‘Have you, like me, secretly felt in certain locales that you have been parachuted behind enemy lines?’
Summertime, and the livin’ is full of media suggestions on where to go and what to do. And what busy times we live in! This festival, that live event, the other public “happening” — the surface of our society bubbles and glistens with activity. There is something for everybody, is there not? Surely only the uptight, the deeply repressed or the wantonly pessimistic (all traditional left-wing code words for conservative) could fail to enjoy the fruits of what, we are told, is a Golden Age of Arts and Leisure. Looking at the listings pages, the head should be spinning at the range of choices.
So why does my heart sink? Could it be that for years I’ve tried manfully to enter into the spirit, to be part of something I sense is going against my personal grain, causing me (if you’ll excuse the disgusting imagery) to rub up against myself all the time? Have you, like me, secretly felt, in certain circumstances and locales, that you have been parachuted behind enemy lines?
Of course, if you work in certain parts of the media, such a feeling will be recognisable as virtually a way of life. This is particularly true of the arts division. The smug and inward-looking atmosphere in London media clubs, such as the Groucho or Soho House, has occasionally driven me, when waiting for colleagues or friends, ostentatiously to read the Daily Mail and mutter “Too true, too true!” to nobody in particular. This is of course a bit juvenile, so it’s a relief that one of the better aspects of the ageing process is the discovery that you needn’t pretend any more, indeed, that you might well have valid intellectual reasons for your closeted sense of antipathy to a place or event and those populating it.
So, with the days warm and the evenings long, I offer a brief, personal anti-list of places from local to global in which to feel wretched, together with a suggested antidote.
1. The South Bank Centre, London.
Bang on the Thames, with the Festival Hall and National Theatre as a backdrop, this should be wonderful for a summer stroll. A creeping sense of unease, however, makes itself felt within 20 minutes. This area has never quite shaken off the legacy of the old Greater London Council era, stalked as it is by the living spirit of Ken Livingstone. The atmosphere is vaguely redolent of all those patronising state-school “arts-can-be-fun” initiatives. Despite the new shops, the air still carries a whiff of mid-20th-century egalitarianism. Everybody colludes in the fantasy that the graffitied skateboarders’ rink under the Queen Elizabeth Hall is a great example of the capital’s vibrant diversity, when the truth is it is ugly, dirty, noisy and nothing to do with culture. Antidote: The Floral Hall at the Royal Opera House.
2. Contemporary music festivals (nationwide). These are beloved of the cultural and media elites, who still like to think of themselves as, at heart, rebels against the establishment. Acres of coverage in the quality press and the BBC give the impression that the whole country is in thrall to Glastonbury. The total, whooping acceptance of what’s put in front of them gives the crowd a touch of Nuremberg. A few years back, three times as many people attended the various celebrations for the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, which the BBC considered not worth covering. Pop and rock festivals? Fake enthusiasm, fake counter-culturalism, fake slumming it. Pure Hell. Antidote: Glyndebourne.
3. Brighton. Shouldn’t a visit to our most famous southern seaside resort, with its Pavilion and Theatre, be a harmless day out? If your idea of fun is an eternal Camden Market, then maybe. It is rather as if somebody tipped the 1970s on their side and everybody who rolled off ended up here. Achingly alternative, with a fair amount of New Age-ism around the edges, it feels as if it’s in the middle of a perpetual student union meeting — a real city of lost causes. The seafront was mugged by some of the worst modern architecture ever inflicted on a small town. On a recent trip, I saw more tattoos and nose-rings in one day than in a year in London, a sure sign that the egocentric but talentless have come to rest here having fled the capital. How Julie Burchill tolerates it is a mystery. Antidote: Aldeburgh.
4. Europe. Yes, this is Standpoint, and we believe in European civilisation etc, but why do I take holidays there full of expectation only to feel such a fish out of water? Could it be that, as Gertrude Stein once said about somewhere else entirely, there is no “there” there — or at least, not there any more? Europe is old and badly lit, but does it have to be so tetchy? The fellow Brits one comes across there seem determined to prove to themselves, and you, what a nirvana it is compared to ghastly Britain. I can get all that at home. Or could the reason I usually want to flee be that Europe itself seems not to care particularly whether it lives or dies, and resents those who have given it more than just a helping hand over the past 50 years? Antidote: America.