There is a collective sense of opprobrium that festers through the murky topsoil of the internet whenever a working class area does anything that might be worth celebrating. This often manifests in the rather patronising ‘working class lass/lad done good’ mentality, which inevitably smacks of patronisation and an unwelcome pat on the head. Less frequent, yet increasingly prevalent in these times of austerity, is a mass of vitriol and tangible disgust that a location generally perceived as down and out should be valued above anywhere more salubrious and well to do.
This phenomenon reared its ugly head once again on Wednesday when the city of Hull in East Yorkshire was named the UK City of Culture 2017. Most of the journalists who bothered to write about it included some sort of ‘Where even is Hull?’ comment or the now ubiquitous ‘I have more culture in my fridge’ which I think has been wheeled out for every such award since the first Palaeolithic cave paintings were discovered. The reaction from the ever supportive twittersphere and tabloid press was worse still. Search for the terms ‘Hull City of Culture 2017’and you are guaranteed to see images of a very run down, poverty stricken, post-industrial environment with a caption along the lines of ‘What culture?’ – and that’s just the polite ones.
Having grown up on Humberside in a town where Hull was seen as the bright lights, big city neighbour across the river I find this attitude both unpalatable and deliberately ignorant. The negative comments generally fall into one very broad focus which can adequately be summed up in the sentence ‘we do not like poverty’ or more accurately: poor people. Hull like many other primarily industrial areas has suffered sustained neglect and economic hardship for decades after the decline of the fishing industry and the vacuum of capital towards the South East. Despite all this the city has maintained a notable cultural output which includes the internationally renowned Hull Truck Theatre, the annual Hull Jazz Festival, and a vibrant arts scene that has brought the city international recognition.
We have lurched into a mentality in the UK in which a small number of civilised outposts and cities are deemed ‘culture hubs’ and everywhere else is simply a factory for the production of life’s necessities. The Economist cited Hull as being a key constituent of ‘rustbelt Britain’ on October 13, whilst glibly commenting on teenagers in ‘baseball caps and tracksuits wandering aimlessly’ through the city. Not wishing to comment on the average Economist reader’s sense of fashion, I will agree however that Hull has become a site of urban desolation in some areas. Where our analysis should differ is in the despicable suggestion that we should simply ‘turn off the tap’ on these supposedly failing cities, ushering in a period of managed decline. In a city like Hull, which has the largest percentage of people on Jobseekers Allowance in the UK, this would be disastrous.
A radical redressing of how we govern ourselves and our communities needs to take place so that the supposed rustbelt can be turned back into a series of thriving communities. It is no coincidence that many such areas have for generations been Labour heartlands, both at Parliamentary and Council level. Without denigrating some of the great work which has been done down the years to redress ingrained inequality within that party, I think we can safely say that it has not been good enough. Towns and cities like Hull, Hartlepool, Motherwell, and Newport have suffered continuous corruption, poor governance, and outright deception from those tasked with their care. The longer we ignore this element of the assault on working class, the longer we will see such deprivation continue. If we are not able to even celebrate the laudable aspects about these communities such as their unique culture, without devolving into petty name calling and outright prejudice then hope of a united struggle against capitalism will remain simply that, an unrealised hope.
Of course no one is arguing that Hull, or even Dundee, Swansea Bay, or Leicester can match the cultural output of Manchester, Edinburgh, or London – but that is not the point. The reason this kind of prize has any value at all is because it does recognise overlooked communities and silenced voices. As we have seen already with Derry receiving the 2013 prize, this kind of media attention and boost in cultural capital can entirely redress the narrative that surrounds a city. No longer is Derry purely spoken about in the same sentence as Bloody Sunday or sectarian tribalism, it has received attention all on its own for its arts, crafts, and musical output. Such prizes are by no means a substitute for the economic stimulus and complete upturn in representative democracy that these areas require, but they do offer a sense of fleeting aspiration. That is something rather than nothing, and having emerged from one such area of the country I can confirm that for a lot of the people within the region nothing is all too often the only possible outcome.