[This post was originally written for the blogs page of the Coventry City of Culture Trust website, supporting Coventry’s bid to be UK City of Culture in 2021]
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what makes an individual put down roots in a place. I’ve tried to analyse what it was that made me settle here in Coventry – to understand why I am still here, and I’ve asked others what it was that made them decide to call somewhere home. Maybe it is hard to pin down one reason – often you’re in the middle of a perfect storm of reasons, none in itself would make you settle, but taken together they are good enough for now. And, unless things go really pear-shaped, ‘good enough for now’ develops over time with familiarity – as you begin to understand the place – into something much better. The one thing that seems crucial to all this is people: personal connections with people – a group of friends, a partner, family. It is unlikely that a ‘place’ by itself will be enough: a combination of ‘people’ and ‘place’ – and the buzz of activity and possibility that this combination presents – is what binds us somewhere.
As part of Talking Birds, I’ve spent just over twenty years collaboratively exploring, and seeking to illuminate, the profound and complex relationships between people and place, a lot of this in or around Coventry. It’s an endlessly fascinating task which has allowed the company privileged access, not only to many buildings in the city (some of which have since been reinvented, given a new lease of life, others which now only exist in memories and old photos), but also to the insightful and sometimes highly personal stories and memories of the people with whom we have worked. And these explorations, these conversations, the stories in and of these places, have changed us – and changed our relationship with Coventry. We have shared history here, we are bound to the city and its people – we belong to the city, and it belongs to us. There are traces of the work we have made, and the stories we have heard and told in the stones of the place, and in the memories of people all over this city – maybe even some of you that are reading this now?
I’m glad I’m not a judge in the City of Culture competition, because I know that in every competing city there are people that feel like this about the place they live. People that are tightly (and proudly) bound to their city by circumstance, culture and community. These are the people that feel their city should win, and will work their socks off to try and make that happen. I’m one of those kinds of people in Coventry – there are a lot of us about. But here, as in every competing city, every city even, there are people who don’t feel those bonds of connection to the place where they are. People who are just passing through. People who, for any number of reasons, live every day without real human connection, without speaking to their neighbours, without feeling a part of the culture and community of the city. Not necessarily lonely, but not realising what more there is (almost) right under their noses, how much better their life here could perhaps be.
Maybe these are the people for whom City of Culture is most important. The people who don’t know what amazing stuff happens in their city every day because they don’t know where to look, or they don’t want to look, or they never thought to look, or they just can’t look. Actually – they are the people for whom the build up to the competition might be even more important than the competition itself – what we do in the next 6 months, the things we share, the eyes we open in that time are absolutely key. If we can open eyes all over the city, if we can make connections, if we can speak to our neighbours, if we can smile hello at strangers in the street and get hi-fived in return (yes, this really happened to me!), if we truly care about our city: then we can change our city one person at a time – we can make our city buzz. With or without a label, we can build a city that values everyone, that includes everyone, that builds communities woven together with culture. A city with energy. A city where we belong. A city where people want to be. A city where people want to stay. A City of Culture.
I know what you’re thinking: If you can do this much without a label, why bother with the label? I think the last two years answers that. The very fact that Coventry is going for this competition, this label, has made a difference all over the city (and would have been unthinkable five years ago). It has gathered people, it has inspired and galvanised people. It has given us something in common to talk about, a shared goal: just talking about ‘what if…?’ is developing the actual culture of the city, the buzz, the sense that Cov is a city on the up. The very process of bidding is a virtuous circle, strengthening the sense of shared culture and community. People ask “But what if we don’t win?” – but even in getting this far, we already have some kind of win for the city. When people do something, others see that it’s worth doing and they do something too – and so it grows. So we grow.
I’ve often described Coventry to outsiders as a ‘city poised on the edge of greatness’. Teetering on the edge of recognising itself as the blummin’ brilliant place it is, and of losing its modesty about that. (I won’t shoehorn in a Lady Godiva modesty joke here, you can make up your own). I love the fact that, as I walk across the city centre, the ghosts of a millennium tightrope walk or a breeze-block domino run or a community Romeo & Juliet are kicked up in the dust. Our city doesn’t shout about its achievements, its little moments of accidental beauty: it just kind of accepts them and gets on with it…which is endearing and infuriating in equal measure.
I think Coventry is a place where you can experiment, try things out. It welcomes strangers, it trusts youth and gives it a chance to shine. You can make something of yourself here: build a life. From Ira Aldridge to Donald Gibson to Pauline Black to Shoot Festival… perhaps there’s something here about being given a chance – and how that develops both your self-belief and your skill? If Coventry has been poised on the edge of greatness for much of the 25 years I have been here – what has stopped our city toppling either into (or out of) that greatness? Could the recognition, validation and self-confidence given by the City of Culture label be the thing that finally tips it into greatness (and keeps it there)?
In the 1940s and 50s, Donald Gibson led the City Architects Department – where all the staff were given their chance to practice, to learn, to shine. Coventry had a moment of greatness as it became the place where everyone wanted to be – to study, to practice, to live and work. The city was on the up, it had an energy which people wanted to be a part of, and as those people came to the city and became part of that energy, it grew and attracted more to it: a critical mass. The young architects working with Gibson took the ideas developed in Coventry, the styles designed here (that had been modelled on the best, most cutting edge in the world) and embedded them in the places they graduated to: there are little bits of Coventry all over the country. That’s how it should be – an energetic flow of ideas and people that enriches each place, and is active across generations. The energy of the young blended with the experience of the old making something better than either of them could come up with alone. I think that’s what aiming high and talking about culture can do – it can move ideas around and create the buzz, the milieu in which anything can happen. Enthuse the people. Make the city a space of possibilities. Just imagine….
That’s what I want for Coventry in this year of build up, and beyond. That’s why I want Coventry to be UK City of Culture 2021.
By Janet Vaughan
Co-Artistic Director, Talking Birds