Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Nottingham 2023

It has just been announced that Nottingham is bidding to become the 2023 European Capital of Culture. If successful our city would be designated this title by the European Union for a period of one calendar year, during which we would host a series of cultural events with a strong European dimension. For Nottingham, a city ready to take off, its legacy would be life-changing.

Following Glasgow (1990) and Liverpool (2008), another UK city is set to land the prestigious title in 2023, a significant anniversary in the evolving UK-EU relationship:

1963 - Britain’s attempt to join the Common Market is vetoed by Charles de Gaulle. 
1973 - Britain joins the EEC with the instruction that “we should avoid creating a new, semi-permanent rift in British society, between pro and anti Europeans.”
1983 - Michael Foot promises to withdrawal from the EEC, after Labour’s pro-Europe wing splits off to form the SDP.
1993 - The European Union is formed. John Major faces down back-bench rebellion over the Maastricht Treaty.
2013 - David Cameron promises an in-out EU referendum, not anticipating a leave decision.
2023 – A UK city becomes the European Capital of Culture.

It’s a story in itself, with conflict and passion aplenty. The winning destination would not be the first non-EU city to win the title but our responsibility would be unique. What an opportunity to show our European family how much they are loved and appreciated, and to reaffirm that we are still a big part of Europe, and proudly so. In ’79 and ’80 Nottingham were the European Champions. In 2023 we would become a champion of Europe.

So why Nottingham?
We are creators of culture with a large underground scene of crafternooners, writers, artists, poets and musicians, many of whom are producing in private. However, our culture is built on expression and social justice, so it must be experienced. What makes Nottingham unique, and underrecognized, is that we create for purposes other than fame. We are the antidote to celebrity culture because we don’t court it.

We’ve a story to tell, we just need the permission to tell it. Why permission? Because we have an ingrained tradition of underplaying our achievements. In expressing our thoughts, we have been banned (DH Lawrence), ridiculed (E Darwin), called angry (A Sillitoe) or labelled mad, bad and dangerous… (GG Byron). And we are our own worst enemies. The conspicuous are the targets of our tongues and satire, so we tend to hide our talent and it need not be so.

Take Frederick John Westcott, heard of him? Fred was raised on Nottingham’s overcrowded streets in the 1870s. A plumber’s apprentice, he once worked a job at Nottingham Prison and became fascinated with some of the prisoners and their fitness-training, feeding his interest in gymnastics. Fred harnessed his gymnastic skills and performed his first pro gig on Fletcher Gate, as a tight-rope walker’s assistant. He then joined the circus, learning as many acts as he could and, after changing his name to Fred Karno, ended up touring music halls with his large, record-breaking repertoire of comedy acts.

As Charlie Chaplin recalls in his autobiography, “The outstanding company was Fred Karno’s.” Everyone wanted to work in our Fred’s enterprise. With over 30 companies Fred was the man behind a variety of acts that included pantomimes and musical comedies. He was the man that signed a young Chaplin and promoted him to a principle role despite early mixed reviews. Chaplin performed in Nottingham many times before Fred packed him off to Hollywood. It was because of Fred’s tutorage that Chaplin was the most supple and precise of comedians. His film The Kid reflected elements of his mentor’s/Fred’s life.

Our impresario had hit shows across the world and gave big breaks to many other famous performers including Max Miller and the Crazy Gang. Arthur Stanley Jefferson was another of Fred’s boys – you’d know him as Stan Laurel - and said of him, “Fred Karno didn’t teach Charlie (Chaplin) and me all we know about comedy. He just taught us most of it.”

The most ‘Nottingham’ of Fred’s achievements is that he popularised the custard-pie-in-the-face, that traditional act of humiliating and bringing down a man of self-perceived superiority.

But,'Google' Fred Karno and Nottingham barely gets a mention. Yet it’s here that he came of age as a performer. Several of his children were even born here. We have been reluctant to praise our show people, seeing them as show offs. Nottingham is full of people like Fred Karno. People who inspire greatness in others. Innovators who break and change the rules. Unappreciated geniuses like Erasmus Darwin whose poetry provided a theory of evolution years before his grandson. People who leave authority with a pie in its face.

Things are changing. We are getting better at displaying a shared pride in our culture. Nottingham has momentum. We are now a UNESCO City of Literature. We have a vibrant music scene. Our actors are achieving international recognition. And best of all, we are becoming comfortable with this success. To paraphrase Jake Bugg, we are sticking two fingers up to yesterday. Our new working-class heroes are finding their voice. Our digital creatives are innovating new pathways for others to appreciate the next generation. A youthful, cool culture. Nottingham has a personality that’s coming of age.

Most of all, we are sons and daughters of Robin Hood. Regardless of class, we are on the side of the strugglers, wary of the motives of the privileged. Nottingham folk, by nature, have an almost innate duty of artistic protest. It comes so naturally we think nothing of it. From Robin Hood to Jason Williamson we highlight social injustice and often face the oppressors’ wrath for our troubles. Our creations are not manufactured for the man, we are too alternative and important for that. Through our culture we challenge convention, spring radical ideas and change the world. As a European capital of culture we would flower under Europe’s spotlight and inspire an unprecedented future of creativity, one of inclusion, tolerance and justice.

If, in 2023, we become the European Capital of Culture, it will be our people’s hunger for the title that wins over the judges. We want it the most. It’s out chance to finally blow away the last of our modesty, releasing a wave of creativity and radical ideas. Are they ready for us?

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