Does culture have a future in the post-lockdown world?
The other day, I was browsing round the newly reopened Blackwell’s in central Oxford. It’s one of the most famous bookshops in Britain, if not the world, and has been luring bibliophiles, tourists and students into its Broad Street building since it first opened in 1879. Yet when I was in there, it had a mournful and slightly unsettling atmosphere far removed from its previous lively incarnation as a haven for those who love books. For a start, it was virtually deserted, devoid of the usual packs of visitors, and as I prowled the history and literature sections, I could not see anyone else in there, save a couple of jumpy-looking booksellers. Even more gallingly, my usual instinct to pick up books and look at them was curtailed by the stern signs that all handled and unpurchased titles had to be ‘quarantined’, meaning that I left after a few moments, my sole trophy a child’s picture book.
It was not an especially relaxing experience, all things considered. None of this was the fault of the excellent staff, who were as friendly and warm as could be expected in the circumstances, but I could not help thinking what an enormous shame it was that my weekly or twice-weekly visits, where I would spend a considerable sum of money on far too many books, were likely to be restricted to short, darting, fearful flits, as I glanced nervously around at my neighbours to make sure that they were keeping within the two-metre or one-metre rule. I had been almost ridiculously excited at the prospect of the shop, and other bookshops, reopening on June 15, but now I started to wonder if it was really worth it.
Yet, from a commercial perspective, the reopening of bookshops has been hugely beneficial to the trade, after months of enforced closure. It has been revealed that nearly 4million books were sold in Britain in the week after they opened, a rise of around 30% on the same period last year. As bookshops in Scotland and Wales are still closed, this is an even more staggering number, especially given that most shops are operating under reduced opening hours, severe restrictions in terms of numbers and, of course, the now-obligatory book quarantine system. I would have imagined that most shops would have been operating at a loss, if at all, but instead it seems as if the English have decided en masse to support their local bookshop and have been spending millions of pounds in them. Publishers’ fears that titles released in the last few months have sunk without trace may not be realised; Amazon’s hegemony appears to have been checked, for the time being.
As an author whose new book is being published in early July, this is unquestionably good, if slightly surprising, news. It is at least consistent with stories of mile-long queues forming outside Primark and IKEA, and indicates that if shops reopen, buyers will come, suggesting that stories about the demise of the high street and the primacy of online shopping are at least partially inaccurate. Yet it also supports an anecdotal wealth of evidence that people are bored of lockdown restrictions and are chafing for life to get back to some semblance of normality. As Dominic Cummings heads to Barnard Castle for an unusually scenic eye test and as the firebrands of the Black Lives Matter movement join tightly-packed protest after protest, the average Englishman seems to have wearied of being told to remain at home and is only too keen to be able to resume some sort of everyday existence.
The culture secretary seemed more interested in returning Premier League football than the creative industries
With the recent announcement by Boris Johnson that the country will be largely open for business from July 4th – a curious date if chosen for its patriotic connotations, given that it revolved around a famous British defeat – then it is time to consider what the cultural and arts sectors can expect over the coming months. There are consistent fears that Johnson and his government have prioritised economic activity over the nation’s health, and that this release from lockdown is coming too early, while the coronavirus is still in far too wide a circulation. We shall find out later in the year if this is true, although it is worth noting that mass BLM protests and the phased return of children to schools and nurseries have not led to a threatened outbreak. But does this mean that, in a couple of weeks, it will be business as usual for museums, theatres, cinemas and the rest?
Unsurprisingly, it will not. Although museums and galleries now have carte blanche to open again, very few seem keen to throw open their doors on Saturday week and admit throngs of visitors again. Although it will be relatively easy to maintain social distancing in some of the less-attended galleries and permanent collections, especially on a quiet weekday, many of the big-name exhibitions that were suspended when lockdown began are now expected to resume, albeit in rather different conditions. It is likely that a very small number of people will be allowed into the exhibitions at any given time, and that they will have to provide a great deal of personal data in order to be let in, which means that many will consider it barely worth the hassle. The expectation that many will have of being able to have a quiet saunter round their favourite museum on a Saturday afternoon or in a lunch hour is a thing of the past for the moment; instead, visits will become carefully planned and tightly choreographed, removing any element of spontaneity from an outing.
