Cultural Transformations- Hull as a Tiger

I’m back in Thieving Harry’s on Humber Street overlooking Hull’s marina. The sky’s grey, it’s raining. Nice coffee and things with avocados in are on the menu, served at wooden trestle tables with mismatched chairs. I came here a lot while I was doing things during the year of culture. A quiet place to breathe. Some regulars didn’t come here as much during the year- it suddenly wasn’t as quiet a place for them to breathe. I wonder whether this area will have been completely, horribly gentrified in ten years, or be run down again, or be about the same but with thriving new types of business I can’t even imagine now. I’m one of thousands of people who will want to keep coming back to Hull. Who feel an emotional investment in its story, in its people. Who want the investments of the City of Culture year to keep on paying off. That’s different to its residents who both want and NEED them to pay off, to echo the original bid slogan.

The figures from the initial evaluation report are looking good. Amazing even. The mood is celebratory at the Cultural Transformations conference at Hull University, in which academics and cultural, civic and business folk, and a smattering of artists, small businesses and students have gathered to discuss it. 95% of Hull’s population attended an event, an additional 1.3 million visitors came compared to in 2013, tourism’s contributing over £300 million to the economy, and 3 out of 4 residents feel proud to live in the city, after having been battered by years of negative press coverage and low morale previously. There are notes of caution and challenge. Arts Council chair Nicholas Serota notes with concern that the 230 redundancies announced at Hull College are the sort of thing that could impact negatively on how young people are able to capitalise on new opportunities and gain new skills. He says the Arts Council should have a “development and advocacy” role to convince other places of how the arts can positively benefit people’s well being, “place making” and the economy. But says it’s also still about “making great art”. I think of my students when I was teaching on a module about the contemporary cultural industries at the University of Leeds and the essays I marked in which they parsed and analysed the many paradoxes and ambiguities of arts sector language. Hull 2017’s outgoing (in both senses of the word) chief exec Martin Green says that these figures are important to convince politicians and the media of the benefits of investment in the arts and culture. He points out that for the entire creative and cultural sector the evaluation is “a weapon, so use it”. At the same time, he says, the next important conversations to be had are about social impact and they can’t as easily be summarised in “sexy figures”. Dr Derek Atkinson points out that for many people, the last thing about the year will be the memories. What if it’s being able to look back and say “That was a great year?” that has the ultimately decisive impact on Hull’s future.

There are several highlights videos. I see two women sat in front of me wiping their eyes and sniffing in unison after one which had also brought a lump to my throat and made me think of my home city of Bradford and adoptive city of Newcastle and all that cultural investment has and hasn’t done for them. There’s a funny video Martin Green took part in, in which some young Hullensians provide an alternative evaluation in distinctive and sweary style. Mostly there are people talking through Powerpoints of tables with varying degrees of slickness and charm. I host a Pecha Kucha event out of the main conference programme in which seven people sum up their highlights in words and pictures and bring the impacts to life in another mode entirely. I think, again, that the point of “Great art” for me is often the ability to translate between different languages and ways of being in the world. The way, for example, a novel by A.S Byatt or a comedy set by Russell Kane, can illuminate and reflect the ways that people can be saying the same thing in such different ways, they can’t hear each other. We need multiple ways, never just one. We need the figures AND we need the stories and we need to be able to recognise that neither of them will ever be the full picture. They’re snapshots not long-term views and even a long-term view would never be the full picture. The figures and the stories need to speak to each other though. Here is another conference in which “The Numbers” and “The Art” are kept separate from each other as if they inhabit different worlds rather than being able to reflect back and forth so that they open each other up. Reveal the depths and the gaps in conversation with each other. I’m not seeing the creativity and innovation that the hosting university institute says it values.

Flicking through the doorstop of the report I see that some of my poems are in there. I interviewed 36 residents, schoolchildren, creatives, random people in a shopping centre, students, about the impact of the year. Got them to do some drawings, come up with some similes, chatted to them. I grouped the responses into themes. Probably the overarching one was “Openness”. Again and again people talked about how they felt they and the city had opened up. People were remarkably consistent in the responses they gave when I asked them to describe Hull as an animal before and after. Lots of people spontaneously said it was a “Sloth” before. They didn’t have to think long, it came to them. Or an earthworm, or a hedgehog. I checked with non-animal similes. Still they said things that were slow and stuck. A single gear, rusty cycle. Again and again the similes suggested they perceived it as having become something faster, more complex and bigger; a chameleon or a tiger, a galaxy of stars, a whole fleet of ships. Something that could reach beyond itself, respond quickly. A broadcasting, beaming satellite. These are also the qualities that Hull is asking for in its leadership and it’s institutions. Responsiveness, openness, being open to multiple views. Being exciting, colourful, looking to the future whilst acknowledging the past. As distinctive as Hull itself and proud of it. For me this has to mean continuing to break down boundaries that the main City of Culture year did, whilst spreading opportunities and empowering smaller organisations and individuals to do things differently. That means being able to have new conversations in new ways and translate between different ways of doing and saying things. Not numbers people over here and artists over there and academics somewhere else. Everybody being valued as a reflector, an analyser, an evaluator, a creator, and willing and able to learn new languages. As with the inclusion of my poems as part of the evaluation, this can mean just one or two people (Thanks Elinor Unwin) being willing to champion a new way and quite a few other people not quite getting it or valuing it but going along with it anyway in hopes it will either quietly go away or culturally transform into something more recognisable. I wish Hull many more conversations as it battles to work with and against a tide of austerity and the ravaging of the structures and skills it will need to carry all the wonderful benefits of the year forward. Truly, they will have to carry on being tigers. Talkative ones.

Hull Tigers

Before, we were stuck,
an apathetic sloth
boring and grey.

A curled up hedgehog,
a grumpy badger,
an earthworm,
stubborn and hiding away.
A reliable chicken
producing the occasional double-yolker,
an ugly duckling,
knowing we were beautiful on the inside
though nobody gave a second look
as we nurtured a complicated, spiky pride.

We were a rusty anchor,
a puttering trawler.

Now we’re a whole fleet of ships,
we are tigers,
not just because of the football team,
proud and fierce, roaring,

we’re like falcons,
spreading our wings and soaring.
Woodpeckers, digging for opportunities,
flamingos and proud peacocks showing off,
parrots who never stop talking.

Before we chugged,
plodded on,
a single gear, rusty cycle,
a Reliant Robin,
a Pacer train
a Volvo

Now we’re a solar powered,
future-proofed velocette,

a shinier, upgraded Intercity,
a Limo.

a beautiful Harley Davidson motorbike,
a shape-shifting chameleon,
a boat-plane,
something exciting that people admire
and copy and like.

Before, we were space-junk,
a peripheral planet like Pluto
where people would never think to go,
a black hole.

Now we’re a galaxy of stars,
pulsing light,
a broadcasting, beaming satellite,
people know where and what we are,

we’re a caterpillar that’s turned into a butterfly

the brightest point in the sky
a Northern Star.


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