Long Reads

Ghost Town

Coventry's suprise City of Culture win 31 minute read

Tears. Screaming. Shouting. Dancing. Surprise?

This is a scene from the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry’s city centre, yet could easily be mistaken for a World Cup host announcement. I am watching from London, and yet I can’t see the screen for my eyes are filled with tears. Coventry, the city I knew for the first 18 years of my life, has just been awarded City of Culture for 2021.

Every time I watch the video I am taken aback. Coventry is a city which quite literally rose from the ashes. Bombing during World War Two destroyed many of the buildings in the centre, including the old cathedral and more than 4,000 homes. Time and time again, it’s evolved to survive against all the odds – now, the caged bird can sing.

Coventry’s new title has seen places such as Hull and Londonderry thrive in times of economic uncertainty. For one year, it will become the UK’s capital for theatre, dance, music, art, and anything in-between. As Coventry gears up for 2021, I consider what the award will really do for the heart of the Midlands.

The title is awarded to a UK city for one year, in order to boost its social and economic status. Developed by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the title is inspired by Liverpool’s success as European City of Culture back in 2008. Aside from monetary benefits, the project aims to bring communities closer together using culture, and boost grassroots artistic talent.

Jen Marscheider, Marketing Manager for the Coventry City of Culture Trust, explains why she got involved in the bid.

“I’ve always been a participant in all cultural things, it’s been a passion of mine throughout my life. I knew that the wheels of Coventry’s bid had started turning, so when I saw this job come up I knew it was a bit of me. I knew regardless of whether we won or not, it was going to be one of those jobs that you never forget.”

Previous winners have included Derry-Londonderry in 2013 and Hull in 2017, and many other cities tried and failed to make the cut. Their bids alone can come at a big cost to citizens – Swansea, one of Coventry’s competitors for the 2021 title, spent £280,000 on their campaign. However, this is the second time they’ve lost out to city of culture, after failing to top Hull in 2017.

The economic impact of Coventry’s win could mean a momentous change to the way its people live. In plain numbers, the city will receive:

  • 2,116 new jobs
  • £200m in tourism from 2018-2022
  • £14m in direct hotel construction
  • £5m from growth of arts and SMEs (Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises)
  • £2m in research
  • £106m from the tourism impact of 2021, plus £95m from the build-up and 2022
Simon, a postman and bassist for 2-tone band Special Brew, and Antony, a peace poet, chat about what the city of culture win means for Coventry.

“We don’t want to simply have a big party and then just be left with a few battle scars” says Marscheider. “Coventry needs to change for the better. We’d rather have five small-scale events that impact communities stuggling to engage with the arts than a massive event for 100,000 people in the city who have already been attending events like that in the centre.”

Peace and reconciliation

During the Second World War, Coventry was the main target for one of the deadliest bomb raids of the entire conflict. According to Coventry City Council, it was the single most concentrated attack on a British city during the blitz, as revenge for the RAF’s attacks on Munich. It would change the city forever.

On 14th November 1940, almost 500 Luftwaffe bombers descended upon the city. Coventry lost 71 factories, 43,000 homes, its central library and market hall, shops – and perhaps most famously, the Cathedral Church of St Michael. This was known as Mondscheinsonate, or Operation Moonlight Sonata.

When people talk of Coventry, this is often what they focus on. “The City of Culture is an opportunity for us to address our poor image. Everybody knows the history – bombed during the Second World War, then the planners got hold of it” says Labour councillor Ed Ruane. “It’s an opportunity for Coventry to shout up and be proud of its own city.”

Much of the literature I read about my home city tends to dwell on the events of 1940 – when it is so much more than that. This is what residents have been trying to prove for years – perhaps the City of Culture label will cement this.

I will refrain from talking too much about this night. I am not sure whether any of my distant relatives died that night – I’ve never asked, and I don’t want to.

Now, labelled as a city of peace and reconciliation, Coventry is still attempting to rebuild itself, both physically and mentally. For Ruane – a councillor for Henley, one of the most underprivileged areas in the Midlands – the label is loose.

