Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former councillor in Suffolk.
Beyond London, the huge benefits of a lively Arts and Culture scene are rarely fully embraced. Often branded ‘elitist’, they can bring people of all ages and backgrounds together to enjoy social engagement, and learning anew. I can still remember the first time I stood in front of Turner’s ‘Fighting Temeraire’ at the age of eight or nine; I was riveted by the sheer intensity of the scene, little knowing it would make me a lifelong Turner fan and passionate advocate of the Arts and our unique history.
So, when, in a fit of petulance, the European Union announced that the UK is no longer eligible to compete for European Capital of Culture, it became essential that our own national award take centre stage. Bidders have to focus on heritage, using culture as a catalyst for economic development. Since winning the nomination in 2013, Hull won £1 billion of new investment, and expects an additional £60 million boost to its economy during 2017. A prize worth having.
Congratulations to Coventry, which will be the UK City of Culture in 2021, spurred on by the University, and its further focus on art and culture. It is, however, somewhat disappointing that the stated objective is to ‘change the reputation of the city’, when it should also celebrate its long and proud history going back to 1016, when King Canute ‘laid waste to Lady Godiva’.
Although the site of the Castle, twice razed to the ground during the 12th century, is unknown (surely an archaeology research project for 2021?), during the Middle Ages Coventry was the fourth largest city in England, both strategically and commercially important as a trade centre, enclosed by a 2.2 mile defensive wall.
During the Wars of the Roses it was briefly England’s capital, when the Royal household moved there and Parliament was summoned to the city over three years from 1456-9. Henry VIII destroyed the monastery, as he ravaged others across the country to spite the Pope and fill his coffers, but Elizabeth I visited in 1565, and Mary Queen of Scots was briefly held there for her own safety before her eventual decapitation.
A stronghold for Parliamentarians during the Civil War, Royalist prisoners were ‘sent to Coventry’ but, following the Monarchy’s reinstatement, the defensive wall was largely demolished as punishment for the city’s rebellion.
Over the years, faced with decline, Coventry bravely reinvented itself, becoming an important centre for the Industrial Revolution in the Victorian era, with the canal opening and one of the first railways contributing to its economic success. As the clothing trade revived (nylon yarn originated in Coventry) it was followed by clock-making and, by the 1890’s, was the world’s largest bicycle manufacturer employing 40,000 workers. As the city expanded, its medieval heritage was largely lost, with ancient buildings replaced by modern housing, infrastructure and factories.
From 1916 Coventry was renowned for aircraft manufacture, becoming the principal industry during World War II, together with munitions and engine plants. Inevitably, this made it a target for heavy and relentless Luftwaffe bombing campaigns, destroying most of the city centre, including the medieval cathedral, whose shell still stands as a reminder.
Enabling the city to recover from this annihilation was a local and Government priority post-War. The Queen attended the rebuilt cathedral’s consecration in 1962, and one of Europe’s first pedestrian shopping centres opened in the 1950’s. However, the central business district was unnaturally restricted by a new major orbital ring road during the 1970s – a passion which permitted Highways engineers to devastate the heart of so many other cities (Northampton and Leicester to name just two).
Car production gave Coventry residents one of the highest living standards, until its subsequent decline led to high unemployment, but the city remains the centre for ‘black cab’ manufacture.
So, there is more to the city than the birthplace of Philip Larkin.
It has an internationally important Transport Museum, with a unique collection of vehicles, cars, cycles and motorcycles, as well as the world-class Herbert Art Gallery & Museum with over 320,000 objects. A priceless resource, it already works with the V & A (Victoria & Albert Museum) with a current exhibition on the Punjab.
Twinned with Dresden, devastated by British bombs in retaliation, Coventry is proud of its multicultural status, and as a World Centre for Reconciliation, which brings a particular responsibility to sustain good relations with our European friends post-Brexit. The City’s role from 2021 provides an opportunity to emphasise the cultural connections with our neighbours across the Channel, and the importance of co-operation, rather than confrontation in an insecure world.
However, a £3 million lottery grant is somewhat miserly if the city’s ambitions are to be realised; at the very least the Government should match-fund this amount. Coventry deserves long-term investment to further revitalise the centre with new businesses and skilled jobs, raising its profile as a centre of excellence based on the University’s specialist courses. There is time to develop a competition for students to submit their own ideas to promote the local heritage and to be City of Culture Ambassadors during 2021, with financial awards for the winners.
The Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) will no doubt also contribute to specific projects, including those with Tourism potential to benefit the wider community and neighbouring towns and cities. Perhaps those ten diverse towns and cities, rejected this time around, could form a partnership with Coventry, each hosting an event to promote the UK City of Culture in 2021. They could each also lend an item from their own collections as part of an exhibition to reflect their joint industrial past.
With Leeds already gearing up for its own campaign in 2023, there is lots of scope for other ambitious towns and cities to capitalise on Coventry’s success, developing their own programmes around local talent across the Arts, including drama, film, sculpture, poetry, as well as the environment by creating innovative planting schemes in public spaces.
Local authorities take note – it could be your turn to be UK Capital of Culture next time, and a show of goodwill towards Coventry would indicate a commitment to promoting a United Kingdom, and our unique heritage.