A Brief History of Portals

The appeal of the ‘secret entrance’ trend and why it just won’t die

The idea of an ‘entrance portal’ is nothing new. I’d wager we’ve all been to a bar where you need to give a password to get in, or some friend has asked ‘did you know there’s a secret speakeasy behind a mirror in Shoreditch?/Ever heard of the jazz club only accessible through the toilet cubicles?’/’Come and crouch through this Smeg fridge to get to a hidden dancefloor-!!’ and yet for some reason the allure of a secret entrance continues to excite and entice visitors (I should say from the get-go, I am 100% one of these people. See you in Shoreditch, guys). 

This mechanic is also used extensively in the events sector. The pursuit of those catnip surprise-and-delight-moments can often be quenched by a hidden entrance, a password, an ‘immersive’ crawl. But why? What’s the secret behind the continued success of a relatively simple idea, and is there an expiry date on the audience appeal of the ‘entrance portal’?

A Portal To The Past

The modern idea of a secret room in which to drink, dance and do all manner of other things is infamously linked to the prohibition era of 1920s America. In a bid to better the morality of an entire nation, the 18th amendment was proposed in 1919 and Temperance was the talk of the town. It wasn’t long though before the ‘speakeasy’ arrived (a name derived from the ‘speak softly’ shops of Victorian era London, bound by strict licensing laws), and the only place in town for a good time was one you had to seek out on the sly. The alternative names "blind pig" and "blind tiger" were often used. This was because, in a bid to circumnavigate the law and manipulate certain loopholes, the owner of an establishment would charge customers to see an ‘attraction’ and then serve a "complimentary" gin cocktail. The attraction in question would simply be a pig in a room. I love this and will soon be leaving my job at Swamp to open a pig-viewing gin bar in Hoxton.

The media may have romanticized the Gatsby-esque image of the speakeasy - it’s hard to not imagine the fun, the cigar smoke, the sashaying sequins, the pigs in rooms… but they were also places of cultural importance. In a setting unbound by laws and rules, new ones are created. Women, who in the early 20th Century wouldn’t have been welcome in Men’s Clubs, found themselves on a more equal social footing in the speakeasy. Women also began to insert themselves into the daily business of speakeasies. Former screen actress Texas Guinan opened multiple speakeasies during Prohibition; she greeted customers with her catchphrase "Hey Suckers! Come on in and leave your wallet at the bar" and admitted she'd be nothing without Prohibition. And in places like Harlem, white people went in their droves to experience jazz (something seen as transgressive as alcohol) and drank in integrated settings for the first time. 

This idea of a slightly ‘lawless’ place, buzzing with creativity and hedonism, just off the beaten track still holds some appeal in a world where we still feel bound by restrictions and limitations. 

Obviously it's well known, and long documented, that we engage with stories as a means of escapism, but - especially as we get older and as the world seems to spin continuously out of control - the thought of actually finding ourselves in an alien environment unbound by our usual understanding of societal rules absolutely terrifies most of us. 

I don’t know if you’ve faced the frazzled terror of a self-service checkout that operates slightly differently to the one in your usual supermarket (why aren’t they all just the same?) or experienced the chilling terror of a cocktail bar with no menu (the phrase ‘we can make anything to order, sir’ inducing a light sweat and lots of ‘erms’) or watched from the middle line of a Pret queue as two more lines seem to organically form either side of you and baristas are waving people to the counter with the rogue abandon of professional auctioneers. We’ve already done a pandemic, don’t make us do something new! We’re boring humans who respond to rules. And perhaps that’s the answer to the continued appeal of a portal, it’s not that it’s truly wild or transportive, but that it delivers on the rules it asks you to play by: find X and you’ll be rewarded with Y. 

Walk into wonder

The year is 2005, The Crazy Frog is topping the charts, LiveStrong bracelets are the hottest fashion accessory, we all think Lost is good (it was) and is changing the face of television (I stand by it), and in London two friends open the first branch of The Breakfast Club, a burgeoning chain of trendy eateries that quickly becomes famous for its secret bar, only accessible if diners ‘ask to see The Mayor’ and then make their way through a door artfully disguised as said Smeg fridge. 

Now, it may be a coincidence, but that same year saw the latest big-screen adaptation of CS Lewis’s ‘The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe’, which, I’d argue, is where some of our fascination with this sort of thing comes from. Looking back, a hefty chunk of the media I consumed as a child featured, at its core, a passing place where us mere normals could travel from the ordinary (for me the suburban outskirts of Manchester) to the extraordinary. Alan Garner’s ‘Elidor’, The Secret Garden, The Magic Faraway Tree, Platform 9 ¾ , Jumanji, Labyrinth, Goosebumps, all those tombs and secret passageways in Indiana Jones or The Goonies or Romancing The Stone or The Mummy. There’s an embedded wonder in discovering something seemingly hidden, perhaps that’s why escape rooms have enjoyed such success and been embraced by so many people in the past decade. In a world where people increasingly feel like they have little agency, perhaps adding a layer of ‘discovery’ to a simple night out can not only spark joy, but also a little bit of wonder. Not only have we chosen to come here, but we don’t really even know what ‘here’ might be!

I really like the idea that in a world where dissatisfaction depressingly seems to reign supreme, wonder can still be sparked by something as small as a secret passageway, a reminder of a thrill we only got to observe in childhood, that we can now actually access ourselves. Like Indiana Jones did. Walk into the wardrobe, step inside Narnia. Or should that be BARnia?

Clem’s Pig & Gin Parlour opens on Feb 14th, on Hoxton Sq.

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