Coventry: The new Berlin!?

I spent a few days in Berlin recently. I hadn’t been there since the early 90s, back in the early post Wall frenzy. The place then was ablaze with activity and ideas. It felt like every second person  was opening a bar,  a gallery or starting a new political party.

Why was that?

During the Cold War the Federal Government stuffed the city with migrants from all over Germany and beyond, attracting them with tax breaks and low rents. The idea then was to plant a liberal society squarely within sight of the machine-gun towers of the East. The result was a city of fabulous decadence. The result now is a city that feels thrillingly alive – a place of energy, enterprise, art…

Coventry, too, is a city of dynamic inward migration.

At school in the 70s there was barely a person in my year whose grandparents had been born in the city. We were then as we are now –  a place where it feels like everyone – or almost everyone – is from somewhere else, bringing with them life, spark, energy…

When I left Cov in 1980 the life was being sucked out of the city faster than an emptying bath.  A  perfect storm of global forces had pole-axed Cov so that for the next 30 years the ‘story’ of  Coventry  would be one of retreat, decline, retrenchment.

Some of this is visible, residually,  in the wonderful paintings of George Shaw.

A friend and I were talking recently about the artist’s big exhibition at the National. My pal was particularly taken with the picture  ‘Uncovered cover’ a beautifully resonant evocation of a quiet corner of Tile Hill Wood. The friend – who grew up in Tile Hill – recalled (with something very close to fondness!) being beaten up on this very spot as an 8 year old. We both, too, love Shaw’s ‘Bus stop’ – so eloquent of all Cov childhoods, and the acres of time wasted  at them.

But it seems to me – and this is the really important thing – that Shaw is documenting a Coventry that is already gone, already passing…

The mood when I returned in 2005 was different . The building of the magnificent second space at the Belgrade just one of the many symbols of a new boldness, a new confidence in the world.

It is now utterly transformed.

Cities are, as much as anything, ideas about themselves. London is the ‘coolest city on the planet’. Manchester ‘works hard, parties hard’. Bristol is ‘laid back city’.

For years we flinched – like my friend in the woods – waiting for the next blow to fall.

Not any more.

Changing the record

36 years ago – fed up with waiting for big record companies to come calling – Coventry’s punk and new wave bands were quick to embrace the new DIY recording  revolution. Two records – Cherry Red’s SENT FROM COVENTRY  (featuring one band I’d just been sacked from), and the home-produced BOYS AND GIRLS COME OUT TO PLAY (featuring another I had hastily formed) put Cov bands firmly under the national spotlight.

It was an early example of something I now think is absolutely fundamental.

In culture world the dynamic used to go like this: The artist proposed, the public reacted. Active artists. Passive audiences.  Not any more…

If you don’t like the record  – change it! And this seems to me the message for City of Culture 2021.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art in Berlin we went to an exhibition of new work by the German artist Erwin Wurm.

My daughter complained bitterly but once there loved the exhibition’s centrepiece – a room full of Wurm’s famous ‘One Minute Sculptures’. With these the artist leaves hints to the public about how to proceed – but the idea is that we climb onto the different podia and become part of the artwork, standing for one minute with props left for the purpose. It was hilarious and uplifting, the most joyful atmosphere I’ve ever experienced in a gallery.

And this is my point. Audiences in 2016 want to be, and now are part of the story. Don’t just change the story, become it!

Like the 4000 naked bodies of Spencer Tunick’s Sea of Hull. The residents of London Road in the musical  London Road. Or the two East European break dancers who walked into Chris O’Connell and Julia Negus’s Shopfront Theatre and put their story more or less directly onto the stage. (That’s TRAUM by the way – the most exciting thing I’ve seen in a theatre this year).

And it’s not just about story. Or becoming the story. It’s about the size and shape of the story.

For the entirety of my writing life I have tried to tell naturalistic stories on a realistic canvas. But I think now audiences are looking for something bigger, much bigger. That’s why two of the things I’m excited about at the moment are exactly this  – a theatre piece about 10 decades of migration to the City…and a large-scale celebration of Cov’s astonishing melting-pot music culture..

Berlin and Coventry. Not much in common, superficially. But. In a country famously resistant to Ideas, Coventry – like Berlin – has had rather a good one:  to reform itself on a foundation of education, new technology, gaming, art…

The Coventry of 2016 is a more exciting place than it’s ever been in my lifetime:

59 minutes from London . Rents cheaper than Berlin. Great bars.  Cool universities. For the first time since Gibson’s Plan and Wilson’s White Heat, Coventry feels – genuinely – like a city of the future…