NOT RESTING by Andy Secombe:
The address is a unit on an industrial estate in West London in the shadow of a mouldering brutalist tower block that would have looked ugly in Soviet-era East Berlin. Even though it’s a Sunday, 747s on final approach to Heathrow growl endlessly overhead and the traffic on the North Circular rumbles incessantly across a flyover not a hundred yards away. The unit’s door is locked and, after some minutes trying to get a response from the intercom entry system, you lose patience. You try several tactics: shouting, pressing the buzzer for sustained periods of time, eventually succumbing to violence, smashing the already broken intercom unit with your fist and, finally, your face. At last, as if by magic, the door opens. It’s a young chap in full evening dress.
‘Oh, hello. Bloody thing’s broken,’ he says, cheerily, indicating the now cracked and bloodied intercom. ‘Go on in – everyone’s in the green room.’ He pulls out a packet of cigarettes. ‘You all right? You’ve cut your forehead.’
You stare at him for a moment in disbelief. ‘You’re wearing a tuxedo.’
‘Oh, yeah.’ He looks a little sheepish. ‘Well, you know, I thought, James Bond…’
‘Thought it might help me get into character.’
‘For the recording.’
The approach, as ever, was last minute:
‘Andy, mate, hi! I was wondering if you were available tomorrow. I know it’s short notice and, unfortunately, we can only offer expenses, but I’ve been lumbered. I don’t think you’ve met Terry – the guy who owns the studio – but he’s been asked to tender for a string of idents for a new commercial radio station. I wouldn’t usually ask, but things are pretty tight at the moment and we really need this. I mean, no one’s being paid – Terry’s taking a loss on this. The thing is, we’re in competition with a few other studios for this gig, so it’s got to sound classy and for that, of course, we need top talent, hence: this phone call. The thing is, if they like what we do, they’ll put a lot more work our way. It could be a regular little earner. It’s a James Bond spoof – should be fun.’
Let’s deconstruct this a little.
The upfront “Are You Available?” from “Mate” is designed to grab your attention; the promise of work sets any actor’s heart beating just that little bit faster. All hopes are immediately dashed, however, by the word “tomorrow”, which could not state more clearly that his first second, third and possibly fourth choices have turned him down. But as your capacity for dealing with disappointment and ignoring tactlessness has been honed by years of practice, you think, Hey, it’s a job, let’s not be too precious.
Then he hits you with, “We can only offer expenses”. The beautiful dawn of hope just risen in your breast – complete with birdsong and the gentle plashing of heavenly fountains – not to mention the wonderful vision of you striding manfully into your local NatWest with a large cheque (or even a small one) is replaced by a feeling akin to leaping from a hot air balloon clutching an anvil. This feeling, however, is short-lived as, almost immediately, with the realisation you’re being taken advantage of, pressure builds in the magma chamber of rage called your heart, which, swollen by years of poor pay, poor conditions, and being taken advantage of by ‘Mates’, searches for release. Knowing this, and anxious not to have his eardrums blown out by your pyroclastic fury, he follows up almost immediately with the “I’ve Been Lumbered” ploy, designed to both deflect blame away from him and to prevent you from venting your molten rage which you must now swallow.
After all, it’s not his fault, but the fault of someone higher up the pecking order, in this case, the “Studio Owner”. This tactic implies that Mate’s hands are tied: that uncaring management is breathing down his neck and you are his only hope of salvation. This is not true. Mate – the studio recording engineer – and the studio owner are, in all probability, business partners and this little plan was no doubt hatched over a three-bottle-lunch at the local gastropub. And finally, the icing on the cake, the promise of future and regular work. This, both you and he know, is a myth but, paradoxically, is almost always the clincher.
You consider your options for a few moments.
‘When you say, expenses..?’ you ask.
‘We’ll pay your rail fare, petrol money… Tell us how much you need.’
Translation: We’ll give you a tenner.
‘When do you need to know?
