Old West Downs Society — A Grand Opening at the new West Downs — May 2001

The opening of the West Downs Performing Arts and Conference Centre

Wednesday 2nd May 2001

Representing the Old West Downs Society my brother Daniel and I were invited to attend the opening of the new West Downs by Lord Puttnam, CBE.

There were several hundred guests at the opening; several other OWDs had been invited but Andrew Cornes was the only other one that I recognised. He came with his wife and youngest child, a boy of just about the same age as Andrew had been when I first met him, when Jerry took over the school.

With Andrew came Vati Carrère, just as young and lively as ever. Reg and Gill Severn were also there, Reg now in a wheelchair most of the time though able to walk a little.

People were escorted in groups through a series of experiences. Luckily I did not join such a group, having arrived by order an hour early, and being allowed to conduct my own tour with my own perspectives, which were of course based on my own memories of the building. Perhaps I should have taken my place in one of these guided tours, because I must confess to having been totally baffled. There were these groups of young people doing little more than strike various remarkable poses. I began to see the place as the new temple for the worship of eccentricity. I was told that this was “creative art” - but what was it they were creating? An experience, I was told. With my mind-set as a writer, I expect to see something that will last for ever when I create something. Yes, even this letter.

But gradually I began to warm to the place. You can see my tour in the pictures I show. But it was the new Principal's speech before Lord Puttnam opened the centre that finally broke down my defences. Professor Paul Light, the Principal, read out a part of the West Downs Prayer. As he spoke I realised how mistaken I had been. And then he went on to read another West Downs Prayer, that for “A boy of our Time.”

This was particularly apt because there had been numerous unforeseen disasters while the conversion was taking place. The last of these was the bursting of a 1½ inch water main in the space between Chapel and Shakespeare, overnight, so that by morning Shakespeare was flooded to a depth of six inches or more. The ceiling was sagging - and the Grand Opening was only a week away. That must have been like the worst possible nightmare for the organisers, but somehow they bravely set to, and it was fixed perfectly. If they hadn't told you, you wouldn't have known.

Lord Puttnam's speech was also very able and inspiring. I wish I had recorded them both, but one can't think of everything.

The Opening finished with a dance by a young man, one that I could relate to, for this was break-dancing - without the sheet of cardboard.

The reason I feel an affinity with break-dancing is that, as a canoe instructor, I can do something along those lines, but in a kayak.

So now I was being hauled back to an appreciation of the work, past, present and future, of the West Downs Centre for the Performing Arts, and am now able to voice whole-heartedly my best wishes for its future, and for its continuing success.

Nick Hodson, 2nd May 2001.