Friday, 8 December 2017

Well done Coventry!

30 years ago this year, Coventry won the FA Cup Final. The city went wild with delight. It was said that a quarter of a million people were out on the streets to welcome their team home. Coventry was awash with sky-blue. The newly-hung cathedral bells, not yet formally dedicated, rang out for the first time to celebrate. No-one who was there will ever forget that weekend.

It's also 30 years since our family moved to Coventry. I went there to take up a post as residentiary canon at the Cathedral. I was installed on 10 May, the Sunday before the Big Match. In my sermon I wished the Sky Blues well at Wembley. There was hollow laughter, I recall. Who'd have thought that I of all people would be aware of an upcoming football event? And who'd have thought that Coventry had any chance of defeating Spurs who had won the trophy twice in the previous seven seasons?

And now, exactly three decades later, Coventry is once again walking tall. The city has been named UK Capital of Culture 2021. It deserves the honour. I can say that as someone who has known it well. We spent eight happy years there. It's where our children mostly grew up, so we have always thought fondly of the city as, in a sense, still "ours". (That's also true, by the way, of another of the 2021 candidate cities, Sunderland, where we have lots of family connections. They too put up a first-rate bid and it's a pity that when it comes to the Capital of Culture, it can't be a case of Alice's oft-quoted words "all have won, so all must have prizes".)

A few years ago I blogged about going back to Coventry. That occasion was the golden jubilee of the consecration of the "new" Coventry Cathedral in 1962. As I wrote then, I'd been one of the millions who'd visited the Cathedral that year. I was twelve when my parents took me. I can vividly recall my impressions on that late spring day, most of all of Graham Sutherland's huge tapestry of Christ in Glory, John Piper's marvellous coloured glass in the baptistery, and not least, looking down at my own reflection in the black mirror-like surface of the nave floor. I was not a religious boy in those days, but I was both stirred and moved by that great building. It seemed to speak beyond itself to something bigger and more expansive than I think I'd ever known. Looking back, I guess it was one of my early spiritual experiences, an intimation of resurrection. Twenty-five years later, one of my first jobs at the Cathedral was to organise the silver jubilee celebrations.

Living there, I became fascinated by this city of paradoxes. There was something homely and familiar about its medieval streets, so Warwickshire, so quintessentially England. Yet the pre-war planners (quoting Tennyson's "the old order changeth, giving place to new") had already laid waste to Butchers' Row, what we would now regard as a priceless piece of heritage townscape comparable to the Shambles in York). And what they didn't destroy, the Luftwaffe made swift work of on that terrible night of bombing on 14 November 1940, codenamed "Operation Moonlight Sonata". What does it do to a city to have been reduced to ashes, to be the only one in Britain whose cathedral was destroyed by enemy action?

After the war, a brave new city arose like a phoenix. Ancient and modern stood inextricably bound together in both the way the city was re-engineered, and in the experience of its citizens. So much was symbolised by the old and new cathedrals standing side by side, or rather, in these two physical expressions of one single Cathedral. With the exception of the Cathedral, the architecture of the 1950s and 60s has not fared as well as what survives of the middle ages. Perhaps Coventry was rebuilt in too much of a hurry. These days the city is not the gleaming emblem of modernity it once was. Its industries experienced a steep decline from the late 1970s so that by the time I was living there, unemployment was high and the future of its manufacturing industries looked bleak.

Yet somehow, the spirit of Coventrians was not broken by this turnabout in its fortunes. Yes, they could be good at looking west to Birmingham and envying the seemingly unstoppable success of their near neighbour. (Coventry is to Birmingham as Sunderland is to Newcastle and Bradford is to Leeds - these pairings of cities with very different characteristics are an intriguing aspect of modern Britain.) But look at what the new Commonwealth immigrants who came to work in Coventry after the war brought to the city. I found I was living in one of the most vibrant, multicultural places I'd ever known. My suburban assumptions about what it meant to be British were challenged like never before or since. We loved visiting the places of worship of other faith communities and getting to know our warm-hearted, hospitable hosts. I think that it was there that I consciously began trying to think of myself, in a famous if much maligned phrase, as a "citizen of the world".

It's important that "City of Culture" is interpreted in the widest possible way. Hull has demonstrated this most successfully in 2017 and we salute that city. Culture is a slippery word that can quickly take on a whiff of elitism if we aren't careful. The point about culture is that it is essentially demotic in character. This is because it is about what has formed and made us to be the people, the societies, the communities we are, how we have been grown. That's much more than simply a matter of museums and libraries, literature and poetry, art and architecture. Somehow, I have a hunch that the people of Coventry will be very good at sharing who and what they are, and how they have travelled together as a city across the centuries and through the recent past into the present.

As for what we call culture in the more traditional sense, there is more than enough to make the trip to Coventry worth while. Many have pointed out that Hull and Coventry (together with my own village of Haydon Bridge) have in common the poet Philip Larkin. One of the best twentieth century English poets, while he lived and worked in Hull, it was in Coventry that he was born. I have to say that in my time, Coventry had not done nearly as much as Hull to honour him, so I hope 2021 will put that right. Similarly, though less noticed, the Nuneaton-born Victorian novelist George Eliot, as great in her century as Larkin was in his, also lived in Coventry. Her greatest novel Middlemarch ("the magnificent book that...is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people" said Virginia Woolf) is very probably based on Coventry.

I could go on to write about the legendary Leofric and Godiva, Coventry's history as one of England's great medieval cities, its industrial heritage, its Herbert Art Gallery and Motor Museum, to say nothing of the Cathedral itself which constitutes one of the best expressions of mid-twentieth century artistry and craftsmanship in England. I could mention the rich diversity of performing arts in the city in both dedicated venues and in the streets and squares. I could write about the two universities that contribute so much to Coventry's intellectual and cultural landscape. And I could write about how Coventry has become a symbol of international reconciliation and peace-making that has evoked the admiration of people across the world.

But most of all, it's the people who make the place. When it was announced that Coventry had won their bid to be City of Culture, I was touched to hear ordinary Coventry people speak about their city and why they loved it. I'm sure the citizens of all five shortlisted cities would have said the same of theirs. Perhaps Coventry, with its cosmopolitan and internationalist outlook, can represent the best of what they would have contributed to this celebration of all that we cherish and are proud of in the culture of these islands.

A final thought. Why can't we have a UK City of Culture every year? The quality of this year's bids shows how much potential there is across the nation to promote art, heritage, tourism and regeneration. We need more local celebrations like this to shine a light on the cultural riches of the UK's towns and cities outside London - not just on places but on their communities. It would be a modest enough claim on central funds. Thanks to the enterprise of their citizens, Hull and Coventry show how a little can go a very long way. Let's go for it, and let Sunderland have the next turn in 2022.

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