This is what’s known as the rush, designed to leave you no time to think or to talk things over with your spouse. And yet, however many times you hear this tired old argument and, despite knowing it’s all bollocks, you somehow still find yourself saying,
After all, it might not be a bad way to pass the morning: there’s bound to be someone you know there and it’s always nice meeting old friends. Besides, the studio – on Greek Street – has got leather sofas, a coffee machine, free Wi-Fi and Sky Television in the green room.
‘Oh, by the way, our studio’s being refurbished – so we’ve had to relocate temporarily. We’re on an industrial estate near Acton – I’ll email you the address.’
You put the phone down, feeling used and slightly soiled. Nevertheless, somewhere between the phone and the kitchen, you somehow manage to convince yourself that allowing yourself to be exploited by people well able to pay you is a noble calling.
Spouse sits at the kitchen table, elbow deep in bank statements and bills, and immediately you have one of those tingly, out-of-body experiences, born of the sudden recollection that tomorrow you promised to look after the kids while Spouse’s rich best friend – who has a lead part in a long-running soap – was going to treat her to lunch at the Ivy: a long looked-forward to treat; a little oasis of glamour in the otherwise endless grey desert of child-centred domesticity.
‘You’ve done what?’
‘Well…’ you begin unsurely, ‘As you said yourself, I can’t really afford to turn anything down at the moment and…’ You find yourself reiterating the lies Mate has just fed to you. They sound even more ridiculous in your own mouth. You talk of the future: although there’s no money this time, who knows what may happen further on down the line? It could lead to more work… I could be in on the ground floor of something huge!
The rest of the day passes in tight-lipped silence and, following the unwritten laws that underpin marriage, you cover yourself in ashes and pay penance. You take out the rubbish, you walk the dog, you rush to change every shit-soiled nappy, you cook supper – her favourite: seared tofu in quinoa with grated raw celeriac – you eschew watching the final episode of Breaking Bad in favour of Strictly Come Dancing and, when it seems you can sink no lower, you find yourself phoning her mother to thank her for the fingerless gloves she sent you for your birthday and allow her to tell you the details of her recent hysterectomy.
You push past the Moss Bross-suited youth and find yourself standing on a thin, water-stained carpet in a dank reception area smelling slightly of damp – hardly the womb-like, leather-clad, luxury experience you were looking forward to. Following the sound of voices, you pass down a small corridor which eventually opens out into a sort of green room, equipped with the latest in used Styrofoam cups and melted plastic spoons. The instant coffee jar is empty because most of it’s in the sugar bowl and the only tea bags on offer are the squeezed-out ones lined up by the kettle. The young cast lounge on a selection of ancient, mismatched furniture of indeterminate colour. The sofa, as specified in the standard non-Equity contract, is mouldy, stained and leaks stuffing like a squashed cockroach. On a small table in front of it is a large foil dish on which are the remains of lunch – your lunch. In a tangle of Clingfilm lie half a tomato, a green smudge of mustard and cress, a dollop of egg mayonnaise and half a sausage roll. You search in vain for a familiar face, then feel a slap on the back as someone bellows in your ear,
‘Andy, my old darling, how are you?’
You turn and find yourself staring into the face of a man you hoped you would never see again. Indeed, after the last time you worked together, you told yourself you would rather eat your own liver than repeat the experience. To the list of people one should never work with, just after animals, small children and, of course, amateurs, should be added, The Desperate.
‘Michael,’ you say, attempting to replace your look of horror with something approaching friendliness. You can’t. Your face is beyond your control, like an alien clamped to your head it refuses to obey your commands and draws itself instead into a half-scowl, your lip curling upwards while your eyes narrow beneath knotted brows. You end up looking like a dodgy impersonation of Bert Kwouk.
Michael grabs your arm and pushes you into a corner. ‘So, how are things?’ Without waiting for an answer, Michael leans in, too close, and mutters ‘I haven’t worked for nine months,’ as his fingers crush your forearm, his stale breath brushing your cheek like the stench from a recently-opened tomb. After twenty minutes or so, when Michael draws breath in the middle of a deeply disturbing anecdote about a dresser, a pasty and a tube of KY, you ask if there’s a script. Michael, momentarily wrong footed, pauses long enough for you to free yourself from his iron grip and go off in search of what are known in the business as ‘sides’: the loose leaves of script that are usually provided on these occasions. Your eye lights on a pile of tea- and tomato-stained pages on the table.
