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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Fun, fear and loathing at London's first arts theme-park

South Bank Centre, London : roof gardens green the grey of the Queen Elizabeth Hall

Prelude: A beautiful bright crisp dry Tuesday morning. Bad time for the psyche, no work, fuck the esteem or the steam, I want simply to remember how to live properly.

The sun is there - an amazing enough thing in London at this date and time – and I have energy enough to cycle to the the river, and then along it, past the sad glass snake of Waterloo's now redundant Eurostar platforms and on towards the Festival Hall, the South Bank Centre - which looks more and more like a jolly old theme park, given all the retro 1951 Festival of Britain stuff of recent years.

The back door route to the South Bank Centre has some advantages over the recommended scenic route over Hungerford Bridge. The riverside entrances are now rather tacky with just too much cheery community arts stuff, graffiti, lights, flags, banners and so. As though writing big meaningful words and phrases in bright colours on the lovely dirty rough cast concrete walls of the QEH and Hayward, or spraying identikit "street art" all over the  same - or painting those chunky staircases bright yellow -  actually does any good.

It is so easy to tell "official" sanctioned, paid-for-by-the-Arts-Council street art from real street art. For a start, real stuff is not likely to be tastefully positioned on the largest external walls of one of London's major art galleries, bang next to Waterloo Bridge, in plain sight of hundreds of police cameras. And it is always a bit neater, a bit better finished. To be harsh, it is fake, it might as well be in some art-world Disneyland.

And then there are all those weird excresences on the buildings - that nautical thing on the QEH, for example - which almost disguise the brutal beauty of the original buildings - which I guess was one the aims anyway.

It's all ephemeral, and the sooner it's all gone the better - I mean, they do try, but sometimes too hard I think. Whereas they didn't have to try at all to get the crazy skatepark underneath the QE Hall, it just grew there like fungus, but now - ironically - it is to be swept away.

Even worse right now are the mock-Germanic Christmas market booths along the riverside railings. At least yesterday they had enough sense of the ridiculous to play Bob Dylan's croaky versions of the old  yuletide songs.

But - but - a massive but - underneath this increasingly tacky surface,  the Southbank Centre is still pure gold, a wonderful, priceless place. The Festival Hall is still at the heart of the place, and when - as I was suing - you enter it by the side entrance you get a beautiful sense of the qualities of this strange building.

I was in fact aiming for the Hayward Gallery - but as it's there near the bike racks and so inviting I enter the Festival Hall itself by the ground-level side entrance.

First I find a loo - a rare enough event in central London - a free, clean, empty loo - and then, on the way out, I pass a full-length wall mirror and realise that across the floor in front of me several very beautiful young people are practising what look like very slow break-dance moves.

Across this beautiful polished parquet floor, and through a window past the cloakroom I see schoolgirls playing on a range of Balinese gamelan instruments. A small sign points down a few steps to a lower level still - the "Strength & Vulnerability Bunker".

Three rooms of art by inmates of HM Prisons and Young Offender institutions - some of it funny, frightening, frightened, sad, cheeky, brilliant, clever, stupid. The exhibition is curated by the rapper Speech Debelle, and its only on til the end of November - and I would never of seen it had I not wandered in by the side entrance.

Upstairs, there's a there's the 2013 World Press Photo exhibition, containing some of the most gruesome and stomach churning images I've seen for years - out of Palestine, out of Syria, out of India and Pakistan and Afghanistan.

You look at these images of suffering - a man, apparently someone who paid informers, is having his bare feet whipped by a member of the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo, as two others hold him down. A boy of about ten is being beaten on the hands by his teacher in a religious school in Afghanistan. Four freshly-slaughtered children lie in a makeshift morgue, their faces bloodied and burned by Israeli missile attack.

The hardest images are at the back of the exhibition, and as you go round you almost feel like warning others of what they are about to look at.

And then you make a quick shift across the next level, past the expansive dance-floor beneath the main hall, past the bars and into the gift shop where you can buy charming Christmas presents.

The people who run the SBC really need all the congratulation  available for the way they've kept true the spirit of the RFH - it  does truly seem to be an all-day arts centre for everyone of any age and inclination.

Picking up some of the copious printed material on the way pout (how can they afford to produce such lovely monthly programmes and brochures and give them away to all?) - I find one is called  "Help us make it happen - the Southbank Centre's New Festival Wing.

"More arts for more people" is the rallying cry, and as you read the plans , step by step, you just think well, this is all very laudable. But you senesce there's going to be a catch.  The new ideas - the "Glass Box" rehearsal space on top of the Purcell Rooms and Hayward - looks distinctly uncomfortable. It is exactly that in the drawing - a nice piece of rather bland 21st Century design sitting atop the craggy ramparts of the older art-fortress.

Then there's going to be Arts Education Studios, a Youth Village., a Children's House, a History House, a Word Space - and then of course the  "World-Food cafés" which are supposed to pay for all this. Nosing around the RFH yesterday I was amazed to see how many school kids and students were taking part in so many activities all over the building. You cannot but welcome the idea of more space for this sort of thing - but does it all have to be concentrated here? And do those cafés really have to take the space currently occupied by SBC's one and only true bit of organically grown community activity, the skate park?

Just how much food and drink do people need in order to get active in the arts?

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