At the time of this interview (September, 2017) it’s been seven months since The Square closed its doors for the final time. Seven wasted months in which we could’ve been doing good for the community. It’s especially sad during what is an important year for Harlow. Instead the site (and for goodness knows how long) is surrounded by a grey hoarding. At times I wish they’d just get started with the demolition and redevelopment. After all, that’s the reason why we had to vacate. Leaving it to blatantly decay not only heightens the injustice many feel, but it also creates a bad impression for those visiting the town. It’s difficult to quantify what the town has lost. Harlow is a lesser place without The Square. On a personal level it’s left a void – that’s unavoidable with so much of my life having been invested in the venue.
Aside from listening to my father’s records, my first dalliance with music was at school – a newly purchased electric guitar securing my place in the school band. We did little more than play covers, but nonetheless, aged fourteen it was enough to cement my appreciation for not only making music but attending live gigs. At fifteen I entered The Square for the first time – little did I realise the profound effect it would have on me.
Initially I was just involved in their ‘Rock School’ project, but after negotiations I struck lucky and secured a two-week work-experience placement. With the help of Des (one of the main faces at The Square, who kinda became my mentor) I experienced the daily running of a music venue: booking bands; ticket sales; lighting and sound setup etc. The fact I continued to hang around The Square long after those two weeks was something my parents encouraged; they were at ease knowing I was in a safe environment and pursuing my love of music.
The venue itself was built in the 1960s. Until it became a music venue and changed its name to The Square (in the late 70s) it was known as the Galaxy Club – a youth club for those living in the adjacent YWCA building. The person responsible for shaping what became a much-loved live music venue was Vic Moody. His vision was a success and, as long as the accounts and demographic hit Essex County Council’s targets, the yearly budget was approved.
As much as I wanted to, I wasn’t of sufficient age to work at The Square. Instead I made do with the unofficial job of ‘flyer boy’. My remuneration for handing out flyers? A golden ticket – meaning that for over a year I never once paid to see a band! Working behind the bar was to be my first legitimate job, and when opportunities presented themselves I lent a hand and dabbled in other aspects of the venue.
It might sound like a cliché, but regardless of age, sex, gay/straight, black/white and music preference it didn’t matter – The Square welcomed everyone. At the heart of its success was respect for all. Granted, it didn’t stop the younger generation (myself included) being idiots at times – but being in the presence of adults, especially when you’re consuming alcohol, matured you and taught you a level of respect.
As mentioned, The Square was an Essex Country Council initiative that until 2006 was ticking all their boxes. But then their attitude towards the venue’s future became murky. Reading between the lines, I think they wanted the venue to close but knew full well that the public would create hell if they closed it outright. Therefore, the budget was axed – forcing the venue to be self-funding. Next they imposed rules – no alcohol sales and later an age restriction of fourteen to eighteen – which effectively killed the venue’s atmosphere. And of course, removing an important revenue stream and alienating half your customer base affected profits – which gave the powers that be a justification to shut it down. As expected, when revenue fell the plug was pulled; after June 2007 the venue was on its own.
An idea of a collective, myself included, taking over the lease was mooted. We didn’t have much money, but had a lot of faith. So with the help from MP Bill Rammell (who put us in contact with the right people and, importantly, got Essex County Council to take us seriously) we pushed forward with our plan. Our lives were put on hold while we ploughed every spare moment into the preparations for the reopening on 4 July 2007 – which the Harlow Star newspaper declared as ‘The Square’s Independence Day!’ The night went without a hitch, was a resounding success and – crucially – made a profit. I’ve always said that even if we had closed the next day it would have all been worth it.
With just a six-month lease we could never properly plan our future – which meant we struggled to realise the venue’s full potential. Myself and others weren’t in a position to ditch our day jobs, especially when with little notice we could’ve been out on our ear. So, did I expect it to continue for another nine years, especially when from the off we’d heard rumblings that the site was to be redeveloped? No!
Even when planning proposals were submitted we remained hopeful. One such proposal was to redevelop the existing YWCA building, which meant we were due to be offered a ten-year lease – sadly that was pulled due to cost implications at the eleventh hour. But we remained hopeful and discussions continued, as did suggestions of possible relocations, all of which we explored but found unsuitable for a long term venue.
In June 2015 we were handed our notice: six months, which took us through till the end of November. Seeing it in black and white was strange – almost surreal. However, in true indomitable spirit we decided to ignore the notice and plan gigs through until a big end-of-year sendoff for The Square, for which we signed up big names, a majority of whose careers had started at The Square and therefore wanted to give something back for one last time. As we shut the doors on the morning of New Year’s Day we vowed that we hadn’t closed; just moved on.
After several months, our search for a new venue had been fruitless. Only then did it dawn upon us that The Square was still the best solution. Even better, we still had the keys as we were paying rent to store our equipment there. After all, we had ignored the previous notice to quit without repercussions, and no redevelopment plans had been approved yet. Yes, there was a risk; the landlords could have closed us down at any moment without notice. But after years of wrangling we had nothing to lose. In the weeks prior to our big relaunch on 10 June 2016 the venue, with help from the community, was revamped. People arrived around the clock offering not only their time and materials, but food to keep us going. We were humbled and proud about how the people of Harlow rallied around us.
We knew our time was limited – which was confirmed when the previously refused development plans were approved on appeal. With that the developers’ attitude changed, as did the support we once received from Harlow Council. We were on our own, without a venue and without the funds to fight an appeal. We resigned ourselves to the fact that 28 January 2017 was to be the final gig – there was to be no encore.
As the evening drew to a close emotions were mixed. We’d done everything in our power to save The Square from closure – we had nothing left. In many respects the end, like an incurable illness, was a blessed relief – the grieving was done, it was time to move on. As we removed the last of our equipment the windows were being boarded up.
There are still places in town playing live music, but you can’t replace the ethos of The Square – in many respects it was unique. A bid to recreate it just might end up being a poor pastiche and I’m not sure I want to be the instigator of any such attempt. Maybe it’s better to hand the baton on to someone new – who knows?
Although nothing can change what’s happened, at least one silver lining has come from its closure. The local school (where I work) now owns The Square’s sound and lighting equipment. The head teacher realised the huge potential in obtaining the equipment, so in exchange gave permission for live music events for the community to be held in the school hall. It’s not a replacement for The Square, but rather than giving up on Harlow (making myself bitter in the process) I’m being pragmatic and channelling my emotions into different areas – creating positives from negatives.