wolfgang Tillmans, took an endless archive of snapshots capturing the fantastically strange excesses.

Last year it was immortalized in Jeremy Atherton Lin’s fantastic memoir-cum-travel journal, Gay Bar: Why We Went Out, a winner of a Critic’s Circle award. But it was the hardcore that perpetuated the glorious gay adventures here, a contingent that spanned the students of Central St Martin, curious invaders from local estates, and those London residents devoted to the night, young and hard. It was Noughties’ East London incarnate, at its very best.

Pollard’s Joiners defied the prevailing mood of upbeat positivism, which came to signify LGBT+ acceptance. It refuted the zip code gentrification, symbolized by the opening of the five-story private members’ club, Shoreditch House (“The Joiners with jobs,” as it became known), a brisk walk away. The Joiners never seemed to close, Pollard’s disciples flocked to the street at 4 a.m. Monday, into the sleeping car wash across the road.

The announcement of the Resurrection of the Joiners could not have come at a more appropriate time. I once unknowingly offended Pollard by suggesting that the place was the seat of all London bacchanalia. “No, Paul, this is Dionysus,” he said as he smoked a cigarette, took a sip, and inspected his lair. “He makes Bacchus look like a goddamn Methodist preacher.”

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