I like the sound of Councillor Stephen Bayes of Hull City Council. You may have heard him put in a brief appearance at 8.56am on Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday, as John Humphrys introduced an item about Hull being named the UK’s 2017 City of Culture. Their conversation went as follows.
Humphrys: Congratulations, Mr Bayes.
Cllr Bayes: (long pause) Thanks very mooch.
Humphrys: I imagine you’re all pretty pleased there.
Cllr Bayes: (much longer pause) Yes, the party’s still goin’ on…
The discussion then switched to a lady from Derry/Londonderry city council, who explained how much they’d enjoyed their year as City of Culture, before returning to Mr Bayes. But he’d gone, vanished away, leaving the impression in listeners’ ears of a man in alderman’s robes, an hour into an early-morning party (the announcement had come at 7.45am,) who’d just spotted a tray of prosecco and a bowl of pretzels across the room and had dashed off to secure them...
Culture! How we love it. It doesn’t just entertain us, it makes us feel good about ourselves and our communities, and if you’re lucky enough to get the “UK City of” appellation, it brings a colossal wedge of cash. Sharon O’Connor, the Derry council spokeswoman, reported that they’d secured £166m in capital and revenue investment, to be spent over the next 10 years. No wonder Councillor Bayes and his mates have been carousing so strenuously in the chamber.
But are we talking about culture here, or something else? The UK City of Culture idea came from Andy Burnham in 2009 when he was still Culture Secretary: he suggested the designated city should have the glory of hosting events such as the Brit Awards, the Turner Prize and the Man Booker. A steering committee went further and decided the winning city should choose what it fancied hosting from a list of “core events” run by the BBC, Channel 4, Arts Council England, Sony, the Poetry Book Society, the UK Film Council, the Tate, Visit England, Visit Britain, the Museums Association, the Heritage Lottery Fund and English Heritage.
Like a child in a sweetie shop, the winning city can raid a pick’n’mix counter of concerts, readings, exhibitions, lectures and celebrations of dwile-flonking in the shires, stage them all in their town hall or butter market, and cry, “Look at us – Culture Central! We’ve staging the Brit Awards! We’ve got Lily Allen performing at the Arndale Centre!”
I’m reminded of Barry Humphries’ creation, Sir Les Patterson, the Australian cultural attaché (currently back in the West End in all his priapic glory,) who used to bang on about Australian art and theatre and ballet, before ringingly concluding, “We got culture, ladies and gennelmen. We got culture up to our arseholes!”
When I learn that one of the cultural events which Derry is so proud to have hosted was the “Greatest number of [Little Orphan] Annies ever seen together in one place”, I can’t help wondering if a Broadway musical based on an American strip cartoon has much, if anything, to do with the Ulster town. When I hear that one of the arty displays that impressed the judges was an aerial homage to the Hull-based poet Philip Larkin, I wonder if it’s snobbish to say, Stop stop, you’ve got it all wrong.
Winning the right to host events, whether it’s the World Cup, the Olympics or Eurovision, is the result of showing how efficient you can be. Being named City of Culture suggests something quite different. It’s about celebrating the genius of a city and it should come up from the grassroots; it shouldn’t be imposed from above in pre-digested arty events. Culture isn’t an evening of interpretative dance – it’s the changing habits and preoccupations of a society: how we speak, and dress, whether we go to church or to sporting events, what makes us angry or apologetic, what we eat in the morning and drink at night, our sense of courtesy, the things we revere, the reason we walk around with our trousers falling off, the expectations we have for our children. That’s what should be celebrated.
I hope that in 2017, Cllr Bayes and his crew of planners manage to celebrate Hull’s cream telephone boxes, the letters page of the Hull Daily Mail, the conversations you hear in the Prince’s Avenue bars, the accent that always elides the H from the city’s name, and the locals’ feelings about folk living on the other side of the Humber, just as much as they welcome the Turner Prize and the Museum of the Year Award into their civic heart.