Community, Collaboration, and Counterculture: Save the Ravensbourne Arms

Sister Midnight’s campaign to Save the Ravensbourne Arms reflects an ongoing global movement to reclaim spaces from private landlords, and highlights the role music venues can play in building community, and driving cultural innovation and socio-political change.

PHOTOGRAPHY Abi Fleming and Sophie Farrell

A cornerstone of the South London music scene, Sister Midnight was so much more than a record store. It was a hub of community and grassroots music, offering a platform over the past two years for countless emerging artists – from Porridge Radio to Goat Girl. Yet, as with many other culturally important venues, limitations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic forced it into closing. Now, founder Lenny Watson – who bought the record store using her student loan to stop it from being turned into a cheese and wine shop – along with Verity Hobbs and Sophie Farrell, are campaigning to save Lewisham’s Ravensbourne Arms and continue to provide for the community they had built up around Sister Midnight.

The Ravensbourne Arms has sat boarded up since 2016, disused and gathering dust, after it was sold to property developers. While two floors of the building were converted into flats, Lewisham Council has refused to grant a change of use for the rest of the space  – and Sister Midnight plan to breathe new life into the pub. The team have been raising funds to purchase the disused pub through a series of fundraising gigs – including an upcoming one at the Fox and Firkin on 4th December, featuring Horsey, Malady, and Goat Girl DJs – and via a Crowdfunder. Through launching this community share offer that allows the general public to invest in the business, they have placed the future of the business in the hands of the community that it benefits, thus ensuring its longevity.

“People will be incentivised to see our venue succeed – they’ll want to bring their custom and money into it because its success is theirs to share”, says Lenny Watson. “That’s why the community ownership model works so well. Because this will be everyone’s space – they’ll really belong there.”

piglet perform at Sister Midnight’s last fundraising gig at the Fox and Firkin

Sister Midnight’s campaign sits within a growing movement to reclaim ownership of spaces from unscrupulous private landlords and property developers with a lust for profit over all else. It was only in September that residents in Berlin voted in favour of local authorities taking control of flats from mega-landlords after the Mietendeckel, Berlin’s city-wide rent cap, was overturned in April 2021. In South East London, the Rising Sun Collective plan to turn rental flats into a housing co-operative and the Rural Urban Synthesis Society are self-building affordable eco-homes. And recently, a community-run garden occupied space in Central London to deliver environmental workshops as, across the river, Tonic Housing continue to deliver a radical community-led model for the establishment of housing for older LGBTQIA+ people.

Not only do co-operative housing ventures provide stability to young urbanites trapped in the ongoing housing crisis – paying their landlords’ mortgages and unable to save to buy their own houses – but they also offer a sense of place for those lost in an ever-expanding city. As social animals, we seek a sense of belonging in order to survive, with research showing that a lack of a sense of belonging is associated with loneliness, emotional distress, psychosocial disturbance, and mental illness, while a good sense of belonging was found to correspond with healthy psychosocial experiences and behaviours.

Campaigns such as the one spearheaded by Sister Midnight demonstrate the significant value of community-ownership – not only in the ways it drives systemic change but also the ways in which it encourages creative innovation – when expanded beyond residential homes, and into businesses and cultural institutions.

With shifting property prices and constantly looming uncertainty, a decentralisation of ownership and power brings increased stability to residents’ and business-owners’ lives. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated the resilience of this model, with research by The Plunkett Foundation finding that “rural community-owned businesses were in robust health as Covid-19 hit, and displayed a unique innovation and flexibility to serve those who needed them when Britain was under national lockdown”. But campaigns such as the one spearheaded by Sister Midnight also demonstrate the significant value of community ownership – not only in the ways it drives systemic change but also the ways in which it encourages creative innovation – when expanded beyond residential homes, and into businesses and cultural institutions. There are already around 11,000 community-owned businesses in the UK – and Watson thinks that this number will only keep growing.

“Community businesses are part of a growing movement of economic and systemic change. We’ve seen how the focus on generating profit has decimated the landscape of cultural institutions, particularly in the music scene. And so any model which moves away from focussing on profit and starts to think about the needs of the people involved is really exciting. It’s about decentralising power and the benefits of running businesses”, tells Watson.

Music and a strong counter-culture also have that same potential for driving socio-political change. That’s why the combination of these two things in a democratic community owned space that fosters creativity – and champions risk-taking and experimentation – really empowers people to be at the cutting edge of music culture.

Lenny Watson

Arising in the sixties in the U.S., but also more widely in the West, ‘the counterculture movement’ emerged in radical opposition to the traditional American lifestyle – characterised by a rejection of societal norms, psychedelic drug-use, increased political awareness and activism, a sexual revolution, and experimental creative expression. Combating the capitalist consumerism that propped up the ‘American Dream’, it heavily influenced musical artists at the time, such as The Doors, The Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix, and encouraged a shift in the wider consciousness towards a prioritisation of community, collaboration, and eco-awareness.