As you read, your heart sinks even further – it’s beyond execrable. You consider walking out the door. But you can’t. Mate sometimes does pull you in for the odd paid job, and, despite his unforgivable exploitation of you on this occasion, you want to keep in his good books.
When you look up from the script, Michael catches your eye again, so you hide in the loo.
Twenty minutes later, Mate comes and finds you, asks if you’ve had everything you need, whether you had lunch, if you’ve had a coffee.
‘No,’ you say.
‘Great,’ says Mate. ‘Have you seen the script?’
‘Well…’ you begin.
‘Great,’ says Mate again, ‘I was up all night working on it. I’m rather pleased with it. You’re playing Q – you know the sort of stuff, lots of jargon. It’s just the one scene, with Moneypenny and Bond, should be very funny.’
One scene, you think – how long can that take?
Thankfully – as Michael is likely to argue with anyone who will listen about the interpretation, pace, volume and intensity of every word – your scene is not with him; it is with the evening-suited youth and the blonde ingénue playing Moneypenny.
At last, the cast is assembled around the microphone, scripts in hand.
‘OK,’ says ‘Mate’ over the headphones, or, ‘cans’ as they’re known in the business. ‘I’ll give you a green.’
The green light just under the microphone blinks on and off. Nothing happens. “Moneypenny” has the first line, but remains dumb, frowning intently at the script as if it’s one of Kierkegaard’s knottier propositions.
Mate comes over the cans. ‘Anything wrong?’
You realise what the problem is: “Moneypenny” is not wearing cans. ‘Hang on,’ you say, taking a pair of headphones hanging from the mic stand and passing them to her.
She looks at you as if you’re something stuck to her shoe. ‘Do I have to wear those? They’ll ruin my hair.’
‘Yes, you have to wear them, otherwise the recording engineer won’t be able to communicate with you.’
She grabs them bad-naturedly, placing them deliberately but delicately over her expensively-coiffed hair.
‘Right, can everybody hear me now?’
“Moneypenny” scowls up at Mate beaming through the glass window of the control box. ‘OK, yah.’
Mate gives a thumbs up. ‘Let’s try that again. Green coming.’
The cue light blinks on again. Nothing, again.
‘What’s that little green light for?’
As patiently as rage will allow, you answer: ‘It’s a cue light. When it blinks, you speak.’
‘Oh, right. Yah.’
‘One more time. Green coming.’
The cue light blinks. She speaks. ‘Right, now look here, zero-zero seven…’
Mate’s voice crackles in your ear. ‘Um, sorry, Matilda, it’s “Double-O Seven”.’
‘Well it’s written, zero-zero seven.’
‘Um… yes, I suppose it is, but it’s pronounced, Double-O Seven.’
‘Look I got a 2:1 in Third Century Middle Eastern Ceramics, so I can read. There are three figures here: two noughts and a seven. In my book that’s zero-zero-seven.’
This dents even Mate’s ever-cheerful carapace. ‘Er… Good point, but the thing is, as Double-O Seven is the name he usually goes by, we’re going to stick with that.’
‘The name who usually goes by?’
You stare at her incredulously. Even “Bond” is aghast.
‘Er… Ian Fleming? You know – Goldfinger, From Russia with Love, Dr. No…?’
‘Have you never seen the films?’
‘Is this from a film?’
You can sense Mate’s patience wearing thin. It’s the only enjoyable moment of the day so far.
‘Ah,’ says Mate, ‘It’s like this: Moneypenny is M’s secretary, and-’
‘Yeah, um… er… Andy, you can probably explain better than me…’
‘OK, er, Matilda, is it?’
She stares at you like you’ve just dropped your trousers.
‘It’s like this…’ You explain, as succinctly as possible, the set up, the history, the mores and quirks of a franchise that has been running for nigh-on sixty years, at the end of which she gawps at you incredulously.
‘Sounds like something my grandfather might have watched.’
‘He probably did.’
