Saturday, August 03, 2013

Billy Bragg: Won't someone think of the children? The other children?

With skateboarders fighting hard to keep the space under the Southbank Centre that they've made their own - turned from a concrete void into a bustling space of community - it was great to hear that Billy Bragg had got involved.

Bragg, you'll recall, was a miner. He was a docker. He was a railwayman. This was between the wars, obviously, but even so. The firebrand on the side of the little guy.

Let's here it, Billy. Stand up for the kids.

I don't believe that the skateboarders set out to put themselves above everyone else in the South Bank community.
Hang about...
Yet, by refusing to meet with us, they appear to want a veto on all our plans and dreams, resisting changes that can unlock the potential for thousands of kids who have just as much right to express themselves through their creativity as those defending the undercroft.
Oh, "us". In the "them and us" of the battle of the Undercroft, you're not on the side of the us, you're on the side of them.

To be fair, Bragg isn't chomping a cigar and demanding the Undercroft gets redeveloped just for the hell of it - he sees this as the only way of releasing funds and creating a space for the Royal Festival Hall to work with local kids. And besides, suggestions that the Undercroft is going to be handed over to bland multinationals is a fib, he says:
And in the undercroft itself, there are no plans for a Starbucks, despite what some have claimed. There will be two new restaurants, but the real focus will be series of pop-up ventures, similar to Luke's Café, giving young entrepreneurs the opportunity to start up their own businesses
Some lovely misdirection there, you'll notice, sliding over the question of the "restaurants" and pointing at the lovely, lovely community businesses instead. Which are lovely. All popping up and giving young people a chance.

That might work as an argument if you were still half-asleep, I suppose, but it clearly doesn't add up. If the idea of turning the Undercroft into retail space is to fund the Floating Glass Rehearsal Space and the education projects inside it, you're not going to do that from three-week businesses selling upcycled lamp-standards. It's clearly the anchoring restaurants that are the financial heart of the project.

A quick look at the Southbank Centre's Shop-Eat-Drink webpage offers a slightly more honest view of the sort of business that will be courted once those pesky skatekids have moved on - currently, you can choose from Eat, Yo! Sushi, Wagamama, Wahaca, Le Pain Quoitedien, Las Iguanas... there's even a branch of Tesco's Giraffe there. It's hilarious the Southbank keep focusing on there not being a Starbucks, like that cancels out the rest of the chains.

So, even if the Undercroft was full of teenagers with dreams and piping bags, they'd be fighting for attention against some the largest marketing budgets in the country.

Bragg's argument - that this is a way to create a space and the funding to do interesting outreach with kids (I say "Bragg's argument", much of it is just cribbed directly from the Centre's talking points) has some merit to it:
There is currently no dedicated education space for the South Bank to realise its dream of offering children from local state schools the opportunity of artistic immersion – learning all of the subjects on the curriculum through the medium of the arts. The Festival Wing development will provide that environment.
It's just a pity when they found the room for the Tesco Giraffe they didn't notice this apparently pressing need for rehearsal space. After all, it's only been there since 2011.

There are other questions that just hang in the air, unanswered - if the other place that is being offered to the skateboarders is so great, why not put the Definitely Not Starbucks there? I mean, it's not like you're trying to sweep the skateboarders back into the middle of nowhere, is it? Is it?

Sure, Bragg's project is a good one, and it does great work. But what we've got here are two different types of endeavours which allow young people to build their skills, interests and confidence.

One is - fundamentally - well-meaning, but an interjection of concerned adults with budgets and targets and clipboards; the other is something that, mostly, the kids have organised for themselves, and do for themselves.

Bragg might not think of himself as marching into a genuine piece of punk culture and telling the guys to clear off because he and the Arts Organisation know better what young people need, but that's exactly what he's doing.

It's okay, though, because there's no Starbucks.

Meanwhile, Bragg might like to re-read Solzhenitsyn's For The Good Of The Cause.

[Thanks to @Pedro_Dee for the tip]