London's gay salon scene



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The relaunch of Tart brings another salon-type event to London‘s noisy gay scene. We enjoy cultured conversation and a chance to put our feet up

  • London's gay salon scene

    Lesbian and gay authors and performers broadening our idea of 'gay culture'

  • Okay, so 28 Shacklewell Lane, Dalston might not be 20 rue Jacob, Paris, but the relaunched Tart, with its mission statement ‘Where Intelligent Discussion is Expected and Encouraged’, is also a salon event where women meet to rub shoulders and indulge in cultured conversation. Was Tart founder Reina Lewis inspired by the legendary salonista Natalie Barney nattering to Alice B Toklas, while Getrude Stein complained to Romaine Brooks about the price of poissons?

    ‘We were inspired by the salons of old, both those of the aristocracy and the bohemian salons of the early-twentieth century that have become so iconic in lesbian popular imagery.’

    But does that mean that Lewis and co-hostess Ruth Whitehead hand-pick the invitees from the cream of London lesbian society? Lewis is horrified: ‘No! We wanted to create a social gathering that focused on the arts but was also friendly and welcoming. We knew that women were craving cultural events andwanted social spaces that were not “sceney”.’

    I ask Lewis if perhaps we’re all just a bit past-it and would rather have a nice sit-down and a chat instead of a drug-fuelled dance? ‘Tart is an antidote to mindless clubbing and noisy bars, and women are entitled to a range of venues and activities with more substance. It is not just that we are getting older, but that the ways in which binge culture has impacted on queer bar spaces may well be making them less attractive to women of all ages.’

    Other soirée-style events, including gay literary salon Polari and Rupert Smith’s occasional Queer Salons, suggest that there’s a parallel scene springing up which is more thinking than drinking. Smith tells me that the foundations for the so-called ‘House of Homosexual Culture’ were laid ‘when a group of thirty- and fortysomething friends were moaning about the lack of cultural connection on the gay scene. So we started holding events that focused on a certain issue and mixed expert talk, personal testimony, performance, discussion and socialising. Obviously it served the needs of an older group who don’t want loud music and drugs. But there are many younger people who come and engage very actively.’

    Club promoter and young gay blade-around-town Aubrey Dobson created Salon at The Shadow Lounge and also promotes the Wilde-inspired Green Carnation on Greek Street, which he describes as ‘a salon where like-minded people can talk, drink and think. It’s a gathering of gay people under one roof, who may (or may not) amuse and inspire one another.’

    Time Out’s own Paul Burston created his ‘night of gay words’, Polari, at the Green Carnation, in the belief that, ‘There are those whose idea of gay culture doesn’t begin and end with the latest dance remix. What most people refer to as gay culture isn’t really culture at all but a commercial playground. Also, most gay authors don’t get many opportunities to read in public, and if they do, they tend to be in bookshops. I liked the idea of bringing books to the gay scene, and broadening the idea of gay culture.’ Guest authors have included Neil Bartlett, with Stella Duffy lined up for February.

    Since its original inception in 2000, Tart’s ‘Tartlets’ have included talents as varied as Ali Smith, Sarah Waters, Cherry Smyth, Veronica Slater and Susan Stockwell. This week’s soirée welcomes the irrepressible ‘brilliant, bolshy and fabulously butch’ Lea DeLaria who’ll be belting out some numbers followed by a Q&A session and then mingling, with Lewis playing hostess with the mostest.

    Finally, if you are thinking that Tart’s mission ‘to promote the roles of women both as makers and as consumers of culture, and provide a vibrant space for art, literature, performance, poetry, music, and debate’ sounds a trifle high-minded, Lewis points out that she has been ‘inundated with requests to run a singles night; the clearest indication perhaps of what Tart provides that other venues don't!’

    Sounds tarty to me.

    Tart is on January 18. The next Polari is on Feb 12.

    For details of House of Homosexual Culture visit

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Users say


There are also many events in London for gay people which happen 'off scene'. A good example is Village Drinks, the social event for gay professionals. This happens once a month and always attracts a huge crowd of ofer 400. It's very popular and good fun.