Best of British? 'Cities' vie to be cultural hubs
Only one place can inherit the UK City of Culture mantle from Londonderry, which this year became the first city to hold the four-year honour. Tom Peck takes a look at the 11 eclectic entrants that have come out fighting for the 2017 prize
Portsmouth and Southampton
Enter Portsmouth by ferry, by train or by automobile and the first thing that catches the eye is known to locals as the burj-al-Portsmouth. The Spinnaker Tower is supposed to look like a sail, not like a very light version of Dubai's very famous Burj-al-Arab hotel. But it does boast views right out over the Isle of Wight. Meanwhile, Southampton is midway through the restoration of Guildhall Square, the centrepiece of an entire Cultural Quarter. Two "cracking shows" in the pipeline are Sleeping Beauty on Ice and the Blues Brothers.
By 2017 Chester hopes to be able to showcase "a major new theatre, the refurbishment of Grosvenor Park and new performance venues in Northwich," boasts Councillor Stuart Parker. "And you can add to that the success of Chester's Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre." Even if these best-laid plans fail to come to pass, the Deva Victrix Roman Military Display Team are going nowhere. This summer, a unit of Roman legionaries will again march through Chester and camp at the amphitheatre. Heady stuff.
The McManus, Caird Hall, the Mills Observatory, the Broughty Castle Museum – Dundee's cultural bounty is near infinite. A £1bn plan to regenerate and to reconnect the Waterfront to the city centre, started in 2001, is expected to be completed within a 30-year period. One of the fruits of this regeneration is an 8ft bronze statue of Desperate Dan and his hound Dawg, which remains a popular attraction despite The Dandy (published here by D C Thomson) having ceased publication. But the authorities are fighting hard to redress its image as a place awash with heroin. Stashes with five and six-figure values are recovered with alarming regularity, on local ferries, and hidden in young people's parents' houses.
"There's so much more to Southend-on-Sea than first meets the eye," is the council's unnervingly defensive opening gambit. "Alongside the traditional seaside entertainment, there's a flourishing arts scene to discover and a feast of festivals throughout the year."
The Essex coastal town does boast the world's longest pleasure pier, length evidently being important in these matters, not to mention exciting contemporary art on Leigh-on-Sea's Art Trail, book readings in Southend's libraries, performance arts at Village Green in Chalkwell Park, the Beecroft Gallery and the Old Leigh Studios. Nearby Basildon Hospital also provided the fictional setting for Channel 4 comedy Garth Marenghi's Darkplace.
Known interchangeably as The Granite City, and as an oil city, Aberdeen would have much to gain from a new, more sophisticated moniker. The town's most noted contribution to the country is as the entry point for the vast deposits of North Sea oil. But it also boasts a maritime museum, an art gallery, a number of cinemas and hosts the Aberdeen International Youth Festival – said to be the world's largest arts festival for young performers.
Aberdeen Lord Provost, George Adam, has called winning the competition "a terrific target to aim for", which is nothing short of exquisite in its equivocation.
As a City of Culture candidate, East Kent is almost cheating. The bid covers everywhere from Canterbury, to Dover, taking in Ashford, Folkestone and Thanet on the way. Canterbury, with its cathedral, is a city not short on culture. So many and various are its original Roman ruins that some have had a book shop built around them. Then there's Thanet, made famous for its casual appearance in Ian Dury's Billericay Dickie (I'd rendez-vous with Janet / quite near the Isle of Thanet), the discount designer shopping village at Ashford, and Folkestone, which is only a couple of hours by Le Shuttle from Paris.
It is many centuries since a hunchback King of England arrived in Leicester and decided the best thing to do was bury himself under a council car park. It is a far more vibrant place now. Its Diwali celebrations are thought to be the largest outside India, when huge crowds flock to the city's Golden Mile. The bid backers hope that Dave's Leicester Comedy Festival and the annual Caribbean Carnival will also help it win the title.
Historian Peter Stead, a retired Swansea University lecturer who was on the panel that originally chose Liverpool as City of Culture in 2008, is excited by Swansea Bay's bid. At the heart of it is the "enormous international success" of the Capital One Cup-winning Swansea City football side, though that may not hold as much sway with those of a more cultural bent.
Next year, the town will hold the Dylan Thomas centenary, in commemoration of the famous poet, whose best-known line, while not necessarily poetic, were the last he was ever meant to have uttered. "I've had 18 straight whiskies. I think that's the record."
Bexhill-on-Sea and Hastings
With so many candidates to pick from, no wonder Jeremy Birch, leader of Hastings council, has come out fighting. "We have a culture of festivals to rival anywhere, from Jack in the Green to the bonfire," he boasts. Then there's "the two shortlisted entries for a major public art feature on Pelham roundabout" and "the increasingly significant" International Piano Festival. "Not forgetting, of course [how could you?] all that is on offer at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill."
Hastings Pier is also undergoing refurbishment which will allow Mr Birch, and indeed anyone, "to relive the culture of promenading of days gone by."
The first overnight stop of the Olympic Torch Relay, Plymouth hopes winning the bid would mean it could lure other prestigious events to the Devon town, such as the Brit Awards and the Turner Prize
The city's old naval base hosts the British Fireworks Championship. As for nightlife, so popular is the 2-for-1 offer on pints of lager in the Walkabout pub on Union Street, they are served with both poured in to a single litre sized cup. How very enlightened.
"I could spend half my evenings, if I wanted / Holding a glass of washing sherry, canted / Over to catch the drivel of some bitch / Who's read nothing but Which," pondered Hull's famous librarian-poet son, Philip Larkin, in words that don't inspire vast amounts of confidence in the cultural delights of his adopted town. The most popular cultural activity, is indeed the five-stop "Philip Larkin Tour of Hull", one of which is Marks & Spencer.
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