“A 230ft (70m) stretch of sand, 14 beach huts and 9,000 colourful flags have transformed the South Bank, near the London Eye, into a typical seaside resort with a bandstand, candy floss stalls and vintage funfair rides. The beach is part of the Southbank Centre’s Festival of Britain 60th anniversary celebrations.”
Isn’t this a bit twee, even for the Southbank Centre? For the most part it’s a lovely set of events lined up for the Festival of Britain, but the urban beach seems a bridge too far. In an ideal world it would create a serene space; the sight and feel of sand would inspire a feeling of calm which is alien to the city, and people would sit on the southbank benches and let their toes take a sensory journey to the south of France, the Caribbean, or a childhood sandpit. In reality, the Southbank is a thoroughfare for an army of tourists and angry local joggers, and children playing in the sand will undoubtedly encounter more cigarette butts than can be thought sanitary. It’s surreal, yes, to see a beach (if a very small and narrow and overcrowded one) overlooking the Thames and surrounded by city-scape, but it’s value begins and ends there.
For a minute, perhaps in the late afternoon, in a brief gasp of relative peace between commuters and party-goers, one might sit on a bench here and gaze out at the north bank in the fading light; perhaps this dusk stillness is what the installation is built for. Perhaps when the sun goes down one could sit here and appreciate the contrariness of the urban beach; the light-hearted comedy of it; in the harsh light of day, however, the mind draws unfavourable conclusions.
There is, after all, a British Seaside only an hour or so away on the train (which is about the same travelling time as most journeys in/out of central London). What’s more, the authentic article, the British Seaside proper, is crumbling away in a protracted groan of poverty and abandonment – all it would take to save it, or even just partially restore it, would be visitors. And here on London’s South Bank we see it entombed in kitsch, looked upon as a nostalgic reverie. Anyone who realises this uncomfortable truth might feel a battle-cry rise in their throat – “the real seaside is there for the taking and remaking in all it’s windy, chilly sun-kissed glory! Seize it!”
Londoners – like inhabitants of great cities everywhere* – are fabulous, but we need to learn that this city, splendid though it is, is not the be-all and end-all. We cannot expect to experience everything that this country/the world has to offer whilst staying within the M25. There are some things – the calmness, bracing air and wide open spaces of the British coast, for example – that simply cannot be replicated or substituted. Really want to celebrate the Festival of Britain? How about a day trip to Margate? The spectacular new Turner Contemporary art gallery has just opened on the Margate seafront, and a high speed train from King’s Cross will get you there in under two hours.
* Indeed, Paris has its own version of the urban beach by the Seine. I feel that this is slightly less offensive in Paris, as the French coastline could not claim to be a neglected space.
Zoe Dawes is an editor, writer and workaholic; currently based in London. http://readmorefiction.wordpress.com/