Ode to The Backstreet: London’s last leather bar closes permanently

photo via Facebook

While Lab.oratory (the underbelly of Berlin’s Berghain) must rank as the greatest sex space in the history of the universe, the 37-year patina which coats nearly every nook, cranny, and orifice of east London fetish stalwart The Backstreet surely singles out this den of iniquity as unique among the waning number of surviving male-only bars devoted to leather, rubber and the rest.

Not even Berlin’s gay “ghetto” Schöneberg has anything to rival it: an atmospherically lit, blackened, and cinematic space coded top to bottom in conventionally manly signifiers (black oil drums, thick festooned chains, dusty boots dangling from the ceiling, camouflage netting, two big cages, stools, dirty everything), playlists that consistently get it just right (sexy but never overly aggressive music), and an unbendingly strict door policy (albeit with waistcoats and boots made available to those guilelessly showing up in mufti). A reassuring brand of sleazy anonymity pervades the bar and one that lends itself to a wet and sticky dream. 

Sadly, this piece is not merely an unbridled celebration of Backstreet – an establishment that occupies a singular position in the pantheon of gay leather bars that includes both New York’s Mineshaft and Spike, Hamburg’s Toms Saloon, London’s Cellar Bar, Amsterdam’s Argos, Berlin’s Knaast, Paris’s Keller, Munich’s Ochsengarten, Antwerp’s The Boots and various Eagles, nearly all of which are dead or near-dying. Rather this is more of a eulogy. On Monday the 18th of July Backstreet will start auctioning off the bulk of its trophy-filthy contents, with keys to the venue – the ground-floor space of an otherwise defunct building that easily could qualify as a ruin – to be handed in later in the week. End of story.

Property developer Galliard purchased the rotting building (previously the domain of part-gay club Benjy’s, above Backstreet) several years ago, but LGBTQ-friendly, Labour-controlled Tower Hamlets Council, citing the bar as an important community asset, consistently thwarted Galliard’s efforts to build a multi-unit block of flats on the site. At one point the Council was meant to have challenged the developers to “build around The Backstreet” – un…believable – and in August 2019 even the Guardian newspaper covered the bar’s most recent stay of execution. But now with the lease about to expire, and with punters generally too low in number to justify a further sustained power struggle with Galliard, Backstreet’s already flickering embers are about to be extinguished once and for all.

John Edwards, a solicitor with an exacting, clipped delivery, opened The Backstreet in 1985, in a back passage (Wentworth Mews) just a minute’s walk behind Mile End Tube station in London’s East End. Edwards, who also has been known for ties to the London Zoological Society (insert benignly catty ironic remark), capitalized on the failure of the space’s previous tenant Benjy’s 2 (an adjunct bar associated with the upstairs club) to lure more than a dozen or so men on any given night. Edwards transformed the bar into what it is now and rewrote the rule book. He made no secret of his fetish for tall boots and imposed his own strict standards when it came to the bar’s dress code – a mark of integrity that rather set it apart from all others, including its slightly more casual crosstown competitor The Hoist, which finished its 20-year Vauxhall run in late 2016.

Both Backstreet and The Hoist were built on a leathery London lineage that included three long-gone institutions: Earl’s Court’s gay-iconic pub The Coleherne, The London Apprentice (in Old Street, now a major artery of hipster-central Shoreditch) and, most adventurously, the Cellar Bar (accessed via an industrial alleyway at the rear of seminal gay club Heaven). And both Backstreet and The Hoist suffered markedly from the advent of online pursuits, eventually resorting to staging naked sessions whose consistent popularity ironically kept the bars from sinking into a hole. It’s no accident that Backstreet will stage its official closing party on a Saturday (a strict dress code night) but bows out for good a day later with a naked-only Sunday session – a kind of thank you to the men who came and came in droves throughout the bar’s bleaker periods.

While many seemed to abandon Backstreet, unique to the establishment was its undying sense of loyalty to its customers and a no-nonsense “business as usual” ethos that appeared immune to the many lulls in attendance across the late 1990s and 2000s. In January 2014, during a particularly dry spell in Wentworth Mews, leathery local Bruce “Brew” Hunter staged his inaugural “leather, smoke & submission” night, Mastery, injecting the traditionally analog and trend-resistant Backstreet with a much-appreciated jolt, with the bar now benefitting from a certain presence on social media. Mastery offshoots and various other specialist sub-contracted nights followed, ushering in a new Golden Age; in short, sordid with a smile. That said, you could still arrive on a Friday or a Saturday to find a bar of just 24 or 32 desperate-looking men; but even those evenings, while potentially depressing, could be at least atmospheric. No regrets.

Before bowing out of this nostalgia wank I should comment on the fact that the bar was not without incident or drama. Many fell foul of the rules – or defied Edwards’s strict sense of etiquette (even for such a liberated, filthy-sleazy pit as this) – and were banned outright, though some were allowed back after a period of penance (possibly looking for further penance out back). In earlier days Edwards, ready to go home at the end of the night, would abruptly switch to classical music in order to get the boys marching. And the place seen with the lights on surely was an eye-opener. A rather poignant and tickling tale involves a Slovenian regular who in 1997 became a British citizen…in Backstreet, with Edwards (a commissioner for oaths) officiating while in blue and white Lycra and knee-high boots. This occurred on a Friday at 9:45 pm, just before opening, with the tall and hunky Slovenian head to toe in rubber, including waders.

Despite a severe stroke in August 2013 that left Edwards compromised, he continued to oversee the operation – abetted by dutiful and ever affable manager Mark Allnutt – and occasionally turned up late in the evening (from his flat just around the corner) to sit at the bar in a quiet corner spot that offered a view of every paying customer. During this time local artist Matthew Pagett established himself as arguably the bar’s most popular ever coat-check person.

Edwards never allowed cellular devices (mobile phones) inside the bar. While this preserved its sense of a total environment, it also means that the bar is relatively under-documented.

As for the closing of Backstreet, I remain aggrieved and shellshocked, and in denial, though I and others were always aware that this black day would happen. I may be the last gay man standing without ever having had an online profile; I need to see how a man walks across a room, how he interacts, and how he just stands there…and other things. I started going to Backstreet in 1986. I’ll be something of a lost weekend soul without it. I won’t be alone in the hunt for a suitable after-dark space. The other problem is that you can’t contrive a patina.

Please don’t make this the end of an era.

David Oppedisano is the London editor of GayCities

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