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Southbank versus Southbank: Façade and Authenticity

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Long Live South Bank

The argument over the proposed developments of the South Bank and the consequent relocation of the skaters from the revered Undercroft continues apace. You can read up on the various thrusts and counterthrusts by visiting southbankforall.org and llsb.com.

Merry-go-rounds and deckchairs, fake grass and street performers, graffiti alongside gaudy paintwork, food served from carts strewn with colourful bunting, and row upon row of second hand books; for tourists and residents alike, the South Bank is a magical part of London. A walk alongside the river brings playful, unexpected encounters that give a feeling of novelty and curiosity, a sense of being outside of the commercialism and control typically felt elsewhere in the city. For a moment, it feels as though you may have stepped into a world where everyday rules are not quite the same.

grey_and_redThe geography of the South Bank helps: whilst the river is a reminder that we do not have complete control over how our cities are shaped, it’s often difficult to negotiate the South Bank’s terraces, tunnels and stairwells even with the bright colour coding that has been introduced in recent years. The blank concrete walls soon looks the same and the blurred distinction between inside and outside intended by its architects is often confusing; levels that should connect simply don’t. Getting lost and wandering unwittingly into loading bays, car parks and wheelie bins is all part of the experience.

Alongside its confusing terrain, urban arts have a role in creating the impression that the South Bank is a site for alternative behaviour; there are regular festivals featuring workshops and performances of breakdancing, parkour, hip-hop and BMX. There is a sense of charitable inclusivity, of openness and a recognition of the value that street culture can bring and a celebration of how they shape our perception of the city.

leon_hudson_yellowAll of this is a carefully engineered façade. The graffiti is commissioned; the food stalls have paid for their pitch; urban arts are partially co-opted with security quick to step in if you’re not part of a controlled performance. The grass, deckchairs, bunting and sandpits are all fragments of a faux-carnival that deliberately toys with your understanding of what is permitted and what is subversive.

We know it’s not real and yet we don’t mind – for several reasons. We forgive this mild deception because the South Bank is not a giant corporation painting itself as friendly, approachable, socially conscious institution; it’s a collective of theatres, public spaces and galleries whose intentions are not undermined by any tactics to squeeze you for money.

And there is the Undercroft, the one genuine site of alterity, playfulness and physicality that the South Bank then builds upon throughout its concrete maze. The skaters are not selling; they are not commissioned performers or passing a hat around. And for the passers-by, they give an authentic sense of ‘fuck you’ to conventional behaviour. For the South Bank, however annoying it finds its unwanted residents, their otherness provides a platform from which it has built its culturally sensitive persona. It draws on the skaters to give itself edginess and create this sense of cultural inclusivity.

And now the South Bank wants (or perhaps needs) to move them. The presence of the skaters, BMXers and aggressive in-liners – and the fact that the space was originally borrowed from a city that didn’t know what to do with it – lends integrity to the South Bank’s cultural identity. The danger is that moving the skaters elsewhere, however close, may crack the façade. Replacing the skaters with shops and restaurants may undermine the South Bank’s identity altogether.

steve_moss_wallrun_bottom525This article was originally published on Long Live South Bank on 18th September 2013.

 

July 2005 bombings

I’ve just had quite an interesting day. Nothing compared to some, I grant you, but I hope some find this worth reading.

I heard the news (at my flat in Stepney Green, a 20 minute walk from Aldgate East) when I finally crawled out of bed this morning at about 9.30am. I had just ignored a call from one of my flatmates who is up in York and was ringing to check on my situation. Unfortunately, by the time I learnt what was going on and tried to call back, the phone networks were down.

I sat on irc (ircnet, #london) with the radio next to me and kept track of everything that was going on, periodically trying to check on my flatmates, one of whom was due to take a train from Kings Cross this morning. I finally got through to them both at around midday. (I hate watching breaking news on television – it’s a frustrating experience and you can learn a lot more a lot quicker online.)

Shortly after noon I received a text message from a friend who had arrived in London from Birmingham this morning for a job interview. She doesn’t know the city at all and sent me a slightly worrying message that simply read “I’m somewhere in central london and really scared. call me as soon as you can.” Of course, with the phone networks down I then spent 20 minutes trying to call her.