Many will see this incarnation of ‘the new normal’ as a price worth paying in order to look at great art and antiquities again, and they may well be right. Yet when it comes to cinemas, it is a different matter altogether. For a start, there is no major new film released until Mulan on 24 July, with Christopher Nolan’s much-anticipated Tenet having delayed its release by a fortnight, from 17 to 31 July. And for another, it is likely that many cinema audiences are likely to be frightened at the idea of spending hours in a confined space with hundreds of strangers, whatever social distancing and hygiene measures are in place.
Perhaps the atmosphere of creeping paranoia that this engenders could work for a Hitchcockian suspense thriller or horror film, but it is unlikely to make for a simpatico experience in which to watch an uproarious comedy or uplifting drama. Coupled with a restriction on how many people can attend any given screening, it is likely that box office receipts are likely to go down for some considerable time, and that, in turn, will lead to the large-scale postponement of many major films. ‘Coming Soon’ has never carried so much ambiguity as it does now; audiences may wonder when some highly anticipated pictures are ever going to be released. One wag even quipped that the James Bond film No Time To Die will be the first released with an old standard as its theme tune, with the Billie Eilish song feeling as if it has come from another, pre-covid, era.
Still, at least cineastes will have the option of being able to go to the pictures, if anything is showing. Theatregoers will have to wait a considerable time, and, along with live music, it is the industry that seems to be in the greatest trouble at the moment. The government seems unable to come up with an all-encompassing and fair way of helping theatres, opera houses and the like, instead making daft suggestions such as musicals being staged without actors being allowed to sing live (presumably miming to backing tracks) and that theatres should stage socially distanced plays to empty auditoria, with audiences paying for tickets to watch at home. As the National Theatre at Home initiative draws to a close – to very mixed effect – most people would thrill to the chance of being able to see plays performed before them, by live actors, but there seems little chance of this happening in 2020. Cameron Mackintosh has already announced that it will be impossible for any of his theatres to reopen before 2021, which means that the likes of Hamilton, Les Misérables and The Phantom of the Opera will not return to London for months. This, in turn, will mean mass redundancies for those working at the theatres and on the productions, and looming financial disaster for many.
As it is suggested that the creative industries face a £74 billion shortfall as a result of lockdown, it is a pity that the culture secretary Oliver Dowden has seemed more interested in bringing about the return of Premier League football, an initiative that has the feel of populist bread and circuses pandering to it. Dowden may well have been told that there is no money to bail out the performing arts sector, and his recalcitrance reflects a reluctance to share the bad news. Actors, writers and performers are not generally known either for their affection for Conservative governments – despite a great deal of warmth in the industry for Ed Vaizey, the energetic former Culture Secretary in rather happier times – nor for an unwillingness to use the media to talk loudly about the deficiencies in the current situation. Yet even allowing for partisan sentiment, theatres, concert halls and opera houses are entering a dire situation. The much-praised Theatre Royal Plymouth has had to make all of its staff redundant, and even the news that the ENO will reopen with ‘socially distanced productions’ seems only to remind audiences of happier and less stressful times.
It remains to be seen what will happen to the arts and cultural sector in this country. I have certainly had my doubts as to their recovery and my fears look as if they are being realised. I hoped then that, once the pandemic had been contained, there would be a brave new world of gratitude for the opportunities that we have taken for granted for decades. But it now seems as if we are faced with an even grimmer prospect, with the wholescale loss of performing arts and the deadening of the culture sector at large. Boris Johnson might have triumphantly proclaimed an Independence Day, but, for many, his announcement is barely hiding what will almost certainly be yet another crushing defeat, with no signs of a recovery thereafter.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe