Let’s treasure the Customs House

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IT will have shocked many people – or at least I hope it did – to learn how close the Customs House in Shields nearly came to closure.

How could we let ourselves lose such a jewel in our cultural crown?

I and many other readers will be of an age to remember when, in the 1960s and 1970s, the area was a wilderness as far as live music or theatre performances went.

If you wanted to hear a band or a singer of any class, you had to go to a nightclub.

If you were a band or a singer, performance spaces were restricted to pubs or church and social club halls.

Cinemas were in decline, productions of pantomimes and plays depended on the hard work of amateur societies.

I remember when, during the editorship of the late Michael Blackah here at the Gazette, we launched a series of concerts, that brought orchestras and singers of calibre to the town. They were lapped up by a thirsty public.

And then at the turn of the 1980s, a group of committed folk got together to end this cultural drought by setting out to take over an old building at the Mill Dam, which by then had become home to little more than pigeons.

It was the Customs House which, after more than a century at the heart of the maritime life of the area, was starting to fall into disrepair, but which they saw as a venue for not just music, but also as exhibition space for artists and craftspeople.

The Arts and Live Music Association (ALMA), as it became known, had its roots in some of the stalwarts of live music in the area. People like Bob Gilroy, with his backgroud in local folk and blues clubs.

The publicity officer was a Gazette reporter (!), Tim Anderson.

Looking back, the project was incredibly ambitious. In the end, they got the building for just £1 from the council – but with a £300,000 restoration bill.

Rock festivals and country and western jamborees followed to try to raise the cash.

There were setbacks, and eventually the council took over the project in the early 1990s.

But the town still owes a debt to ALMA, that it had that vision to turn a grimy old mercantile building into a bustling arts centre.

Of course, organisations everywhere are jostling for money these days.

I do wonder, though, why under the 365 redevelopment of the town centre, there’s a proposal to build a new cinema, while we already have one at the Customs House – a small one, granted, but still perfectly formed.

But that’s what the Customs House is. It’s bijou, it’s niche, with a stunning location – attributes which, elsewhere in the country, would have people travelling miles to seek it out.

We really should treasure it.