It’s funny now to think that I’d worked with Steve for 5 years, on and off, and never really known him. That’s how it works though, sometimes. Extraordinary times bring people together. Steve and I were brought together by a global pandemic, and a final, urgent night in the pub just behind stage door.
“Steve’s the armourer,” slurred my friend Adam, before taking another self-pitying draught of Special. “You don’t want to mess with Steve..”
Steve, for his part, looked almost embarrassed about this perfectly day-to-day revelation. International opera houses have staff with the most eclectic of job titles. Rather in the same way that a film’s end titles might introduce you to the work of the ‘best boy’ and ‘key gaffer’, it was only a matter of time before working in an opera house brought you face-to-face with a ‘wig mistress’ or a ‘flyman’. So Steve worked in the armoury. Of course he did. Why not? The opera house had an armoury. What came first - the opera house’s armoury, or the vast number of productions that called for any number of swords, daggers and firearms? Who knew? For now, it was too indelicate a question to ask. Steve was, as all of the rest of us were, in imminent danger of lasting unemployment. That was the only topic of the evening, and the reason that Adam was lurching towards the bar for the third time.
“Same again, lads?”
“Did you make it onto the furlough list?” I asked Steve, as we watched Adam trying to catch the eye of the barman and paying scant lip-service to the idea of keeping socially distanced.
“Good question,” mused Steve. “I’m not sure yet. I mean though, we’re pretty specialist, and they wouldn’t want to worry about having to train a new guy..”
“But you’re all about the big shows.” I finished for him, “and who knows how long it’s going to be before they feel safe putting a gun-toting chorus of eighty onstage. It’s going to be monologues and three-handers for the foreseeable.”
“Yep,” Steve conceded. “When you put it like that, maybe we’re first for the chop… At least,” he joked darkly, “if the axe is going to fall, our workshop probably made the bastard…”
“Bastards,” spluttered a half-hearing Adam. “There you go. Yours is the half pint, right? Tightening your belt already, eh?”
Adam was not going to fare well in the looming lockdown. His best performances were generally reserved for the Saloon Bar, often in front of large audiences.
The evening ended, and spat us scampering into the tube tunnels like guilty house mice. The city was already shutting down in advance of the impending lockdown. The platforms were sparse; only a few die-hards and shift workers still around, eyeing each other nervously. Soon, the late-night tubes would stop completely; as silent as the theatres they once served.
Then lockdown started. And everything stopped. To its credit, the opera house looked after us, to begin with. Unfinished contracts were honoured. Comradeship abounded as we all found ourselves silenced, whether superstar or supernumerary. But it couldn’t last. Performing artists are too used to unemployment not to know what follows. Ugly ambition is the fuel of many an artistic career, and it was only a matter of time before any slim pickings would be ingloriously fought over; before colleagues realised that they would need to elbow themselves to the front of the queue if they wanted any of the few jobs that might eventually start to be up for grabs.
As the weeks and months passed though, it steadily became clear that this was something really different. As lockdown eased but the theatres still stayed dark, even the expected scrabble for the few scraps failed to emerge. Instead, a grim sense of grief-fuelled ennui took over, as the necessity of making a living took over. Principal flautists went fruit-picking. West-country baritones found themselves dry-stone walling. Schools couldn’t believe their luck at an influx of trainee teachers who had previously worked in world-class theatres and had suddenly been convinced by poverty that education ‘had always been their passion’.
The performing arts. A pulsing and vigorous eco-system that was now gradually disintegrating; its disparate parts loosely held together only by few fading tendrils of hope, its life-signs reduced to the spasms of a social media that was descending into late-night brawls, its will-to-live now only fuelled by a collective rage at a government that was kidding itself that it had a department of culture.
A report went the rounds early in the pandemic that the PM’s special advisor had been asked about arts funding, and had declared, ‘Ballet dancers can get to the back of the fucking queue.’ Six months later, a public education campaign featured a ballet dancer who was headed for a job in ‘crypto’, but who just hadn’t realised yet. It was difficult not to imagine that our once great nation of culture was descending into a totalitarian dystopia, with the classical stage as the first target ahead of its crazed cross-hairs. I thought of Steve. His wife was a ballet dancer. I wondered idly how she might react to the government message that she should work in ‘cyber-security’. The business of anonymity might seem an odd ambition for one who had dreamt since childhood of dancing centre stage in a sequinned tutu.
The summer wore on. The state shrank further into its hard centre. Freedoms started to disappear.
A small parade of theatre artists genteelly chose to picket parliament dressed as pantomime dames.
Steve and Adam?
Adam had vanished without trace. Denuded of an audience and a job, his reason for being had disappeared. I convinced myself that he was happy somewhere paying his bills in a warehouse uniform, but that he couldn’t bring himself to share his new anonymity with his friends. Whether this was true or not, the world was certainly all the less without him.
Steve and I stayed in touch, though. We’d forged the beginning of a comradeship in a strange time, and it would have been a shame to waste it. That last night in the pub now seemed an almost sacred memory. We couldn’t meet in person, of course, but we’d all got used to Zoom calls anyway. Nothing could replace the joy of a night in a crowded pub, but there was still comfort to be gained from a late-night session over an encrypted connection with a glowing screen and a glass of Johnnie Walker sat in front of you. By the time our shared evenings drew to their exhausted, bleary-eyed close, it was even possible to briefly imagine that there might be things we could do to make our world a better place.
Summer started to give way to autumn.
Encouraged by the ever more urgent government advice that artists should consider embracing a new career, I started to consider my plan B. Years ago, I had given up teaching for my career in opera, but I still knew my way around a classroom. It was, of course, cruelly frustrating that I had worked as a teacher principally to save up the fees to go to music college, but this was no time to be proud. I’d even got up to speed on the latest curriculum developments. A summer of home-schooling my teenage son had seen to that. It was just a shame that I hadn’t been paid for it. Because the money was running out.
I told Steve of my plans. He seemed rudely uninterested. “Well what about you, then,” I questioned. “Don’t you have a plan B? Any of these ‘transferable skills’ we’re being asked to use?”
“I told you before,” he said, enigmatically, “I’m a specialist.”
Each morning, outside our front windows, the tide of people travelling to work seemed to swell. After increasingly regular trips to the jobs pages, occasionally I would think I was close to a temporary teaching post. An interview would go well. I would leave the school as the headmaster’s new best friend. I would go home dreaming of spending sprees. Then reality would strike. ‘We’re sorry, but there was a hungrier candidate for the job.’ For ‘hungry’, read younger. Cheaper. ‘Hungry’ was probably not the most sensitive euphemism, I darkly suspected. Our belts were getting pulled tighter in.
And were there any jobs to be had in the performing arts? Any jobs to reflect the years of training and practice that we had put ourselves through?
There were no performing arts. Dulled by an opiate diet of repeated box-sets and the occasional good-news story about an enterprising online loss-leader, the public barely noticed the arts industry dying around them. As for opera, it had, even at the best of times, been a difficult sell to a public that was convinced that it was elitist. An art form relishing in its own glamour could hardly now be surprised when a weary populace were unconvinced that it had all been for show. They were now being asked to understand that gilded crimson opera houses were actually peopled by highly-trained professionals earning little more than the minimum wage, and who were now surviving on the breadline. The special advisor’s comment that ballerinas should ‘get to the back of the fucking queue’ proved to be possibly the least controversial thing that he had said or done. And perhaps some of us deserved a bit of this enforced reality. Still, it was hard to fight the rising bile of bitterness. A destructive resentment was getting ever more difficult to suppress.
The ‘lock-down’ continued. Talk of its ‘easing’ fell hard on the ears of those whose industries remained inactive. Theatres stayed dark - the preserve only of worried executives and those few lucky souls who were asked to provide their services for ‘on-line’ projects. These, in turn, seemed only to be watched by colleagues trying to convince themselves that their industry - stuck in intensive care - was still showing faint signs of life. That the once world-famous West End could at least still express itself in the few feeble bleeps of a life-support machine.
Then, just after the government had begrudgingly flung a few scraps at those institutions it deemed to meet its criteria of ‘significance’, the public’s eyes flicked away from their diet of statistics and old box-sets to a piece of real drama.
