The librarian was closing the heavy wooden door for the last time. All the books had been boxed up. Enid Blyton, Noel Streatfield; the encyclopaedias and dictionaries; Wordsworth, avant garde poetry; Jayne Eyre, Crime and Punishment, Angela Carter’s novels – she lived in Clapham and used to scour the shelves for forgotten fairytales; the latest science books; romances; history – all taken to the brand new library. The librarian had worked here for thirty years. The library had been a refuge; a place to do homework; an escape from the rain; a place for desperate mums; a spot to find a computer; a place to pick up a newspaper and snooze; a place to get your life back on track. It was a land of shifting shelves where you could get lost in the latest book.
The library had been designed by an architect who’d grown up in Clapham, and it was funded by the efforts of local people. It was opened on 31 October 1889 by Sir John Lubbock, an advocate of free libraries, who believed in education, that knowledge was the right of every person. Lubbock said,
“We may sit in our library, and yet be in all quarters of the earth.”
The librarian took out the bunch of keys for the last time. She had to give them back tomorrow. She was just pulling the door too, when she heard a muffled clang. There was nothing left in the building. Just some empty wooden stacks. All the lights had been turned off. But she heard it again, a deep, low thrum. Maybe a cat had got in. She stepped back through the door, the sound was like a deep drum. She followed the sound. Across the lobby, up the stairs. The beating sound seemed to be coming from the wall. In the half-light, she saw a tiny door in the wall. She was shocked. She had walked up and down the stairs thousands and thousands of times. But she had never seen it before. Her hands always full of books, cards, boxes. The door had a teeny lock. She shook the bunch of keys, and found a miniature key. She smiled to herself, maybe she would suddenly shrink like Alice! She put the key in the lock, and it fitted perfectly. The drumming got louder, more constant. She turned the little key. A booming sound vibrated through her body. What could it be? She opened the tiny door. Boom. Boom. Boom. Behind the door there was a pipe, a brass pipe! It was part of the ancient Victorian heating system. There were old pipes all over the place. They didn’t seem to go anywhere, they just disappeared into the bowels of the building.
The pipe was honking, a rhythmic, beating sound. She leaned closer. The sound was almost musical, a wind instrument, like a trumpet, blowing. She reached out and placed her index finger on the pipe, it was pulsating, alive. The sound got louder, more insistent. It wanted to be heard. Longer blasts, shorter blows, staccato toots, slower hoots. It was quite beautiful. She listened mesmerised. Long, short, short, short, short, short, long, short, short, long. It seemed to be speaking. She stroked the pipe, as if it was the cover of a book. Something moved in the back of her mind. Long, short, short. A distant memory from Girl Guides. This was code. She pulled out her notebook. The cycle repeated. The pipe seemed to go slower, so she could jot down the beats. Long, short, short, short, short, short, long. She translated the pattern. N-E-V-E-R never, C-L-O-S-E close. Never close. Never close. The lungs of the building, still breathing. ‘No’, she said, ‘you mustn’t close.’ The drumming slowed to a hum. ‘I will fight.’ She closed the tiny door, but didn’t lock it. Whatever it was, should not be trapped.
That night she met her friend in the pub. After two large glasses of wine, she whispered,
“The pipes are calling.”
He thumped his fist on the table top,
“I knew it! That building belongs to us.”
He pulled a scrumpled piece of paper out of his pocket.
“It needs singing, stories, poetry, films, theatre.” He went to the bar, and returned with ten signatures and a cheque for a hundred pounds!
It was never a pipe dream. They got thousands of signatures, and thousands of pounds, talking to people in shops and pubs, on the streets and in the parks. At council meetings they would not pipe down. The building would not be sold for profit. The council said,
“The idea is in the pipeline.”
But their voices could not be stopped. It would be a building for the arts, for everyone, named ‘Omnibus’, after the phrase: ‘the ordinary person on the Clapham Omnibus.’
The director was given the keys! She opened the heavy wooden door for the first time. And, boom, something rushed out of the building. Boom. She felt its force enter her body. She was to be the next guardian. Other people felt something too. They joined her, cleaning, painting, begging lights, finding chairs, buying a photocopier. They made the old stacks into benches and a bar. A young woman wondered in, the old library had been closed, and something was happening. She pushed aside plastic sheeting, wet paint gleamed like fresh snow, a lamp flickered. She was offered coffee, half expecting Turkish Delight! She joined the team.
They started from zero. There was no box office. No seating for the audience. They did not even have printed information about what was on! They created a poster, which became a double-sided flyer, then a small booklet. Then a 20 page brochure! The team grew. Young people longing to be part of a theatre, set free from bar work, waiting tables, studying, from just waiting, they grew their careers as the building grew. They were part of all the firsts. The first production. The first workshop with a school. The first holiday programme. The first engine room. The first review in Time Out. The first time Lyn Gardener came into the building. The Peter Brook award. An Off West End Theatre Award.
The cat had kittens, the birds returned each year to nest in the eaves, and each season got stronger. Artists were welcomed in to make new work. They all felt the same, there was something special about this place. What was it? Was it the Common Room with its beautiful light, always looking different as goblins hoovered, dusted, rearranging rugs, trunks and paintings? Was it the Director’s belief in ensemble? That the best ideas belong to everyone? Was it the basement, with its puppets that seemed to move around by themselves, and be in a different place each time you made a cup of tea?
What’s next? Reaching further into the local community, connecting with more local people, so they feel the building is theirs’. Finding the hidden stories of Clapham, and new ways of telling them. Taking work out of the building and into the neighbourhood. Creating work that weaves together local, national, Clapham, London. A grand plan to transform the building. To make a studio. To open out the front of the building with a cafe bar that connects the theatre with the street. To create new rehearsal space, and longed for office space.
“We may sit in our theatre, and yet be in all quarters of the earth.”
Everyone is listening. To the deep, low thrum. To the muffled, beating drum, to the soft, rhythmic hum, to the breathing of the lungs.
“That’s it!” said one artist. “It’s quite simple really – the door is open.”
Happy Fifth Birthday Omnibus!
© Sally Pomme Clayton, for Omnibus, October 2018
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