KILLING CULTURE: THE CLOSURE OF THE OWL SANCTUARY

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by Chris Jarvis

Last night, my Facebook timeline erupted. It’s customary for this to happen every once in a while, typically following an international atrocity or a major political event. Instead, this time it was in relation to the news that beloved Norwich music venue The Owl Sanctuary is set to close its doors at the end of January. Waves of solidarity swept across the internet, with the venue’s lengthy, emotional and angry announcement on their Facebook page being shared more than 2,000 times within three hours. Friends, musicians and fellow Norwich public spaces all joined in to stand with their venue and condemn its closure. I couldn’t express my rage.

I’ve seen countless bands at The Owl Sanctuary. Capdown, Sonic Boom Six, ONSIND, Faintest Idea, JB Conspiracy, The Tuts, Muncie Girls, Random Hand to name a few – some of the most innovative and exciting bands on the scene today. The Owl Sanctuary would always provide the hottest of the underground, long time veterans and the best of homegrown Norfolk talent, while also always pushing bands about to make their break. A year ago Slaves played there. Last November, they played the LCR, an 1800 capacity venue.

( © Pepper.so )

( © Pepper.so )

The contribution The Owl Sanctuary and other small venues in Norwich and across the country make to music cannot be quantified. Whether it’s the band that plays to 50 people night after night for thirty years, bringing joy and inspiration to that handful of fans, or being the first to take the risk on a young group that the following year becomes a global sensation, small venues are the lifeblood of the music scene. Whenever someone calls time on one, as is becoming increasingly frequent, a little part of our country’s cultural pulse fades away.

The Owl Sanctuary’s demise is about more than music though. Fundamentally, The Owl Sanctuary is a working class space.

The Owl Sanctuary’s demise is about more than music though. Fundamentally, The Owl Sanctuary is a working class space. Nine times out of ten, the bands who have The Owl Sanctuary slotted into their tour diary are working class. The décor and atmosphere, with its no frills, no pleasantries realism are without the cuddliness of the more middle class spaces in Norwich. Signs on the windows and on posters read ‘no dickheads, racists, homophobes or violence’. Community based organising groups, whether it’s Norwich Soup Movement attempting to alleviate poverty among the city’s homeless and deprived communities or grassroots International Workers of the World branch the Norwich Bartenders and Hospitality Union, have used this venue to organise their activities and activism.

On the 21st of January, the local anti-cuts group – the Norfolk People’s Assembly – are hosting their fundraising gig at The Owl Sanctuary. A space to experience new, original and creative culture, a high quality social atmosphere with a safe and tolerant environment and a hub of activism and progressive organising. With the closure of Keir Hardie Hall in 2014, such spaces are now few and far between.

( Slaves at The Owl Sanctuary © Mark Richards )

( Slaves at The Owl Sanctuary © Mark Richards )

Learning that the building which housed The Owl Sanctuary was bought by a property developer without informing or consulting its current occupants reeks of something wider than your typical venue closure. It reeks of gentrification and the erasing of working class culture and communities from vast swathes of our cities. Moving out a progressive, popular music venue to replace it with what is likely to be the highest of the high end flats is emblematic of the social cleansing that has come to be so common in cities up and down the country. It is a slap in the face to the hard work of the people who have grafted tirelessly to make a project such as The Owl Sanctuary work. It is the removal of the heart of a community for so many.

Our society is the worse without spaces to exhibit and enjoy culture, to enjoy music.

Culture matters. The arts matter. Music matters. Without it, the richness of life is paler. Without it, the solace, the escapism, the inspiration, the enlightenment, the awe-inspiring, the warmth, the comfort, the cheer, the camaraderie, the fun begins to dissipate. Our society is the worse without spaces to exhibit and enjoy culture, enjoy music. That is what the forced closure of The Owl Sanctuary means.

In their statement, The Owl Sanctuary concluded: don’t get mad, get even. Too fucking right.

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