There are occasional moments in life that even as you are experiencing them you know, on some lizard level, that they are being indelibly burned into your memory. The sort of scenes that make sense of the phrase “when your life flashes before your eyes, make sure you’ve got plenty to watch.”
One such occurred to me just the other day as I was arriving at Southbank Centre (there’s no definite article in Southbank Centre I seem to remember being told last year, take note.) in readiness to chair the event with one of the world’s leading biographers, Hilary Spurling, for her magnificent and fascinating life of Pearl Buck.
It was Saturday and the sun was not so much shining as searing. Any outside space was filled with weekend patrons of the arts, the bars and the restaurants. It was hot, damned hot and I was hotter than most having cycled 12 miles. The water fountain sculpture outside the Royal Festival Hall, the name of which always escapes me but which I always think is called “Disappearing Rooms’, was providing welcome relief from the heat, not only to the usual swimming garb wearing children, but also some rather clever adults who had obviously planned their wardrobe ahead. The balcony overlooking the Thames was so tightly packed that you couldn’t get a cigarette paper between those who were lined up against it.
I wandered around, somewhat aimlessly, enjoying the buzz, people watching and catching my breath from my two-wheeled exertions by having, of course, a cigarette.
I wanted to sit down but every chair, stool and London Literature Festival branded deckchair held at least one occupant, in many cases two, in at least one case three, all enjoying the sun, the food and the drink. But as I rounded a corner to a walkway where until last week pterosaurs flew overhead, I noticed an oasis of calm.
A single deckchair, positioned to catch the sun full on cradled a reader who was totally immersed in the book before her. I discreetly approached; intrigued to know what held her attention when so much was going on all around. The lady was wearing large and rather stylish sunglasses, her blond hair concealing the fact that she had her iPod on and was evidently fully focussed on both her reading material and the sounds she was listening to.
I got nearer and saw that rather than a work of fiction or of non-fiction, the book on her knees was the score and libretto of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, the work so evocative of its time, that was commissioned by Jackie Onassis in memory of her first husband John F. Kennedy, and that she was evidently following the music she was listening to note by note.
She noticed me and we fell into conversation and it was only when I looked more closely that I discovered that the lady in question was none other than the Artistic Director of Southbank Centre, Jude Kelly, who of course was directing that evening’s performance.
I mentioned this meeting to someone else shortly after, before I chaired Hilary Spurling’s event. The response “She was doing what? So publicly?” surprised me for I thought it to be a sublime moment, so worthy and typical of what the Southbank and in fact the London Literary Festival is about. The close proximity of the art, the artists and the audience, a locus where all those who love art in all its forms congregate without pretension, without boundaries, to appreciate that wonderful thing that artistic endeavour does, bring people together for mutual purpose and collective wonder at the highest expressions of what makes us human.
I therefore consider myself to be a new member of what Southbank Centre is, which is to my mind, the Kelly Gang.