This town is coming like a ghost town.By John McCooke, ex proprietor of The Good Ship, May 2018
Dear everyone, you are reading this because I want to set the record straight with an account of why The Good Ship closed on 30th October 2017. I wanted to sell my interest in The Good Ship for a long time but I was desperately keen for it to remain a venue, or at the least as a bar but despite having advanced talks with 2 parties over the course of a year, both of whom wanted to take the place on as a music venue I am afraid that they both fell through and I was left with little choice but to succumb to the landlord's wish to vacate the premises so he could sell the building with vacant possession to a building supplies company. This would never have happened except that the venue was barely breaking even in 2016 and after Brent council cut our hours at the end of 2016 we were losing significant amounts of money per week. If we had continued we would have run out of money by summer 2018 regardless.
It is very well documented that grassroots music venues have a hard time making ends meet but we were doing an ok job and whilst not profit driven in any way we were always in the black, albeit modestly, going into 2016. Very broadly the live music and comedy output broke even and the revenue from a Friday and Saturday night when we had DJs til 4am subsidised everything else we did. We would have closed earlier at a weekend if we could have done but the late hours were an essential and worthwhile sacrifice to support everything else we did.
The background to the council's decision was the events of 2016. It was a uniquely difficult period and a challenging High Road got really testing throughout that year. Our first problem was that a very dangerous gang started hanging around our door late at night at the weekends. Our smokers need to come in and out of the main entrance so it was not as if we could ever just close the front door on these people. We had constant changes on our security team because of death threats and all in all it was a diabolical time until the intervention of the local neighbourhood police team helped to clear this problem. The other major problem was that every single other late night venue in the immediate area had their licensed reviewed in early 2016 and were either forced to close (Lower Ground Bar, West End Lane) or chose to close down, presumably because the businesses were no longer viable (Betsy Smith, Love and Liquor) with the net result that Kilburn was a whole lot quieter generally, with a lot less visitors, but the troublesome locals who bothered these places then chanced their arms at the only late venue left in the area; The Good Ship. We got rid of them all eventually but these things take time.
Allow me to briefly explain how local authority Licensing departments work. They are essential split into 2 groups, Licensing (which deal with all the administration) and Licensing Police who enforce it. I was speaking to the Brent Licensing Police main liaison manager Nick Mortimer very, very regularly during this period, in fact weekly. He and the Brent Licensing Department were fully aware of all the issues we were having with undesirables at this time. I wanted an honest dialogue but I definitely said too much because quotes I made were subsequently used against me when both Licensing departments later brought us up in court to challenge our licence. I had a meeting with 2 Licensing Officers and 1 Licensing Policeman shortly after Nick Mortimer retired late in 2016 and told them all the measures we had put in place, including new CCTV, IDing absolutely everyone, having an extra security person on board, having one of the bar staff permanently on the floor to capture any incidents before they escalated and voluntarily closing at 3am rather than 4am being the main ones and I was fairly confident that with the gang gone and a massive decrease in the number of unknown ne'erdowells turning up at our door that they would allow us to continue with these new measures at no little cost, that were plainly working. I also asked if they could change our last entry at 2am condition to later because that was causing us huge difficulties on the door, for all sorts of reasons the main one being that with no other option locally huge crowds were gathering outside our premises every Friday and Saturday night.
Things were getting back under control but instead of helping us Brent Licensing and Brent Licensing Police instead said they were going to review our licence, which was a huge kick in the teeth after everything we had put in place. There had been a review a few weeks earlier which had been thrown out because Brent Licensing had not gone through the procedures properly. Moreover it stemmed from a sound complaint, which our investigation suggested was from a stooge, which I told them. In my opinion they were very unhappy about this and so pushed for a Police Licensing Review instead. I was flabbergasted and I told them again and again that any cut in our weekend hours would close the bar and that there would be no music venue left in Brent or any space left in Kilburn that would have free hire available for creative and community events. Brent Licensing and Brent Licensing Police then sent their review documents and the key recommendation was that we serve alcohol no later than 130am at weekends, with last entry at midnight. This was plainly designed to make the business untenable and because their documents were separate and because Brent Police Licensing made no fewer than 3 addendums it was really difficult to contest.
I have to quote one part of the Licensing Policeman's subsequent reports. "Mr McCooke has also mentioned that a reduction in the venue's hours would cripple the business, however there are numerous successfully operated, similar live music venues, with comparable closing times around London, that have the same operating hours that I am requesting from this review. Mr McCooke has stated that closing at 02:00 will lead to the closure of the venue and affect other bars and restaurants in the area, but has not explained how. I disagree with this." I telephoned him at this point and said that the venues he must be referring to are in the likes of Camden and Hackney, places that have a very busy night time economy to which he just said something along the likes of if they can do it so can you. Frustrated, I asked about the last line, how he could have formed the opinion to write "I disagree with this" about the Good Ship closing affecting other bars and restaurants in the area, and he said "I just do, am I not allowed to disagree with you?" That was the level of discourse I had to deal with. I resorted to asking my accountant to send a letter to back up my suggestion. Also, I had someone advising with me who worked for a Licensing department of a council in another part of the country and when he saw the recommendations and addendums from this officer he was shocked at how much police time was being wasted and said that the Licensing Policeman had it in for me. I could only agree!