‘Well how am I supposed to know about it then?’
‘Well, it is common knowledge amongst most people who haven’t spent the past decade studying Persian ceramics.’
‘Assyrian, actually. Are you taking the piss?’
When you finally leave the studio it’s dark. Managing to avoid Michael and his inevitable invitation to go for a drink (you’d be paying), you melt away into the night. Trying as best you can to purge your mind of the memory of the day, you pick up a bottle of Chateau Londis on the way home. In your mind’s eye, Spouse greets you at the door, sees past the wilting offering to the thought behind the gesture and beams her gratitude.
‘Oh, you poor thing,’ she says, ‘Your day sounds awful. Well, don’t worry, Matthew’s asleep, I’ve made a chilli and we can settle down in front of the TV with a film.’
The reality doesn’t live up to expectation. You walk through the front door to World War Three – the baby is screaming, a smell of burning pervades the kitchen and your flowers look even worse in the cold light of disdain. Now, you reckon, is not the moment to tell her that you’ve blown the tenner you were paid on wine and flowers.
Spouse orders you to take charge of the kitchen while she puts the baby to sleep – again; you open the wine and are halfway through the bottle by the time dinner – slightly singed – is ready.
Finally, settling down on the sofa in front of the news, with a steaming bowl of what might have once been minced meat, but now has the consistency of grit, you ask your beloved how her day has been. Compared to your day, she has been through the equivalent of the Anzacs’ landing on Gallipoli. With an attempt at levity, you say, ‘Well, it’s better than working…’ This is not wise.
Dawn slants in through the venetian blinds and worms its way under your eyelids and you wonder, not for the first time, when you last spent the night sleeping on the sofa.
Never again, you promise yourself. From now on I will value myself and my talent and on no condition let myself be exploited by unscrupulous “Mates”.
Happy with your resolve, you roll over and try to move your body into a position where the sofa’s broken spring is not poking you in the back. Then, just as you are drifting back to sleep, the phone rings.
‘Hi, Andy, mate. Look, I feel really bad about asking you this…’
But this time, you tell yourself, things will be different…
… for The London Column.
Bow Street police station, WC2. Photo © David Secombe 2010.
Tying in with today’s post on Wilde’s trials on Baroque in Hackney, we reprise this photograph and extract which were originally published in 2010 on Esoteric London.
From The Life of Oscar Wilde by Hesketh Pearson, 1946:
[. . .] at some point between seven and eight o’clock that evening the police called at the Cadogan Hotel and knocked at the door of Room 53.
‘Mr. Wilde I believe?’
‘We are police officers and hold a warrant for your arrest.’
‘Oh really?’ He seemed relieved.
‘I must ask you to accompany us to the police station.’
Wilde got up, a little unsteadily, put on his overcoat, took his hat and gloves, and followed them out. They drove in a four wheeler, via Scotland Yard, to Bow Street. Robert Sherard asked Wilde, in view of his superstition on the subject, whether the cab horse that drove him from the Cadogan was white. ‘I was too much interested to notice’, said Wilde, having chatted away on all sorts of topics with the detectives, who thought him a most amiable gentleman. At Bow Street, the charges were read out to him, after which he was taken to a cell, where press reporters were allowed to peer at him through the grille, and where he paced to and fro all night, unable to sleep. Next day he was removed to Holloway Gaol.
* The above photo and the following text were found on the top deck of a 243 bus travelling through Dalston. The top of the A4 sheet was torn and the artist’s name was missing.
I make images because I am driven to commit a feeling to something visual. My work is endowed with a narrative quality. Through a personally charged perception I explore a range of issues relating to the formlessness of both individual and social reality. This evolves from a close reading of discourse and neuroses surrounding the condition of human existence. I translate the incoherence of lived experience into elements accomplished by a distortion of what is known. The real thus becomes charged with imagined specificity. By describing the world as I imagine, perceive and exist within it, this element of personal mirroring may also act as a reflective process for the viewer.
