What Culture for a ‘City of Culture’?

So the government are indulging in a bit of circuses to go with the bread they hand out, they’ve decided to arrange a UK ‘City of Culture’ to supposedly ape the successes that the European Capital of Culture scheme has had. Birmingham, of course, will bid. Let’s leave aside that it’ll all be a bit low rent, with much less cash to spend than the pan-European ones, it’s a good idea no? Possibly.

Philip Parkin is right that it’s an opportunity to stop hiding in Stratford’s beardy cloak.

It’s quite heartening to see that Minister for Fun Martin Mullaney say the strapline for should be, “Birmingham, It’s Not Shit – It’s Quite Good Actually”. He also mentioned the sort of culture he thinks we should celebrate:

  • Mini car – designed by Alec Issagonis at Longbridge and built there
  • Spitfire airplane – built at Catle Bromwich Spitfire
  • BSA Bantam motorcycle – built in Small Heath
  • Rotunda
  • Selfridges
  • Range Rover – built in Solihull
  • Aston Villa football kit and Birmingham City football kit
  • Odeon cinemas – started in Birmingham by Oscar Deutsch, who was born here. Odeon is claimed to mean Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation
  • TISWAS
  • Football referee whistle – designed by Joseph Hudson in the Jewellery Quarter
  • Wimbledon ladies singles trophy – manufactured in the Jewellery Quarter
  • Lonsdale and Commonwealth boxing belts are still manufacture by Thona Fattorini Ltd in the Jewellery Quarter
  • JRR Tolkien – lived in Moseley
  • Sir Michael Balcon – born in Birmingham – grandfather of Daniel Day Lewis – film producer at Ealing studio – Sgt George Dixon of Dixon of Dock Green named after Michael Balcon’s school
  • Jasper Carrott
  • Duran Duran
  • Black Sabbath and Ossy Osbourne
  • UB40
  • Ocean Colour Scene
  • Ruby Turner
  • Joan Armatrading – moved to Birmingham from Saint Kitts aged 7
  • Benjamin Zaphaniah (sic)

Some gems, some things that aren’t culture at all (especially odd shoehorning in engineering and sport under the auspices of design) but all a bit blindingly obvious really. And things from Solihull? Daniel Day Lewis’s Granddad? Hmm. A fuck off big free concert with Sabbath, UB40, the Durannines (plus Steel Pulse, The Beat, Felt – reform Felt, Lilac Time etc) would be great. But we, perhaps rightly, turned our noses up a little when Liverpool did it with Ringo.

Meanwhile Rich Batsford put together an alternative list:

Which is more like it, although I’m not sold on the importance of venues and promoters – much more the stuff that goes on in them.

But both lists seem to miss the point, and lack ambition. Any large festival should be looking for new and innovative things — even if they must reflect our past. Jerremy Deller’s recent Manchester Procession (for the Manchester International Festival: which, by the way, just gets on and does it every year) let a proper artist loose with the culture of an area, he picked out:

  • the Black Out Crew with their latest track; specially composed for a fleet of modified cars.
  • a 100 year celebration of Stretford’s extraordinary Rose Queens.
  • the Stalybridge brass band marking their 200th anniversary with a commemoration of the Peterloo Massacre.
  • a musical tribute to the world’s first fish and chip shop.
  • the legendary Valerie’s market café recreated in all its glory.
  • the largest ever gathering of local sporting mascots.

So can we have:

  • Crossroads the Opera – performed by the Birmingham Opera Co?
  • All the old art-deco picture houses opened up for a weekend and used for films again – 7 inch, one for you?
  • A Birmingham Comedy Festival that has something to do with local comics (wither Sid Field) rather than stop off from Jimmy Carr tours
  • Get Jez from the Birmingham Music Archive to curate a local music festival, host it in the Little Nibble, Bearwood
  • Real time recreation of Take Me High by Stan’s Cafe.
  • A real art cinema opened in the Central Library building – there’s badly needed legacy.

And absolutely no mention of Tolkein.

What would you book?

22 comments for “What Culture for a ‘City of Culture’?

  1. chrisunitt
    16 July 2009 at 2:58 pm

    'Daniel Day Lewis's Granddad' gave Hitchcock his first directing opportunity (and also produced all his UK films), ran Ealing Studios during it's classic period and headed the BFI's experimental film fund (which gave Ridley Scott a leg up). Dude's a local legend, that's all I'm saying.

  2. 16 July 2009 at 3:08 pm

    Indeed, but Hitchock, Ealing, Scott – not really Brum is it?

  3. chrisunitt
    16 July 2009 at 3:15 pm

    Not wanting to come across as his cheerleader or anything, but the guy's got a heck of a legacy and was from Birmingham. Seems odd to want to dismiss that.

  4. 16 July 2009 at 3:24 pm

    Is “from” anything important? I'm not dismissing anything, but hell of a lot of people do/did stuff “in” — being deliberately provocative as “DDL's Granddad” is exactly how it would be sold.

