Monday, 11 December 2017

The One About The UK City Of Culture

Thursday, 6:30pm, The Library Bar: It is the day that the next UK City of Culture is announced, with Paisley up against Coventry, Sunderland, Stoke-On-Trent and Swansea for the honour of succeeding Derry/Londonderry and Hull in hosting this event. The Library Bar is filling up with some of Paisley’s finest... well some of those that hadn’t been invited to the big shindig up the road at the UWS.

The past couple of days had seen some tension, but it is now palpable with moments away from the announcement. The announcement is live on television, but there is no speeches congratulating the final five or any ceremony. No the announcement is made on BBC One’s ‘The One Show’, a not very good attempt to recreate the BBC’s ‘magazine’ show from the 70’s and early 80’s, Nationwide. With that comes the feeling that this announcement isn’t exactly the centrepiece of the show... and so it proves.

When the announcement is made, it comes as such an anticlimax that you had to pinch yourself that they’d made it before asking yourself ‘did he just say Coventry’, or if you were out of earshot and caught by surprise (and let’s be honest, The One Show handled the thing like SPOTY handles Scottish Football) ‘what did he say?’. What that anti-climatic feeling did do though was act as a buffer, cushioning the disappointment. When that disappointment came, it was tempered with a sober realisation and didn’t come as crushing. I am of course speaking for myself, and probably quite a few people in that pub. At the UWS shindig and in Hull (where the announcement was made), feelings may have been sharper and the sense of disappointment more immediate and raw.

Of course, congratulations should be given to Coventry. Like Paisley, an area struggling to re-define itself in the age of Globalisation with a cultural heritage. The birthplace of Phillip Larkin, Lee Child and the home of Two Tone records – the first successful ‘Indie’ record label (even if distribution was, I think, done through Chrysalis) and conversely the first ‘Indie’ number ones (The Special’s “To Much Too Young” in February 1980, followed by the iconic “Ghost Town” 15 months later). It is a city which is as deserving of the award as we would have been.

Paisley 2021's Jean Cameron hands over the final City of Culture bid
document, 29 September 2017

Sunday, 9pm: On the Thursday night, I had put up a post on social media, congratulating Coventry but also paying tribute to the Paisley 2021 team and also saying that a lot of the things happening in Paisley (the plans for the “Baker Street” cultural quarter, the Spree, the Mod) were all things happening independently of the bid – these were not things contingent on the success of the bid. With 72 hours hindsight, there’s nothing which has changed that view. If anything, the mindset that is now showing is the mindset of it being a setback but not the end of the world. That mindset can only be commended.

The only thing which is bothering me is the question at the root of Thursday night. Why did we lose? In what way was Coventry’s bid superior to our bid? Did they have a better bid, or did we do something to lose it? Or were we the victim of outside forces? Like with UK cities now being expelled from bidding for the European Capital of Culture, did our bid fall foul of the power play between the governments in Westminster and Holyrood?

My own view, as someone with zero experience of bidding for arts & cultural events, is that this was a bid that was not lost by us. The bid team, led by the effervescent Jean Cameron, have created a buzz around a town that not that long ago was a backwater and a joke. I remember vividly my former partner bemoaning the fact that there was nothing in Paisley and that it was dying on its backside, so remembering Paisley at a low point is relatively recent history.

It may have been Derek MacKay who bid (successfully) to bring the MOD to Paisley and it may have been his (Labour) successor Mark McMillan who sanctioned the setting up of the inaugural Spree festival (which ran concurrently with that MOD in October 2013). It was certainly under McMillan that Renfrewshire Council decided to bid forthe City of Culture. Both figures are people who I have criticised on these pages in the past. But here, they deserve praise as both the MOD and the Spree can with some justification be seen as the starting point of Paisley’s comeback.

However, returning to the bid. To my untrained eye, I don’t think there’s very much else the bid could have done. From the art installation ‘Pride of lions’ to the dispatch of the final bid there has been a gently choreographed building of a buzz around the bid. Yet whilst the things happening in Paisley were independent of the bid and it’s success, they were stimulated by the bid. I am sure that in the fullness of time the DCMS team tasked with making this decision will explain their decision, I do hope they do.

In the meantime, plans are rightly continuing within Paisley with new events and plans being announced on Twitter alongside the hash-tag #ourjourneycontinues. For all that Thursday was a disappointment, that Paisley, City of Culture has a ring to it and that the Paisley 2021 bid team deserve every bit of credit going their way. It only represents the end of the first chapter in Paisley’s revitalisation, nothing more.

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