We are all hedonists now, having a ball in our enchanting winter palaces

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The Independent Online

Well, who'd have thought it - I reach the year's end hopelessly in love with the built environment. No fool like an old fool, you say, but abuse me all you like, you won't dampen my spirits. The country's looking good and most of us are enjoying being in it; suddenly and unaccountably, as though we changed our national temperament on entering a new century, we have embraced the communality of urban space, taken to eating in the streets, riding on giant wheels, crossing rivers on swaying bridges, laughing in art galleries and ice-skating in the middle of London.

Well, who'd have thought it - I reach the year's end hopelessly in love with the built environment. No fool like an old fool, you say, but abuse me all you like, you won't dampen my spirits. The country's looking good and most of us are enjoying being in it; suddenly and unaccountably, as though we changed our national temperament on entering a new century, we have embraced the communality of urban space, taken to eating in the streets, riding on giant wheels, crossing rivers on swaying bridges, laughing in art galleries and ice-skating in the middle of London.

Amazing, when you think that the reality is a country sinking under flood water and immobilised by a transport system that makes it harder for us to get around than at any time since the invention of the cart. Common sense would tell you to stock up with tinned sardines, board up your windows, and put yourself to bed for the hundred years it's going to take to sort things out. But hedonism always waits on catastrophe, and if this is the final stage of our decline into inconsequence, it would appear we intend having fun before we go.

There's fun and fun. I'm trying to remember what I've watched on television this past year other than quasi-juveniles from what we used to call secondary moderns throwing up in Ibiza. But that just proves you shouldn't watch television. Out in the humming world of people proper, fun has taken on a more pleasingly aesthetical, not to say companionable aspect. Walk the manicured Newcastle bank of the Tyne and you see new galleries and concert halls going up in Gateshead. Soon you'll be taking in Aida on one side, then skipping across the new arts bridge to sip cocktails on the other.

If that's a bit far north for you, there's Exchange Square in Manchester, where you can gargle oysters on medieval wooden benches, before you trip across the artificial urban brook and look over to the Pennines where they're doing exactly the same in Leeds.

Maybe this new municipal pleasure principle is not a dance of death at all; maybe it's down simply to the boldness of architects. In which case they are the culture heroes of our time. No one else is setting an example. Literature reduced to feel-good, film pawned to consensus, telly footling, theatre musical'd out, but by God it's good hanging around where architects have just been. I don't remember London ever looking more beguiling. Spaces, spaces. Wherever you look, spaces. Tate Modern, as coldly grand as a cathedral, a monument to an obsession, as close to a thought as a space can get. The newly refurbished courtyard in the British Museum, less mentally driven, but inspirational, a musing space.

The wondrous eat-your-heart-out-Mr-Ferris wheel, all the fun of the fair but in truth no more like a fairground wheel than I to Hercules. And now, be still my beating heart, an ice-rink on the Strand, our own nightly scene from our favourite 19th-century Russian novel, a mere hop and a step from the Old Bailey, and this slap in the middle of yet another rediscovered marvel, the courtyard of Somerset House, bathed in ice-blue light and rescued for ever from the motor car.

It's the ice-rink that's decided me never to say a word against humanity again. Why do people look so benign when they skate? Why is there a camaraderie of ineptitude in skating in a public space which you never find in any other human activity? It's not as though none of us can do it. Half the people skating in Somerset House the evening I was there could almost call themselves proficient. But apart from the odd show-off in a back-pack who had to out-leap Nijinsky, no one really wanted to look immune from accident. This could be because falling over while you're skating is such fun, you going in one direction, your body going in another. Or it could be because skating takes us back to an earlier evolutionary stage, when we had stopped being fish and were just changing into penguins, and needed to look after one another.

The essential innocence of skating is compromised for me by piercing memories of Irene Basso, the most beautiful girl in Cheetham Hill, doing triple salchows in the middle of the ice and waiting, like a princess in a fairy story, to accept a sweet from any boy man enough to get to her.

Ah, the stratagems we employed to find a way across the ice to Irene Basso in her winter palace, without breaking our backs or snapping both our ankles. Modern skates are attached to moulded plastic; in the days of my attempts upon Irene Basso's frozen impregnability we wore white leather ankle boots which gave way under us like trapdoors. One after another we were stretchered off the ice and driven to the Northern Hospital a mile away, and nary a thank-you-for-trying note from Irene. So did no one ever reach her? Not in my sight, they didn't. But I heard she married eventually and had children, so someone must have made it.

And the moral of this story is...? There isn't one. I've given up on morals. All I want now is to watch people going round and round in circles of pure unthinking pleasure. If it's not what we're for, it's certainly what we do best - filling space. Figures in an urban landscape, laughing, keeping our opinions to ourselves, we resemble angels at last.

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