The Southbank on London’s Thames is an infamous arts and entertainment precinct – a cultural hub filled with spaces and activities to meet every kind of hunger.
If, notionally, you include The National and The BFI...independently managed, like-minded organisations, in geographical proximity... I find it hard to keep away from the Southbank. Along the embankment too are Shakespeare’s Globe and the Tate, a couple of blocks the other way the Young and Old Vic. The Southbank is the centre of a happening ‘South End’ really: a thriving communal place in the broadest sense of the word.
If you approach The Southbank from Waterloo can anyone resist tasting something delicious from the market stalls? If you approach across the bridge from embankment, in any season you feel the vibe of the place, the pulse of life and creativity, friends and strangers celebrating what it is to be alive: to see, taste, smell, hear and feel... immersion in countless interactive and engaging experiences.
Exhibitions at the Hayward Gallery and programmes at the Royal Festival and Queen Elizabeth Halls deserve much comment. I am also amused by goings-on in the Udderbelly. But in this blog I want to share something more ad hoc, trivial, but for all that, rich. I want to share my thoughts on the benefits of the themed festival... the one-off popular event... and the Pop Up; the trendy phenomenon which has taken hold of entrepreneurial event planners.
I met a friend by the Thames for a pint on Friday night. I’d just finished the first week of a new contract – consulting as Manager of Events and Visitor Services at Central Saint Martins, another wonderfully dynamic and creative institution – so our first drink went down beautifully. We then moved to one of The Southbank Centre’s interesting summer installations, The Heartbreak Hotel. I was principally looking for a comfortable chair and a second (and final) drink before heading home to catch up on sleep, so my expectations were greatly exceeded.
The Heartbreak Hotel is part of the Southbank’s Festival of Love. It’s made up of the I Think I Love You Lounge, The Department of Good Cheer, an exhibition from the Museum of Broken Relationships, and the Dear Cathy and Claire Room (a tribute to Jackie magazine’s Agony Aunts from the 1970s). These elements are exquisitely well-themed and organised. I started with an informative chat with one of the founders of The Department of Good Cheer, followed by pro-active, friendly table service and a delicious gin and tonic; hand crafted, as I discovered, by Dodds. It took only minutes to realize the four guys who run this pop-up bar are on to something: turning cocktails into a tasteful and aesthetic experience, with tipsiness a bonus rather than a driver. When my friend left to go to the theatre, a guy on an adjacent table appeared to be talking to a stranger on an old-fashioned plastic handset. I was intrigued. Next he handed me the white receiver and I discovered I was talking to a man elsewhere in The Department. I couldn’t see him, it was random, but engaging; like pressing buttons to another hotel room, hoping to find a friend. The bizarre result of this flesh-and-blood-chat-room: we did. I instantly connected with Antony and Christine on ‘my end’ of the line... and by the time Antony had phoned another table and again passed me the receiver, I was chatting to Jorren from Amsterdam all very much in a spirit of good cheer. Or, to borrow from the Southbank’s theme, in a spirit of love grounded in shared experience; what the Ancient Greeks called philia love. I/we loved the unusual gin, I/we loved the random frivolity and unexpected intimacy of the telephones, and I/we loved the subsequent social bonding which followed.
After moving round the room and joining tables with these four new friends, our gang of five crossed the threshold into the I Think I Love You Lounge. I’ve been out of London travelling for a while so I didn’t even know it was there. You might therefore imagination my surprise (though clearly no reluctance) when moments later we were dressing in wigs and costumes, standing at microphones, surrounded by a chilled-out audience on big floor cushions, singing madly to a karaoke track of Dancing Queen. Abba in concert with Michael Jackson! The sound we made was dreadful, the choreography even worse, I can’t pull off a blonde wig so Bjorn was a dodgy choice, and ordinarily I hate karaoke (on account of snobbery over people singing out of tune)... but I LOVED it... my love of the gang, the barmen, and the evening moving rapidly from philia to ludus, the flirting, playful, affectionate kind of love.
I regularly need a fix of the Southbank – it is part of the heart and soul of London – but this unplanned, strangely organic conflation of events, themes, art and people is a highlight.
My only concern in sharing the karaoke video footage with Jorren, Pam, Antony and Christine is that it might get posted to You Tube and that would end in tears; or in the gallery of Broken Relationships, on account of unforgiveable embarrassment.
By chance I was due to be back at the Southbank the following evening for Sing-a-long Grease. After finding Emma and Kate in the crowd we approach Door D on Level 5 of the Festival Hall and the usher, Harry, says “Hey, you were doing karaoke last night. You must like singing.” Hmm, guilty as charged. One day I might learn to be more subtle, reserved. Find some of what the Greeks called philautia, love born of self-respect. But not tonight. Not when it gets in the road of a good time. For Sing-a-long Grease was a blast. It happens to perfectly express the festival theme of eros and ludus love. It is supremely silly, wonderfully romantic, the kind of light-hearted, contagious, unadulterated fun which makes even a tee-total feel drunk. The world’s love of Grease, every crooning, cultish piece of it, is pragma - a love which endures. And defying the logic of some empty seats, this crowd danced and screamed up a storm. We left the auditorium humming, enamoured of the beauty of Olivia Newton John and John Travolta, and feeling rather agape – a bubbling sense humanity is sometimes all too easy to love.
What could we do then, but return to The Heartbreak Hotel?! After time in the gallery, and conversation with Alex, Travers, Van and Sam who have established The Department of Good Cheer, we thanked them for their delicious cocktails and headed for the train. On the ride home I was torn between smiling at images from Summer Nights and Greased Lightning, and feeling touched by letters and confessions I’d read in the gallery about painful break-ups. The loss and loneliness evident from these objects was almost too palpable. I ruminated then upon the curators’ clever combination of complimentary elements... also how tempting it is for us all to want to find and hold eros, but how devastating it can be to lose romantic and intimate love. I suppose it is like the colours and glamour of The Heartbreak Hotel Neon - designed for this festival by Chris Bracey – a sober reminder “all that glisters is not gold”... that not all love has the ingredients for pragma.
Ah, but without it, without LOVE, of one or many kinds, we wouldn’t have this glorious art, this enduring culture, the expression and reinterpretation of which is life itself.
Be quick to experience your dose of ‘summer lovin’ on The Southbank for it finishes on 31st August 2014.