The People’s Palace: Why Public Space Matters

Yesterday I took Child 1 and Child 3 (Child 2 was in nursery) to one of my favourite places – Ally Pally (Alexandra Palace) in North London.

I’ve always been fascinated by the building, which looms over the skyline like an Italianate castle made of London bricks. It is both glorious and strangely municipal – like a Victorian waterworks. I knew that it was the birthplace of TV – the first BBC broadcasts originated from Ally Pally – this was referenced in a rather splendid episode of Doctor Who, starring Maureen Lipman. It was called “The Idiot’s Lantern” and was all about telly. Here’s a clip:

In the 60s, the 14 Hour Technicolour Dream, a notorious gathering of hippies, freaks and counter-culture crazies took place at Ally Pally. A few years later it was used as a location for the sex/horror film A Woman In a Lizard’s Skin (the first shots of the trailer are from Ally Pally).

The Stone Roses played there in the 90s and it was used as the venue for the MTV awards. It’s still being used for gigs – Florence and the Machine are due to play there in a few months time. It should be used for a lot more – I’ll explain what I think should be done shortly.

I first went to Ally Pally about four years ago when we jumped on a train from Kings Cross to entertain Child 1 (then an only child whose whims were gratified without question). I fell in love. If London was a house (indulge me here), then Ally Pally is its roof and you always get the best views if you stand on the roof. On a clear day you can see the City, Canary Wharf, the Post Office Tower and right across into the Home Counties.

The best way for me to get to Ally Pally is to get the bus to Muswell Hill then wander along the Parkland Walk and up through Alexandra Park to the Palace itself. The Parkland Walk is another special place – a disused railway line turned nature reserve that snakes its way behind Highgate and Muswell Hill to Ally Pally. There’s another bit I like too that goes from Crouch End to Finsbury Park – go there in the summer and it’s thick with blackberry bushes and white butterflies. It reminds me of being a child – I used to wander around Wimbledon Common in a world of my own, undisturbed by traffic or the distractions of modern life.

Here are some snaps I took of the Parkland Walk yesterday:

Looking across Londontucked away

small boy in distance

The weather was a bit rubbish so they look a tad on the grey side, but they hopefully explain what I’m on about. The Parkland Walk is a priceless, magical place – imagine how much it would be worth to a property developer! And imagine how much poorer we’d all be without it.

I’ll get to the ranty bit now. My love of the Parkland Walk, Ally Pally and all the wonderful parks and outdoor places in my bit of London is based on more than just a penchant for fresh air (wonderful as that is). I believe that these places are important as they are genuine public spaces that everyone can enjoy who ever they are. If you have young children, you soon begin to appreciate the need for parks and outdoor places; in London only rich people have anything more than a patch of outside space and kids go crazy if they are stuck in the house all day. That’s probably why I was so REPELLED by Wansdworth Council’s plans to charge people to use a playground. Fine for the more affluent classes but an absolute nightmare for low or even middle income families.

Stories like this tell me something I basically had already guessed; namely that the very concept of public space is under attack. Shutting down libraries is part of this – where else can you go and read a book or check your emails in peace without being forced to consume something for this privilege?This was also clear when Occupy LSX (London Stock Exchange) ended up camped outside St Paul’s; most of the land in the City is privately owned and protest is just impossible.

How different things were back in Victorian times. Yes, we all like to sneer at our ancestors as prudes who put covers on chair legs, but in those days the idea that people deserved public space was positively fashionable. In 1873, Ally Pally opened its doors under the heading The People’s Palace. Sadly it burnt down just 16 days after opening, but it reopened two years later in 1875 and now covered 2 acres.

In 1900, an Act of Parliament created the Alexandra Palace and Park Trust. The Act required the Trustees to maintain the Palace and Park and make them “available for the free use and recreation of the public forever”. In other words, the Palace belonged to the people and anyone who hoped to get their hands on this incredibly valuable piece of real estate had no chance.

The building was handed over to Haringey Council in 1980 and mysteriously caught fire six months later – rumours of wrong-doing have swirled round the Palace ever since. Basically the place costs a lot to run and the council would like to sell it. They tried to do this in 2006 – a property developer called Firoka had all kinds of grand plans for Ally Pally including a casino! Fortunately the Save Ally Pally campaign stepped in and put a stop to all this nonsense – here’s their website if you want to read about the story in a bit more detail:

So basically it would take an Act of Parliament to sell Ally Pally. At the moment the Palace still belongs to all of us, but then so does the NHS and I’m not sure I trust our current government to look after that either!

And while this wonderful place still belongs to the nation, I’d like to see it used in a way that genuinely benefits everyone. Stuff does go on there – gigs, craft fairs, antique shows and so on – but I think much, much more could be done. The obvious thing to do is turn Ally Pally into a sort of free university – let’s face it the real ones are getting way too expensive. Something a bit like The Bank of Ideas, but maybe a bit less dark and oppressive – I visited this place when it first opened and you couldn’t move for paranoid conspiracy theorists. I though this was a shame as the place had potential but I just didn’t feel comfortable in there.

I’d like to see classes for all ages being held at Ally Pally. Let’s teach kids to cook, let’s show mums how to mend washing machines and teach dads about child psychology. Let’s create a community of learning where bus drivers can chat to bankers, or university professors can chat to pub landlords about politics or science or football or religion – or anything that takes their fancy. Let’s have books, free internet access and free cups of tea. Let’s have a place where you can swap old clothes or furniture. Let’s have a skills bank where you can offer – for an example – an evening’s babysitting in return for some free guitar tuition or driving lessons. Let’s leave our money at home and for once break the cycle of consumption.

Much more fitting for The People’s Palace than a bloody casino.

This entry was published on February 18, 2012 at 3:42 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

2 thoughts on “The People’s Palace: Why Public Space Matters

  1. I totally agree with all of that. again. x

  2. When you next come to London we can go and hang out there – the kids love it.

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