Long Live the Dirty Southbank

Royal Festival Hall

On the 2nd January 2014, when hundreds of skateboarders made the 3-mile journey from skater Mecca, the Undercroft, on the Southbank, to Lambeth Town Hall in Brixton to deliver more than 27,000 objections to the Southbank Centre’s Festival Wing plans, it was official. This was the single most unpopular planning application in UK history. Quite an achievement for such a venerated institution.

Fat-headed glory-seekers at the Southbank Centre had proposed doubling the footprint of the complex to further ‘facilitate artistic and cultural endeavour’ (which, brilliantly, ignored the fact it was already going on under their noses in the Undercroft) and planned to shunt the skaters and street artists to a new location out of sight under Hungerford Bridge. The Undercroft would then be devoted to ‘retail facilities’ (read: more shit-awful, over-priced restaurants).

You Couldn't Move History, by Gregory ConroyMayor Boris may well be an ‘enigma wrapped within a whoopee cushion’, but even he could see this was madness and last week insisted that the skate area should remain. The smartly-named Long Live Southbank campaign, with its ‘You Can’t Move History’ slogan, had prevailed.

So, given that the Undercroft is to remain and that everybody’s all friends again now (possibly) what better time, in the spirit of rapprochement, to extol some of the virtues of the Southbank.

Royal Festival Hall

The 21-acre site on the south bank of the Thames includes the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room and the Hayward Gallery, but at its heart lies the Royal Festival Hall, built for the London County Council and completed in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain.

Royal Festival Hall interior
Level 5, Royal Festival Hall

Yes, it has a 2,500-seat concert hall and everything but, really, it’s the public space around it that is the star of the show. It’s a wonderfully edifying interior, open all day from 10am and offering a café, a bar, free wi-fi and electricity, warmth, light, live shows, seating and that uneasy feeling you get when you’re within earshot of people doing something more productive than you, as you sit reading Twitter with a large brandy at 4.30 in the afternoon.

At weekends, particularly rainy ones, it turns into a giant crèche and if you’re in the mood you can sit and enjoy the sight of young folk running about, wailing, spilling drinks and wondering aloud when they can go home. And the children aren’t much better, to be honest.

But in the week, it’s all yours. Yes, there will be the odd gurning tramp, or an over-zealous theatre group doing a loud read-through in leg-warmers, but there is so much room, on so many floors, that generally it’s easy to find a quiet cranny for some nooking.

Its premier feature is the Level 5 balcony, which provides a glorious view over London and the Thames. Ten years ago it felt entirely undiscovered and was used almost exclusively by concert-goers. Now, sadly, it’s a little more popular, with café-style tables and chairs provided for those in the know. Nevertheless, it’s still a wonderful central meeting point.

In winter, a good tip is to drag your table over to one of the floor-level air vents and keep your feet warm while you pour something chilled into your other end. The vent can even double as a short-cut to the bar if one of your number is supple enough to slither through.

Level 5 balcony, Royal Festival Hall
Passage to oblivion

One drawback is that the balcony is now non-smoking. Either you have to spark up directly after security have been past (about once every half hour) or you can head for Dirty Corner. At the far end of each side of the balcony, past the strategically placed planters and through the low gates clearly marked ‘No Admittance’, are hidden alcoves where staff and visitors alike can indulge in their sordid habits, out of sight of uniformed enforcers. In fact, once we found security round there and we all shared an illicit fume. It was like having minders.

The Beach

If that gambit fails then, as with life generally, head for the beach. On the riverside directly in front of the Southbank a sandbank emerges at low tide that attracts a diverse crowd of urban transgressors. On one confusing night there some years ago I bumped into friends of my daughter doing gymnastics and necking handfuls of Pro-Plus, a spliff-wielding sand-sculptress creating a giant vagina and the CEO of a FTSE 100 company having a quick piss during the interval of a London Philharmonic gig.

Concrete

Tucked round the back of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, next to the Hayward, is Concrete.

By day it’s an innocuous-looking café offering salads and pastries and other vaguely disappointing platters. But from around 5pm, when 2-4-1 ‘Laughing Hour’ kicks off and the fluorescent pink strip lighting on the concrete mixer out front starts to glow, it transforms into a wonderfully hardcore ‘Night Bar’ with slammers at the bar and House and Techno on the decks.

It’s all slightly surreal since through the side door you can still see the municipal-looking foyer of the Hayward Gallery, the funereal silence of which you must pass through in order to have a slash.

It is a favourite haunt of Deserter friend, Half-life, who insists that the only way to view modern art is when you’re half-cut (and preferably on acid). Though to be honest no-one has ever actually seen him make the short walk into the Hayward itself.

Undercroft

Cocks for rocks
Cocking about in the Undercroft

The Undercroft was never meant to be for skaters, BMX-ers and artists; they just gravitated there as the slanty architecture suited their purposes. As we passed this week – after one on the RFH balcony and two in Concrete – there they were, sat in the middle in their hoodies with their sandwiches and their energy drinks, and it was heart-warming to know that they are safe. Well, I say safe. Between meals they are still wracking their bodies on the unforgiving concrete. Someone should tell the Southbank execs that it’s a health and safety nightmare.

While watching the skaters, I witnessed a bearded sot (pictured, badly) earnestly telling two utterly bemused American skater fan-girls how he hadn’t expected, at 43, to still be ‘sucking cocks for rocks’.

If the good burghers of the Southbank want to re-locate a group, I thought, why not the drunks, who bother the skaters and the tourists alike and are liable at any moment to sneak up behind you and piss in your pocket? Then I thought, sod it. Live and let live. We had, after all, just been given the best laugh of the night.

Long live the dirty Southbank.

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Image credit: You Couldn’t Stop History by Gregory Conroy

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