Once there were a great many things I took for granted in London; a trip to a museum, cheap last-minute returns for the theatre, a bit of classical music, a talk given in a shop or a hall, a public event, a dance party, perhaps in a park or on the river – the London summer has always been peppered with special events, perhaps to make up for the fact that we’re trapped in a hot and sticky city when we could be in the countryside or at the beach.
Since the arrival of the global economy (also known as ‘Easyjet Economics’) all this has changed. The increased demand for a ‘unique experience’ has created a whole new market in London, so that a trip to a museum becomes a timed premium event, our theatre – now broadcast live around the world – turns into a once-in-a-lifetime live performance, a concert becomes a ‘rare opportunity’, events are sold out years in advance and even public displays are monetised, quantified, fought over.
An online theatre ticket is bundled with a hotel offer, dinners, a backstage ‘experience’ (that word again) and membership packages; the most offensive of these is the sliding scale member charges levied by theatres like the Almeida and Menier, once small local stages open to all, now the exclusive haunts of the rich.
Recently I was due to attend a talk given in a local shop. Owing to demand, the event was moved to a hall on the other side of the city, but by doing that they undermined the point of attending a simple, pleasurable talk in a local shop; I didn’t go. As the shop seeks interviewees of an ever-higher profile, they lose their very raison d’être.
It isn’t just Londoners who miss out – tourists find their experiences commodified and pre-booked.
Most councils host parties in the summer, but because the tickets are sold online the only way you can guarantee entry is to buy them nine months in advance. Theoretically, this new economy would start to push out further from the centre, so that the ‘fringe’ remains exactly that and other experiences are born from limited budgets – but in practice it doesn’t work like that anymore, because the cheap pleasures of the centre can’t be replicated so easily further out. The venues – often basements, arches or old engine sheds – have been sold. And in straitened times, the need to turn a profit produces too many similar events, most of which turn out to be glorified pop-up cocktail bars.
There are outposts; the Cinema Museum in the Elephant & Castle, the Southwark Playhouse, the Finborough, a few other tiny odd venues dotted about – but finding them is becoming harder and harder. Once there were hundreds of spaces you could visit without advance planning, simply by walking in. You could stumble across all kinds of hidden treasures. But as the centre continues to hollow out and ‘experiences’ are commoditised and priced by public demand, the spontaneous pleasure of a day or night out are becoming harder to find.