Crossing the cultural divide to the South Bank

The Festival Hall's new writer in residence muses on his first week - after quitting the streets for a temple of high art
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The Independent Online
I have lived in London most of my life, but until a few weeks ago I had never been in the Royal Festival Hall. I think I might have walked through it a couple of times, but that would have been a matter of minutes. Every time I say this to someone in the building they seem surprised, but the fact is that I have never had a compelling reason to visit the place. After all, I have never attended a live orchestral concert, or seen an opera on stage, and I have managed to avoid being present at even a single performance of poetry, dance or mime, which just about covers most of what the Festival Hall does. In effect, it is foreign territory to me.

I come from that other culture, the one where people grew up watching television and Hollywood films, listening to the pop charts and following the sports results at the weekend. The nearest I got to the Festival Hall in those days was when my fifth-year class at school trooped down to an amateur performance of Macbeth in south London, and spent the entire time rolling Coke bottles down the central aisle to annoy our English teacher. The social divide between the two kinds of cultural experience is probably sharper and more meaningful in Britain than anywhere else in Europe. Throw race into the equation and the gap yawns even wider.

So I am experiencing a sense of mild trauma at finding myself writer in residence at one of the temples of High Culture, with an office behind the Poetry Library and an imposing view over the river.

I am not sure what I was expecting, but my first few days at the Festival Hall have been full of surprises. The grand scale of the public areas sets up inflated expectations, and my first surprise is how small and crowded the office accommodation is. My desk is situated behind a partition in a sort of corridor running along the outside of the building, which I am told used to be a balcony until they put a wall round it. I am relatively fortunate, though, to have a desk all to myself. On the floor below is the literature department, which is a desk in the corner of a large office. The education department sits at a desk opposite.

There are half a dozen other desks in the room representing various projects, and there must be a dozen people here, working in what seems an impossibly small space. By comparison with the huge vista of the concourse downstairs, the permanent staff seem to be squeezed together in whatever space is left.

This first week is bewildering. It is the largest arts centre in Europe and they put on hundreds of events every year - music, theatre, recitals, literary debates, festivals, you name it. But most of the staff who work on arranging the arts programmes seem to be employed part-time, two-and- a-half or three days a week. On the other hand, my suspicion is that they are putting in the kind of hours that you would in a normal five-day week.

It seems normal for everyone to be around for most of the day and the evening. They have all got their heads down, too. Maybe it is because they are mostly women. The proportion of men in this part of the building is minuscule - which I guess accounts for the atmosphere. I have never worked in a large organisation like this, but after a couple of days I am beginning to feel puzzled.

Everyone is amiable. They smile a lot. They do not shout or even raise their voices. They are friendly, democratic, apparently nice to each other, considerate and team-oriented. After a few days of all this niceness, I am going crazy. Fortunately, a problem turns up half-way through the week when one of the speakers for a weekend event cries off.

A pall of gloom descends over my colleagues. The problem is that the event is sold out, so a number of people will be turning up expecting to hear that particular speaker. Postponing is difficult, because with a full diary it is hard to find another date at short notice. Substituting a similar speaker is difficult, for obvious reasons. Simply cancelling is the worst option, because paying back the money would have an adverse effect on a finely tuned balance sheet. The agony lasts most of the afternoon while the literature department chases a number of rapidly disappearing options.

All this is within a context of difficult funding. There is the obligation for everything to make a profit or break even. That same day, the Arts Council announces that it is freezing increases in its grants for another year. The only bright spot is the building's collective pleasure at not being the subject of a fly-on-the-wall TV documentary. Wednesday morning buzzes with talk about the previous night's episode of The House. According to rumour, the Festival Hall was approached and turned down the opportunity. "The problem is," someone whispers to me, "there's no guarantee we'd have come out looking any better."

"What do you do?" everyone asks me when I tell them I am the resident writer. I find myself evading the question. My brief is to support the practice of creative writing throughout the nation. A modest proposal. In my first days I am trying to work out what that means in practice, talking to creative writing groups from colleges, schools and arts centres who call in and ask me to look at their work and talk about the practice of writing. I begin to think about ways to take literature away from its critical grounding and back to narrative and what makes people actually want to carry on reading. I begin to sketch in my mind various kinds of activity round the themes of storytelling. Antonia, the head of literature, arranges for me to participate in a course for choreographers. I try not to think about it.

By Saturday I am half-expecting that few people would have struggled through the snow. But the literature department is there in force and a full house hears Christopher Frayling deliver a sharp, witty lecture on the correspondences between horror movies and the literature from which they are drawn.

In the middle of this recital, a group of young men walk into the lobby wearing cardboard cheeses on their heads. They are led by a youth dressed as Captain Hook in maroon velvet and lace. They turn out to be Brentford fans whose football match has been cancelled and who had been turfed out of every other public building. They stand at the bar giving an impromptu performance. I have a sneaking suspicion that this must be a satire on performance art.

I end my first week moaning about the social isolation of literary circles in this country, and dishing out a lecture to Antonia about the need for writers to get involved in the great public issues of our society: race, nationality, identity, crime. "The programme needs to get out of this building," I tell her. She nods understandingly. On the way home I feel guilty. I want to change things.

But, dammit, I am in love with the place already.

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