Birmingham City of Culture 2017

Has the discussion about whether Birmingham is planning to bid for UK City of Culture 2017 started yet? We should bid; I think we’d win.

I was in Derry-Londonderry at the start of the year, the 2013 UK City of Culture. It was my first ever visit and I was immediately taken with the place. If you look at the words linked to Derry’s success then you’ll find nothing unexpected. They mention Creative Industries, ‘Digital’, they promised building/regeneration initiatives, they hinted at the potential for culture to “accelerate the pace of change and provide a new story for the city to tell to the world”.

That’s their way of saying “it’s complicated here but we’ll try.”

Naturally it’s the history I find particularly fascinating (I wrote my undergraduate dissertation about media representation of the peace process) and a visit to the Bogside and the Museum of Free Derry was therefore a highlight. The museum is very small and comprises a series of panels retelling Derry’s history from the perspective of its Catholic population, leading up to the events of Bloody Sunday. There’s a collection of items – posters, booklets, song books – relating to the civil rights movement as well as more macabre pieces such as clothing from Bloody Sunday victims complete with bullet holes marked for your attention. An audio soundtrack from the day of Bloody Sunday itself is playing on a loop.

The person on duty at the museum was a local man called John. It’s only after we’ve been round the place that we struck up a conversation. I played the ‘my folks are Irish’ card and he told me about Derry’s Birmingham connection. But he then reveled that his brother was one of the people shot dead (by ‘Lance Corporal F‘) on Bloody Sunday.

He’s probably told hundreds of people that fact but wow, that’s a big emotional punch right there. He expanded a little on what it was like to live in the Bogside then and now and hinted at his resistance to the idea that the City of Culture could somehow heal political and religious divides. For a start, he’d not been across the Peace Bridge because the regenerated barracks on the other side were where the Paratroopers that murdered his brother had been based.

A key criteria of winning the UK City of Culture competition is to ‘outline how you would use culture to bring about step-change.’ When asked what the City of Culture meant to him, John replied: “well Status Quo are playing a gig.” The gig is in the aforementioned Ebrington Barracks. He’ll have to make a step-change and cross that bridge if he wants to see them.

So what does this tell us about Birmingham’s potential to bid for City of Culture 2017. Well in a research report (PDF) which spoke to stakeholders in the Birmingham bid it becomes clear why we failed last time around:

“Birmingham felt that they “had to bid for it”, stating that it would have “said more about the city if we hadn’t” (p9)

And it seems that it’s not all that likely we’ll go for it again:

When asked if they would bid again for this or similar cultural titles, participants from Birmingham explained that the ‘appetite was lost’ […] Bidding raises aspirations; unfulfilled aspiration was described as a “sore on the city”, and another bid as “pure masochism” (p17)

I’ll admit to being slightly confused at the moment about Birmingham’s cultural and creative leadership. It seems to have gotten subsumed into the LEP. Is that right? Someone has to lead the discussion, I guess they might start it.

But I think a different approach might be needed this time. One that values a bottom up approach to understanding culture. “Culture is Ordinary: this is where we must start” said Raymond Williams writing in 1958 (PDF – read it ALL). That’s where the Birmingham bid has to start. Don’t lead with the grandness of what the City delivers as part of its cultural offer. Instead, find some people as articulate, considered and humble as John and listen to how they talk about their culture. For John, politics, religion, division and coming to terms with division, is culture as much as Art, learning and buildings.

Culture is his lived experience of the City. Start from there and we’ll win.

See also: Phil Redmond’s blog post for the DCMS.