Camp as Christmas: Camden mayor Jonathan Simpson with his friend and mayoress Amy Lamé
As local authority Christmas cards go, it's pretty fabulous. Here's Councillor Jonathan Simpson, Camden's openly gay mayor, wearing a deeply awful Christmas jumper and a brooch featuring a pair of ruby slippers. Next to him is his mayoress, lesbian radio presenter and club promoter Amy Lamé, vamping it up with a ukulele. Camp as Christmas, but with a serious underlying point.
While other boroughs such as Tower Hamlets tie themselves in divisive, partisan knots over the appointment of all-powerful executive mayors, Simpson (whose role is ceremonial and apolitical, although he's a Labour councillor) has been quietly promoting the tolerant, upbeat, fun side of the capital ever since he and Lamé took on the mayoralty in May. Well, perhaps not all that quietly.
“I think we are the world's first gay and lesbian mayor. Ever!” booms Lamé, 39, in her rich, round New Jersey tones. “The role is ambassadorial,” says Simpson, 36. “We are the first citizen and first lady of the borough, and our job is to promote Camden. Previous mayors have been joined by a wife or husband — one had his daughter as mayoress — but I don't have a partner, and I've known Amy for a long time, so I thought, why not?”
Their relationship dictated the “theme” of Simpson's mayoralty, which is to promote the young, bohemian spirit of the borough, its diversity and its musical heritage, in particular the work the Roundhouse Trust does with children and young people.
“There are lots of different communities in the borough — Somali, Bengali, Irish, Jewish, lesbian and gay,” says Simpson. “And music is part of the social glue. There are something like 61 live music venues here, from Cecil Sharp House doing folk music to Koko and the Roundhouse, employing 1,000 people. I came here as a student, attracted by the music and the market — which is still apparently the number four tourist attraction in Europe — and just stayed.”
Although Simpson had come out as gay in his teens in Manchester, a city pretty tolerant of homosexuality, it didn't compare to the allure of London. He met Lamé “15 years ago, jumping around to a Morrissey song” at Duckie, the club night she runs at the Vauxhall Tavern. “I'm tone deaf, can't sing and can't dance, as Amy well knows, but we've been friends ever since,” he says. Lamé herself grew up in New Jersey, her father a plumber and her mother a supply teacher, realised she was gay in her teens and moved here at 21.
“London was central to me coming out, as it is for tens of thousands of people all round the world,” she says. “London has always been at the forefront of lesbian- gay equality. The reason we have civil partnerships now is that Ken [Livingstone] had the foresight to bring in the first partnership register years ago.”
Lamé herself formed a civil partnership with her girlfriend Jenny last year. When she talks about it, Jonathan looks slightly uncomfortable.
Campaigner Peter Tatchell is supporting test cases in nearby Islington aimed at allowing gay couples to marry, and straight couples to have civil partnerships. But to discuss this might compromise the apolitical stance Jonathan has to preserve as mayor. The voluble Amy, I'm beginning to see, is an excellent choice as mayoress.
We're on safer territory when we discuss what their roles actually entail. There are fundraising parties and concerts to be held for the Roundhouse Trust, fêtes and the opening of the Kentish Town baths to attend. “That was so sweet, the kids were so curious about our robes and our bling,” says Lamé.
As her role is unpaid, she fits civic functions around her other commitments: as well as Duckie, she presents a BBC London show three afternoons a week and is writing her first book, “on style”.
Simpson's diary is more packed, including official meetings with the French ambassador (who wanted to open a school for French expats in Camden) and with Princess Anne and Prince Edward on royal visits to the borough. “They were extremely professional and it was a great honour and a privilege,” says Simpson diplomatically. Did it bother the royals that he was gay? “I don't think they cared. It's not as if I wore a big sign.”
He also officiates at citizenship ceremonies. “A lot of people come here for work and then stay or get married,” says Simpson, “but there are also a lot of refugees who have fled their countries, whose stories are unique and heartbreaking.”
Lamé herself took British citizenship “a couple of years ago, in Westminster, and it was really moving just to be in a room with all these people who shared a common goal and understanding.”
Another emotional moment was the victims of hate crime vigil that she and Simpson attended recently in Trafalgar Square. There they read the names of those who had been killed or assaulted for their sexuality or their race, in
London and the UK. “It was important to say, our city is not about this. Our city is about diversity and acceptance, embracing people from all cultures and backgrounds,” adds Lamé.
Simpson won't actually be in Camden at Christmas but in California with friends. Lamé, though, is planning “a proper Dickensian Christmas” in her Bloomsbury flat. “And I'm learning to play the ukulele I posed with for the card,” she adds. “At the moment, all I can play is YMCA but I hope to have learned a few carols by Christmas.”