Dreaming of tomorrow

“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas . . .” The sounds of Michael Bubl� drifted up the stairs as a shambling figure shuffled into the dark, empty room at the top of the building.

It was a space filled with ghosts. He could hear them whispering to one another in the shadows. It was a room haunted by the past. When the wind blew, the sound it made reminded him of the buzz of an expectant theatre audience.

He shook his head to clear his mind of such nonsense and lit the solitary candle that provided his light. The wind howled outside. He pulled his tattered coat tightly around his shoulders. Flecks of snow stuck to the grubby windows.

In the old days the warmth of the room would have melted them instantly. This had been a welcoming place – a respite from the cares of the world –a place of good cheer.

Now it was an austere, half-forgotten folly – a bleak reminder of an optimistic past, now overwhelmed by harsh economic reality.

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The figure, forever shrouded in darkness, limped over to the snow-encrusted windows and peered out. Below, a half-hearted Christmas market was doing its best to create a jovial atmosphere but the half-dozen stalls looked rather threadbare, with not much to offer other than a few home-made wooden Christmas tree decorations and some knitted toys for young children.

“I see that the Clangers are making a comeback,” the figure muttered to himself. “I wonder how many kids even know what they are.”

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The figure shuffled away from the chilly window and sat down in what looked like a protected den in a corner of the darkened room. On a clear night, light from the moon provided some free illumination courtesy of the large windows opposite. Once, they had been part of a wonderful display area – part of the exuberance of the building. Now they provided free light, even if, on nights like this, they also helped to lower the temperature of the room.

The figure looked about him as he took a bag of rather emaciated mince pies from the pocket of his thin overcoat. On the walls were dusty pictures from what seemed to be another era. A time of colour, a time when light was not a rationed commodity – a time when people laughed.

He sat down on the battered remains of a sofa. Two others formed a half-circle around a worn coffee table rescued from a store-room in the derelict rear of the building.

Much of the useful pieces of furniture and other items had been spirited away when the building was moth-balled 10 years ago.

Even though it was less than 40 years old, it had been scheduled for demolition; but money was in such short supply that it remained untouched and began a strange half-life of gradual decay.

The figure clung to the hope that one day his fortunes and the fortunes of the building may change. That, once again, this wonderful theatre, this temple to the arts, could speak to the people. It could entertain. It could provoke discussion. It could once again be alive and filled with light.

He looked up at the fading photograph in the weak light. He raised his candle to shed some more illumination. It showed a packed auditorium. Figures on stage were taking their bows. Members of the audience were on their feet, applauding.

He could remember that. He could remember being taken as a child to these wonderful places of light and colour – these wonderfully welcoming places of life and laughter.

He had been captivated by what he had seen and wanted a life in the theatre. Strictly speaking his wish had been granted, but being a self-appointed caretaker to a derelict theatre was not what he had in mind.

Still, at least the building was still standing. Not many were. As the austerity years lengthened, money became increasingly scarce. The start of the Olympic preparations in 2010 was seen as the beginning of the end – 30% of public funding gone in a key-stroke. It was said at the time that once the Olympics were over the money would be restored, but no-one was surprised when it wasn’t.

In fact, worse was to come. Many organisations were stripped of funding altogether as the Arts Council looked at who they wanted as members of their National Funding Portfolio. As expected, the regions suffered the brunt of the cuts. Then, as the economic downturn refused to improve, further cuts followed in 2013/14 (�3.9m) and in 2014/15 (�7.7m)

Local authorities strapped for cash followed suit, scrapping all arts funding in a misguided attempt to balance budgets.

One by one theatres, concert-halls and art galleries closed around the country until nothing was left. Local economies collapsed soon afterwards.

The world had become a grey, lifeless place. The joy had gone out of living. Everything had become functional. Even the sun refused to shine with its same old intensity.

We seemed to be stuck in winter. Grey skies, damp conditions and a chill wind seemed to be the only weather we now had.

In the shadows something stirred. An apparition loomed out of the darkness. Who was it? Who had been trespassing on his private world? The spectre stayed half-formed in the shadows. The weak moonlight was not strong enough to give it substance.

It spoke. It had a soft, quiet tone – not at all hectoring. It was firm but gentle. Somehow this apparition had the power to inspire. Yet its form seemed to shift in the darkness, dust creating a bulky silhouette as a watery moon tried to push its way through the high cloud.

The wind rattled the windows, making the room feel chillier than it was.

As the apparition spoke, it engendered an air of enthusiasm and offered encouragement.

Perhaps all hope is not lost. If we were all to stand up for what we believed in then it would be more difficult for others to make false economies and dispose of the things that make life better for so many. If all of us who love the theatre, music and the arts actively supported events, bought tickets, lobbied our councillors and MPs and were prepared to make ourselves unpopular, it would make it more difficult for the politicians to place the future of our theatres and concert halls in jeopardy. Perhaps, then, tomorrow would not be as dark as we imagined.

Hopefully, our theatres and our quality of life can be defended. Hopefully their true worth will be recognised – both as an economic force and as a morale booster.

Outside, the Michael Bubl� CD, playing on one of the stalls at the impromptu Christmas market, starts over again. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas – a warmer, brighter Christmas.

Who knows? Perhaps spring is around the corner . . .

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