online: 14 january 2004

14 january 2004 in a public space

Three days ago I was in the public space inside the Festival Hall, in London, watching the people who gather there to dance to the music of the 1940s or 50s...

...There were a few people dancing, in the perfectly remembered movements of old-fashioned ballroom dancing, the waltz, the quickstep (and others that I don't remember the names of) but which I do remember doing to those rhythms long ago - two people moving as one - with formal foot movements in mobile public embrace, cheek to cheek - or else with each body in lively synchronised motion.

There were many more watching (as I was also, with two of my grown-up daughters and one grandaughter) and most of them were old, as I am, fascinated by this public revival of the fossilised sounds and movements of our life when young and lively...

...There is something wonderful about this, the ritual of a time revived in another time and in a public space free of commercial pressure. The whole event looks spontaneous and unorganised.

One of my daughters tells me that it happens every Sunday and its always the same people who dance. One of the women brings several dresses and changes between dances. As they dance some seem lost in memory - others seem alive to the moment, as alive as they were when young.

As I watched I felt grateful for the initiative of Ken Livingstone* and his colleagues who opened this space to unorganised public enjoyment twenty years ago. You can do what you like and there's nothing to pay however long you stay there.

Near where we were sitting (on a sofa amidst an exhibition of Swan Lake and other children's stories) a girl of about 5 was copying the movements of the dancers while at the same time making two children aged 2 or 3 dance with her - and even to lie down on the floor when she chose to - or to follow her in any movement. And the two infants were obligingly obeying her without sharing her vivacity and poise... while others were running all over the place.

And then I noticed a young man, perhaps her father, slowly and deliberately clearing up discarded paper cups, half eaten cakes, crumbs, plastic wrappings and tea trays, from the coffee table before us so that the story books chained to the table could be reached and read. That would never have happened fifty years ago, I felt. For a young and successful-looking man to do that, to act as a voluntary servant, is new - and surely a good sign of the time.

So yet again, in the Festival Hall, on the South Bank of the Thames (where I had my first job - helping to prepare the Festival of Britain exhibition) I find encouragement and joy... To me it is the one place in London where my spirits revive. There's something magical about it - especially within the Festival Hall, so sensitively designed for public ease and use**.

*Ken Livingstone is the present mayor of London. When he was chair of the former Greater London Council they opened the foyer and ballroom space, beneath and around the concert hall, to the public from early morning to late evening and it has remained open ever since.

**designed by a team of GLC architects led by Robert Mathew. To me it is one of the best pieces of modern architecture I know. The stairs and secondary spaces are all so generously designed, with people in mind - not the budget. It takes what was best in the work of Le Corbusier and makes it perhaps less doctrinaire, more human... I like it!

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