Observations: Jarvis is centre stage as Metal gurus find new creative outlet

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The Independent Culture

Jarvis Cocker, that most uncommonly mordant celebrator of common people, was feeling frisky when he officially opened Metal, the new centre for art and ideas, in Southend. "I like the notion of a building that emits creative ideas," he told several hundred worthies, artists, and liggers that had packed into the marquee next to the Grade II-listed Chalkwell Hall, a former manor house.

Cocker said he'd momentarily considered smashing a celebratory bottle of champagne on the building. Instead, he had an alternative "opening gesture" because of the environmental sophistication of the building, engineered by Britain's best-known eco-designer, Bill Dunster. The expectation duly mounted to a point usually associated with the word "bursting". Was this going to be a Jim Morrison throbbing gristle on stage in Miami moment? Was there going to be a flash of genius, so to speak, under the polite whirr of Mr Dunster's wind-turbines and photo-voltaic arrays?

No. Mr Cocker simply jumped in the air, thrust forward his chest, and yanked his lapels aside to reveal nothing more than the white shirtfront beneath. The throng, wildly appreciative, duly emitted a sound like a battery of Dyson AirBlade hand-dryers on max. It was fun, but not quite the first demonstration of Metal managing director Colette Bailey's central vision: "We believe that artists can effect change in our society. Our vision is to create a central role for artists in civic life".

It's a vision supported not just by self-consciously arch commoners like Jarvis Cocker, but by uncommonly important people in the arts world. Jude Kelly, artistic director of London's Southbank Centre, founded Metal; Sir Ian McKellen is a trustee; and Billy Bragg, aka the Dagenham Foghorn, bellowed at 25,000 people at the recent Big Busk in Chalkwell Park. The Thames Gateway rocks.