Eventually I got through and managed to figure out that she was somewhere near Picadilly and a little confused. She heard one of the blasts go off this morning and didn’t have a clue what was going on.

I packed a rucksack and set off into central london on my flatmate’s bike. The rain was chucking it down. I passed by Royal London hospital where ambulances were pulling up, being closely tracked by various news crews. Then on, past Aldgate East and Liverpool Street, having to continually check my route and cut south to get around the road closures. The police were calm and incredibly helpful.

The roads were empty of cars. Lots of people were walking around the strangely quiet, wet streets, and occasionally a couple of police cars and bikes would fly past me, sirens blaring. The bars and cafes were pretty full with people watching the breaking news. I made my way along the river and cut north at Embankment. The usually busy streets around Trafalgar Square were empty, save for the occasional emergency vehicle. The weather was improving and on tracking down the right Cafe Nero at Picadilly, I caught up with my poor friend, Flick, who was quite relieved to see me. She couldn’t get in touch with her Aunt in Greenwich with whom she is staying tonight.

The atmosphere then was a little strange. From what I saw, away from the bomb sites, things seemed to be rapidly returning to normal – en route I had seen tourists piling onto their coaches parked up on Victoria Embankment. At Trafalgar Square, where we sat for lunch, people were gradually going back to doing regular weekday stuff, taking photographs, chatting, having lunch. The only difference was the lack of traffic and large numbers of people walking everywhere.

After lunch we wandered down to Charing Cross to see the situation with the trains. Hundreds of people were flooding into the station and it will take some many hours to get home tonight. Continuing east along the river, I put my friend on a ferry to Canary Wharf where hopefully she can get the DLR to Greenwich where she’s staying with her family.

One of the strangest moments occurred at around 4pm when suddenly O2 (who appear to have been worst affected) returned to 100% and delivered 7 voicemail messages. Various friends and family had been calling me this morning and had been unable to get through.

The cycle ride back to Stepney Green was surreal. The traffic picked up as I approached Tower Bridge and turned into a mixture of empty and then gridlocked streets as I approached Aldgate. I assume that the police were having to hold off traffic so that emergency services could get access to wherever it was they were going. I have no idea what sort of incidents they were responding to or where they were headed, but a few convoys of emergency vehicles screamed past me in both directions along the empty streets, and squeezed through on the busy ones.

I stopped next to the cordon near Aldgate East and listened to a news reporter talking about the traffic, trying to find out some information as I hadn’t heard a news report since leaving the house. He was saying that the roads were empty but traffic was starting to pick up. He was right in that the road he was stood on was empty, but two streets away, the traffic wasn’t moving.

A guy handing out religious leaflets was not having much luck.

All the roads around Liverpool St and Aldgate East were cordoned off and there was no view of what was happening from where the police line started. I didn’t hang around, preferring to get back and catch up with what was going on. Heading east along the A11, the traffic was being carefully controlled – emergency vehicles were still moving about and I assume that the flow had to be monitored to ensure that police and ambulances were able to move around freely.

The A11 was empty eastbound as I cycled along. The traffic was stationary in the opposite direction. I have no idea why people were trying to head towards the city centre. I passed people waiting at bus stops and told them that there was very little heading east. People will be standing at bus stops for several hours. The 25 bus to Ilford is overloaded at the best of times, so unless people start walking, I don’t know how some of them will get home.

I passed the Royal Hospital again. A few ambulances were pulling up as I passed, and a few news crews were still there. I assume they continued to film those being carried off ambulances.

It’s amazing how calm the city was and how quickly it seemed to be getting back to normal – bar the huge number of pedestrians. I’ve never seen so many people walking across Waterloo Bridge, even during rush hour.

I’m back home and wondering whether to try and make it to the gym tonight.

In all likelihood, I will be having beers in the west end tomorrow evening and I will be down at London’s South Bank on sunday, training just like last week. There’s no point living in fear or changing what you do. Be vigilant, yes, but don’t let the terrorists affect how you live.

Of course I’m no expert on security operations or emergency responses, but the impression that I got from the police was that (as much as they could be) things were under control and there was no cause for alarm. I’ve heard people praising them for their work today and I would like to express my thanks also.