“We keep saying that we’re a city of peace and reconciliation, but what does that mean to a young person growing up in Coventry, in a time when youth crime and knife crime is increasing?” he says. “If that’s not people’s experience, I think it’s a bit dangerous sometimes. If we’re not reflecting what people see or feel on a daily basis it becomes empty rhetoric.”

What is considered ‘culture’ is inevitably subjective. For me, it’s music. The city has always been known for an innovative and thriving music scene – something which I was brought up to love. My own father is still part of a ska band, named Special Brew after a Bad Manners song no doubt, and taught me to love the genre Coventry is most famous for – 2-tone, a style which amalgamated ska and punk rock. They were the first band I ever saw live; the genre has been engraved into my being ever since.

Special Brew formed a significant part of my life, and undoubtedly. my father’s. As I write this, he’s in the studio rehearsing with the rest of the band members. It was one of the first things that came to my mind when I thought about why Coventry deserved the City of Culture title.

2-tone is far more than simply a music genre conceived in Coventry. The Specials put the city’s music scene on the map –  it doesn’t take much thinking to work out that tracks such as Ghost Town and Concrete Jungle are inspired by events and architecture in the city. Together with other musicians such as The Selecter, their lyrics say everything – about racial harmony, disparity, and utter boredom in Coventry’s Thatcher years. It’s evident even in the colour schemes of the city centre. “Coventry’s architecture has the sort of grey pallor that people hate. It’s almost like a metaphor – if you mix black and white together, it’s grey… Coventry is the very symbol of what a multicultural city is” says Owen.

Simon Ward, postman and bassist of the band, is another Coventrian with high hopes for the city. Like many, he grew up around some of the best venues in the Midlands – most of which have sadly disappeared. He hopes that the City of Culture will revive what once was a thriving live music world.

Simon Ward, bassist for 2-tone band Special Brew, chats about his journey into the genre.

 “The first gig I ever went to was at the Apollo Theatre – we went into school late the next day because we’d queued up for tickets and our picture was on the front of the Telegraph” he recalls.

What many people don’t know, including myself at one point, is that the Apollo stood where the Transport Museum now shines. Although the museum attracts thousands of visitors each year to learn about the industry, it took away another avenue of culture.

“The Apollo was a really good theatre, but it’s a bit of a double-edged sword. It was a real shame that it was knocked down, but the transport museum is a fantastic asset for the city. The motor industry needs to be celebrated as it’s a huge part of our history here.”

Despite the demolition, Ward is optimistic for his hometown. “The City of Culture is designed perfectly for places like Coventry. It’s all about celebrating what you’ve got – we have amazing buildings, places, people, and history. We haven’t been great at celebrating that in some ways, but winning this will hopefully galvanise organisations and bring all of those people together in a uniform way of thinking and take the city forward.” And like many in the Belgrade Theatre in that historical night in December, Ward was in a state of euphoria when he heard about the win.

“I watched it live when they announced it on the One Show. I jumped out of the chair cheering, my kids were laughing at me. I thought it was amazing – it was like the Olympics” he smiles. “All I could see was positivity. Anything that celebrates and encourages people to do something together and share something with people they might not have before is amazing.”

Coventry has suffered two major attacks in its existence – destruction of homes and public spaces during the Second World War, and destruction of its motor industry in the 70s and 80s. For many, the City of Culture is an opportunity to showcase everything else Coventry has on offer, and overshadow its catastrophic past – but without forgetting it.

Despite a unanimous decision from the judges, it seems that Coventry and its residents must work extraordinarily hard to prove that they’re worthy of the title – the award is not enough to convince some. Back in December 2017, The Coventrian reported that a well-known local poet had written a response to a Daily Mail article which collected negative tweets about Coventry’s win and displayed them in front of a nation. It was Antony Owen, a poet who grew up adjacent to the Browns Lane plant in Coventry, a factory made famous as the site of all Jaguar production until S-Type manufacturing moved to Castle Bromwich.

“I grew up on proper blue-collar, working-class streets. You saw blokes driving awful cars like cortinas, polishing them like their pride and joy on a Sunday, and then going to work in the week to make all these beautiful cars… there’s a sort of poetry in that” he says.

