Go­ing to Hull and back for a celebration of cul­ture

The Herald - Arts - - OPINION - TEDDY JAMIESON

TO be hon­est, in my 50-plus years on this planet I have not as yet made it to Hull. I guess if I’m ever go­ing to go it might be this year. The city out on the edge of York­shire is now one month and a bit into its year as the UK City of Cul­ture. Al­ready it has seen the re­open­ing of the Ferens Art Gallery, a ret­ro­spec­tive of film di­rec­tor and lo­cal boy An­thony Minghella and an archival trawl through the cat­a­logue of artists and mu­si­cians Cosey Fan Tutti and Ge­n­e­sis P–Or­ridge.

Still to come are a mu­si­cal in­stal­la­tion on the Hum­ber Bridge from Opera North in the spring and the Turner Prize ex­hi­bi­tion in the au­tumn among the many hun­dreds of events that are sched­uled in the com­ing months. (I am par­tic­u­larly tempted by the celebration of the mu­sic of Basil Kirchin next week whose mu­si­cal out­put took in the big band era and sound­track mu­sic for hor­ror movies such as The Abom­inable Dr Phibes).

In short Hull seems some­where you would like to be this year. That’s the point of fes­ti­vals, of course, as Ed­in­burgh and, in­creas­ingly, Glas­gow know.

But more than that ven­tures such as the UK City of Cul­ture of­fer a chance of re­cal­i­bra­tion, as the ex­am­ple of the first UK city of cul­ture, Derry-Lon­don­derry has proved.

Derry had its is­sues dur­ing its 12-month ten­ure in 2013. There were com­plaints about fund­ing and ten­sions be­tween the city coun­cil and the fes­ti­val or­gan­is­ers. Yet by the end the city could point to in­fras­truc­ture im­prove­ments (most no­tably the Peace Bridge and new venues) and an eco­nomic boost as played out in visi­tor num­bers and ho­tel oc­cu­pancy rates.

But the more in­ter­est­ing, in­tan­gi­ble gain was in the city’s self-con­fi­dence. A cul­tural fes­ti­val can­not be a fix-all for the po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic prob­lems of a city. But it can help trans­form how it is seen by vis­i­tors and res­i­dents.

I grew up 40 min­utes from Derry but the pol­i­tics of place meant I never vis­ited un­til the late 1990s. When I fi­nally did it was some­thing of an anti-cli­max. It felt a small, un­re­mark­able place. Re­turn­ing just be­fore and then dur­ing 2013 it was im­pos­si­ble not to no­tice a real change. The city felt vi­brant, en­er­gised. Not per­fect but a more wel­com­ing, self­con­fi­dent place. And so it re­mains.

And this is the key. Cul­ture is a way of re­fram­ing ideas of place. It is easy for those of us who have never been there to write Hull off as a di­lap­i­dated fish­ing port. But re­fo­cus on the city’s cul­tural his­tory and a dif­fer­ent vi­sion of the city emerges. This was, af­ter all, home to two of England’s finest poets in Philip Larkin and Andrew Marvell and in­spired one of Scot­land’s great­est con­tem­po­rary poets Douglas Dunn to write his de­but col­lec­tion Terry Street. It gave us Tom Courte­nay and Mick Ron­son, The House­martins and The Water­sons.

In short, cul­ture can be a form of civic pro­jec­tion. And this is open to all places. I al­ways half-joke that Falkirk is in fact the se­cret cul­tural cap­i­tal of Scot­land. Down the years it nur­tured Scot­land’s great­est artist of the 20th cen­tury (says me) in Alan Davie, as well as mu­si­cians and writ­ers who range from (if you stretch the en­ve­lope to in­clude Grange­mouth) El­iz­a­beth Fraser and Gor­don Legge.

Fes­ti­vals don’t have to act as a form of cheer­lead­ing, of course. Much of the art that is cre­ated in such places may well be kick­ing against them. But over a year a more nu­anced vi­sion of cul­ture and place can surely emerge in amongst the ex­cite­ments.

Let us hope that ei­ther Perth or Paisley, both of whom are bid­ding to be UK City of Cul­ture in 2021, get the chance to show us just that.

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