What is culture? This is a question that is increasingly being asked around Leeds.
The reason the question is being asked at the moment is that Leeds is about to bid to become the European Capital of Culture for 2023. All very interesting you might be thinking, but will this really have anything to do with South Leeds?
I was at the opera on Tuesday night (ooh, there’s posh!). Actually the community choir I sing with in Belle Isle were given free tickets as part of Opera North’s community engagement programme. Opera is clearly a cultural activity, but no more so than watching Leeds United (or Middleton Park Ladies for that matter).
There’s a misconception that culture is just opera, theatre, visual art. It’s not helped that the government department responsible for all this is called the Department for Culture, Media & Sport. In what way are ‘media’ and ‘sport’ not cultural?
I don’t have a snappy definition of what culture is, but surely it’s about what we do after we’ve done the things we need to survive. Animals spend all their time surviving: finding food, finding shelter, avoiding predators. What makes humans different is that we’ve developed to a stage where we have spare time and energy to do other things. Of course some people have more spare time than others, but collectively as the human race we have made space to create language, entertainment, science, sport, etc.
So culture is all the things that make life worth living. Putting it that way makes it clear that access to culture or enjoyment of culture is not evenly spread through society. Some people’s lives are barely worth living. If you’re afraid of putting the heating on or wondering where your (or your children’s) next meal is coming from, then it’s pretty hard to find space to appreciate Mozart.
There is a relationship between culture and wealth, although I know many very cultured people who are as poor as church mice and a few rich people who just don’t appreciate culture. Having said that humans are such amazing creatures that the poor and dispossessed have always created their own culture in spite of their situation.
Have you come across a South American dance called Capoeira? It was very trendy in contemporary dance circles a few years back. It was created by African slaves in Brazil. It is a ritualised form of martial art, stylised and choreographed to music so that the slaves could practice their fighting skills right under the noses of their masters. Brilliant.
So what will being the Capital of Culture mean round here?
From the few discussions I’ve had, I think it’s still all up for grabs. The point I always make in such discussions is that it mustn’t be all about what happens in the city centre. The answer I hear is that if the bid was written around the city centre and ignores the less trendy parts of the city, it will fail. The judges, I’m not sure who they are, are looking for involvement, or ‘buy-in’ from the whole of the city.
If we shout loud enough I believe we can influence how 2023 shapes up. Hell, we can help Leeds win the bid!
Which of our local cultural gems should we see included a year of cultural celebrations? Here’s a few of my favourites to kick off the discussion:
The Garden Gate pub in Hunslet. A beautiful building, where they’ve always looked after the beer, plenty of Rugby League heritage and I think they still do darts and doms nights.
The Kop. I haven’t seen a match at Elland Road for some years now. I bet there’s plenty of stuff shouted from the Kop that I would find offensive, but there’s plenty of wit too and it’s leeds through and through.
Middleton Railway. Hunslet gave railways to the world, everything from coal trucks to Pullman coaches and the cathedral-like stations: St Pancras, Gard du Nord, Grand Central Station. Brief Encounter, Casablanca, Murder on the Orient Express – need I go on?
Panto. Two shows that pack ‘em in every year are the am dram St Andrew’s Pantomime who have just finished another sell out season, and the wonderfully silly treatment of Shakespeare that Oddsocks Theatre provide for free, outdoors in Middleton Park. Accessible culture at its best.
There’s loads more: wrestling at The Holbeck, children from Windmill & Low Road primary schools playing in their string orchestra, or The Outsiders a disabled rock band working out of The Old Chapel. What’s your nomination for a South Leeds cultural gem?
I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.