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"Absolutely not a rave": We partied outdoors in the 'new normal' of coronavirus

The UK government's ban on open-air events has been lifted, and Brixton Courtyard offered "a new way to party" headlined by Leon Vynehall

  • Words: Tom Usher | Photography: Jake Davis
  • 15 July 2020

The ‘new normal’ is a phrase that seemed a bit dramatic when I first heard it, but then I realised it doesn’t just encompass things like social distancing, hand sanitiser and face masks. It’s also the socio-economic landscape that will be waiting for us on the other side of this pandemic, which, to be absolutely clear, we’re still in the middle of.

As a weekend warrior and regular raver, one area that I worry that coronavirus will irrevocably damage in this country is our nightlife. Getting smashed and listening to techno may seem like a trivial thing to worry about when people are losing their jobs and hundreds are dying daily, but according to the Night Time Industries Association, nightlife is the UK's fifth-biggest industry, employing at least 8 per cent of the UK’s workforce with annual revenues of around £66 billion, So believe it or not you and your mates hugging each other front left of a Move D night is actually one of the biggest cornerstones of the UK economy.

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So it’s no wonder promoters like Percolate are experimenting with new ways of keeping nightlife alive, not just for the sake of everyone’s sanity but for the health of the industry in general. That made their first night back since lockdown began - an outdoor, socially distanced all-seated ‘rave’ at Brixton Courtyard (the seating area of Brixton Jamm) headlined by Leon Vynehall - an interesting prospect. And a popular one too, with every six-seated table available (ranging between £90 and £105 quid depending on whether you’re under cover or in the open) fully booked.

Arriving at the venue during a warm, humming London Saturday twilight, I was greeted by door staff with a mandatory ID check (even though I clearly look about 46) and was instructed to put my name, email address and telephone number down for track and trace. Immediately one benefit jumped out at me: the bouncers didn’t want to full body search anyone, result.

We were sat at our table and were introduced to the ‘new normal’ rules of play, namely: strictly table service only (done via a unique QR code on the table to minimise contact with staff), no mixing with other tables, a one way system leading you in and out of the club toilets and rather than having one big system where the DJ is (that would encourage people congregating in one area) there was a scattering of Funktion-One speakers all around the courtyard.

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I sat down, tasted my first pint in over four months and started excitedly chatting shit with my mates while they all smoked fags and nodded along to the consistently great melodic tech-house of Leon Vynehall wafting around the place. For a brief moment I felt like I was just sitting in the smoking area of any given rave, taking a break before I headed back in to sweat my tits off to some dance music. And I was happy. Then I realised that there was going to be no sweating of the tits to dance music at any point and I was stuck in the eternal smoking area of the soul. And, to be fair, I was still pretty happy: I love being smashed in smoking areas.

It’s also worth noting that this style of sit-down raving will be a lot more accessible to people with disabilities, which is also a massive bonus for everyone.

“Just to be clear - this is absolutely not a rave - unfortunately anything that comes close to that would not be possible in the current government guidance,” Simon Denby, head of Percolate, told me. “We are trying our best to capture the spirit of what we love - but sadly it is a long way till we can get anything close to a rave. It’s just great to be in the company of friends listening to music outdoors on a soundsystem with some of our favourite selectors.”

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But, no matter how hard everyone tries their hardest to pretend that we’re not in the middle of a deadly pandemic - and let’s face it, no one is trying harder than the current government - it’s just inescapable. There was a vaguely unsettling disparity between the waiting staff, who admittedly seemed pretty happy to be back at work when I asked, being dressed in more PPE than I’ve seen some NHS staff wearing, and the hundreds of drunken, guffawing revellers, who admittedly did all keep socially distanced all night.

Thing is, this pandemic has made hypocrites of us all. It’s not like I wasn’t enjoying being able to be out with my mates getting pissed on pints and eating great food again, despite the fact that I also think the government’s attitude to lifting lockdown the way it has to be dangerous. It’s no fault of the promoters, club owners, DJs and punters for wanting to feel normal again, especially when we’re being actively encouraged to do so. But that doesn’t mean we’re also not being a little bit selfish for indulging ourselves in this way when whole cities like Leicester have had to lockdown again because of a second outbreak.

“The government guidelines on reopening were released very late and with a lack of clarity as to what was needed - as such it has been very much up to the interpretation of the businesses and individual area licensing teams, which has added a lot of pressure and uncertainty,” Simon Denby says. “The government has a long way to go in terms of support for the arts and cultural landscape of the UK for it not to be decimated.”

Overall, with the restrictions currently in place, both ethically and licencing, the night was as enjoyable as it could be. Yes, it was unnerving to be enjoying oneself in public in the middle of a pandemic, but it also felt like a lot of precautions had gone into making it as safe as possible. And while the government fails to provide adequate help, events like this are going to be vital in supporting nightlife workers and an economy that is so vital to London and the UK. Let’s just hope that real raves are able to return safely in time and we can get back to the old normal of sweat-soaked clubs and dancing.

Tom Usher is a freelance journalist, follow him on Twitter

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