Coventry may not quite be Atlantis, but it’s certainly got a sense of being the UK’s lost city. Most people know where it is on the map – but only because of its proximity to other places: Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Warwick University. Ask what it’s famous for and those who remember its past as a centre for bike, motorbike and car manufacture will tell you exactly that: what it used to be famous for. And worst of all, as we found out on our study-visit, people who work in Coventry tend, themselves, not to spend much time there at all, living outside the city walls (in the form of the ring-road) and spending their weekends shopping, eating and going to cultural and other events in one of the surrounding towns and cities.
For the people who live in Coventry, it’s not so much a lost city as a forgotten one.
So, for those putting together Coventry’s bid to host the UK City of Culture 2021, the process of articulating, capturing and uncovering Coventry’s culture is a process of re-finding the City, its history and identity – of giving voice to the people who value and cherish their city, encouraging them to tell their stories of Coventry’s past, and its future. This was the focus for the Culture and Creative Industries Breakfast Group, on our study visit earlier this week.
Coventry is a city of differences: more multicultural than much of the West Midlands, and more unequal in terms of wealth and deprivation. It’s also a younger city than comparable cities. And, if Arts Council funding is a sign of cultural wealth, poorer than its neighbours and peers across the country – with only 3 National Portfolio Organisations.
But this belies a fantastically rich body of cultural assets and activity, including impressive historic buildings, the most extraordinary Cathedral, superb museums, and a world-leading Theatre in Education company. We visited the innovative Shop-Front Theatre, facing out onto a shopping arcade and opening its doors to encourage conversations, collaborations and learning; the old Daimler factory which houses a mix of creative and technical companies; the Transport Museum with its phenomenal collection of Coventry-made vehicles; the new creative industries district next to the River; and of course the Cathedral (a personal pilgrimage for me, to see the famous tapestry by Graham Sutherland after whom I was named, following its consecration a day or two before I was born).
But it’s the people and their stories which capture the essence of the City, something the bid team know only too well. The website they have created aims to provide a platform for some of the stories being captured and re-told: http://covculture.com/ Working with youth and community groups, and supported by the two Universities, the City Council, and a wide range of cultural organisations, the bid partnership is aiming to bring Coventry back into the public gaze.
We’re used to the notion that culture can somehow transform lost places and Coventry has in its time pursued radical ideas – a penny on the rates to support Theatre in Education, for example – that’s unthinkable today. But in this case, it’s the prize of being City of Culture which is the catalyst to bring together the history and heritage, and the aspirations and diversity of young and old – to turn the clock forward, and quicken the process of transformation from lost to found.