Earlier this week the Guardian, in conjunction with Zadie Smith, launched a photography competition to find an image that captures the meaning of urban life in London today. The picture that accompanied the story was of Southbank Skatepark. In many ways that picture captures what is wonderful about the vibrancy of urban living today. And also its sadness, because the iconic skatepark faces closure as part of plans to upgrade facilities on the Southbank. This Saturday, to coincide with Yoko Ono’s weekend of activism, and as protests against the commodification of parks in Istanbul still dominate the news, a peaceful gathering is planned on the site, which will bring together not just those who use the space now, but artists from every cultural sphere whose lives and works it has touched.
When I logged into my email this morning to find that the poem I wrote about this sublime liminal space had just won the Notes Poetry Competition, I took that as the prodding finger of fate, or at least a point of connection that meant the editors might considering publishing a piece on why the Southbank Skatepark matters, both as a particular space and as an example of the liquid, elastic, liminal urban penumbras that act both as the heart pumping and the kidneys constantly filtering and cleaning the lifeblood on its journey round our cities.
I don’t think there was a moment when I stopped, turned to the buzz that was going on just back from the river, and had my breath stolen. For me, the Southbank Skatepark was a beat growing louder and faster in my creative consciousness, pressing itself first into my novels, then into my stories, my articles, and finally bursting out into the poem Hungerford Bridge, where the opening stanza “skateboards and blades played our private soundtrack/ scored from the clacketing backbeats of the Thamesside track” references explicitly but the whole poem takes its spark and rhythm from the setting. This is a place where I feel myself slipping between worlds, clipping the edges of a vital, vibrant life force, coming back changed, hopeful, invigorated, challenged, inspired, feeling that the chaotic equations of urban turbulence don’t hold, not always, that somewhere, here, there is the cleansing possibility of flow. If only for a moment.
It didn’t take long to realise that I wasn’t alone amongst my literary colleagues to feel this way. Lucy Furlong, whose “Amniotic City” is one of the best and most innovative poetic tributes to London I have ever read, puts her feelings beautifully:
“It’s a visceral, changing, moving, free range potent space, a breathing place, a dwelling for the communal exchange of ideas, the making of art, a vibrant and valuable hollow respite amongst the built up buzzing glow of brands, a resonating crack and snap of urban creation, a place to take my newly-wielding skateboard kid for inspiration.I don’t want to tell him it is gone.”
And Joanna Penn, bestselling author, mastermind behind The Creative Penn, told me
“I love that there is a space for creative and physical expression in the middle of the increasing commercial area of South Bank. Over the years I have stopped to take pictures of the fantastic graffiti art, popular there before it was considered “art” by the wider world. It provides a more dynamic and fast-moving creativity to the larger installations and galleries that surround it.”
My long-term collaborator, whose picture of the skatepark is the cover for my latest poetry collection, Veronika von Volkova, says that it makes her feel “like one has stumbled upon a special secret.” and Tom Chinvers of wonderful publisher Penned in the Margins says
“Skateboarders, like all good urban explorers, will always find the gaps in the city, transforming edgelands and planning anomalies into dynamic, creative places. The undercroft at the Southbank, where I spent countless weekends as a teenage skateboarder, long before it was an officially sanctioned skatespot, is just such a nexus; a hub for young people, and a stepping stone into an exciting and subversive community.”
That is what the petition against the Southbank Centre’s proposed “Festival Wing” is seeking to protect.
But the issue is, of course, even wider than this. Several years ago I wrote a piece for the Urban Studies journal xcp:streetnotes in which I looked at, among other things, the way urban planning seeks to create cities of chiaroscuro, sharply delineated blocks of this lumped up against blocks of that, edges and walls and closed doors seeing off the possibility of penumbra, sealing off the round edges and open alleys and semi-seen spaces (bringing me back again to Furlong’s superb poetical analysis of the alternative city that embodies the female and the nurturing through such spaces) where life breeds in fertile primordial pools before its blossoming surfaces burst gloriously into the “public”, whatever that is.
This particular liminal space is a shoreline battered by waves from either side, where the planned and the unplanned meet, and the spontaneous and the organised do battle for the shape of urban culture’s future. It is also a singularly beautiful space where life, creativity, and voice burst out in tiny moments of surprise and hope and leave you, London, and everyone who passes through changed.