Before I lived here – for the first stint, in the 1990s – I hardly ever came to London. There were a couple of gigs I travelled down for. Screaming Jay Hawkins and Etta James come to mind. Yeah, I’ve seen some good stuff. Despite my limited experience with The Big Smoke I decided in my early twenties that I would apply to film school and live in London. It was one of those bolshie-youth things. This wasn’t a hope or dream. It was a fact. It would happen. And it did. Before I found somewhere to live (in a house with 11 other people) I visited a friend for a few days and we went to the National Film Theatre (as it was then, pre-BFI takeover) to see a documentary about Sonic Youth. And with that I became besotted with the NFT. Just a few years later my graduation film would be shown on the big screen of NFT1. I’d never had quite dreamed that big when I first sat in that cinema, but it all made eventual sense to my chutzpah-soaked mind.
I was besotted with the NFT, but fell hard for the Southbank as a whole. The combination of The Thames and its strange beach bits at low tide, that glorious Brutalist architecture, the secondhand book stalls (frikking heaven!), the vibe of accessible cultural stuff – it fed my little hungry, arty soul.
The guy who served me said, “Isn’t this fabulous!?” and there was instantly a connection
I grew up working class and I was the weirdo: creative, queer, obsessed with old Hollywood and hungry to know about art. I’m the youngest of four so I also kind of got away with being the odd one and got on with it. I was always drawn to the types of spaces that had something going on. In Bristol, in my teens, it was the Watershed, Arnolfini and surrounding waterfront area that fed me. There was a shop next to The Watershed media complex that sold posters and postcards of wonderful photography and my cinematic idols. At thirteen I bought a postcard of Victor Skrebneski’s 1971 photo of Bette Davis smoking. The guy who served me said, “Isn’t this fabulous!?” and there was instantly a connection between my little baby gay self and my camp people. This is where I want to live.
At the ‘shed and Arnolfini I would go to multiple screenings of different films (it was cheap enough to do so then), check out the art exhibitions, and sit in the cafes where a whole diverse load of people would gather. It was a much richer mix than you’d imagine. Two older men would bring their own teabags and ask for pots of hot water, sitting there all day and evening. They were always in there and still doing it years later when I revisited. It felt like a community, not an up-itself elitist space at all. It had its fair share of weirdos too. I felt totally at home.
When I first met the Southbank I felt a similar call to my cultural homeland. It was beautiful. It was a bit dirty, with a roughness around the edges kept intact by the underworld skating area (although, ironically, the skateboarders are perhaps the most exclusionary, precious bunch of people in the whole stretch).
As a hangout place the Southbank is pretty glorious. I have tried to do the writer-in-the-coffee-shop thing so often but always end up writing less than if I’d stayed at home. That was until I hung out at the Southbank Centre. Along with countless others and their laptops, I find I can tippy-tap away at my keyboard, seemingly possessed, knocking out article after article. There must be something in the very foundations of the Royal Festival Hall and BFI because I’m honestly not as prolific anywhere else.
The Southbank is our office, our dating-destination, our way to reconnect with the good stuff of London
These spaces are full of people wandering in and hunkering down for the day. It’s okay. No one moves you on and no one cares. And, in fact, that person next to you doing the same thing will look after your stuff when you need a wee. The Southbank is our office, our dating-destination, our way to reconnect with the good stuff of London. Trundle down to the Tate and you can see a lot of art for free. I remember when I first went there and turned a corner and saw Dali’s Lobster Phone I actually cried. I know, I know, I’m a soppy git.
The BFI becomes full of all the queers in London (it seems like) when Flare, the LGBT film festival, is on.
The Southbank Centre and Royal Festival Hall is such an eternally bubbling hub of extraordinary cultural stuff, some free, accessible, diverse, inclusive, provocative. And the gorgeous concert spaces? I saw Liza there. It was a very, very beautiful thing.
Outside are those book stalls or food markets or freak show circuses, or roller discos or live music or more food. No wonder I want to live there.
One thing that I try and lay my eyes on every time I visit the Southbank is the old NFT sign. It is such a thing of beauty it’s all I can do not to clamber up and unscrew the thing and take it home. (If it ever disappears, it wasn’t me). The sign is a reminder of the long, cool history of this part of London when it grew out of the 1951 Festival Of Britain, when the deeply sci-fi Skylon “vertical feature” was a fixture on the skyline. The colours and the design against the concrete Brut architecture fills my heart just as my lungs fill with that odd, Thames river-scented air. C