Don't forget your handbag

They come toi pull, swig lager and strut their stuff - and that's just the girls. HELEN RUMBELOW spends a Saturday night down the disco
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The Independent Culture
The seedier an area gets, the grander its street names become. Acton, the buttocks of London, is no exception. I find myself on Saturday night looking for Zenith discotheque in the Royale Leisure Park on just its second open night, plastic bags bl owing like tumbleweed across the empty A40. The Royale is latest in a rash of American style entertainment complexes - housing a superbowl, cinema and restaurants - but tonight it seems eerily empty, a hi-tech ghost town.

But it's easy enough to find Zenith. The neon-lit name above the door struggles for the same optimistic glamour as the nightclub of my teens, Downtown Manhattan, which was anything but. Zenith however, is marketing itself as classy, trying to dispel the much spoofed `handbags and chunder' disco cliche. It's not Stringfellows and it's not the Emporium, but , let's face it, most people who go nightclubbing will come to a place like this.

The opening of Zenith is testament to the growing disco phenomenon that has gone largely unnoticed. More closely related to John Travolta and Jim Davidson than Jungle, every city suburb has one and every Saturday night the queues snake more glitteringly round the local block.

Zenith certainly has no shortage of competitors. Regal in Uxbridge, Kudos in Watford, Le Palais in Hammersmith, to name but two within a 10-mile radius. of the centre of London. Yet the First Leisure Group has located enough of a demand to invest £4.5 m into the club, distinguishing itself, says the management, by high standards. "Zenith is run as a club should be run" to compete with the bright lights of the West End.

Once inside ("no denim allowed') I spy a group of girls sitting on a sofa looking self conscious in little dresses, knee high boots and cross-over handbags and a row of lads clinging to the railings around the wooden dance floor like they've forgotten tobring their ice skates. Everything is decorated in `airport lounge' purple, including the six bars and their staff. Above is suspended a huge raft of light hoops and strobes and a balcony floor on which perch another group of men in slacks and designer shirts. They look as if they're getting ready to gob.

The place is filling up from the pubs. I've spent so long pacing the purple runways pretending to look for a fantasy friend that even I am convinced he's stood me up. I seek consolation in the ladies. "I've never known him not to turn up!" I whine to my new friends, Julie and Clare, at the mirror. "Don't worry, it's happened to me before," says Julie as she lacquers two perfectly symmetrical curls round her face. After a few deep inhalations of her hairspray fumes I feel better. Does she h ave a boyfriend? "Not likely, I was born with an arsehole, I don't need another."

We are interrupted by the tannoy. "LADIES AND GENTLEMEN...THIS...IS THE LIGHT FANTASTIC!" The dancefloor fills with dry ice smoke and the strobe lights flash to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. I thank Julie and Clare for being so friendly. "No problem. You won't get any hassle here," says Clare. "People come here to have a laugh. Nobody takes it that seriously." The lights come back up to reveal four caged dancers gyrating to Madonna's "Vogue", and a couple below wearing glitter ties, gamely t he first on the dance floor.

I join a foursome on a bloated red sofa. The two girls are personal assistants and their dates describe themselves as an `alien' and a pipefitter. The alien is not happy. "We had to go home twice to change before getting in, right. The door policy is waytoo strict. We'd normally be in town - Le Palais or Samantha's." I go with the girls to get a round of drinks. "I'm terrible at these places," Susie confides. "When I'm really drunk I start nicking blokes' pints."

There are two girls drinking by the dance floor, both dressed in identical cross-over silver tops they bought that day. Heidi does the talking. "This place is great. It's good for dancing - not like those other cattle markets - all you can expect is blokes trying to pull. I don't mind being bought a drink but I hate it when they try and feel you up." Suddenly there's a deafening blast of "Let Me Be Your Fantasy". Heidi starting shouting: " The atmosphere in the Ladies is good here. In other clubs girls bitch at you if you move in on their blokes or their mirror or whatever." Heidi's friend speaks up. "I like it that men aren't in jeans.".

By now the place is filling with large single sex groups, gulping down lager. They lack plural names, but for convenience I decide upon a "bitch" of girls and a "crotch" of blokes. The DJ likes the gangs - they get the floor going. "Clubs divide by whether they are music led or not," he explains. "This one isn't music led, but it's not tacky." For instance, they won't play the slow dance "erection section" that many women remember with horror, when the blokes go round "mopping up" the girls.

Would he come here if he wasn't working? "Yes, I would. When I go to clubs in the centre of London, I sometimes think `these people are too worried about looking cool to enjoy themselves'." He has to rush off to sort out a dispute with the caged dancers,who claim they're exhausted. I watch the crowds. Susie can be spotted with a very suspect pint of lager.

Back at the door a long queue of bitches and crotches has formed. John Coxon, the general manager stands next to a bouncer. Coxon is pleased; they've had over 900 people through the door, a promising start for the first Saturday night. Distracted by a bitch of about 20 girls, he looks at them with a practised eye, then commands the DJ on his radio: "Music a bit more commercial now."

Julie and Clare are going crazy on the dance floor, but Heidi and friend are being engulfed by a 12-strong crotch.

I ask one of them, a print worker from Ealing, why he's here. "To pull women," he says. "Mel, are you getting chatted up?" shouts his friend. I say I am a journalist. The lads crack up. "What a load of crap! That's what every girl says when she's on the pull." Mel tells me he loves me.

I talk to Sham, who works at the BBC. His friends call him the Billy the Kid of Acton. "The great British Saturday night is just disappointing,'' he says. "Baywatch first, then you watch Gladiators... you'll never get a girl like on Blind Date. I lost o

n the lottery, wasted my money down the pub, then came here. It all looks so good, but it'll always let you down."

I tell him I've had a good time. Is Sham disappointed by Zenith, "London's Ultimate Experience"? He pulls a sachet marked `lubricating jelly' out of his suit pocket and his mates start laughing. "What do you think?"

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