Seaside Weekend on The Southbank, LondonTHE UK — By JM Merchant on August 24, 2011 at 01:17
Story by guest blogger JM Merchant. Photos Copyright © Joanna Abram except where captioned otherwise. Feature photo courtesy of John Abram.
MY AUNT AND UNCLE have lived in Southend-On-Sea in Essex all my life. As a result, a significant portion of my childhood, and indeed plenty of my adulthood, has been spent there.
The most characteristic area of Southend is the sea-front. I’ve spent many a pleasant summer digging in the sand, splashing in the waves, running down the promenade with the cold wind biting my ears in winter, and laughing and screaming in the amusement park, originally named Peter Pan’s Playground, now commercially known as Adventure Island.
The music scene in Southend is lively and diverse, as is the arts culture. Both are eagerly supported by the company Metal, of which my cousin Sean is the programme executive. The company was founded by a great advocate of the arts, Jude Kelly, in 2002. Ms Kelly is also the artistic director of the Southbank Centre in London, a collection of cultural venues on the River Thames.
2011 marks the Southbank Centre’s 60th anniversary, and it has been celebrating the Festival of Britain. Metal has curated The Seaside Land exhibit. On August 6th we held the Seaside Weekend, where Metal and Southend Borough Council collaborated to transplant just a small piece of the Southend experience to the Southbank.
As an event’s technician, early mornings are not uncommon, but that doesn’t mean I’ll ever appreciate them! Over the last few months I’ve grown used to seeing the Southbank empty and in darkness, usually between the hours of 3 and 5 a.m. escorting friends back to Waterloo station after a night out.
But seeing the Southbank at 7.30am was an altogether different experience. Though the sun was up and beginning to warm the air, the light was still harsh and cold, lending the beach huts and buildings a stark and deserted feel. Despite being clean and well kept, it felt like stepping into a forgotten area of London.
I won’t bore you with the intricacies and dramas of setting up the busking stage, but suffice to say we were all very relieved to go live with the first band, Bearcraft (whose lead-singer we suspect had been taking wardrobe tips from Lady Gaga!), just a little later than planned at 11.15.
Throughout the day we had a number of Southend bands playing on the main stage, including the Tuppenybunters with their fantastic adaptation of Pop Goes The Weasel, The Lucky Strikes; a five piece country-rock-blues group who were unfortunately one member short, the City Shanty Band; a boisterous 11 man shanty group who managed to maintain the crowds interest despite the rain and the crew storming around the stage replacing microphones with models more resilient to water, The Seasiders; a band difficult to classify outside the unhelpful term Indie-Pop, simply because the music they produce is so varied, and Handshake; a truly lovely trio of artists, again with their own diverse Indie sound.
One of the delights of London is some of the unusual characters you encounter. On this day we had a trio of older Elvis fans, who proved that no matter what the music, Elvis’s dance steps still work! These fellas started dancing with our first band shortly before midday, and they were still going when the bands finished at 4pm. You couldn’t help but laugh—they just simply didn’t care, all they wanted was to enjoy themselves and dance!
Being artist liaison for the day, when I wasn’t escorting bands between stage and dressing rooms and leaping in to help the stage crew, I got a little bit of time to wander around the rest of the Southbank complex. Inside The Royal Festival Hall, our team had transformed the Clore Ballroom into a crazy golf course and volleyball court, which stayed busy well into the evening.
Down on the Queen’s Walk, we had a variety of activities and exhibits. Fourteen beach huts have lined the walk for the last couple of months, each one designed by a different artist. They contained all manner of fascinations: vintage swimwear and postcards, a shell grotto and an Under The Pier amusement arcade.
We were surprised first thing in the morning to find one of the huts being used just as the artist had intended: a Friday night reveler had decided to catch a few hours shut-eye in it. Had I known this hut existed I know I could have made use of it at least a couple of times over the last few months!
Another hut was resident to the storyteller Rachel Rose Reid, who was kind enough to regale us with her unique retelling of the “The Fisherman and The Selkie” from the busking stage. In the hut she provoked, enticed and encouraged curious youngsters to tell the stories they wanted to tell, and helped them to find ways of making the spoken stories even more dynamic and gripping to their audiences.
Further down the walk by the ferry pier was my favourite sculpture of the year, The Curve. Designed by Jane Woollatt, this sculpture is an interactive chalkboard. When it was originally displayed at Metal’s End of Term festival in Southend, the public were able to chalk their own designs and graffiti on the sculpture. However, this required constant monitoring and cleaning to remove obscenities, so this time around artist Heidi Wigmore chalked on some traditional cartoon designs for the public to interact with. Later in the day a group of teenagers requested permission to add to the designs, and Tutankhamun became suddenly very colourful.
Next to the quintessentially Southend-esque show garden, designed by Southend Borough Council’s Parks team, is a makeshift beach. Several tons of sand have been sat here during the summer months and was this day taken over to host the Alternative Regatta Games.
Based on the tradition of the Old Leigh Regatta, Scouts and Sea Scouts that had been coached down from Chalkwell in Southend for the day competed in traditional beach games, including yoke racing, sedan chair races and a tug of war. They even treated us to a semaphore display, transmitting messages across the Southbank complex.
As the sun started to dip over the Thames, we had our first dance workshop of the evening. Taught by the lovely Natasha and Jay, this 15-minute lesson walked us through some very basic jive steps. Yes, even I joined in, but I think I need a few more lessons before I can go dancing in public!
The workshop was followed by my favourite part of the day, the Tea Dance, accompanied by the Oo Bop Sh’Bam group and Paul Taylor’s Tea Dance Orchestra. I’ve always been fascinated by couple’s dances and seeing all these people happily throwing each other around, perfectly in sync with their partners was simply delightful.
Sadly, just as the Tea Dance was scheduled to end, the heavens broke and everyone made a dive for the Royal Festival Hall Cafe, while myself and the rest of the crew desperately tried to shield the remaining equipment and the drum kit.
Not quite the idyllic ending we’d hoped for, but certainly a fine day nonetheless.
Elvis fans proving that, no matter what the music, Elvis’s dance steps still work!
JM Merchant (or Jo Abram to most) lives in the North End of London, although she aspires to the West End. An occasionally employed sound engineer and stage manager, most of her time is currently spent reading pirate tales as she works on her first novel. She blogs and posts short stories at Am I A Writer Yet? and tweets as @JMMerchant86.