What a summer this is for the public realm! Just two weeks ago, English football fans were being frog-marched through the streets of Marseilles after a battle with rival fans triggered by a big-screen presentation of a World Cup match in a public park. Then in London, a week later, the strains of Beethoven wafted over into the Strand from a civil service car park in Somerset House that had been taken over by thousands of English opera fans for a big-screen presentation of Fidelio.
Both these events attracted much publicity and media analysis. It was noted that while big-screen opera produced no rioting, big-screen football did. As a result, the sorry spectacle of the football-mad postmen and roofing experts running amok was denounced as a national disgrace - one more stage in a via dolorosa of Euro-debasement whose finale hardly bore thinking about - while the bootleg performance of Fidelio was given a completely different treatment. It was, we were assured by the broadsheets, a genuine national triumph. It showed that culture really could save the bacon of the public realm. After the last notes of this epiphany had died away, it no longer seemed to matter if postmen went to jail or footballers got sent off. Sport isn't everything, after all. The important thing is the use of public open space, and here two splendid goals had been scored: not only had cars been booted out of a car park, but big-screen opera had been performed in a listed building! Within days, no doubt, plans to use this vote-winning formula had been pencilled in on the agenda of every would-be mayor of London.
But if the opinion-formers thought that the waves made by football hooliganism had been damped down by a timely dose of righteous music, they were wrong. What Sir Richard Rogers, in his best-selling Cities for a Small Planet, enthusiastically calls 'participatory street life' still had some surprises in store. Coup sur coup in the same week came the City of Westminster's ruling that it could not support Sir Norman Foster's plan to expunge traffic from the vast swathe of central London bounded by Trafalgar Square, Whitehall and Parliament Square. And after that came the government's announcement that it was going to fine-tune 'participatory street life' itself, by appointing a 'Homelessness Tsar' to reduce the number of people sleeping in the streets of the capital by two-thirds in two years.
It was the third bombshell that was the killer. Last Sunday, in a sort of page two afterthought, it was finally admitted by the media that even big-screen opera in a listed building had been trumped by one of the biggest pieces of participatory street life ever - the presence of no fewer than 17,000 troops on the streets of Northern Ireland behind miles of trenches, barricades and razor ribbon wire, keeping one part of a community away from another part in Portadown.
Clearly this called for extreme measures. Perhaps even the appointment of a 'Big Screen Opera Tsar' charged with bringing soothing music to every listed building in every town and city in the United Kingdom.