Various spokespersons from Brent council have been on the PR offensive since we announced our closure. A local councillor said and I quote;
My view is that there are some significant if not deliberate omissions in the story as given to the newspapers about the Good Ship, not least:
He is right on the first fact, the committee did see on our side with the one condition that was not horse traded away between the two legal teams at the start of the hearing. Under quite a bit of pressure I naively agreed that we would close at 230am and said no way could we agree to any later than 130am last entry when the police pushed for 1am. The committee agreed with us and I have no argument with them atall. His second suggestion is ridiculous, things were under control before the committee hearing even happened. The fact that we started making significant losses was because Kilburn's nightlife was generally on it's knees and our final USP had been taken away. How long were we expected to make significant losses? Lastly, I did indeed tell the council that I was trying to sell The Good Ship but the reason I told them was that I thought they had it in for me personally and with no experience of the process I thought that if a new person would be in place they would leave them alone and not pursue the review. I told them that in confidence, even the attachment the councillor provided as proof of this fact is an email from me asking for it to be kept confidential! For very obvious reasons, we had the increase in trouble because of all the other venues shut down and I was desperately trying to keep staff morale high. Brent Licensing even brought it up in our hearing too, a disgraceful breach of confidence.
The general emptiness of Kilburn at night obviously affected us hugely. That there are pubs on the Camden side of Kilburn High Road that can stay open til beyond when we can let people in all contributed to the death of our Friday and Saturday nights. Pretty much straight away we went into a loss making situation, we put in a few steps to stem the tide but ultimately the only way we would have potentially been tenable was to do away with the live music and comedy, our reason for being.
I am not sure when the most recent rot started for Kilburn but it can probably be traced back to 2006 when Biddy Mulligans was closed down by the Brent Licensing authorities and I understand that a bar was put on any licensed premise reopening there. Which meant a restaurant could not open on the prime site of the corner of Willesden Lane and Kilburn High Road and we were treated to Kilburn's third Ladbrokes instead. There was a hall upstairs at Biddy's which had been used as a music venue on occasion. This was lost to the development but Kilburn was still punching above its weight culturally with 3 music venues on the high street. Brent Council were not instrumental in the closure of the other 2 but they have since then been busy squeezing other public houses on the high street with the net result that they all have doormen now in the early evening on the Brent side of the road, a deeply unnecessary step that costs bars a lot of money and drives away potential customers in their droves. Ten years ago there were hardly any doormen working on Kilburn High Road and now there are far too many of them. It is impossible to have enough competent door supervisors to keep up with the artificial demand but that is a huge discussion for elsewhere.
I was born and bred in Kilburn and have always loved the diversity of the area and indeed London as a whole. I have always felt that London is like an experiment to see if people of different cultural and financial backgrounds can get on and they largely do. It has shaped me massively and when I opened The Good Ship I very much wanted it to be a melting pot that the vast majority of people would not find financially restrictive. We were an events driven venue and largely put on music and comedy and at the weekend we mixed that crowd with the more local one that came along for DJs and a late drink. Of all the late venues in the area we were definitely the most peaceful and friendly and we had a formula that largely worked. Much like London's mix of people benefit all, our live music crowd helped to create a nicer buzz for the potentially more difficult later DJ crowd. When we had to call upon the local police they were always outstanding in their responses unlike their counterparts in Licensing Police. The first time I encountered them was when they came in with Brent Licensing on a weekend night, about 20 of them, checking that we have all our i's dotted and t's crossed. My customers that night unsurprisingly thought it was a drugs raid or something; Licensing's belligerence on that and subsequent occasions was unnecessary and totally baffling.
In January Kilburn Ironworks announced that it was closing and rumour has it that at least two other bars on Kilburn High Road are likely to close this year. Every pub, with the possible exception of The Old Bell and The Colin Campbell (where the new managers are doing a great job) has lost a lot of trade in the recent past. Most of the pubs will survive and some will benefit a small bit from others closing but the fact remains that London is a big place and there are plenty of other neighbourhoods to go out in, neighbourhoods where there are interesting things happening at night.
In 1914 Kilburn had the largest purpose built cinema in England (at the National) with 2,000 seats, it did again in 1937 when The Gaumont State was built with 4,000 seats. When cinema audiences dropped those venues had the likes of Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, The Who, The Smiths and Nirvana play. In Kilburn's recent wave Adele, The xx, The Editors, Mumford and Sons and London Grammar have all played plus comedians such as Stewart Lee and Reginald D Hunter. Now, there is pretty much nothing and I really cannot see why anyone would want to take a chance on Kilburn in the current environment.
Since 2011 Kilburn has lost The Luminaire, The King's Head, The Kilburn, Powers, the Ironworks, Love and Liquor and Soul Store West (which lasted about a month). Including us it is now at least eight venues across four sites and it has not bottomed out yet. I implored Brent Licensing and Brent Licensing Police again and again to not make The Good Ship untenable and told them that Kilburn needed a mix of locals and visitors to thrive. I'm not sure what they were playing at and I'm not sure they even know but I am afraid that the evidence of their work is plain to see on pretty much any night you choose.
Thanks to everyone who ever came to visit us and made it a special time in Kilburn. There was a particular community who mainly revolved between The Ship, Powers, The Luminaire, The King's Head and The Colin Campbell, plus The Priory when at the other end of the high road and lots of life long partnerships were forged. They were mainly the best of times.