Category Archives: Out and About in London

LGBTQ Historical Tour of Soho

One thing I love about London is that there is always history right around the corner. You might think you know a lot about this beloved city, but there is still more to learn.

Even as a learned queer history student, I was delighted by the new knowledge I found on the LGBTQ Historical Walking Tour of Soho.  Volunteers from the organisation centred have run this tour for over 10 years.  As you’d expect they’re not shabby guides — the volunteers go through thorough training to make sure you have knowledgeable tour guides.  Mine had led the tour for 3 years and were clearly knowledgeable as well as passionate.

The tour covered a variety of interesting titbits, incorporating general (read: non-queer specific) historical knowledge. For example, our first stop was the only remaining French Huguenot church in London. Why, you ask? You’ll have to go on the tour and see for yourself! I won’t divulge too much detail and lessen the value of the tour.

The tour lasted for almost 2 hours, despite the cold, taking us to the oldest French bakery in London, one of the longest running restaurants, a very queer church and a theatre where Josephine Baker debuted, to name just a few. Baker was among a handful of queer characters noted on the tour –- some living in Soho and others merely stopping by.

Learning about LGBTQ figures gives us (lgbtq people) something to be proud of and also something to connect to and better understand ourselves. Josephine Baker was a bisexual woman of colour and one of the greatest performers of all time, as well as being incredibly courageous — she risked her safety as a spy. It can be alienating thinking you’re the only queer person, but if I was a young queer woman of colour and learned about Ms Baker, I’d be inspired.

There are many more reasons queer history is important. The developers of the queer history mobile app Quist ran an online campaign asking why it’s important to “preserve, teach, and learn” LGBTQ history. This article published last year highlights many important reasons expressed by the contributors. To sum it up: Queer history has been written out of history and we need to write it back in; Queer identity is largely misunderstood and learning about it would improve everyone’s lives, especially queer lives. Here are two contributions from the article:

  • Because it really helps to know that behind me is an incredibly strong and proud history of trans people, and if they can do it, so can I. (potato-chips-in-the-bath)
  • Because I had a (Cambridge student) friend who was convinced that Lesbians didn’t exist until the 60s. (arightpigsear)

There’s a Wiki website for gay history of the U.S as well as a mobile app. Someone please make a similar app for London.

I have wanted to do this tour for a while.  It was even suggested as homework for my Queer Histories, Queer Cultures module at Birkbeck last spring. Now that I’ve done it, I feel more connected to Soho – the buildings, the spaces, the places where inspiring individuals carved out space for the queer Soho of today.

Queer history is of course not unique to Soho. As the tour guides explained, they chose to locate the tour in Soho because it has become a notably queer space today. Queer history is everywhere: you just have to know what questions to ask to find it.

Take the tour and see what bits of history you’ve been missing out on. We could all do to learn more queer history.

The tour runs about every other Sunday at 2pm, and is £5 for students, £10 for non-concessions.  Proceeds go to centred. Check their events calendar for updated tour dates.

Feminist Library Workshop: Skillful Volunteering

Volunteering is a great way to gain skills, get a feel for a field, and to try new things. After graduating, I was looking for a volunteering role to take on while I job-searched. If an organisation didn’t have information about volunteering on their website, I shot them an email anyways. I was invited to join in my role of choice for Feminist Library. I finally made it out to the Volunteers Workshop: a 6-hour day held in the Mayday Rooms and facilitated by a volunteer from Seeds for Change.  I’m going to take this opportunity to say the facilitator from Seeds for Change was indispensable; I highly recommend contacting them if you foresee difficult discussions in your group meeting or activity.

The day began in a friendly, feminist way: a group of self-identified women chatting over tea, coffee, and homemade bread from one of the volunteer’s partners. We soon gathered, sitting on chairs in a circle, to begin the work. A few attendees, myself included, were fresh to the Feminist Library, but I don’t think we were alone in not knowing what to expect.