Owen smiles as he recalls Coventry’s illustrious industrial past, and the effect it had on his family.

“Everything you can think of was in Cov. We had toolmakers, welders, drill operators…people came to Coventry to learn skills. Courtaulds, Mayflower, Jaguar, Hillman, Talbot – it all went. It’s been such a desecration of my childhood to go back and see what Browns Lane looks like now. It’s got no soul.”

“The Jaguar produced families as well as parts for cars. For me, it represents what a city can be – everyone working together to make parts that make something work. It’s a kind of industrial seed that made my brothers and I proud to come from here.”

The city’s dwindling motor industry is something that the City of Culture could do well to improve. In 1911, 61% of jobs in Coventry were in mining and manufacturing – now, it’s just 11%. And with Jaguar Land Rover’s further cuts to production and extended shutdowns, it creates a level of uncertainty to the city’s future – something the City of Culture team are changing.

“One thing with the city of culture is that you have to remind yourself of its absolutely transformative impact. But at the same time, it’s an arts and culture project – it’s not going to solve world peace” Marscheider explains. “Whilst we can’t fix the decline in the motor industry that has happened everywhere, we’re going to be the UK centre for producing batteries for electric cars, which will reinvigorate green transport all around the country and even wider.”

Though the industry isn’t what it once was, Coventry’s transport museum is a snapshot of history in which I spent many of my school days exploring. It’s the focal point for first time visitors and locals alike, and contains the largest collection of vehicles in public ownership.

I cannot say I am as proud of Coventry’s public transport system as I am of its motor museum. To put things into perspective, the distance between my family home and Coventry city centre is 7.1 miles. Often, my bus ticket home is more expensive than the train I’ve just travelled on from Euston. It costs £5.10 for a single bus ticket, and £8.00 for a return. In London, travellers can now make unlimited bus and tram journeys within an hour for just £1.50. Why is this the case in the capital, and not nationally?

Yet despite this, there are plans in place for a light rail link between the railway station and city centre attractions, to coincide with Coventry’s year in the spotlight. Sure, the trains are free for the time that it serves as a temporary link – but only until a fully-fledged £6m light railway is installed, and who knows who’ll be able to afford to use it.

To add salt to the wound, the last train out of Coventry to the surrounding areas of Nuneaton and Bedworth departs at 21:42 – meaning for residents outside the city centre, some culture will never be accessible for them. The Ricoh Arena, home to the London Wasps RFC and Coventry City Football Club, is arguably one of Coventry’s most well-known features. Despite the potential it holds to engage the surrounding areas, it misses a vital number of audience members – simply because they’re missing a way to get home. Trains passing through the Arena immediately after matches and gigs do not stop at the station – they simply can’t cope. With a capacity of just 75 passengers, and one train per hour in either direction, it needs a drastic change.

Streets of culture


As Coventry prepares to be the focal point of the country, it’s important that organisers and participants remember the city’s smallest neighbourhoods. For Marscheider, the City of Culture’s impact starts there.

“We want to get disengaged communities talking to their neighbours. We want people to feel like they’re part of a community, wherever they live” she says.

Tricker explains that for him and many others, there are still many uncertainties about who the City of Culture will truly benefit. “I fear that elements of it will turn into a vanity project for our local career politicians who care more about their own status and well-being than that of the good folk of Cov… I want to be optimistic and positive about it, but it is challenging when there’s so little transparency from our city leaders.”

Money talks, and the economic benefits of the bid were perhaps the most eye-catching for some. “The real reason the council put in the bid for City of Culture was primarily as another way of drawing down government funding. Coventry has demonstrated the necessity for a cash injection of government funding to boost the city centre primarily, but also the city overall” says Ruane.

Sadly, when most people think of cities, they look to the centre. Before I moved to London, I never even considered going south of the River Thames – a complete misjudgement in my own right, but a similar story rings true in other cities. In Coventry, as soon as a visitor exits the train station, they’re guided by a row of trees and pale concrete slabs to Warwick Row, and ultimately the heart of the city. Ruane, a Birmingham native, seconds my observation. “One of my first experiences of Coventry was the Ring Road. If you’re new to Coventry, it takes you very quickly from A to B, but you skirt around the city” he says. “Birmingham did away with large sections of their ring road in the 70s and 80s – we’re playing catch-up.”