  5. RichBatsford
    16 July 2009 at 3:58 pm

    “Any large festival should be looking for new and innovative things” – sorry, what large festival are you talking about here?
    Xx

  6. 16 July 2009 at 4:00 pm

    the “large festival” that would be the programme for a year-long city of culture thing

  7. 16 July 2009 at 4:34 pm

    I'm not sure what I would book, but if it's not too trite I think the approach initially should be not to book things, but to try to get the word out to everybody in the city who might be involved in culture in some way – from CBSO to amateur theatre groups, bands rehearsing in someone's garage, Birmingham Flickr contributors etc – and ask “what would you like to do?”

  8. 16 July 2009 at 4:35 pm

    Love your ideas list – very good.

    I'm with Chris on the Balcon thing. Great example of Brum's role in cultural leadership. Actually, maybe 'Cultural Leadership' is a strand in the bid. That way you get to make reference to some of those in the Mullaney list but you cite them for a reason rather than arbitrarily as is too often the case (see, I'm already thinking how the words are organised on paper, I can't help myself). So the stuff Capsule are doing about Heavy Metal heritage can play a part here as it positions that genre as culturally important and demonstrates Birmingham and the West Midlands role in leading a significant area of popular culture. It's not just pointing at Ozzy.

    One thing is clear on this. The city council has to lead, they are the accountable body. But they mustn't shape. That has to come from citizens and those in cultural positions in the city. There's a pre-existing 'Birmingham Cultural Partnership' and a 'Creative Birmingham' board who will probably have a role here (and should) but I wonder if the constituency that Mullaney wants to hear from (that's you Jon, and others) is maybe still a bit too fractured, too informal for the city to be able to listen to. This offers a good opportunity to firm up some relationships perhaps?

  9. SarahGee
    16 July 2009 at 4:59 pm

    Manchester may “just get on and do it” but they also have multi-million pound investment from their local authority to make it happen.

  10. 16 July 2009 at 5:04 pm

    Spot on, Dave Harte. If the City Council is to make the bid, then of course it's accountable but its role here should largely be about bringing people together. I would hate us to submit an overly 'corporate' application that pushes all the big Brum Culture events/venues/personalities etc but leaves many of us feeling it pays scant attention to all the other interesting stuff that goes on in the city. So less of the Ruby Turner, UB40 and Jasper Carrott axis please. And I agree, absolutely no mention of bloody Tolkein.

  11. 16 July 2009 at 5:09 pm

    Oh indeed, I mean Manchester as a whole (including their local authority), the same way as I mean Birmingham as a whole.

  12. russl
    16 July 2009 at 5:51 pm

    An important question would seem to be: Is the primary point of going for this either A) to attempt to win it, or B) to go through the process of making the bid (with all the ancillary promotional effects/publicity/general-psyching-up-of-folk-and-making-them-all-enthusiastic-and-such that may ensue)?

    If 'A', then an even more important question would seem to be: How are these things judged? What are the panel who make the decisions actually looking for?

    It's difficult to see how you might proceed at all without answers to these.

  13. martin_mullaney
    16 July 2009 at 10:05 pm

    Dave Harte is quite right that the Council has to lead on this, but shouldn't dictate.

    I'm keen to make this a grass roots festival, where the citizens are involved from the start. This is why I am so keen to use the blogospere of Birmingham to decide whether (a) Birmingham should bid for the Capital of Culture (b) what that culture should be.

    From the Council's viewpoint, we can pull together the present festivals that are happening eg Dance Festival in April/May; the various cultural festivals; Pride; Museum and Art Gallery exhibitions; the Autumn Festival or whatever guise that ArtFest takes; the German Market; so on.

    Around this larger festivals, we would include and promote the smaller niche festivals. As the new Cabinet member for Leisure, sport and Culture, I asked my portfolio officers to get a small fund together to help support entrepreneur led niche festivals. These festival do not require much money to assist them (£5000, £10,000), but they do raise the profile of Birmingham nationally. My officers have managed to get a small amount of money from the Working Neighbourhoods Fund to do this.

    Coming to Jon Bounds view that the festival needs a curator. I'm not sure that the overall year long festival needs an artistic curator, but the individual large art festivals do need curators. The Manchester International festival uses a guest curator each year to create new pieces of work. This year it was Damon Albarn. My portfolio is looking at this model for a possible Autumn Festival, but it will cost and we want to seeing if our partners such as AWM and the Art Council are willing to financially contribute before making a decision. In the present financially atmosphere, this festival may be difficult to fund.

    Can I finally add, that my list of iconic images of Birmingham has received an amount of stick. It was a first attempt to think of images of Birmingham that people would recognise. It was merely an attempt to stimulate the debate on 'what is the culture of Birmingham?'.

  14. michellesmith
    17 July 2009 at 12:42 pm

    I feel obliged to say please don't forget the Urban and BME arts. I'm bored of the folks in suits only publically 'celebrating' the diversity of the city when they feel like it. I'd also like any new festival not to be high jacked by the Moseley & Kings Health mafia.

    BTW when I say diversity, it's meant in the traditional sense but I'd also like to see a few new names thrown into the pot. There are a lot of the usual suspects in both lists above (did I mention Soweto Kinch? Oops!).