First, to ground the discussion: a history of the Feminist Library and it’s bumpy route to where it is today. It opened in 1975 as The Women’s Resource and Research Centre, breaking off from the Fawcett Library, and was renamed “The Feminist Library” in 1983. The Library moved to its current location (5 Westminster Bridge Road, Lambeth, SE1 7XW) in 1986 because the collection was growing faster than the previous locations could handle. It nearly shutdown from 2004-2009 because of financial difficulties. The library has always had trouble getting funded: “Save the Library” has been a common theme calling for fundraising since it opened.

A quick history
A quick history

Today it is used for much more than just ordinary library functions. It’s used as a space for all sorts of feminist events – research, community projects, and activism – like comic-writing workshops and craft fairs.

After learning the history, the next task was to craft a vision for the future of the Library. It was amazing to see how in-tune everyone’s vision was. The common themes included:

  1. A new space designed and constructed by women.
  2. Seeing the Library accepted as a vital part of society and integrated into the community, being used by groups, like primary schools.
  3. Using the Library as a space to show a range of feminist art, including holding artists in residency, and promote the creation and learning of arts and crafts.

The Library already does some of the work of point 3, exhibiting art and holding skill-learning workshops, but there was a desire to expand this in frequency, intensity, and range.

Many issues the Library faces are similar to other radical organisation on the fringes of society: lack of funding, high turnover and burnout rate for volunteers, and strongly divided opinions on certain issues, which we come to next. Two of the biggest issues are the involvement of non-woman-identified people (men, genderqueer, et al.) and having paid work roles in the organisation. These topics were too big for the present meeting of selected volunteers, so it was decided there would be an open public meeting dedicated to each. It was hard for some to see these topics tabled yet again, but to be fair, and make them accessible to all who wanted to take part, they had to be.

I found it very useful to see how the facilitator steered the conversation to keep it focused on our priorities, when it could easily have veered into a discussion that would have been neither fruitful nor appropriate. She acknowledged the needs of the group, and stated what she thought would be most productive without being authoritarian.

Another useful process came next: We made an organisational outline of the Library, discussed the function of each group within the Library and their interaction with each other. This is a transferable skill that could be useful in thinking about re-structuring or setting up any organisation or company.  We approached re-structuring from a feminist standpoint. This included aiming for a non-hierarchical structure that evenly distributes responsibility, as much as is practical, is transparent, and holds everyone accountable.

By the end of the day, you could feel a weight in the room. We had done a lot of work, and saw how much we still had ahead of us. The day was both inspiring and exhausting.

The Feminist Library is a place you can learn a lot through volunteering because it requires you to take your passion and commit to working for change. If you’re interested in volunteering, it is best for the Library if you can commit to be with the library over a long period. Email volunteer@feministlibrary.co.uk with your interest. It is a unique space and cultural icon in London that everyone should visit.

The Feminist Library is open Tuesday 6-9 pm, Wednesday 5-9pm, Thursday 6-9pm and Saturday 12-5pm for the Feminist Library Bookshop.

 

Lighting up Leake Street

 

Leake Street 2

Recently a friend sent me an invitation that included the words ‘spinning fire’.  I was there in a heartbeat.

We met by Waterloo Station, which was just as well since my feet automatically started out in the direction of the South Bank before my guide set me straight and put us on the road to Leake Street.

Down York Road, past the traditional off-licences, souvenir shops, cafes and office blocks — all sporting an eerie blue shine courtesy of the lights of the London Eye — we arrived at our destination.

Turning left onto Leake Street we were confronted with the striking spectacle of undulating lights spinning in the tunnel, beyond a neat queue of dark cars awaiting their turn in the hand car wash at the entrance.

This is Alex Lee’s Full Moon Spin, an event continued in memory of its eponymous founder by an ever shifting team of volunteers, a fixture bringing together performers and enthusiasts for all things fire spinning.

Usually held on the shore of the Thames, hence the choice of the Friday closest to the full moon for tidal reasons, the event had been decamped for October 2014 to Leake Street due to adverse weather predictions. And while the promised rain never materialised, the decision to decamp was a good one.

