In the little-known Uruguayan movie The Pope’s Toilet, a promised visit by the Pope drives the populace of Melo, a deprived and rundown town into a frenzy at the promised bonanza coming to their doors.
Hyped by a near-hysterical Press and lackey local politicians to believe that ever-increasing numbers of wealthy Brazilians will descend on this massive event, one impoverished citizen, Beto, conceives a unique means of serving the promised 200,000 visitors. Beto makes a living smuggling lower-tax goods across the border from Brazil, and he puts his life savings and daughter’s education fund into buying and building a paid-for public convenience in his back garden.
The pressure on his family who are living hand-to-mouth and the near-mania the town’s inhabitants achieve as the day draws near tests relationships and pushes Beto to the edge under the mounting expectation that a gold rush is upon him.
In the end, a corporate Pope turns up with his retinue of coaches stuffed with cardinals and elite hangers-on out for a day’s jolly. These VIPs all have their food and drink – and more importantly for Beto – their toilets, provided on board their coaches, conveniently keeping them as far away from the poor as possible.
Meanwhile, the 400 people who turn up to attend the Pope’s mass are served by 387 trinket stalls. The blessing is given in a matter of an hour or so and then the event is over. No one is any richer, but everyone is a little wiser.
Looking at the VIP grandstand on the seafront today, in the place which is psychologically associated in the people of Portsmouth’s minds with free entertainment and with freedom to relax in a city that has the densest population of any city in Northern Europe, I thought on this film and was struck by the way large corporations, be they religious or commercial, arrange matters for their own convenience at the expense of the people they are supposed to serve. Looking at the sparse attendance on the first two days and the grumblings on social media, I am wondering as Saturday morning dawns if The America’s Cup will indeed become the new Pope’s Toilet.
I hope not. Sincerely, I want Portsmouth to be a place where people have a great time. But I also want the businesses who have descended on our town to show a bit of understanding of who we are. Because if they’d done that, there might not be the grumbling and muttering that has sullied what should be a fabulous event.
The pre-poured beers standing at £5 a pint in the Waterfront Arena are perhaps emblematic of the show thus far. Whilst it is true that locals of Portsmouth were offered free tickets to attend the four-day event, that generosity was attenuated by the sheer expense of having a day out there.
To gain admission to the Waterfront Arena, you must surrender your own food and drinks. Social media includes accounts of parents with 2-year-olds being refused admission with their baby food. It includes coeliacs turned away with their own food even though they simply couldn’t eat the food being served inside the Arena. All this in a place which is psychologically to many Pompeyites THE ONLY picnic area in the city, where many a barbie has burned a hole in the grass and many a cheap-bought sausage undergone cremation before finding a final resting place in a bin.
So, what do you get if you decide to play along and enter the Arena?
The original reason that Southsea Common was saved from developers was that it provided clear lines of sight and constituted a killing zone to deter attacking French troops intent on burning the dockyard. That’s why it was kept clear for hundreds of years while the town jammed up to its edges.
The atmosphere inside the Arena on the first two days was dull (and to be fair, what else could it be in Friday’s deluge?) and appeared primarily designed for stalls to make a killing from the attendees. Most food was pitched at £6 or above – which for a take-away of not particularly generous proportions made primarily of, for example, egg noodles, stings the wallet. There are some stands that give the Arena a local presence. Strong Island are there, as are Pie and Vinyl – both hip organisations with cool appeal, somewhat incongruously sitting in a field containing a large corporate stand with a BMW on it.
There is also a large stage with big screens. There appears to be no obvious programme for the events on the stage in the day, but the sailing can also be watched on the screens. Thankfully so, since the only people with a really excellent view of the sailing in the water are the corporate VIPs who have taken up squatting rights in the city’s free entertainment arena at the bandstand.
The plight of the traders on the seafront near the Hovertravel terminal speaks plenty about the way big business thinks about – or doesn’t think about – ordinary people trying to make a living. The 4-metre-tall fencing that has sprung up along the seafront has blocked off local shops from being able to sell to the public tantalisingly close on the other side of that wall. Local businesses who have provided services for years, if not decades on that spot deserve a share in the high times if they come. They are, after all, the ones who kept the seafront alive long before a Louis Vuitton PR manager, a BMW sales executive or a BAR Landrover events promoter ever heard of Southsea.
For me – and this is a personal opinion – the real problem with this event in a city like Portsmouth is that it is exclusive. People need tickets or they are excluded. People need money or they are excluded. People need to be in the arena or they are excluded. People need to understand about boats, about BAR Landrover and about sailing… or they are excluded. And of course, you need tens of millions of pounds to part-own one of those strange boats that don’t even seem to touch the water. There hasn’t been enough reaching out, enough education, enough explaining to the ordinary people why this distant event should be significant to them.
All this is in distinct contract with the spectacularly successful Trafalgar 200 event in 2005. Generally a masterpiece of event management, the whole marvellous, crazy event saw hundreds of thousands flock down to the open seafront and enjoy the day out. Almost everyone benefited. Local businesses and other street traders alike had a massive market to sell to, prices were kept sensible by genuine competition – people didn’t feel trapped into spending more than they normally would on food – and there was plenty of money to go round among the traders, be they local or otherwise.
The current sponsors have taken this model and inverted it by pushing people off the Common and seafront west of the Castle unless they have tickets.
That’s a foolish thing to do – especially when another, sensibly-priced event is due to give a top-notch show in just a few brief weeks. And when, actually, the America’s Cup may be a big deal for a small yachting elite and their wealthy sponsors, but is not a big deal for a working class town struggling with illiteracy, poverty and the day-to-day grind of life. Those people need a break, not to be sold at.
I so hope that there is a good crowd today and that the weekend goes well. I do believe that the America’s Cup will be good in the long run for Portsmouth. For that reason, I hope there is a good vibe in the town, and excitement at the races. But I also hope that next year the promoters do things differently and don’t just parachute in their VIPS and take over the seafront and Common for 4 days whilst the locals feel they’re being sold overpriced concert tickets and beer.
In many ways the Common is a near-sacred place to the people of Pompey. That means you have to get it right or you will feel their wrath. Exactly that happened in 1874 during the Battle of Southsea, in which thousands descended on the Common to prevent an attempt by a precursor of today’s fence-obsessed Corporations to enclose a tiny part of it. Back then, the Riot Act was read, and in four days of continual fighting, the people burned down the fences. It set a folk memory in Pompey people’s minds that actually, the Common is ours.
You mess with that belief at your peril, you people in your VIP stands. Please remember that.
Now here’s to future success for the city and for BAR Landrover. But in partnership with all of us, please, not at our expense.