Thomas Sutcliffe

Twenty public lavatories were taken hostage, to be executed unless Ayckbourn's theatre ended its unconscionable demands

It's difficult not to feel a sneaking admiration for the apparatchiks of Scarborough council, who are digging their heels in at the prospect of providing funding for Alan Ayckbourn's Stephen Joseph Theatre. The extra funding, is, as I understand it, relatively modest -only pounds 50,000 a year to maintain a theatre which some non-residents might argue represents Scarborough's only distinction, and even then Scarborough itself only has to find half the money. But the councillors are in a stubborn mood and have put the alternatives to their constituents in the starkest terms. You can choose, they say - either the theatre goes without or we have to close the town's 20 public lavatories (22 according to some reports, but perhaps the shutters have already gone up on two blameless public conveniences, tragic victims of thespian greed).

What I covertly admire, I should make clear, is not the civic mean-spiritedness, nor the pinched triumphalism of those who think subsidised art is a waste of money, but the establishment of a new exchange rate for cultural expenditure. For years the philistine's preferred currency for arts spending has been the kidney dialysis machine, a high-denomination unit also favoured by charity fund-raising efforts and pub quiz nights. You would often be informed that the amount of subvention given to this theatre or that gallery could fund x number of dialysis machines, a moral algebra which understandably ran in favour of the medical. Faced with the choice between poisoning the blood of a wardful of kidney patients or supporting the North-west tour of a play described as "pathologically opaque" by the Evening Standard, even the most committed friend of the arts might stammer for a moment.

It was always notable, incidentally, that the kidney dialysis currency had limits to its convertability. It couldn't, for some reason, be exchanged for nuclear submarines or privatisation programmes. But as a generator of guilt the dialysis machine was peerless - last refuge of dying Transplant Tot, miracle machine that restored Mum of Three to vigorous life, it has done sterling service in parrying the apparently limitless gluttony of artists and writers. But perhaps the councillors of Scarborough sensed a devaluation here. Dialysis machines have been edged out by new, more expensive technology - Magnetic Resonance Imaging scanners and such like. And being much more expensive, these are less rhetorically satisfying. "We could buy a sixteenth of an MRI scanner for that money" just doesn't have the same ring. Besides, though kidney disease isn't exactly a rare condition, it is quite possible that many rate-payers know no one directly in need of a dialysis machine. Who among us, though, hasn't had personal experience of bursting to go for a pee and finding all doors barred? A more humble agony, to be sure, but one that speaks to millions with its scarring memories of interminably deferred relief (my own trauma occurred during a college film club showing of Godard's Sympathy for the Devil, in which cinematic piety triumphed over personal comfort. Ever since then I have associated that particular director with intense physical pain).

Presumably though, there must have been a council discussion before this particular equivalence was settled on as the perfect riposte to the Stephen Joseph theatre's intolerable demands. After all, there must be other items that could have been trimmed to make up the budget. How many floral roundabouts does pounds 25,000 buy you? How many park pedaloes or sleeping policemen? But the councillors shrewdly saw that few other municipal trimmings would offer such strategic advantage, such a neat contrast between bodily necessity and mental self-indulgence. So 20 public lavatories were taken hostage, to be executed unless the Stephen Joseph Theatre ended its unconscionable demands.

The threat appears to have struck a chord in some local voters: "How will people visiting our town feel when they find there are no public toilets for their use?" asks one correspondent in the local paper, his letter summoning a vision of a peculiarly British form of tourism, in which no outing is complete without a validating evacuation in the public conveniences - "Whitby? Marvellous - the loos were absolutely spotless". But Scarborough's choice of alternatives also encapsulates an older face- off, between two different styles of civic pride. On the one hand you have a Victorian sense of amenity, the sort of practical Yorkshire bent which builds, for want of a better word, from the bottom up. This busies itself with gutters and drainage, with tram systems and civic hygiene and it no longer looks anything like as comical as it did before Mrs Thatcher's curious notion of housekeeping took sway (don't bother fixing the roof and divvy up the repair money amongst your cronies).

On the other hand you have the liberal's favourite form of trickle-down economics (indeed, the only form of trickle-down economics liberals are prepared to admit might work). Money is spent on the refinements of life in the belief that intellectual prestige will act as a kind of municipal restorative. Birmingham has followed this strategy with some success, edging its reputation from post-industrial underpass to the Athens of the Midlands (these things take time, of course). And in any sensible political economy these two strategies are mutually reinforcing, not stark alternatives. Scarborough Council isn't comical because it thinks public lavatories contribute to civil decency, but because it cannot see that putting bums on seats might mean much more for a town than mere bodily reliefn

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