Precious Fragments, Café Oto 2011
The Interrupted Onanist, Camberwell Space 2012
This, Again, Is What I Saw, The Agency 2013
The Solomon Grouper Foundation Tablet (nominee)
Dilys Trend Memorial Beaker (runner-up)
Hackney Gazette Pop-Up Of The Week (finalist)
Robert Hughes, The New Shock of the New:
People need beauty. … And so, we seek out zones of silence and contemplation, arenas for free thought and regimented feeling. Museums have supplanted the church as places, both of social congress and of civic pride. They are the new cathedrals. And despite the dubious quality of some of the stuff that actually goes in them, or even outside them, there’s a growing hunger for the direct experience of art on a museum wall.
Robert Hughes’s eloquent classification of galleries as cathedrals (from his 2004 documentary) is especially apt for Tate Modern. This post-industrial monument, the most popular modern art gallery anywhere, is situated plumb south of St Paul’s: twin bastions of belief squaring off across the Thames. You don’t have to be a religious person to love St Paul’s; but I don’t know how Christians who have lost their faith feel about it, or any other cathedral. Does it become a poignant symbol of loss, a reminder of disappointment?
Tate Modern has just announced that Hyundai has taken over (from Unilever) the sponsorship for its major space for new work, the Turbine Hall. The inaugural work for the Hall, Louise Bourgeois’s majestic Maman, was bound to be a tough act to follow, but since those spiders we’ve been treated to Anish Kapoor’s gargantuan ear trumpet, Dorothy Salcedo’s vandalism of the floor (which injured at least one unsuspecting elderly lady) and Carsten Holler’s slides, the hit of half-term: ingratiating, family-friendly, corporate-friendly installations that make good copy for broadsheet and tabloid alike. It has been hard to escape a growing sense that the Hall has become a sort of Battersea Funfair for the Boden set, a place where entertainment masquerades as cultural engagement.
Away from the vast Hall, the nannyish curation of the regular galleries seems intended to prevent the art from speaking for itself: one feels manipulated by an entity determined to impose itself between the art and the viewer. An unsympathetic observer might see Tate Modern as a temple underwritten by the bling of ‘BritArt’, an edifice dedicated to the Traceys and Damiens beloved of feature writers and plutocrats alike. Outside its walls one sees the monolithic, zone-changing retail development that follows artistic success like a blight: the contemporary equivalent of trinket-shit peddlers blistering the walls of medieval cathedrals. Bankside is Southbank east. (Psychogeographers will doubtless point to the golden age of Bankside, when The Globe, The Rose and The Swan premiered Shakespeare and his contemporaries, whilst punters not interested in the fate of Desdemona or the Duchess of Malfi could watch the bear-baiting. Modern Bankside doesn’t offer any bear pits, but there’s a Pizza Express and at least one Starbucks.)
But the building remains sublime, even if its function as a gallery is compromised by the fact that (like the Guggenheim galleries in New York and Bilbao) its architecture overpowers the greater proportion of its content. And it would be bilious to deny that the Turbine Hall occasionally hosts something really good. As Robert Hughes concluded in The New Shock of the New: ‘We’re seeking value, looking for meaning, a place outside ourselves that tells us there more to life than our everyday concerns and needs. You could see this in the crowds gathering for Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern. Hundreds of monofilament lamps that suppressed all colours except yellow, shedding a gold light through gloomy air thickened by fog machines underneath a mirrored ceiling. People lay on the floor, staring up at themselves reflected in that ceiling, lit by the pale yellow light of their new sun god’.
‘The success of the Weather Project with its two million visitors shows that the hunger for new art is as strong as ever. The idea that aesthetic experience provides a transcendent understanding is at the very heart of art. It fulfils a deep human need. And despite the decadence, the confusion and the brouhaha, the desire to experience it, live with it and learn from it remains immortal’.
There are too many photographers. Far, far too many. As the truism goes, these days everyone with a mobile phone is a photographer. Not only that, but everyone who’s been photographed is a celebrity. Current devalued concepts of achievement in the public sphere mean that the ever-increasing number of portrait photographers are faced with a chronic shortage of real, vital personalities worth photographing. (Celebrity chefs, boy bands, soap stars and their ilk – really?)
