How to make Derry a better City of Culture


Robbie McVeigh, Fortnight Magazine
Robbie McVeigh asks some hard questions about the real value and impact of the choice of Derry as the UK City of Culture to a nationalist and poverty-stricken city on the very edge of the United Kingdom
The First Day of the Edinburgh Festival is perhaps the most memorable chapter and episode in Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. As his heroin withdrawal sets in, the anti-hero Renton acquires opium suppositories to ease his cold turkey. After a heavy bout of diarrhoea he first loses these in – and then recovers them from – a particularly revolting public toilet. This scene was famously reworked as fantasy in the film of the book. Of course the events of the chapter have no connection with the Edinburgh Festival other than to emphasize with brutal irony how far Leith working class life is disconnected from that particular ‘city of culture’. I experienced a personal echo of the same when I attended a Rangers/Hibs match in the middle of the festival a couple of years ago. As I passed uneasily the busloads of youth from Glasgow drinking Buckfast and five litre bottles of cider before the match, I was struck at the cultural chasm separating both sets of fans from events only a short walk away on the Royal Mile and Princess Street Gardens.
All this raises profound issues in terms of what ‘culture’ is supposed to represent and who it is supposed to speak to and speak for. When Derry was awarded the title of ‘UK City of Culture’ the cultural antinomies were immediately obvious – what benefit in an empty title with no attached resources? Do we really have enough city or enough culture? What reference has this UK title in a city that is politically 80% Irish nationalist and has balanced precariously on the ‘edge of the union’ since partition? What irony that the Saville Inquiry – which finally absolved those Derry citizens murdered on Bloody Sunday of responsibility for their own deaths at the hands of the British State – may have resulted in the award of this celebration of ‘Britishness‘ to the city?
It is only too easy to anticipate 2013 ending unhappily in either a bang or a whimper. On the one hand the ‘peace’ bridge currently under construction presents an all too obvious target for those who are less than enamoured with the notion that this development copperfastens Derry’s identity as a British city; on the other we might unsportingly envisage a year long celebration featuring a selection of failed X Factor finalists.
We shouldn’t be too snooty about this, of course – these too are a part of Derry ‘culture’. And one of the better aspects of Derry is its honesty in this – not 20 yards from the City of Culture offices in Waterloo Place on any given day you will find a company of hard-bitten street drinkers. As yet nobody has tried to move them on as part of our new-found cultural hubris. In truth they are much closer to the culture of Derry than a Farquhar restoration comedy. But Derry also has a bit more than this to offer. From the Undertones to Willie Doherty it has made a genuine contribution to Irish and British and European culture. So there is innovative, relevant and popular culture in Derry to celebrate – however people choose to frame it.
More mundanely, we – citizens of Derry and subjects of Londonderry – are stuck with the project. We will largely pay for it and we will have to negotiate some relationship with it. Given this reality we must ask what the project might deliver to the city. The ‘City of Culture’ initiative makes an explicit promise to regenerate its host city – so in reality will it do anything to regenerate Derry?
The surrounding hyperbole emphasises the fact that this is the first UK City of Culture. But the branding has been around for years in the European City of Culture (ECoC) model. This was the model that gave us ‘Glasgow’s Miles Better’ and a whole series of annual European-wide city-based cultural celebrations that are claimed to have transformed the host cities in a wide range of positive ways. This ECoC model gives us some sense of what a decent ‘city of culture’ project would look like. More specifically there are important lessons from the ‘Palmer Study’ for the ECoC for equality and inclusion.1 While endorsing the notion that the ECoC model can be a genuine catalyst for the cultural development and the transformation of a city, this research also provides a useful, gently reformist framework for measuring the ability of a ‘city of culture’ to frame and address its social objectives.
There are three key areas in a framework for monitoring and evaluating social objectives and projects: access development, cultural instrumentalism and cultural inclusion. These provide a useful gauge for assessing the ability of the Derry City of Culture to connect with people
Access development is fairly simple – it asks if the City of Culture award does anything to improve access to cultural projects and programmes. Here the methodologies are fairly simply – strategies like discounting tickets, providing dedicated transport, free events and events in community venues targeted at a local audience. In Derry the key question will be what strategies are employed to extend the celebration beyond the narrow cultural corridor between the Millennium Forum, the Guildhall and Magee College – as well as getting ordinary people into these venues.
Cultural instrumentalism involves using the City of Culture project as a means of addressing and alleviating social and economic problems. These include community development, social inclusion and, more recently, social capital. Examples here would include workshops for young people aimed at reducing anti-social behaviour, cultural activities developed to convey information about health or social issues and programmes for unemployed people designed to help them rejoin the workforce.
In Derry we need to ask what impact the City of Culture is intended to have in addressing the profound poverty that so characterise the city – the city has the highest level of child poverty in both the UK and Ireland – whichever your chosen national reference. Two thirds of the wards in the Derry City Council area have a child poverty rate of 50% and only three have less than 25%. The three wards with the worst incidence of child poverty have over 90% in each. This aspect of the City of Culture can either be addressed or repressed – it cannot be ignored.
Cultural inclusion aims to extend opportunities for creation to people whose cultural values are marginalised by, or excluded from, the dominant cultural landscape. Though this can have social outcomes, it is primarily cultural or artistic in content. The aim is to make the cultural space more open and democratic. Examples include programmes bringing the cultural work of migrant communities into mainstream venues and initiatives to develop how cultural institutions relate to the local population. In Derry we might ask, for example, what reference the City of Culture will have to the local Traveller community – or indeed that community of street drinkers that congregates so close to the City of Culture offices.
So we have some tools to help us critically engage with Derry as the City of Culture 2013. Of course, some Derry citizens will refuse to engage with such an explicitly ‘British’ project at all. Others will continue to support the project unconditionally. Already some people have responded as if by its very nature it must be a good thing. But the minimalist response which characterises much of the discussion in Derry – ‘It might save a few jobs if nothing else’ – isn’t enough. The City of Culture project should be made to work for any support it receives from the citizens of Derry. It should be able to justify the resources it has already absorbed as well as those it will continue to consume. It should be put on its mettle in terms of the kind of equality and inclusion issues outlined above. When the City of Culture year comes round the key question will be how – if at all – the lives of the people of Derry will be made any better at the end of 2013 by all the energy and resources that will have by then been expended on the project.
1 European Cities and Capitals of Culture: Study Prepared for the European Commission downloadable at http://ec.europa.eu/culture/key-documents/doc926_en.htm
December 25, 2010
Robbie McVeigh is a Derry-based writer and researcher. He is currently researching a project on community tourism in Derry for the Triax neighbourhood renewal project.



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