Thames Pathway

Journal of a Walk Down the River Thames

by Keith Pauling

The South Bank

Further along Jubilee Gardens the scene turns to street theatre. The inevitable human statues clad entirely in silver or gold. A gold king and queen, a silver Georgian gentleman and a guitarist completely covered in blue, who plays a little tune every time somebody drops a coin into his tribute box. A magician is starting to attract a crowd with a glass ball moving up and down in mid-air accompanied by some humorous patter to keep the punters interested. Only a few yards further down a break-dancer is boosting up his ghetto-blaster to provide a little competition, while opposite sits a juggler surrounded by all kinds of strange objects that he will soon be tossing into the air while everyone watches in the anticipation of them clattering to the floor, which of course never happens.

Beneath Hungerford Bridge two pavement artists are drawing out the first outlines of their picture for the day, and a caricaturist is setting up ready to turn the client’s slightly prominent nose into a huge proboscis so that they can display their sense of humour to all of their friends by pinning up the finished sketch on their kitchen wall.

This is the South Bank, artistic quarter of London. The purpose of the buildings may be artistic, but the buildings themselves are certainly not. The largest concrete monstrosity is the Festival Hall, built for the 1951 Festival of Britain. The stark concrete does not do it any favours, but I have to remember that this was built in a more austere time. The whole area was cleared after the end of the war to provide a cultural location to cheer everyone up after the grim years of hostilities. Still, I can not forgive them for demolishing a brewery to make space for this.

The other two halls of the South Bank Centre are the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Hayward Gallery. The Hayward has simply got to be one of the most hideous examples of sixties architecture still standing. Enough said.

Underneath Waterloo Bridge there is a huge second-hand book market and the browsers are already working their way through the boxes of books stacked along the trestles.

Another statue on a plinth blocks my way with an arm extended pointing towards the entrance of the building. This one is not human, it is a proper statue. It is of Sir Laurence Olivier playing Hamlet, and he is pointing towards the National Theatre.

The National Theatre moved here in 1976 and consists of three theatres, the large open-stage Olivier, the conventionally designed Lyttelton and a small studio theatre the Cottesloe. In truth this building is no better than its upstream companions despite improvements from the Lottery Fund.

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