Major cultural figures are in short supply. Perhaps more to the point, the ones we’ve got don’t occupy the same space that they might have done 30 or even 20 years ago. Artists, writers, and thinkers used to be listened to as public figures; we’ve got no time for that now. For an ambitious portrait photographer, there are forums for the dissemination of photographic portraits as art, but such well-meaning, prize-giving endeavours seem culturally marginal and a more than little academic, when you compare them to the oracular power of a photograph that everyone was going to be looking at, of a person everyone was listening to.
Enter: a portfolio of limpidly beautiful portraits by Dmitri Kasterine, derived from his career as an editorial photographer in London and New York from 1960 to the 1990s. Looking at these pictures now, it is hard not to think, a little bitterly, that Dmitri was fortunate to be working before the internet, the population explosion, and a thousand TV channels splintered our attention forever; but it is also clear that he has the rare ability – it is genuinely rare – to photograph any human being with sovereign insight. His portrayal of everyday English life may be seen in this series of posts we ran in 2011; today, we are showing a selection from his chronicle of London’s intellectual life during the 70s-90s.
Part of Dmitri’s shtick (it almost looks like a shtick, these days) is an unassuming method: unobtrusive lighting, plain backgrounds, tones in the middle register … With simple means and an instinct for the essential, he penetrates his subjects’ defences far beyond the remit of a magazine portrait. Take the portraits of the actors on this page. There is genuine pain in his study of David Niven; Dirk Bogarde was reportedly unhappy with Kasterine’s portrait, its piercing honesty too much for the old matinee idol; and Michael Caine, denied his usual opportunity for Bermondsey charm or gangster menace, is revealed as a shrewd tycoon in ‘70s eyewear. Roald Dahl poses jauntily enough in summer gear, but his reptilian stare flatly contradicts his clothes’ carefree attitude, and forbids the viewer to find anything amusing. Paul Theroux, on the other hand, appears as if playing the part of a novelist: dominated by his accessories, he seems uncomfortable with the costume that wardrobe has assigned him.
Michael Caine, London, 1973. © Dmitri Kasterine.
Dmitri’s portrait of Kingsley and Martin Amis is a forensic document of English letters’ most awkward dynastic double act – Kingsley in his proto-Thatcherite pomp, the broken arm a possible souvenir of a drunken bender, and Martin exhausted by the sheer effort of trying to write better novels than his father. Anthony Powell determinedly maintains his aristocratic poise in the face of encroaching age, but the price is a whiff of camp – by contrast, Francis Bacon defiantly shows us the youthful hustler he once was.
Dmitri moved to America in 1985 and continued his career in New York: his Stateside subjects range from Saul Bellow to Cindy Sherman, Johnny Cash to Jean-Paul Basquiat, Steve Martin to Mick Jagger. Like Irving Penn, he captures his sitters by stealth. Now 80, he lives in Newburgh, New York, where he has been photographing the city and its inhabitants since 1992.
So many photographers are called to the profession with the burning desire to document the world, and that’s a noble thing. The gift is actually to be able to see it.
… for The London Column.
Before a concert, Level 3 terrace, Royal Festival Hall. Photo © David Secombe 1988.
