Monday, 11 October 2021

Southampton, City of Culture


Sorry, I shouldn't scoff. But, seriously? It seems the longlist for the 2025 City of Culture goes as follows: Armagh City, Bradford, County Durham, Cornwall, Derby, Southampton, Stirling, and Wrexham County Borough. Setting aside the fine but distinctly honorary cities of, ah, Cornwall, County Durham, and Wrexham County Borough, it might seem that we are now fast approaching the bottom of the cultural barrel.

However, this bizarre competition is not really an acknowledgement of any actually-existing culture of "culture" of any distinction, beyond the usual theatres, galleries, and such that grace any moderately-sized town, but is a reward for the best bid essentially describing "what we would do with the money, if we got it". To individual artists, of course, this is a familiar experience: submit a bid that ticks the right boxes, and some committee might grant you the cash to do some piece of commissioned work. The skill lies in the writing of the bid, and the willingness to bend your efforts to match someone's pre-conceived set of criteria. Whether this is a matter of rising to "an exciting challenge" or an opportunity to eat shit probably depends on your independence of mind and need for the cash. As it is, the competitors for City of Culture 2025 were asked, apparently, "to explain how they would use culture to grow and strengthen their local area, and how they would use it to recover from the impact of Covid". Which do not strike me as the most self-evident "uses" of culture.

It's easy to be cynical. This whole impulse to boost cultural activity as a mean to other ends is often described as the "Bilbao Effect". That is, that a massive investment in culture, broadly defined (ideally plus some prestigious architectural project like Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao) equals economic transformation for some city or region formerly mired in a post-industrial slump. Well, it worked once, why not repeat it again (and again, and yet again, until it stops working)? And look, Liverpool seems to have benefitted a bit from being declared "European Capital of Culture 2008" so, hey, why don't we start a four-yearly UK "City of Culture" competition? It's bound to work, isn't it?

There is something profoundly ironic about the way this failure of imagination on the part of politicians depends on whipping up the creativity level in somewhere like, say, Southampton, where I happen to live, and which, like Glasgow, is miles better, culturally, than it was. Of course, ideas like "culture" and "creativity" are subject to very broad interpretation. Do you regard the opening ceremony to the 2012 Olympics in London as a pinnacle or a nadir of our national culture? Does having an enthusiastically-supported Premier League football team in your town, or a theatre that only puts on musicals, pantomimes, and MOR acts count as evidence of a thriving local culture? For you, is art seen at its best as popular entertainment, as grant-funded communal projects with an emphasis on "representation", or as the solitary practice of self-motivated but utterly unrepresentative (and quite possibly mentally unsound) individuals?

There's also a fundamental distinction to be made between the consumption and the creation of "culture". Broadly speaking, it's the consumption that drives the economic recovery, but the creation that drives the consumption. So a lot comes down to how far and what sort of culture-makers are prepared to buy in to this contemporary fashion for boosterism yoked to political and social-engineering ends. After all, how much worthwhile contemporary art is celebratory or positive in spirit, or created in line with current government policy?  And is someone like, for example, me (self-motivated, utterly unrepresentative, and quite possibly mentally unsound) a vital part of our town's culture, or am I just some "citizen of nowhere", an off-message outlier, and not part of the programme? As I haven't been able to show any work in Southampton so far this century, that last one answers itself, I suppose.

I think what I find most dubious about such competitions is their Bilbao-inspired instrumentality. In the words of recently appointed Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries – actually "Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport"[1] – put it in a recent statement: "Winning the UK City of Culture competition has a hugely positive impact on an area, driving investment, creating jobs, and highlighting that culture is for everyone, regardless of their background. This year's focus is on levelling up access to culture across the country and making sure there is a legacy that continues for generations to come." (BBC report). Really? It's going to deliver investment, jobs, and "levelling up" (this government's unavoidable but incomprehensible mission statement)? Evidence, please. And what exactly is supposed to happen in the cities that fail to win?

For a pretty accurate description of the current mid-pandemic cultural health of Southampton, I can't really improve on this report by Vanessa Thorpe from 2020. The so-called "cultural quarter" of Southampton is now essentially a wind-blown area of about 200 square meters, where youngsters can rehearse their skateboarding technique, and nothing much else is going on. Even before Covid it was still more of an ambition than a reality. As long ago as 1985 I can remember talking with an elderly colleague who said that in contrast to his home city, Liverpool, Southampton seemed to have little or no civic pride, or even any real awareness of its historic and continuing role as a major port, the self-declared "Gateway to Empire"; for him, it was a "nowhere place", without even a truly distinctive local accent. Whether any of this could be improved by a cash-inspired, year-long flurry of activities planned by a committee hobbled by some "levelling up" brief is an interesting question.

More interesting, though, is what will happen if, as seems the most likely outcome, Southampton does not emerge as 2025's victorious City of Culture. Will the ill-starred Cultural Quarter revive? Without its new theatre, which went bust early in 2020 and cannot find a buyer, it will certainly struggle. The John Hansard and City Art Galleries are still major assets, but probably rather niche with regard to drawing in more of the city's population. But most important of all, will any truly talented youngsters – in any cultural field, from any background – be content to remain in the city, or will they take the first train up to London, and never return?

1.  Now there's a portfolio. And "for digital"? Digital what?


old_bloke said...

I just looked up Raymond Williams: "Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language". As a natural scientist, I've always thought that science should get more of a look-in when people talked about "culture", although I understand perhaps why it doesn't. My only personal experience of this sort of thing was in 1990, when Glasgow was the European City of Culture and I was giving a paper at a scientific symposium that had been planned some years earlier. The organisers of the ECoC were happy to include the symposium in their programme of cultural events, with the result that the conference dinner was held not in the usual grotty canteen in a university hall of residence, but in the colonial magnificence of the banqueting hall in the City Chambers. Between courses we were serenaded by members of the Scottish National Opera and, for the toasts at the end, waiters distributed bottles of that well-known Scottish cultural product, Glenfiddich. Ever since, I've regarded Glasgow as a _very_ cultured city.

Mike C. said...


Quite right -- a city with a university that doesn't celebrate its scientific and engineering culture is failing to see the whole picture.

There *are* Titanic-related memorials around Southampton, but OTOH as they say in Belfast, it was perfectly OK when it left here...