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Gay venue that survived attacks by skinheads faces a new threat

Three decades on, historic LGBT+ bar launches appeal in bid to stay in business after Covid

05 March, 2021 — By Calum Fraser

Bar co-founders Duncan Irvine (far right) and Martin Mason (second from right) hope to raise £70,000

A GAY bar which has been at the heart of countless iconic moments in LGBT+ history has issued an emergency appeal for funds as it faces financial ruin.

Central Station, in King’s Cross, which opened almost 30 years ago, is fighting for survival after the government announced that pubs without a beer garden cannot open until mid-May.

By this time, the Wharfdale Road bar will have been open for only three of the past 13 months with a rent bill of more than £90,000 to pay.

The owners also have a government-backed loan to service which was used to make the venue safe and ready to open last summer – only for it to be shut again in December with gallons of paid-for but unused drinks poured down the drain.

Co-founder Duncan Irvine told the Tribune: “We’re in the middle of the third lockdown and originally we thought we could just about cope with one. We took out a loan to reopen, to only then operate at about 60 per cent capacity.

“But then each time we shut we had to throw away stock which has cost us thousands of pounds. We don’t know if we will be able to it again. It’s heartbreaking.”

Central Station was opened in 1992 by Mr Irvine and his partner Martin Mason and within a year it had been attacked by a group of “skinheads” who were “appalled” at gay people taking over what used to be their watering hole.

Central Station, which opened in 1992, has been the campaign headquarters for LGBT+ activist groups

Mr Irvine, 73, said: “It was a difficult time. We also opened in the middle of the Aids crisis. We had regulars who we’d see every day and suddenly they would stop coming.

“Then they would turn up in a wheelchair, with their hair falling out and barely able to speak.”

Central Station used to be one of many LGBT+ venues in King’s Cross and Islington. But over the years scores of famous gay bars – such as the King Edward IV, The Duke of Wellington and the Fallen Angel – have been forced to shut.

Mr Irvine said: “I think this trend will be accelerated, particularly in the independents, by the pandemic. Our bars are the opposite of social distancing and we don’t have the shares or financial backing to keep us going until this is all over. We could be seeing the end of real community-focused gay venues.”

Central Station has been a hotbed for LGBT+ activists over the years. The Countdown on Spanner group formed and regularly met there as they campaigned against the Met’s “Operation Spanner” taskforce that was targeting gay men who took part in consensual private S&M sex in the early 90s.

The British arm of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence used Central Station as their meeting place as they went out to protest in drag-style nun costumes to satirise religious intolerance.

And in the early 2000s, the first-ever public debate between LGBT+ human rights groups OutRage, represented by Peter Tatchell, and Stonewall, represented by Angela Mason, was held to celebrate the opening of the upstairs bar.

Seán McGovern, the council’s LGBT+ heritage project manager, said: “Duncan and Martin have provided so much material for Islington’s Pride Archive, and the influence and legacy of Central Station is plain to see. So many community groups and organisations have made CS their home, with every kind of person and preference catered for over their 30-year history. They are an integral part of Islington’s LGBTQ+ heritage and that’s why we plan to install an interactive heritage plaque outside the pub.”

Since the bar launched a crowdfunding page last month, it has raised more than £8,000. It hopes to reach £70,000.

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