Streets are what makes a city. Literally, and figuratively. In the grand scheme of things, Coventry is a small city, yet one of the most diverse in the country, so it’s no surprise that it took the City of Culture crown. Even in its smallest circles, it sets an example of how a diverse, modern city should be. 33% of its population are from an ethnic minority, with an estimated 140 different languages spoken in the city. The youth population is where Coventry’s multiculturalism stands out the most, as more than 40 first languages are spoken by 50 or more children in its schools. It’s these people who make the city stand out, and they’re the ones who need to reap the rewards of 2021.

“People have got their heads up more because of City of Culture. People use the term ‘multi-cultural’ so loosely but I think the city is an organic definition of it” says Owen. “You find it in the bookies, the street corners, the cafes… that’s where you find your poems – not at a poetry night with some middle-class toff reading them out.”

2011 Census: Economic activity (all persons), Coventry

Despite most of the focus being seemingly on the city centre in terms of events, Marscheider explains how Coventry’s culture is found much deeper than that. She recalls one of the most poignant moments of her campaign, in a tiny community centre in Hillfields.

“It was a food workshop – there was an African lady who was a skilled fruit carver teaching one group, and another group was making bread. We were given flour, water and not a lot else. No matter what culture you come from, what your background is or what your beliefs are – everyone needs to eat and food is part of everyone’s culture.”

“It wasn’t an event with hundreds of people together. Just 30 real people, all from very different backgrounds breaking bread together. And it was wonderful.”

I spoke to many residents on Facebook who addressed the need for more information on how they can immerse themselves in the preparations. Aside from keeping in the loop through social media and signing up to the Coventry 2021 newsletter, Marscheider explains that even the smallest (ways of involving yourself) helps gear the city up for its year in the limelight. “Firstly, you don’t need our permission to do something in the name of City of Culture” she says. “This isn’t a title that just belongs to 7 people who work in this office – it belongs to Coventry and you should wear it as a badge of honour.” And it’s never too late to speak up for what you think should be in the cultural calendar, she says. “There are still opportunities to submit any ideas you may have – we get emails on a daily basis and put them all into a large spreadsheet.”

It’s not just the locals who’ll benefit from Coventry’s time as the cultural capital. For it to truly be a winner, it needs to have a lasting impact on the nation. “40 million people live within two hours’ travel time of Coventry. Even if 10% of those people come to visit in 2021, that’s 4 million new people exploring these places of absolute wonder – and then telling their friends” says Marscheider. “I’m really excited about a change in perception – when you tell people that you live and work in Coventry, they won’t pull a face any more.”

I am Jaguar

I was made in Cov,
By men who drank ale and cocoa.
Who lived as near as Browns Lane
And dreamt exotic dreams.

On Sundays, men petrol-mowed
Their tiger-striped lawns
Then drove to church
In bashed-up cars and suits made in China.

I was made in Cov,
By women who made cocoa and drank rum,
Who came as far as Jamaica and Galway
And dreamt basic dreams.

Sewing themselves into the fabric
Of fragrant leather and city.
Sending cats from Cov
To purr in cities you only saw on telly.

I made men like Ravi proud
When his shammy reflected his face in me.
In white paint he saw the sky blue
Of his eyes, a true Cov kid
Who told his son to follow his dreams
As he waxed his knackered Cortina.

I made women like Maggie proud
On her last day when she turned to wave
And they all chipped in
For her to leave in elegance in a Daimler.
She wept at the gates when they opened,
Wishing them well as they closed.

I was made in Cov,
On the lane heeled in tourniquets of smog,
Past paper boys who chase me
On hand-me-down-choppers.
Their mothers and fathers made us both to perfection.

I am Jaguar,
Made in Cov by two-tone hands.
To a symphony of Le Mans Francais
I say I am Jaguar.

Sent from Cov
And made in Britain by a blue-collar sea
Which whispered me into this shell,
Shells of many colours.

I am Jaguar,
I am Cov.

By Antony R. Owen

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