  15. alexandre1
    1 March 2010 at 2:42 pm

    A lot of the discussion seems to assume that Birmingham had no culture (apart from the ubiquitous Tolkien) before around 1965 or so. Didn't Liverpool use their classical architecture, and not just Ringo, to their advantage in their Culture bid? Birmingham has an intersting story to tell about applying European architecture to an industrial city – the Town Hall praised as being even closer to the Roman original than the Madeleine in Paris, the Council House – the most Italian Renaissance-inspired public building outside London (or not far off, anyway), Corporation Street – Joseph Chamberlain's attempt to re-create Boulevard St Michel, the clock tower of the University based on Siena, Baskerville House and the Wart memorial based on Europeam neo-classical style and the whole streets-and-squares pattern created in the 1980s/90s, drawing on the design principles of Barcelona and other European cities. Then there is the cathedral, the first church built after the Civil War, with a dome modelled on that of one of the cathedrals in Venice, a rare example of English baroque. In this context it's interesting to consider Edward Burne-Jones' Birmingham roots, his affinity for a mixture of Italian renaissance and mediavel Gothic is very much in keeping with the design influences and aspirations of nineteenth century Birmingham. There is a story ghere that could be built on and extended. And (just to confirm me as an old git), is it not worth sparing a second to re-brand Elgar not as a jingoistic march composer, but as the first British composer of international recognition for more than two hundred years, one who was (unlike his predecessors) influenced by the latest trends in European music. His link with the CBSO (who were, during the dark days of the 80s the only reminder to London that Birmingham culture existed) and to the University of Birmingham Music department – which by happy coincidence is shortly going to be based in a new building that will complete Joe Chamberlain's semi-circle (still an icon – in the same style as the presidential palace in New Delhi). There are many other unusual aspects of Birmingham – the unusual (in England) distinction between a high town (dignified) and a low town (markets) which the redeveloped Bullring with its reciovered Mediaeval street pattern makes much clearer than before. OK all this is obvious as well as being rather traditional and backward-looking in terms of what constitutes culture..all. I'm suggesting is that we could try harder to use Birmingham's past evolution as a city of culture in order to link contemporary culture more effectively into a grander narrative about Birmingham as an international and outward-looking city, and that our past has more to offer than Tolkien's childhood or the 25 miles proximity to Stratford.

  16. talkingdog
    6 May 2010 at 5:26 pm

    What price culture if local libraries are to be closed -the seed bed of growing it, where the minds of cultural icons of the future are to be nurtured with free books, where cash strapped parents can take their children to get them started? Artfests, Wintervals (dreadful name ) etc are all very well, but people come into the city, go away again and the next day they are forgotten. Support your local library -especially Hawthorne House Library, Handsworth Wood, under threat yet again from those who only want to make money from the site. SAVE HAWTHORN HOUSE LIBRARY!!!
    Michael Rosen on the BBC breakfast show was extolling the virtues of local libraries.
    Let's hope we've still got some left after all the coming cuts.
    SaveYOUR local library NOW!!!!

  17. 24 May 2010 at 9:50 am

    Well at least you’ve still got your festivals in Birmingham. Good old Cheltenham, home to numerous literature and music festivals is facing large cut-backs in budgets for these events at the moment. Thank goodness we still have the Gold Cup. But as for Birmingham, somewhat of a mecca for shoppers if my wife is anything to go by, at least you have a regular flow of external shoppers coming to the town, and plenty of events to draw more vists.

  18. 24 May 2010 at 9:50 am

    Well at least you’ve still got your festivals in Birmingham. Good old Cheltenham, home to numerous literature and music festivals is facing large cut-backs in budgets for these events at the moment. Thank goodness we still have the Gold Cup. But as for Birmingham, somewhat of a mecca for shoppers if my wife is anything to go by, at least you have a regular flow of external shoppers coming to the town, and plenty of events to draw more vists.

  19. 24 May 2010 at 9:50 am

    Well at least you’ve still got your festivals in Birmingham. Good old Cheltenham, home to numerous literature and music festivals is facing large cut-backs in budgets for these events at the moment. Thank goodness we still have the Gold Cup. But as for Birmingham, somewhat of a mecca for shoppers if my wife is anything to go by, at least you have a regular flow of external shoppers coming to the town, and plenty of events to draw more vists.

  20. 24 May 2010 at 9:50 am

    Well at least you’ve still got your festivals in Birmingham. Good old Cheltenham, home to numerous literature and music festivals is facing large cut-backs in budgets for these events at the moment. Thank goodness we still have the Gold Cup. But as for Birmingham, somewhat of a mecca for shoppers if my wife is anything to go by, at least you have a regular flow of external shoppers coming to the town, and plenty of events to draw more vists.

  21. 24 May 2010 at 11:50 am

    Well at least you've still got your festivals in Birmingham. Good old Cheltenham, home to numerous literature and music festivals is facing large cut-backs in budgets for these events at the moment. Thank goodness we still have the Gold Cup. But as for Birmingham, somewhat of a mecca for shoppers if my wife is anything to go by, at least you have a regular flow of external shoppers coming to the town, and plenty of events to draw more vists.

Comments are closed.