Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Southsea Community Centre

“I bet if we looked on the internet we could find a way to
 disable all of these CCTV cameras.”

You can’t see it now, the site. Huge purple boards enclose the space. I have no idea what will appear there when, eventually, destruction becomes construction. But once it was the spot on which Southsea Community Centre stood.

I first visited Southsea Community Centre in November 1999. It was a cold, although thankfully dry, evening. I stood outside the entrance, leaning awkwardly (not nonchalantly, as I imagined at the time) over the railings, picking at the flaky red paint. The previous night I had protested in Guildhall Square against the WTO. Not that I knew particularly what it was. Tonight I had come to Southsea Community Centre to discuss the situation in Chechnya. Not that I knew particularly what that was about either.

The meeting started at 8pm. My plan, if you could call it that, was relatively simple: arrive late, go in, get out, have a think about it. Now I stood outside, not as the poster-boy of indecisiveness, but employing the tried and tested tactic of the shy. Fashionably late meant that I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone. Little did I realise that turning up ten minutes after the publicised start of the meeting would make me ten minutes early. A woman, short and forthright, approached me and said, “I bet if we looked on the internet we would find a way to disable all of these CCTV cameras.” I had no idea what she was on about. I was totally hooked.

For the next fifteen years Southsea Community Centre became my home from home, the place where I would spend one, two or occasionally three evenings every week.

I walked past the site a little while ago, before the purple walls had been erected. The building had been reduced to rubble, a littering of bricks and beams and dust. Surveying it from the outside it was smaller than I realised. When I had been on the inside it had seemed to expand in all directions, although I had never seen more than a few of its rooms: there was a café and a sports hall, an office and spaces dedicated to housing folding tables and uncomfortable chairs. The walls carried boards, of both the white and the pin varieties, which in turn carried inked acronyms, indecipherable to those but the initiated. There was also an upstairs - a land seldom explored – which held a certain musty mystique. Rarely had I ever visited the upper levels; fifteen years after my first visit I only vaguely knew the layout, how it all fitted together, how the top and the bottom fitted together.

Occasionally I catch myself wishing that Southsea Community Centre was still there. And then I think about how strange that is. As the years passed I went less and less; a number of times I stopped going all together, even if I was still glad that it was there. By the end I hated that place, detested it. I still hate that place, even now, two years since I last went in. But sometimes I miss the familiarity, the certainty.

New buildings have appeared elsewhere: bright, shiny places, promising more room than before in which to stretch one’s limbs and mind. I just can’t quite convince myself that I want to go inside.