The counterculture movement revolutionised the global music spectrum, with more recent subcultures of music – from punk and metal, to Goa trance and alternative hip-hop – drawing significant influence from its legacy, but it also sat upon a history of music as a tool for shifting the socio-political landscape. Jazz, for example, has long been a vehicle for political commentary and a catalyst for change – with free jazz centring collective improvisation over individualistic liberation – providing a voice for the marginalised, especially people of colour, and increasing social consciousness around the ways in which they were mistreated by society.

Jelly Cleaver performs at the fundraising gig at the Fox and Firkin

Yet, much of this would not have been possible without the community creating spaces for their music to be shared with one another. At the start of the 1960s, the Ornette Coleman Quartet gave a series of performances at the Five Spot Café in the Bowery, New York City – here inventing the aforementioned method of collective improvisation, sparking division amongst the cultural elite, and shifting the trajectory of American music. Rather than being driven by profit, it was its non-commercial atmosphere, and affordable food and drinks, that drew countless avant-garde artists, musicians, and writers to the doors of the Five Spot Café – and cemented its place as a venue of historical significance. Purchased originally by the Termini family as a working-class bar, the space bought a piano and obtained a cabaret licence at the request of pianist Don Shoemaker, who offered his band to play at the venue. Over the next six years, the café would platform Steve Lacy, John Coltrane, and Charlie Haden, and be frequented by artists such as Leonard Bernstein, Miles Davis, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg – many of whom lived nearby.

Rather than being driven by profit, it was its non-commercial atmosphere, and affordable food and drinks, that drew countless avant-garde artists, musicians, and writers to the doors of the Five Spot Café – and cemented its place as a venue of historical significance.

Prior to this, jazz clubs had also played a central role in building community and inspiring change during the 1940s and 50s. Through his book, Sittin’ In: Jazz Clubs of the 1940s and 1950s, historian Jeff Gold shares how during the Jim Crow era, even as a world war waged on, many jazz clubs were a beacon of racial integration. Drawing from the experiences of Quincy Jones, who claims that there was no racial trouble or prejudice in the club, and Sonny Rollins, who says, “We never get credit for what an integrated scene jazz was”, Gold paints a picture of musical havens where a shared appreciation for culture provided an escape from the daily troubles. And while some of these clubs were well-known and exploitative – such as The Cotton Club, which was racist and segregated – the majority were underground and merely advertised in local African American newspapers. Still, they provided a stage for some of the greatest jazz icons before they claimed their celebrity, such as Charlie Parker.

In London, Bush Hall served the community of Shepherd’s Bush in London’s swinging 60s, offering rehearsal space for bands such as The Who, while Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, and Pink Fairies played benefit gigs at a number of community spaces in Ladbroke Grove/Notting Hill. Since then, grassroots music venues have continued to launch the careers of countless artists, platforming new talent and driving cultural shifts. But rising rents, mega-landlords, and the Covid-19 pandemic has left many unable to pay rent and wages, thus casting a dark shadow over the future of the underground live music scene. The Montague Arms in New Cross – which launched King Krule’s career – The Five Bells, and DIY Space were all forced into closure over the past year, and others, such as The Lexington – which hosted Tame Impala, Wolf Alice, and Fontaines DC at the start of their careers – and The Windmill – which helped Black Midi and HMLTD make their names – are also struggling to survive.

Grassroots music venues have continued to launch the careers of countless artists, platforming new talent and driving cultural shifts. But rising rents, mega-landlords, and the Covid-19 pandemic has left many unable to pay rent and wages, thus casting a dark shadow over the future of the underground live music scene.

It is Sister Midnight’s hope that their community-ownership and volunteer-led model will allow The Ravensbourne Arms to continue with this long-held tradition of independent music venues driving the conversation, innovation, and socio-political change through platforming cutting-edge artists – free from worries around making rent or paying staff.

“A lot of the time, promoters or venues will put on people that they know will sell tickets. But with our pub being community-owned and not-for-profit, there’ll be less of a push to make money from gigs and more scope for platforming people that are a bit of a risk”, says Sophie Farrell.

Watson adds that this also broadens the diversity of events they could run at the pub, ranging from under-18s nights – “which are notoriously hard for venues to run but crucial for young adults” – and an affordable recording studio in the basement, to baby music classes and knitting groups.

“It’s really important to have skills-training workshops to help increase employability, radical reading groups, pensioner dance classes, and cooking classes on offer in one space”, shares Lenny Watson. “We also want to do a Sunday roast where you can come alone and pay what you can afford, and just sit at one long table with everyone else. All of this is about creating a space where everything will benefit the community somehow.”

