By Kenn Taylor
I happened to read that quote just before I met Leanne Buchan to talk about Leeds’ cultural strategy and its bid to be European Capital of Culture in 2023. The quote is from the cultural critic Raymond Williams who, like me, was the child of a railway worker and the first in his family to attend university.
Leanne asked if I wanted to write something for the development of the strategy and this quote remained ringing in my ears. I considered writing something quite formal, based on my professional experience, but I’d already kind of done that here. So instead I thought I’d do a more personal response to the very good question, what does culture mean to you?
It’s hard to remember when I first became aware of the word culture as it is used in this context. Though I do know one early point must have been when Liverpool, which I grew up on the fringe of, announced its bid around 1999 to be European Capital of Culture in 2008. As a teenager, my understanding of culture was very much based around films, music and magazines, to me the stuff that made life more interesting. Even if I didn’t really know what such a bid was all about, in an area much maligned by the rest of the country, it was exciting. It seemed like it might help change things, that there might be more to see and do and be part of.
Over subsequent years, what culture meant to me was a slow opening out of ideas and things, places and people and getting to grips with all of that. Sometimes however ‘culture’ seemed a remote and inaccessible world. One dominated by a small circle of people who lived in a different part of town or far away in London. It was exciting. And it was difficult.
In a deprived city like Liverpool in the 90s, the question was asked even more than now in our post Credit Crunch times, ‘Why focus on culture? What about other things in the hierarchy of needs like food and shelter?’ To me, because it opens up the potential to tell stories and to ask questions, to make and do and change, even sometimes in things like food and shelter. Culture is not a panacea, but it’s something that represents an opening out of possibilities in a way that few other things do.
Liverpool leading up to and being Capital of Culture was exciting. And it was difficult. Authority and grassroots, mainstream and alternative, local and international, labels we give each other and make ourselves. Each claiming to be the ‘real’ culture when, to me, exactly what is culture in a city is the tension, the dialogue, the call and response between all of these. Hosting the title was grist to this mill, acting as a powerful catalyst for creation and debate. In enabled me and others to ask what did it mean to us and how do we make sure we’re heard?
On January 1st 2008, we joked ‘Well, I guess we’re cultural now’. It was the process though, before, during and after that year, the ups and downs and the conversations which I remember most now and that were the most important. These were the things which made people think and change locally, nationally and internationally, more so than the big headline events and pictures which get pulled out for brochures, though they were fun too.
Culture became a very big part of my life, even now years later, here I am still thinking and writing about it and you know, it’s still exciting and it’s still difficult. Working with artists, making things happen, working out an idea and seeing it come off, from a workshop to an exhibition to a book to a major event or a piece of public art. Getting to these end points can be a challenge but, as often, it’s the doing it, not the finished thing, that is the most exhilarating aspect, even if it doesn’t seem so at the time.
As I see it, so much of culture in the end is about ideas and stories and in particular, about whose ideas and stories get told and to whom. If you control the ideas and the stories, you control everything. That’s why it’s important to me that people at all levels are given genuine opportunities, space and platforms to develop and express their voice. Otherwise the voice of culture risks becoming a stale echo.
If culture is one of the most complicated words in the English language, then writing a culture strategy is an unenviable task. It also means that this co-production process that has been set in motion by Leanne and her supporters is then perhaps the only thing to do to make one. Being open like this is a risk and a challenge. It could go in all sorts of directions. That’s why it’s cultural. The more people who take part, the more difficult it might be, but also the more exciting. More cities should do it. As to 2023, bidding for Capital of Culture is a lot more difficult than bidding for the Olympics because it’s much less clear what exactly as a city you are expected to deliver, but that’s also why it is more exciting.
I started this with a quote from a Welshman I admired and I’ll end it with another, from Nye Bevan, which sums up to me why culture is important and even more so why making sure that the voices we hear in culture are not narrow: ‘This is my truth, tell me yours.”
This piece was published by the Leeds Culture Strategy Initiative in May 2016.