Culture promises a bright new start

HOW do you rewrite a story that is so well known even those unacquainted with the finer details of its plot feel able to recite it by heart?

That’s the challenge facing Derry as it prepares to become the UK’s first City of Culture under a scheme dreamed up by Liverpool’s Phil Redmond.

It was also the challenge facing Liverpool while bidding for Capital of Culture back in 2003, but that’s hard to remember now it’s a city that takes giant marionettes, blockbuster art exhibitions and free waterfront classical concerts in its stride.

Liverpool’s detractors spoke of riots, militancy and cars propped up on bricks; Derry’s talk of IRA bombings, religious unrest and civilians shot dead by paratroopers.

Those are reputations built on the past – both cities have moved on but it takes a while for public perception to catch up with reality.

What Capital of Culture did for Liverpool’s reputation, Derry is hoping City of Culture 2013 will do for its own, and is looking to Culture Liverpool director Claire McColgan and National Museums Liverpool chair Phil Redmond – two of 2008’s main players – for guidance.

Rewriting Derry’s story would be a tougher challenge if change had not already begun.

Even its name is controversial – the Culture Company has settled upon Derry-Londonderry to reflect both nationalist and unionist preferences (incidentally, the local authority changed its name to Derry City Council in 1984 but the city’s legal name remains Londonderry).

Its most famous public art works are the Bogside murals, which depict, amongst others, victims of Bloody Sunday, hunger striker Raymond McCartney and 14-year-old Annette McGavigan who was shot dead by a British soldier in 1971.

However, crossing the Foyle river to link two traditionally conflicted sides of the city is the 312m-long Peace Bridge, which opened in June 2013.

Shaped like a pair of arms embracing – based loosely on Derry teacher Maurice Harro’s sculpture Hands Across the Divide – it has brought both symbolic and real change.

“There were people living on the other side who didn’t know there was a 60-acre park just over the river,” I am told by a member of the Culture Company during a visit to the city.

Now children ride their bikes across the bridge to play in the new performance square, part of the former Ebrington British Army barracks, where the Culture Company is based.

Liverpool’s success in shifting outside perceptions is one thing that has inspired Derry in planning 2013, says Claire McColgan, a non-executive member of the Derry-Londonderry Culture Company board. Phil Redmond, who pitched the idea of a four-yearly UK City of Culture to the government, chaired the panel that selected Derry.

“We told a surprising story of Liverpool, it wasn’t what people expected to see here,” explains McColgan.

“When we had the spider it had nothing to do with the city, it was about something unique and exciting happening here that made you look at the city in a different way.

“Their programme has got enough about it to do that and they’ve got some fantastic artists working on it and a brilliant team.”

Both cities have placed culture at the heart of their regeneration programme, she adds.

“They’ve used the pride in winning the title to fast forward regeneration,” she says.

“The redevelopment of the Ebrington site is huge and gives you a whole different perspective of the city. It’s also the most fantastic event space with a brilliant backdrop, which has never been there before.”

Derry has learned practical lessons from Liverpool’s Capital of Culture experience, such as community involvement, volunteering and the commerical side of the year, including sponsorship and event ticketing, but McColgan stresses the importance of an unique cultural programme.

“Each city has got to do things differently otherwise you’ve end up with Starsbucks-like culture, all cities over the world seeming the same,” she says.

The full programme is due to be announced next month. However, highlights already revealed include hosting the first Turner Prize outside England (Tate Liverpool was the first gallery other than Tate Britain to host the award, in 2008) and Crosby-based writer and Olympics opening ceremony co-creator Frank Cottrell Boyce has been signed up to work on a pageant celebrating Derry’s patron saint, St Colmcille.

Two major events held this summer have demonstrated Derry’s ability in large-scale programming as well as an appetite for it. Its Peace One Day concert in June, which launched the UK’s Cultural Olympiad, attracted crowds of thousands as well an appearance by Hollywood actor and ambassador to the Peace One Day charity Jude Law.

Derry was the official host city for the Clipper 11-12 Round the World Yacht Race, an event Liverpool hosted back in 2005-6, welcoming the boats over the finishing line in July. Adding a touch of showbusiness sparkle to the event, Girls Aloud’s Nadine Coyle joined a delegation from her home city that flew out to greet the crew of the Derry-Londonderry yacht mid-race in San Francisco.

Derry’s city leaders display the same hunger for the title, and its possibities, as Liverpool’s did and have set targets to ensure they take full advantage of the opportunity.

As well as the three core aims of making Derry a centre of excellence for cultural regeneration, becoming the UK’s digital cultural capital by 2013 and finding a role for culture in peacemaking, they aspire to create 1,500 jobs, double the number of hotel stays and secure £100m-worth of marketing from media partners.

“The city’s had a long tradition of creativity but we’ve also had a lot of political issues, not least the name, so we had to go to the local politicians and say if we’re serious about going forward in this we need to address, not just having a party and celebration, but our identity,” says Aideen McGinley, chief executive of urban regeneration company Ilex.

“When the opportunity came up back in 2009, there was a real need to create an enabling environment to get people’s confidence up. We had been bottom of the league for employment, skills, nearly everything we didn’t want to be.

“There was a survey of 85 UK cities and we were 85th on nearly everything. For tourism we were 49th, that was our best, and we think with City of Culture we’ll get to 20th which will be equal to York. It really has become a driver for transformation.”

There are still challenges to overcome. With limited flights from the UK to Derry and a two-hour drive from Belfast International Airport, many visitors will need to be persuaded the city is worth visiting for at least several days. The Culture Company is working closely with tourism bodies in the surrounding area to promote the region as a whole.

Last October, a bomb exploded outside the Culture Company’s office in an attack said to have the hallmarks of action by dissident republicans. However, nobody was hurt and some 250 people including church leaders, politicians and members of arts organisations, gathered in a peaceful protest against the bombing later the same week.

There is also the question of how to tempt those residents of close-knit communities who do not see the relevance of culture to their own lives.

The answer is young people, believes Martin Melarkey, senior programme for education, who joined the Culture Company from Derry’s groundbreaking creative media arts organisation the Nerve Centre.

Alongside the crowd-pullers, the 2013 programme includes a series of projects linking schools with culture through digital technology, such as a Book of Kells and a “memory bank” of local people’s photographs and stories.

The latter is a way of exploring the city’s difficult past while looking to the future, says Melarkey.

The Troubles will always be a part of Derry’s story, just as militancy and the Toxteth Riots will always be a part of Liverpool’s, but both cities have now begun a new chapter.

Liverpool Post, August 23, 2012