Let me tell you where you should have been last Sunday evening at 6.30. Trafalgar Square. It had been an intermittently fine day, but now the sun made a final melancholy appearance for the weekend, softly illuminating the façade of the National Gallery and turning the conical spire of St Martin-in-the-Field a watery yellow.
A light wind blew. In the square proper the London Symphony Orchestra began to play Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, written to commemorate the 37th anniversary of the October Revolution. And none of this was costing anyone a penny.
It is against the spirit of our non-discriminating times to openly prefer one sort of music to another, so let’s just say that hearing grand orchestral music in a public place is exhilarating in a way that hearing popular music never can be, if only because, in a popular music age, a full orchestra is less familiar to our ears. Bliss was it in that hour to be alive, anyway. And the thousands upon thousands of people congregating in the environs of the square thought the same.
Trafalgar Square might not be San Marco or the Piazza Navona, but on evenings such as this London is an incomparable place to be. It felt as though the whole world had come to listen. Every known language was being spoken in anticipation. Artefacts and references, allusions and reminiscences, made a crazy peace with one another – Neoclassical architecture, Stalinism, the battle of Waterloo, the angry Victorian lions of Sir Edward Landseer, red London buses, Empire, German art shaped by American influence in the form of Hans Haacke’s Gift Horse at present gracing the fourth plinth and, of course, Event Security Personnel.
To any young person starting out on life and looking to make a quick fortune, I have this advice: forget banking, but go instead into security, scaffolding or urban trench digging. Not in a hands-on way. I mean start a company. And don’t let anyone tell you there are already scaffolders, event security screen providers, and urban trench diggers enough. A quick turn around London will show you that a hunger for these services, if you can call them that, is unquenchable.
Up the clanging scaffolds go, turning every building that hasn’t already been transformed into a boutique hotel into luxury apartments. On every street another trench to take another high-speed cable we have no use for is being remorselessly ground out, until soon we will be able to electronically tell one another what page we’ve reached in our trashy novel before we’ve even reached it. And all the while, as though to stop us noticing the degree to which we are being inconvenienced, another circus is provided, another parade, beanfeast or bikeathon designed to give further employment to the manufacturers of event security screens and the event security men who police them.
But here’s a question. Why, on the night whose beauty I’ve been extolling, did there have to be screens at all? It was a free concert. None of the neurotically punctual who’d been queuing presumably since daybreak to get into the square itself – their packed suppers mouldering in their rucksacks – would have had reason to complain had others been able to enjoy the event from, say, the steps of the National Gallery. This was meant to be democracy in action. Shostakovich for everyone. But no.
Screens some 8ft high stopped people not in the square from seeing. True they could hear. The stirring sounds of insurrection in Petrograd reached Charing Cross station. But a good orchestra is a visible delight as well as an auditory one. You want to see the bows moving in unison. You want to see the timpanists going mad, especially when the Bolsheviks are on the move. But we weren’t allowed. It was a free concert but we had to be either in or out. Security was no doubt the justification. And I’m all for a bit of that. But security doesn’t necessitate screens too high to see over and too opaque to see through. It was dog-in-the-manger officiousness, pure and simple. It’s an event. Let’s get Event Security in and screen it off.
I had been looking forward to a stroll around the perimeters of the square, feeling the last of the sun on my back, and catching the odd snatch of overture before moving on. I had no desire to be ushered into Trafalgar Square itself and kept there, cabined, cribbed and confined, for the duration. That same reluctance keeps me out of theatres. The doors close, the lights dim, and I feel I’m strait jacketed in a nut-house, with no hope of anyone reviewing my case until the play is over, and even then there are the ovations to sit through.
Was it Clive James who said that when he went to the theatre he couldn’t wait for the curtain to go up and immediately after couldn’t wait for it to come down? Certainly a curtain has never fallen too soon for me. Every play is too long, even the short ones. Every concert, every film, every television programme the same. Let’s be honest with one another: almost everything is too long except life, and I know people who wouldn’t even concur with that exception. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow...
When I first encountered the word “promenader”, I was excited by the idea of sauntering into a concert, looking around, and then sauntering out again. But it turns out that “promenaders” at the Albert Hall are only promenading in the perverse sense of choosing to stand up, not in the sense of stopping by for a brief listen on the way to somewhere else.
So what chance of a cultural revolution of our own to allow those who want to graze to do so? Take down the barriers, loosen up ticket sales and leave true promenaders to promenade. Now a half an hour of Shostakovich, now a scene of Strindberg, now a Sodoma at the National Gallery. You don’t have to be penned in to take music or drama seriously. And you don’t have to be a martyr to the interminable to enjoy them.Reuse content