In the years since The Royal Festival Hall opened in 1951, people have sat in this foyer waiting to hear:
Claudio Abbado, Laurie Anderson, Louis Armstrong, Burt Bacharach, Dame Janet Baker, Sir John Barbirolli, Daniel Barenboim, Count Basie, The Bee Gees, Luciano Berio, Leonard Bernstein, Pierre Boulez, Sir Adrian Boult, David Bowie, Alfred Brendel, John Cale, Maria Callas, Ornette Coleman, Elvis Costello, Sir Colin Davis, Miles Davis, Neil Diamond, Christophe von Dohnanyi, Nick Drake, Jacqueline Du Pre, Bob Dylan, Electric Prunes, Duke Ellington, Fairport Convention, Marianne Faithfull, The Fall, Ella Fitzgerald, John Eliot Gardiner, Valery Gergiev, Carlo Maria Giulini, Goldfrapp, Benny Goodman, Bernard Haitink, Herbie Hancock, Tony Hancock, Jimi Hendrix, Vladimir Horowitz, Keith Jarrett, Jethro Tull, Elton John, Tom Jones, Herbert von Karajan, Rudolf Kempe, B.B. King, Carlos Kleiber, Otto Klemperer, Radu Lupu, Humphrey Lyttleton, Lorin Maazel, Wayne Marshall, Steve Martin, John Martyn, Johnny Mathis, John McLaughlin, George Melly, Modern Jazz Quartet, Thelonius Monk, Pierre Monteux, Motorhead, Riccardo Muti, Evgeny Mvravinsky, Randy Newman, New York Dolls, The Nice, Jessye Norman, Murray Perahia, Pere Ubu, Oscar Peterson, Pink Floyd, Maurizio Pollini, Lucia Popp, Simon Rattle, Lou Reed, Buddy Rich, Sviatoslav Richter, Mstislav Rostropovich, Artur Rubinstein, Sir Malcolm Sargent, Saint Etienne, Andras Schiff, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Ronnie Scott, George Shearing, Frank Sinatra, Nina Simone, Soft Machine, Georg Solti, Patti Smith, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Leopold Stokowski, Igor Stravinsky, Jack Teagarden, Klaus Tennstedt, T-Rex, Richard Thompson, Arturo Toscanini, Stan Tracey, Tricky, McCoy Tyner, William Walton, Brian Wilson, Yes, Frank Zappa, Krystian Zimmerman . . . amongst others.
This entry is the 200th post on The London Column. Thanks to all our contributors and readers … D.S., K.E.B.
National Theatre. © David Secombe 2010.
Brutalist architecture has never been popular in Britain. The garden, the milk float, the net curtain, all work to alienate the British sensibility from the modernist, and especially the Brutalist, vision. We don’t care how pure its aesthetic is. We like things Nice.
Maybe the one exception is the good old South Bank. For some reason, despite decades of controversy, two murders, and several refits and remodellings, this complex of buildings is that genuine thing, beloved of the people. Unpromising as one may think it looks (though it is now dotted all over with bright structures, a giant yellow stairway, a turquoise Mexican place in shipping containers, pink things, green bits; they do certainly brighten it up). This is by accident as much as design. Maybe familiarity. Maybe proximity to Tate Modern. Maybe the development of Gabriel’s Wharf and that whole stretch of the river into something a little more friendly. Partly the skateboarders, who just seem to exist alongside everything else, whose thwack thwacks have followed us along that path by the river since the seventies. Certainly the restaurants: people always want something to eat, and the current proposed redevelopment is essentially an opportunity to expand on this.
At just that point, it stops being accident and becomes something more sinister. The space, rejuvenated as it is, has felt increasingly managed (that is, filled with things to be bought) for the past span of years. This is in keeping with a trend, as civic space becomes more and more tied to retail; we are forgetting how to occupy a city without buying, without being told what to look at. If this plan goes ahead, the stretch of river we love most will end up like the renovated Brunswick Centre, with added Thames.
But the Brunswick doesn’t incorporate two of Britain’s most important cultural venues – or the Thames. There is a debate that Londoners (particularly; but also the whole country) need to have about what kind of shared space this complex is supposed to be – who is it for? what is it for? what do we value about it? what do we want it to be like? And, if nothing else, we appear now to be beginning to have that debate (this link is the most informative article we’ve seen on the subject).
The South Bank is important on a personal level. Many of us – most of us, in London – have played out our lives with it as a backdrop. Much as it pains us to admit it, Richard Curtis got that much right; every new relationship seems to have a South Bank moment, and serendipity multiplies there. You meet people, you see things, you get some space to contemplate the sky, you feel the proximity of the physical river, suddenly London feels open and mysterious. But serendipity only happens if you’re left alone to find it. The existing Southbank Centre has more than enough cafés, about 2000% more than ten years ago, and we liked it even then. (Very fond memories of the unassuming old canteen, going back further.) It has been that rare thing: a public space where one can feel private.
