Coventry: from Ghost Town to city of culture

A lot has changed in the 40 years since the Specials reached No 1 with their song about the city’s demise

In 1981 the Specials mourned that as post-industrial demise gripped Coventry it was becoming “like a ghost town” where “Bands won’t play no more/Too much fighting on the dance floor.” But 40 years on, the city can expect more bands, theatre, performances, poetry and art than at any other time in its history when it becomes the UK city of culture in 2021.

“People are straightening their collars and brushing themselves down,” said the Specials bassist Horace Panter, who insisted the city had come a long way since the band’s anthem to urban decay. “There’s a bit of an underdog vibe here, but scratch beneath the surface and there’s a fierce pride in the city – even if it doesn’t always show.”

The stained glass window in the new cathedral
The stained glass window in the new cathedral Photograph: John Robertson/The Guardian
  • The stained glass window in the new cathedral.

Now Coventry would have a chance to shout about it, said the Brookside creator Phil Redmond, chair of the city of culture judges’ panel. “Sometimes you need a visitor to come along so you can see your own city in a different way,” he said.

Coventry saw off stiff competition from Paisley, Stoke-on-Trent, Swansea and Sunderland, pitching itself as a vote for the future (the average age of Coventry residents is 33, seven years younger than the national average) and filling its bid team with a diverse crowd of young people cannily backed up by a range of local businesses.

Coventry transport museum
Coventry Transport Museum. Photograph: John Robertson/The Guardian
  • Coventry Transport Museum

Coventry Cathedral looms large in the city. Sir Basil Spence’s modernist masterpiece morphs seamlessly into the evocative ruins of the neighbouring St Michael’s Cathedral, destroyed during the blitz. While St Michael’s stands as a permanent memorial to Coventry’s darkest hour, its postwar replacement after the second world war became a symbol of reconciliation.

Speaking to the winning bid team at the council’s offices – housed in the mock Tudor civic building built at the start of the 20th century – Redmond said it was “time to cash the cheques”.

“We know these are challenging times and we can’t rely on the public purse,” he said. “But we also know that every pound invested in culture brings a return. Culture is part of the answer post-Brexit. That’s your prize, that’s what you have to go after.”

The Lady Godiva statue
The Lady Godiva statue in Coventry. Photograph: John Robertson/The Guardian
A statue of Sir Frank Whittle, inventor of the turbojet engine, who was born in Coventry
A statue of Sir Frank Whittle, inventor of the turbojet engine, who was born in Coventry Photograph: John Robertson/The Guardian
  • A statue of Sir Frank Whittle, inventor of the turbojet engine, who was born in Coventry, and the Lady Godiva statue

Having had a ride on the old Co-op sleigh into Santa’s Grotto in the Transport Museum, the arts minister John Glen said the city’s potential was one of the reasons behind its victory. “If you look at the success of Hull, it has been transformational in the sense of civic pride, but also how people view culture and the arts,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what your background is – everyone can benefit from the city of culture.”

Those who have been working at the cultural heart of the city could barely contain their elation at the news. Roger Medwell, chair of the Transport Museum, said he hoped the prize would make Coventry into the destination it deserved to be – not just somewhere to pass through on the way to somewhere else. “The M45, the M1 the M6 – people go to Birmingham, but they don’t see Coventry,” he said.

The Herbert art gallery
The Herbert art gallery. Photograph: John Robertson/The Guardian
  • The Herbert art gallery

“I think part of the problem is our parents didn’t like the way the city was rebuilt after the war,” said Medwell. “But it’s a wonderful city, it’s a city of fairness and fair play – and it needs to be put on the map.”

Stand still long enough in Coventry and someone will tell you it was the home of the legendary Lady Godiva and played a central role in the War of the Roses. But the city’s bid also seeks to recognise more recent history, such as its postwar pedestrianised shopping area, the first to be built in the country. As part of its celebrations, it plans to put a 2.2-mile poem along its unlovely ringroad. “I loved that,” said Redmond.

St Mary’s Guildhall in Coventry city centre.
St Mary’s Guildhall in Coventry city centre. Photograph: John Robertson/The Guardian

After the success of Hull – which has received an estimated £1bn of investment, a £60m economic boost and a huge uptick in arts participation as the 2017 city of culture – it’s little wonder that the council leader, George Duggins, looks like the cat that got the cream. “Hull has been amazing but I have promised we will do even better,” he said. “And I’m confident we can do it. Coventry is a city that delivers.”

What its inhabitants will make of the installations and performance art that ensues remains to be seen, but on Friday they appeared excited about the four-year ride ahead.

Khaled Dalloul, manager of Falafel Corner
Khaled Dalloul, manager of Falafel Corner Photograph: John Robertson/The Guardian
  • Khaled Dalloul, manager of Falafel Corner.

“There has definitely been a more upbeat mood in the city, especially when they try our falafels, you can feel it,” said Khaled Dalloul, 22, manager of Falafel Corner. “At the end of the day, people just want to do what makes them happy, and it’s nice to be a part of the city that won the city of culture.”


Alexandra Topping and Jamie Grierson

The GuardianTramp

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