Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Parliament Square has all the charm of an over-policed roundabout.

I recently ceased working in the Parliament Square area, and I’m quite happy about it. Over six months I developed a quite powerful dislike for the place.

I'm not moaning about the tourists– if anything I feel sorry for those visitors to our capital who include Parliament on a tour. If I emerged from the Underground I would take one look around me, tick it off the sightseeing list, and depart immediately. Why? Because the square is hostile, ramshackle and utterly fails to deliver, on whatever level you approach it.

You want antique Imperial bombast? Sorry, it's hard to pick that up when Parliament and Westminster Abbey sit on a perpetually clogged roundabout, bathed in the roar of diesel engines and the tetchy blare of horns. I suppose the statues scattering the central island might hit your 'I' spot, but you’ll only get a decent look if you can figure out how to traverse the confusion of traffic – and good luck with that.

You want a modern, transparent seat of power? You’re bang out of luck. In terms of a public space this is a distinctly unfriendly one. The Palace of Westminster sits behind hideous knee-high black barriers, tossed into the road after 9/11 and left to become a permanent disfigurement. Parliament Square, meanwhile, lives half its life hidden behind a mess of grilled, grey, security fencing.

Traffic, fences, backs of statues. 
It doesn't make anyone safer, this fencing - it's just there to emphasise the square's defining message to any visitor foolish enough to arrive without an appointment. Namely: ‘get lost, pleb.’ This message is of course, particularly aimed at those who come bearing placards.

Westminster's overreaction to any form of protest is quite astonishing when you see it on a day-to-day basis. One small gathering I witnessed saw police outnumber protesters by something like four to one. The plods roll in at the merest hint of organised assembly, tossing up barriers and sitting packed in transit vans along Whitehall, seeming to say: 'go on, just try it'.

All this hardly helps change our image of Westminster politicians as cowardly and out of touch. It only reinforces the perception that they'd  prefer to lock the square up behind railings, like a private Belgravia garden – or, better yet, erect a concrete wall around the entire area, complete with battlements, taser-packing guards and drawbridge (to allow the orderly egress of despot limo and party caterer).

The point is, what do we want from the home of our Government? A fortress or a public space? It is neither at the moment. It's a knackered Victorian folly, ringed by exhaust and coppers packing heat.

So I have an idea: an elegant solution that will help MPs hide more efficiently from their voters, and free up a striking bit of Thames-side real estate for tourists and Londoners alike. The idea? Move Parliament.

There’s plenty of precedent for them sitting elsewhere, and the Palace is horribly unsuited as a place of business anyhow (and in dire need of refurbishment). It would serve far better as a tourist attraction, overlooking a pedestrianized square with trees, grass, and maybe a comfy bench or two.

Parliament, meanwhile, could move into The Excel Centre. I can’t see many people objecting to that bleak box being fenced off, or many protest marches making it their finish line – arriving at Custom House could only be something of an anti-climax. Most importantly, the building is just forbidding, charmless and dull enough to reflect mainstream politics.

And if MPs get too depressed based out there (and believe me, they might) they can always ask to come back home – and we should let them. But only if they accept that it’s our Square too, and leave those bloody fences out East.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Dark Star (1974)

A few words on Dark Star, which I saw for the first time just before Christmas. I've been meaning to watch it for about a decade now, but somehow never got around to it. I knew it was a stretched John Carpenter student film, and it's regularly mentioned in lists of 'greatest ever science fiction movies', yet I could never build momentum for a viewing. How daft that seems now.

Written by John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon, and unfolding over a super-tight one hour and twenty-two minutes, I watched it with a building sense of awe. The opening scenes were so strong that I assumed the rest of the film couldn't possibly live up to them. Then the titles kicked in, with the splendid country song Benson, Arizona (music by Carpenter) and the movie just went on delivering.

Charting the bickering, bearded crew of Dark Star on their journey of meaningless destruction, the film is characterised by surprisingly sharp wit, unique lo-fi space effects, and a deep love for its characters.

I won't get into it too much, in case there are other idiots like me who have never seen it - I wouldn't want to spoil it for you. Suffice to say that I found it a humbling and delightful experience. Almost every element made me smile, from Cookie Knapp’s superb computer voice to the emergency phenomenology.

God it’s imaginative and clever and bravely paced and well acted and surprising. It has been a long time since something impressed me so much - what a talent Carpenter was. It's free to stream on Amazon, so if you haven't seen it, take a look. You won't be disappointed.