From Brick Lane to Mayfair via Uber: a typical week in outsider town

I love my city, not least because I consider London the world capital of outsiders. That said, a run of news this week reminds me that – even in London – being an outsider can be a challenge, not least because it’s not always obvious who’s the outsider, and what constitutes being on the inside.

First up, the attack by a group of protesting anarchists on the Cereal Killer Café, just a paint-bomb’s throw from my office. Being anarchists they wore masks and made lots of noise when congregating at Old Street roundabout for an anti-gentrification march to Brick Lane. Yet, curiously, they peacefully passed Sainsburys, Tescos, a branch of Pret a Manger and a Nike shop before vandalising and terrorising this small but popular specialist eatery. They even ignored Shoreditch House – the ultimate in elitist gentrification hostelries.

In this instance, of course, it’s easy to spot the outsiders: it’s the people making a rebellious stand against big business, conventional thinking and “the system”. Yes, I mean Gary and Alan Keery, the owners of the café, defiantly facing-down the well-fed middle class insider shock-troops of Class War. Insiders? Middle class? Absolutely. It turns out this rabble of revolutionaries were led by no less a figure than Dr Lisa McKenzie, a research fellow at the London School of Economics and therefore someone paid to think rebellious thoughts by the British taxpayer.

My guess is Britain’s “higher” educational establishments would be able to identity the vast majority of the protesters, or even perhaps the sixth-form schools of various leafy suburbs. Meanwhile, Gary and Alan – working class lads from the tough part of Belfast – are entrepreneurs trying to roll out an unconventional trend that, from what I can see, involves tight margins and a need for speed if they’re to avoid copy-cat competition. They claim to be investing their own cash – in fact their life savings – and state they were attracted to London by its broad-minded openness to innovation and enterprise.

Of course, Gary and Alan turned it to their advantage – winning some publicity off the back of the anarchists’ ill-advised attack (much to the chagrin of the protesters). Certainly, my kids are now begging to be taken, although – witnessing the line out the door on my way home – I’ve promised a visit only once the publicity dies down (so I’m hoping for no further attacks).


Cabs uber alles

Next came news that Transport for London had issued regulatory proposals (billed as a consultation) unashamedly targeting US taxi-app Uber’s growing popularity in London. Again, it’s David Vs Goliath without the certainties of which one’s which. Surely, the Davids here are those well-trained black cab drivers – pretty much all of whom are self-employed – successfully lobbying City Hall for some sensible regulations to protect the public from an aggressive American behemoth with a dodgy track-record when it comes to drivers’ rights?

Well, not quite. Black cabs are represented by the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association, which is a powerful trade union with an excellent track-record of defending their members against rival commercial operators. The LTDA had a strong hand here in lobbying for TfL’s proposed curbs on Uber (and similar apps) and are, in fact, so powerful that – in the next paragraph – I pick my words carefully (just ask Gordon Ramsey if you think me paranoid).

Certainly, London’s black cabs have a good reputation globally, thanks mainly to “the knowledge”: a hard-earned accreditation that guarantees a back-of-the-hand insight into a staggeringly complex street grid. But, for most Londoners, black cabs are something of an indulgence. They can be prohibitively expensive, especially for longer rides (such as airports – where a trip to Gatwick costs around £150!); they seem to be absent at the very moments/places they’re most required (late evenings and in suburbs with thin transport options); they, too often – and very much in my own experience – refuse fares, especially to unfashionable London quarters; and – in terms of manners, helpfulness and charm – maintain something of a reputation for not living up to their self-promoted image as London’s professional St Christophers.

Of course, Uber’s a long way from perfect, and has had reputational problems of its own. But – in this case – they’re clearly the creative disrupters trying to shake-up a classic vested interest determined to hang on to its insider privileges. Perhaps a compromise is in order, ensuring that the Uber app can do its job while protecting the public (and the drivers) from piratical practices. That said – given the power of this particular group of insiders – I wouldn’t bet on it.


The Dstrkt line

The last news item is a little clearer in terms of identifying the outsiders – literally so in this case because this concerns the fashionable Dstrkt nightclub’s door policy. The Mayfair club found itself the subject of street protests (though altogether nicer than those in Brick Lane) following an alleged series of texts between a club promoter and a female black clubber. She was trying to gain access with a group of friends and, on refusal, was offered the insight – via text – that the club operated a complex gradated colour bar, involving shades of skin-tone, degrees of “hot” and a flat rejection of overweight black women (something the club, not unexpectedly, denies).

While obviously not black, nor female, nor even overweight, this is a battle after my own heart. As an angst-ridden young man the velvet rope was the bane of my life. It terrified me because it was always the moment I got called out as the weedy, unfashionable loser: as the perennial outsider not allowed to enter the insider’s trendy lair. Make no mistake, the velvet rope is an appallingly-discriminatory mechanism for differentiating the insiders from the outsiders – one leaden with snobbery, prejudice (class, status and gender as much as race), pretension and arrogance. And it’s rife: forget Dstrkt, just about every swanky nightclub in every city in the developed world operates exactly the same policy. That’s what those blokes are doing on the door.

No matter where I’ve lived it’s happened, whether in Essex, London, Manchester or New York. In fact, it happened a lot less in Manchester, which may actually offer a response for those protesters. While I laud their fight – all power to their elbow etc – I do somewhat wonder why they bother. Any club with such a policy is a club for insiders. And – as I write in The Outside Edge – insiders are a long way from where it’s happening. The Hacienda in Manchester never had such as policy (it even let me in!) and spent the early 1990s as the most fashionable nightclub in the world. Indeed, the entire rave scene was founded on a 100% rejection of the velvet rope. It was staggeringly inclusive and went on to inform a generation with respect to fashion, music, lifestyle and attitudes.

Meanwhile, those awful Mayfair nightclubs are shallow hellholes full of pretentious numbskulls – insiders that have never had an original thought in their lives. Outsiders should stop protesting on the streets of Mayfair (otherwise known as Insider-Central) and start their own nightclub somewhere edgy. Make it the next cool, happening, place. And, whatever you do, don’t buy a velvet rope.

The Outside Edge: How Outsiders can Succeed in a World Made by Insiders, by Robert Kelsey

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