The tunnel, a designated legal graffiti area, is a visual feast in itself. Layers upon layers of neon, metallic and technicolour marvels, little by little encroaching on the diameter of the tunnel as each new artistic offering is sprayed over the old. Any photo journalist or art students would be well advised to make the Leake Street tunnel a regular pilgrimage spot to study its ever-shifting appearance.

On this particular night, packed with people and dancing flames, the phrase ‘cave of delights’ is fully appropriate. I do concede that the usual moonlit riverbank venue must have a magic all of its own. But the enclosing graffiti artwork around the tunnel walls and fading visibility in the light haze of smoke, accumulated down in the tunnel depths past the spinners, rendered Leake Street a dramatic and atmospheric venue; the perfect creative space for the spinners to demonstrate their skills to a rapt audience.

There was a little something to tantalise everyone, and many items that your humble author was unaware existed so please forgive any lapses in terminology!

The fire poi, weighted balls coated in paraffin on the end of chains, took centre stage, with the more advanced practitioners not only spinning but also wrapping the flaming weights around various appendages before spinning them out again. Fire staffs (think Little John’s stick, but flaming at both ends) were on display later in abundance; mastery in this case being demonstrated by a ‘Look no hands!’ approach that saw well-toned shoulder blades and necks doing for fire staffs what a little children’s fingers do for majorette sticks. Amazing.

For those who fancied a more hypnotic experience there was accomplished fire hula hoop to be had. Or for the more mettlesome minded, several flaming Katanas made appearances throughout the night.

A little further down the tunnel, away from the immediate vicinity of the spectators, the odd dragonesque ball of fire lit up the walls as fire breathers demonstrated their skills. Closer to the crowd, not needing the space required by the aforementioned, those intending to eat the fire instead casually reposed on the ground, heads thrown back ready for their repast.

Apparently, the fire eating side of things is safer and easier to master than the fire breathing aspect. I can neither confirm nor deny this, but both make for a thrilling spectacle!

There were other non-combustible delights on display too. Hula hoops and poi with LED lights or UV glow, bull whips that cracked louder than the sound of a revving bike, and S-shaped devices (also with LEDs) which transformed the user into something reminiscent of a mini fairground ride when spun. Not forgetting a gentleman who kept a clear acrylic ball (akin to the size found in fortune teller’s tents) balanced atop his head for the better part of two hours.

Seasoned veterans have a care for the safety and wellbeing of ‘newbies’ as they take to the fire until the newbies show themselves to be experienced spin-merchants (usually apparent in a matter of seconds) or prove they are able to pursue the necessary learning process cautiously, and well out of tangling distance from the other spinners around them. Those who have brought ‘practice’ poi (which have cords instead of chains, and often sport floaty scarves attached to their weights for effect), non-flaming hoops, whips, or whose staffs and swords had burned out, were happy to offer impromptu lessons to those eager to foray into learning new skills.

Clearly spinning, especially of the fire variety, is not without its dangers. But cautionary tales were surprisingly few and far between. The majority of accounts ended something like ‘So they learned to never do THAT again!’ as the person recounting the tale pointed to the person in question – the latter invariably spinning away, looking like they were born to do it, and a far cry away from the man or woman in the story who had managed to once get a flaming poi stuck round their neck.

Spectators ranged from those with food and drink supplies and blankets, most of whom wouldn’t have looked out of place spinning the poi themselves (and may well have done so earlier that evening), to bewitched locals and commuters (sporting the odd toddler or bike by way of accessory) who were evidently thankful they had chosen this particular night to take a wander down Leake Street. Professional events photographers with their SLRs, as well as sapped businessmen with their iPads waiting for the carwash, stood by recording the moment for posterity.

An unchoreographed extravaganza, the organic coming together of athletes creating a moving spectacle of art, Alex Lee’s Full Moon Spin is an event to be marvelled at, and participated in, in any way you can. For photographs, details on training, equipment and upcoming events, check out the London Fire Spinners facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/groups/londonfirespinners/