With much of Lewisham occupying a lower-income space compared to other London boroughs, there is significant value in the establishment of a community-owned space that would offer opportunities for local residents to build networks and skills. 

Sister Midnight’s intention to provide a wide range of activities, classes, and opportunities for the local community in one space tugs at the restrictive boundaries of how pubs are often perceived, and provides insight into the ways in which they could occupy a space historically filled by community centres. Over the past decade of austerity, due to the localised distribution of provision and cuts of 50% to council budgets, community centres, youth centres, and activities have been slashed across England. Research conducted by the YMCA found that overall spending on youth services in England fell by 62% between 2010 and 2018, and 600 youth centres closed between 2012 and 2016. Furthermore, more than one in five (22%) libraries have either closed, been privatised, or are now staffed by volunteers. This has been further exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, during which London Youth found that nearly a third of London’s community groups and charities that provided services for young people were struggling to cover running costs and facing closure.

Volunteers canvass in their local community

The central Government’s uneven treatment of local authorities has also led to increased inequality, with councils with more deprived populations experiencing disproportionately higher levels of cuts. Research by The Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggests that new ways of working are necessary in order for local communities to continue to connect with one another and to receive support, wherein services such as community centres could be transferred to local groups after capacity-building work. With much of Lewisham occupying a lower-income space compared to other London boroughs, there is significant value in the establishment of a community-owned space that would offer opportunities for local residents to build networks and skills. 

Pubs are a natural extension of the community centre… they should be making provisions to be representative and accepting of the population that surrounds them.

Sam Gowans, Events Manager at The Ivy House

Partly inspired by the success of Nunhead’s The Ivy House – London’s first community-owned pub, which opened in 2013 – Sister Midnight’s plans to offer sober and nourishing workshops and classes sits atop a history of pubs offering value to their communities beyond alcohol and entertainment. Sam Gowans, The Ivy House’s Events Manager, shares that the pub was originally built in the 1930s as part of a scheme to drive business to pubs following the war, and to leave behind the drunken image associated with Victorian and Edwardian pubs. Now, the pub holds space in Nunhead as an Asset of Community Value, wherein “the main use of the building furthers the social wellbeing or social interests of the community.”

“Throughout the 20th and 21st century, pubs have always been meeting places for communities. As we shift into looking at what a modern pub should be, offering sober spaces and activities for the whole community is a no-brainer”, he says. “Pubs are a natural extension of the community centre. So hosting diverse activities in a public house feels only natural and the right thing to do, considering the rapid changes in our society. Otherwise they would fail to be relevant to their communities when they should be making provisions to be representative and accepting of the population that surrounds them.”

Despite their overlapping models and goals, the two pubs’ community-ownership model frees them from subscription to capitalism’s scarcity mindset. In fact, Sister Midnight actively opposes any notions of competition, openly sharing their love for nearby venues and their desire for collaboration. “Once a business is self-declared as not-for-profit, you are no longer in competition with the other venues around you – and that’s something that’s so important to us. We want to take a collaborative approach to booking and to bringing culture to the area so that we have a range of amazing venues that all offer different things,” adds Watson.

The grassroots scene is stronger when we all work together. And I would love to see that approach to collaborative working and solidarity rise up through the power structures of the industry.

Lenny Watson

In fact, Sister Midnight has been advocating with Power To Change – who gave them a development grant for this project – to demand increased access to unconditional grants for individuals from more marginalised backgrounds, who may not have the privilege of time and money to be able to take months out of work in order to work on a project such as this one. This is in a bid not only to expand, but also to diversify, the co-operative scene, which is now predominantly occupied by white middle-aged men, despite the roots of the movement being in Black and Minority Ethnic culture – the first credit union in the UK was Jamaican, but the history is often whitewashed. They also plan on becoming qualified community practitioners to teach people how to launch their own share-offers.

“If you’re looking to launch your own community-share project, there’s plenty of support out there – both practical and financial. Some of the organisations that helped us were Power to Change, Plunkett Foundation, and Co-operatives UK. Beyond funding institutions, I’d also recommend getting in touch with existing networks to get support for your project,” advises Watson.

“You can speak to other community businesses, both local to you and across the country. We spoke to The Exchange in Bristol and The Bevvy in Brighton, for example. And you can reach out to councillors and MPs, as well as the Greater London Authority (GLA) if you’re based in London. You could also look for a community shares practitioner – we worked with Dave Boyle, and I can’t recommend him enough.”

“It can be a really long and difficult process but don’t get disheartened. Creating a community like this is beautiful and amazing, and it’s so worth doing!”

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