How did Shoreditch become “cool”? – drag queen comedian to debate

Jonny Woo who is delivering a lecture about Shoreditch.

Jonny Woo who is delivering a lecture about Shoreditch. - Credit: Archant

Drag queen and comedian Jonny Woo is looking to answer the question, “When Shoreditch happened?” in a “lecture” about how the area became the centre of cool.

A general view of the Bricklayers Arms Pub, Shoreditch (photo: Arnaud Stephenson)

A general view of the Bricklayers Arms Pub, Shoreditch (photo: Arnaud Stephenson) - Credit: photo: Arnaud Stephenson

Woo – real name Jonathan Wooster – is interviewing a pool of Shoreditch personalities and long-term residents to try to pinpoint the pivotal moment, but already he has his own hypothesis.

“The tagline is, in 1995, in a pub called the Bricklayers Arms, in Shoreditch, the world began,” he said as he sat on a beaten-up old sofa in De Beauvoir’s Rose Lipman Building where his performance will be staged.

The performer, who developed a cult following after hosting the Gay Bingo night, believes a scene developed after “his crowd” – a bunch of creative types including Fee Doran, Charles Deakin and Lulu Kennedy – moved into the Shoreditch triangle, bordered by Great Eastern Street, Shoreditch High Street and Old Street.

“A pub went from being a regular kind of pub and changed into a wellspring of creativity,” he said.

“For a few years there was a fun-loving party scene which erupted around it and it attracted the eyes of the media which branded this part of Shoreditch – which was a backwater – as being a cool area.

“People were experimenting freely with music, clothes and drugs, creating unconsciously a lifestyle that was going to be a characteristic stamp which people from outside would then start buying into.”

Most Read

Asymetric hair, tight jeans, musicians moving away from house music and rave culture and “doing a more rocky mash-up sound”, and the “warehouse living thing” – all this encapsulated the Shoreditch alternative scene which had now become mainstream and the biggest night-time economy in London, he said.

Grungy mismatched furniture – much like the sofa he was sitting on – bare walls, old lampshades, “a whole vintagey, thrown-together style”, became standard over time.

Woo argues that had Shoreditch not “happened” and not gained the snowballing media attention, east London might not have received the attention of the Olympics.

“Shoreditch and Hackney were pretty much off the map by the end of the eighties and early Nineties. The rest of London ignored it, the rest of the world certainly didn’t know about it, but now we’ve had the Olympics and music events where the whole world is looking and talking about Hackney,” he said.

Based on interviews, he and Transport Theatre Company director Douglas Rintoul will create a one-man verbatim theatre show combining lip-synching, songs, perhaps a bit of drag and some humour thrown in for good measure.

“The way people describe things is funny,” he said.

“When you hear what people say back, you think, ‘Oh my God, is that how people speak, is that how you see the world?’

“There’s inherent comedy, but then there’s inherent conflict, because you have different people talking about the same area, and talking about in their words what are quite serious issues like house prices.

“It’s also a reminiscence piece and that’s at the heart of the story. I can’t remember a lot about it because everyone was very drunk.”

So if Shoreditch has “happened”, where is the cool place now?

“The cool place now is where you want to be.

“I think that moment isn’t going to happen again and that’s another reason why I think it should be marked, because I would think the last time that happened is when the Kings Road and Chelsea was transformed into the centre of cool.

“At the moment, I don’t think you need to look for the new cool. If you do, you are misguided. Everything is still cool if you want it to be.

“If you want to find the new hot area, you have to create something new and it’s going to be something intangible that we haven’t thought of.”