Now, it was no longer possible to imagine that the pandemic had left the country undamaged. We had become a brutalised nation. In early autumn, the PM’s special advisor was nearly brought down, not by the pandemic, but by a potential assassin’s bullet.
He was stood behind the PM as it struck. The bullet had grazed his ear, and embedded itself in the wall behind him. At first, it was assumed that it was intended for the PM, but it was soon clear that this was no amateur job. The bullet was high calibre; from a sniper’s rifle. That the PM was not the target was perhaps significant. Someone knew to aim for the organ grinder, not the monkey in the clown suit.
The news schedules bulged with the story. Speculation swirled as to the identity of the culprit. Who would have the wherewithal to shoot at a protected individual from such a distance, so publicly, and get away with it? Surely it had to be a military professional? A specialist? News reports even started to intimate that the bullet which had been found had been handmade. Crafted. There was something in the act that was so deliberate, public and careful that it almost reeked of performance art. I, too, found myself darkly fascinated by the story, and tried to speak to Steve about it, but he had been difficult to get hold of recently, and I contented myself by indulging in the same speculation that had infected most of the country at large.
Then, gradually, where before it had been the only story that was talked about, now it became uncomfortable. ‘Vox pops’ were revealing an embarrassing sympathy with the perpetrator. It was pointed out that tens of thousands were dying in the pandemic, and that perhaps it was inappropriate to express such shock at the near-miss of a single unelected egocrat. And by now, as autumn moved towards winter, the country was anyway more fascinated by its own steady disintegration. Distractions were few and far between. Social gatherings, by their very nature, became minor acts of insurrection. Social cohesion was a distant concept. Mass poverty was tightening its grip. Government was looking more and more chaotic. The viral infection that was attacking the body of the nation was now affecting the central nervous system. It was easy to imagine that another blow to the centre might bring on something like a revolution.
Early November, and I met Steve again. It was only a mile from the pub where we had first met, but now we coincided in Parliament Square, and in a very different world. Exhausted by the emasculating effects of protesting in the virtual world, we had managed to arrange to meet in person; joining the latest street protest for the ever-more-beleaguered arts. But the marchers were unfamiliar. Our colleagues were bleeding away into other professions, or were too punch-drunk to care. Around us were the nmanifestations of the louder voices on social media news-feeds; angry at pretty much everything. Steve himself seemed oddly lacklustre in his approach; seeming to take more of a tourist’s interest in his surroundings than in the demonstration itself. Steve was with his wife. We all wore masks, but there was something in their movements that made them immediately recognisable. Steve, a little bent over. The permanent, concentrated stoop of a craftsman. His wife almost had something of the swagger about her. Odd, really, for a ballerina.
As we chatted across the noise of a few angry megaphones, even in the bleak November, I briefly lit up as I thought about the apparent assassination attempt. It was now stripped of the taboo of horror by the passing of only a few more weeks of the relentless pandemic. As I joked about it, Steve looked oddly uncomfortable. His wife; perky. Interested.
"Get to the back of the fucking queue!" I repeated. "I hope they'd have told him that at the pearly gates."
The statues of the great and good lowered down around the square, judgementally. It felt as if they were grimly supervising the end of the theatre; all humour stripped; ending not with a bang, but with a whimper.
Steve seemed to read my thoughts. “I reckon there’s still time for a last hurrah,” he said.
Looking around, his optimism seemed as grim as the grey November sky. A wild gesture made to an empty auditorium at the end of an exhausting run. Full of sound and fury… Wearily, I changed the subject to the only topic of the day. I wondered if Steve and his wife had found some work.
“It’s been tricky,” said Steve, “but we’ve managed to keep ourselves busy. My better half’s been busier than ever. Training, she tells me. Keeping herself sharp. Professional. And, you know, there’s a recovery to come after all this. A reconstruction. So some things need to come down first. I know a thing or two about explosives. I thought I might try and get into the demolition game.”
Above us, behind scaffolding, and past the tired shouts of the crowds below, Big Ben chimed the new hour.