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Out down in King’s Cross

Queer Encounters, an online peek at King’s Cross’s recent gay past, is the brainchild of artist Elly Clarke

16 August, 2018 — By Dan Carrier

Artist Elly Clarke collected memories of those who recall King’s Cross from the 1980s to the Noughties

THE streets at night had their own culture. It was a world of prostitutes leaning through car windows, drug dealers meeting their customers, young people heading to raves, shops with secret back rooms for contraband and trysts, and a sense of lawlessness and decay but also freedom and love.

This is a King’s Cross now gone – but one brought back to life by artist Elly Clarke.

In a new project, which can now be viewed online after a exhibition at the new Everyman cinema in King’s Cross, Elly has curated stories that lie beneath the smooth Tarmac, the buffed steel and heritage brickwork to remind us of what the neighbourhood was like in the recent past – and provide a platform for those who were drawn there by its reputation.

Called Queer Encounters, it is what she describes as a “participatory oral history project” that saw her collect the takes of those who recall King’s Cross from the 1980s to the Noughties.
Motivated by the changes that have taken place over the past few years, as well as the huge number of closures of queer spaces in London, Elly has heard nine people’s tales.

Jane Maloney, who was involved with the charity Pink Angels which raised funds for people who contracted HIV

“I speak to people about their memories, hear their stories and it is like pulling a hankie out of a pocket,” the Belsize Park-based artist says. “A bit comes out, and then more and more – until the person is finding it comfortable enough to reveal as much of themselves as they want, and than they might have done otherwise.”

The stories she has gathered range from life on the streets and squats, to sex, love, drugs, death, Aids and politics – as well as recalling a world before online dating, mobile phones and Tinder.

“I am queer and now of an age where I can look back and consider my experience as a young adult,” she says. “This is about remembering how we lived a very different way – a different way of being queer, a different way of partying, a different attitude towards meeting people and how it was done.”

She has coined the term “sticky memories” to describe the products of her interviews: “Sometimes the memories that stuck from a certain physical place are not the ones you’d imagine at all,” she adds.

“They can be conjured up by something minor, or odd – not what you immediately assume a place in your past would conjure up. And I wanted to see what people remember about King’s Cross – what those words mean to those who were there, who had formative experiences there, in the recent past.”

Del Legrace Volcano, an American who settled in King’s Cross in the 1980s who talks about a gay-friendly bar in York Way

Finding the people to talk relied on her speaking to friends and using social media sites. They range from the cinema usher at the Scala to others who were using or involved in the sex industry and people who came to go to parties or buy drugs.

One interviewee, Ramon, recalls how going to a certain kebab shop could lead to something unexpected among the shish and chips.

“The guys were quite sexy, they would take you down the stairs for full-on sex, in the basement,” he says. “There were big tins of oil and stacks of pitta bread and whatever they bread. They were just having sex with everybody they fancied there.”

There is also a contribution from Vic Roberts, who worked at La Scala cinema.

“I would see three or four films a day, some of which were quite hard on my innocent mind,” she says. “Cafe Flesh is one which was quite a brutal film for an 18-year-old who had never seen anything like it before. Now I realise how profoundly important the Scala Cinema was to the film world, to London and to King’s Cross. I was shy and didn’t drink so I found it hard to go to the gay clubs. I would occasionally go to The Bell, which was next door and I could get in for free. The Bell was a safe place to explore being gay.”

Linda Wilkinson recalls the battle for equality in the face of the Section 28 legislation and the setting up of gay rights pressure group Stonewall

It is easy to sometimes forget what it was like to be gay in the 1990s, says Elly. “I remember what it was like before it was OK. Even in the trendy design agency I worked in, people did not want to come out,” she says.

And she says King’s Cross, for all its new shiny buildings, has a history that still resonates.

“I feel an energy left behind from previous times,” she says.

“Today, King’s Cross feels slightly fake. The new development has been done very nicely – but it also feels like there is no room for rebellion. It may be nice but somehow it does not feel ‘true’. There is the history here that the new buildings are not part of – the gay kebab shop, the parties with Leigh Bowery and Alexander McQueen, the mix of politics and partying.

“The people have shared many memories, and many are happy – but it was also a tough time. There were many who lost friends to Aids. People who had to handle drug addiction. It was a place where people had immense fun but also dark times. It is important to remember this.”

And her exhibition has captured a significant and valuable moment of time in the history of our city.

• To view the exhibition visit

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