South of the River – Cultural Capital


Compass-SouthComment logo 2An email arrived at South Leeds Towers this week inviting us to join a debate about whether Leeds should bid to become European Capital of Culture. This follows the news that Hull has been awarded the accolade for 2017.

I can’t help thinking there’s some hurt civic pride in the Town Hall that echoes the coverage we got from the London media that went along the lines of “Hull? … culture? … really?”

Leeds has a thriving arts scene: big theatres and galleries like the Grand and Henry Moore Institute (and now the Tetley), small theatres and galleries like Slung Low’s Holbeck Underground Ballroom and Basement Arts Project. We have the Music College and a thriving gig scene. We have food festivals, a Caribbean carnival and hundreds of community festivals.

I happen to agree with Germaine Greer that the government department for Culture, Media and Sport is misnamed. Media and Sport are cultural activities so lets just call it the Department for Culture. So now we can add Leeds United, the Hawks and Rhinos, and hundreds of grassroots sports clubs. Plus all of us bloggers!

There’s no doubt that as a city Leeds has a lot to offer in the way of culture. It could put a pretty convincing case to be Capital of Culture.

If we were to win we would get a year long arts festival. That would be pretty cool. Hopefully it would amount to more than just big shows in the city centre. Any bid, for anything, these days has to include “engagement” along with “sustainability” and “legacy”. So hopefully we would all get a good dose of the arts.

The thing is, we have some pressing needs down here in South Leeds, what with rising debts thanks to payday lenders and the Bedroom Tax and hungry families turning to the food banks. We need more houses and more jobs, but do we need greater access to the arts?

I think the answer to that question is a resounding “yes”.

I’m not poor, but I live on a limited budget. I see shows and events advertised and think “that looks interesting”, then I look at the ticket price and think twice. Even with free events I’ve thought can I be bothered to go out, to break my routine at home. However, I can count on the fingers of one hand the times I’ve shelled out and regretted it.

In my experience cultural experiences are always invigorating. They are not always cheerful, I remember seeing One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest when the film first came out in the seventies and sitting in a café with my mates afterwards – none of could speak for about an hour. There was also a memorable family outing one Christmas to see Taxi Driver, but I’ll leave that tale for another day. Hamlet and Othello aren’t a barrel of laughs either, but they make you think, make the heart pound a little faster and somehow raise your spirit.

I’ve seen some very interesting local arts work recently in schools. I’ve mentioned before the work that Opera North’s In Harmony project is doing at Windmill primary school, immersing the whole school in music. Not to mention the spin off community choir that I’ve joined. Last week I went to a performance of “John Lennon: The Musical” at New Bewerley Community School where I’m a governor.

You won’t have heard of the play, it was written by Year 5 and Year 6 pupils with a little help from The Big Hoo Ha Company. I knew it would be good, but I was completely blown away by the songs that the children had written and way they performed them.

They had been using art to learn history. It’s a bit depressing to some of us that John Lennon is taught as history, probably ancient history to the kids in Year 5. Anyway they wrote songs reflecting the different stages of his life and career:

“Fame isn’t true, it’s not what you say it’s what you do”

This from children who have grown up with X-Factor and sung on stage with absolute focus, even from the children who don’t always behave perfectly in class. Fantastic.

Jeremy Morton Aug13Debt and hunger breed apathy, throw some culture into the mix and we can gain some confidence to get involved and change things. So bring on the Capital of Culture, but don’t forget to bring it south of the river.

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.

6 Replies to “South of the River – Cultural Capital”

  1. Hull isn’t going to be the European City Culture but the UK City of Culture- which has somewhat less competition for the honour to be bestowed upon. Leeds could probably pick that one up sooner or later when the bottle spins its way easily enough, but to try and leapfrog a couple of leagues to the European title, with the best will in the world I don’t think the Leeds offer is capable of competing at that level.

    The cynic in me worries that at either the UK or European level the larger centrally located professional arts organisations in the city would find a way to squander the platform opportunity amongst themselves leaving the grassroot organisations out in the cold again, much as they did with the Olympics, but we’ll see what happens.

    1. Thanks for putting me right on that! I totally agree that big engagement opportunities are at the grassroots, not the centre.

  2. As I just mentioned to you via Twitter, I think the Hull designation is a UK one via the Department for Culture, etc. Leeds seems to be aiming for some one-upmanship by going for European Capital of Culture. I’m not sure what the difference would be in terms of funding and prestige, but I agree that while we do very well indeed for culture in Leeds, there is always the need to get this out to areas outside the city centre. Excellent blog post, as always. Thanks.

  3. On the subject of artforms with a significant presence in Leeds, let’s not forget Dance – almost everyone does! Northern Ballet, Phoenix, Yorkshire Dance and the Northern School of Contemporary Dance along with local initiatives like Dynamite and DAZL, add up to a pretty impressive offer in dance teaching, learning and performance.

  4. Ah Taxi Driver! I was there! Can still hear the soundtrack in my head.

    Speaking as a Leicestrian we thought we had UK Capital of Culture nailed on, and I was surprised by Hull’s success until I saw the bids. Furthermore, Hull tried previously and failed so had another go, don’t expect it to drop into your lap.

    Well done for avoiding the Goering quote “When I hear the word Culture I reach for my Browning”

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