These shop-heavy proposals – necessitated by the desperate need for funding to maintain ever-growing levels of activity – will transform the area into yet another crowdfuelled, corporatised zone (art needs people; corporations need crowds). They will gut the Festival Hall embankment in the way that the Royal Opera House extension (also paid for by shiny shops) eviscerated Russell Street. No one can argue that the Royal Opera extension didn’t effectively kill the life (as distinguished from the shopping and eating) of the eastern end of Covent Garden Piazza; and you only have to look at what has been done to Spitalfields and Borough markets in the past few years to be afraid for the South Bank.
Aside from which, everyone seems to have forgotten a principle that was voiced by the influential architect Cedric Price (who designed a radical overhaul for the South Bank in 1983, complete with giant ferris wheel). He said that cities and buildings should never be empty, but nor should they ever be full. For all the recently-added ‘lifestyle opportunities’, this stretch of embankment has been one of the few areas left in London that retains some of this balance; and it’s going.
This is a big thing to say, and it is the crux of the debate the nation needs to have about the South Bank. (And indeed London.) The Southbank Centre has apparently got all kinds of educational remits to fulfil, and outreach, and developing the audiences of tomorrow, and family-friendly holiday activities to lay on, and tourists to first attract and then cater for, and the developments are partly to enable all of this. They’re also, to create badly-needed space for existing facilities: the Poetry Library, for one. Billy Bragg wrote compellingly the other day about the needs of performers, and the projects he describes that are going on at the Southbank Centre are inspiring. Itislovely to go there and have a roof garden. Both of your correspondents here love the South Bank: we use the centre constantly and depend on it hugely. But none of that means the developments in their current form – new shops and restaurants, an obstructive building in the middle, an even more ruined skyline over the river, a giant glass box squatting on top of everything, put through at speed and not consulted on – look like improvements to the actual city. (Sir Nicholas Hytner may have a point.) It’s time to stop, take a breath, have the conversation. This has been as good as said by architects who could have pitched for the contract, but didn’t. As the Architect’s Journal reported:
Bennetts Associates had already withdrawn from the competition, claiming that it had too much work and that it had ‘reservations about the brief’ (see AJ 20.09.2012). Rowan Moore, writing in the Observer, also raised concerns about the ‘commercially-led’ plans which he said could ‘make the Southbank Centre resemble Terminal 5 or Canary Wharf or any moderately upmarket shopping mall.’
After the Tories won the 1951 election, they prioritised the destruction of the Festival of Britain site, for ideological reasons. The current government’s attitudes both to the arts and to public space, similarly ideological, have put institutions large and small under pressure to prove they have a right to exist (you earn the right by making money). The current proposed Southbank scheme is thus about to act out the contemporary version of this philistinism, and the fact that it is presented in the language of ‘inclusivity’ makes it more chilling.
This idea of inclusivity is being underpinned by branding, some of it quite subtle, and the brand seems increasingly personality-driven. Artistic Director Jude Kelly is the driver of these developments, and indeed of the whole ongoing ‘revitalisation’ of the centre. She has made herself admirably available to defend the proposals, and her vision, but the danger is that the whole vision for the South Bank feels like a personal vision. If one wants an ice cream in the interval at the Festival Hall, one even buys a ‘Jude’s Ice Cream’! (The franchise is Minghella.) ‘Southbank Centre’, having already joined up the words South and Bank, has now dropped ‘The’ from its name – turning it from a place into a brand – Southbank Centre – rather as if it were a restaurant or shop. It begins to feel like a sort of Boden or Orla Kiely cultural space, where middle class people (because we are all middle class now) are safe to consume culture en masse along with our pizzas, noodles, and extra-large caramel lattes. But where’s the space for the genuine, austere surprise ? The one no one could plan for you?
We know times have changed – we certainly do know it – but if this blog post is anything, it’s a plea for a deep breath and a deep look at what things really mean. And we’ve barely even mentioned the skateboarders.
We’ll be posting the rest of the week with pictures and impressions – poems, not polemics – of the South Bank and the people who use it.
© Katy Evans-Bush
Hoarding opposite National Theatre. © David Secombe 1982.