The Common Market, the Eurovision Song Contest, the European Cup, ‘Jeux Sans Frontieres’ and the European Capital of Culture – initiatives hatched on the continent with the admirable aim of creating a greater understanding and sense of brotherhood between the European nations and thus making us less likely to go to war with each other; that’s the intention in the beginning, anyway. Unfortunately, these concepts tend to get a little overblown and bloated thereafter, something that certainly applies to the first three. The European Capital of Culture is the newest innovation, one celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this year.
Ironically, considering more recent events, the European Capital of Culture was conceived by Melina Mercouri, the then-Greek Minister of Culture, and Athens was the first city awarded the title in 1985. As far as European cities go, it seemed an apt choice. Subsequent obvious choices such as Florence, Amsterdam, Berlin and Paris were no great surprise, though the first British city to receive the accolade was, rather unexpectedly, Glasgow in 1990. Since then, only Liverpool (in 2008) has scooped the prize in the UK. As the birthplace of the most enduring cultural gift to the nation of the past fifty years – in the shape of John, Paul, George and Ringo – the choice of Liverpool was perhaps understandable; and it’s undoubtedly a feather in the municipal cap, with the publicity bringing in handsome investment that usually necessitates demolition.
It does make one wonder what definition culture falls under, however. Does it equate with expensive new civic edifices – libraries, art galleries, theatres, music venues – or does it equate with corporate sponsorship and the overnight erection of ‘luxury apartments’ beyond the means of most citizens of the selected city? In the case of the former, every metropolis that grew on the back of the Industrial Revolution provided its populace with such amenities in the nineteenth century; as far as the latter is concerned, it often amounts to little more than window-dressing for the wealthy tourist. I wonder how many of the economic benefits brought to Liverpool in 2008 stretched to some of the less easy-on-the-eye areas of the city, most of which have been in decline for the best part of forty years.
However, the positive publicity Liverpool received in 2008 inspired the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to concoct a British equivalent of the ‘Europe Fixed It For Me’ badge, name of UK City of Culture. The first winner in 2013 was Londonderry. As a nod to the healing of deep, ancient wounds, Londonderry’s winning ticket was credited to Derry-Londonderry, and it’s unarguable that the awarding of the title was a triumph for a city that just twenty-five years earlier was still a byword for bombs, bullets and bloodshed. The sectarian enclaves of the city with two names remain divided, but the prestige of being the inaugural winner of this new title certainly helped banish the lingering image of marching Orangemen and stone-throwing Catholics in tank-tops.
The lifetime of this newcomer to the British cultural landscape seems to have been established as four years. The next holder of the title will be Hull as of 2017. Formerly one of the UK’s premier ports, the post-industrial isolation of Hull on the Eastern edges of Yorkshire may well seem less so if the country’s aesthetic eyes focus on it, yet no amount of superficial surface gloss can paper over the cracks in a city centre abundant with boarded-up shops. Mind you, as far as the European Capital of Culture goes, it was recently announced that the UK will be awarded it once again in 2023, a date that sounds in the far-flung future from the hindsight of 2015, but is only eight years away. And so we come to the thrust of this here post – the first contenders out of the starting blocks are Dundee and Leeds. I can’t speak for Dundee; my knowledge of the place is limited to DC Thompson, the cake, and The Average White Band. As far as Leeds goes, however, I feel I can comment on a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ via familiarity bred by contempt.
Again, one cannot help but wonder as to what the definition of ‘culture’ is that qualifies cities as contenders. In the past couple of years, there has been relentless redevelopment in Leeds, albeit restricted to the city centre – shopping malls, office blocks and riverside apartments. Not much of this redevelopment has extended to those neighbourhoods on the fringes of the city centre such as Harehills, Lincoln Green or Little London, which remain the kind of urban armpits that every large city forgets because they don’t fit the facelift. No doubt as the Leeds bid gathers pace, various cultural names will be evoked – Alan Bennett and Henry Moore being the most prominent, I should imagine. The fact that both achieved greatness only after they had escaped Leeds will probably be conveniently overlooked.
A walk through the redesigned quarters of Leeds city centre is like a walk up and down an Escher staircase; you’re fooled into thinking something interesting loiters around the next corner, but when you get there you feel like you’re back where you began. The only sights that impress are ones that have been there forever. Leeds Town Hall, with its superb blend of early nineteenth century Classical revivalism and Victorian Gothic, is a notable contrast to the more architecturally vapid buildings to have sprung up around it recently; and the genuine culture of a city tends to be buried beneath the twenty-first century cathedrals to commerce that have gate-crashed the skyline. A few months back, I produced a video short called ‘Leeds: A Dirty Old Town’, one that featured Jimmy Savile and Don Revie, two iconic figures of Leeds past that are not exactly loved nationwide, even though both served to put the city on the map with their own distinctive blend of belligerence and bluster. If I think of Leeds, I think of them; but don’t expect images of either (especially Savile) to feature in the bidding process for the European Capital of Culture honour.
So, what does Leeds put forth as its eligibility for this coveted title? It certainly can’t be pop music. The Kaiser Chiefs? Do me a favour! I therefore come to the conclusion that the Leeds entry into the race is based largely on the money spent making the city centre resemble a dwarf Canary Wharf, the latest addition to which is the Vodafone Arena, another venue named after a corporation with no connection to the city and one that hosts all those ‘rock legends’ that were big in 1987. With the exception of the International Piano Competition, there’s little evident home-grown culture to commend Leeds to the committee that decides which town is awarded the coveted title. It certainly isn’t a city populated by erudite individuals in jaunty hats and cravats debating the merits of Monet and Manet.
Has the European Capital of Culture already become one more excuse for an EU piss-up? The premise seems to be that if the local council hand over huge plots of land to private developers so they can plant row-upon-row of gleaming skyscrapers that render their respective cities indistinguishable from one another, they are eligible for inclusion, regardless of the fact that old, idiosyncratic buildings in neighbourhoods housing the kind of authentic character that represents actual local culture tend to be bulldozed to make way for such Lego-like carbuncles. What price culture? The death of it, if Leeds is anything to go by.