Going to Hull and back for a celebration of culture
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.