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Has Coventry's year as UK City of Culture shaken off its Ghost Town past?

The city presents a series of events and performances informed by its beautifully restored venues, and its influential back catalogue

Benjamin Britten at Coventry Cathedral in May 1962, the day before the premiere of War Requiem Photo: Erich Auerbach/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As I attempt to decipher the whereabouts of my blue dot, a woman approaches to offer much-needed wayfaring advice. She’s one of 5,000 Coventry residents who are giving up their time to volunteer as hosts, helping newcomers like me explore the latest offerings from the current UK City of Culture.

This is more than a prestigious title: the accolade – bestowed every four years by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport – comes with an injection of practical support (including cash).

Coventry has been preparing to be on show (City of Culture events run until May) for several years, and it is hoped that the infrastructure that’s been put in place will provide a legacy that lasts long after the blue and black flags have been taken down. Course corrected, I head to the Cathedral quarter, the unofficial cultural centre.

The original Coventry Cathedral was virtually destroyed during the Second World War, when the city was the target of repeated bombing campaigns. Architect Basil Spence’s plans for the rebuild included preserving a portion of the ruins alongside the new cathedral – a permanent reminder of the futility of war.

The cathedral was consecrated in 1962, with Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem commissioned to mark the moment. Now an internationally performed piece, it cements the association between Britten and Coventry, confirming the cathedral’s place in musical history.

In recognition of the 60th anniversary of the consecration, Nitin Sawhney has created a new piece that gives a nod to Britten’s original requiem. Ghosts in the Ruins – a promenade performance that saw audiences move between the modern cathedral and the remnants of the original – was premiered earlier this year, featuring poems written and read by local poets, including the city’s Poet Laureate, Emilie Lauren Jones and its Young Poet Laureate, Hawwa Hussain.

Coventry’s most famous poet is Philip Larkin, who grew up in the city before moving to Hull (coincidentally, the previous City of Culture). Other local alumni include composer Delia Derbyshire, best known for writing the theme music to Doctor Who. (A screening of Deliaphonic: The Myths and the Legendary Tapes of Delia Derbyshire takes place in the cathedral on March 3) and The Specials, whose 1981 Number One Ghost Town painted Coventry in a less-than-flattering light (‘This place is coming like a ghost town / Bands won’t play no more / Too much fighting on the dance floor’).

While it may now be due to a lack of suitable venues rather than too much fighting, tours have continued to exclude Coventry. However, the recent extension to the HMV Empire is helping attract pop and rock acts, and the renovation of Drapers’ Hall has created a beautiful new space for classical, jazz and folk. 

Situated across the way from the cathedral, Drapers’ Hall was originally the Drapers’ Guild clubhouse. Having got through the war relatively unscathed – there are some markings from shrapnel on the entrance pillars – the regency-style building was used as a magistrates court before being mothballed.

Now owned by Historic Coventry, the hall reopened to coincide with the City of Culture celebrations and has just hosted its first classical concert series, welcoming the likes of saxophonist Jess Gillam. Its latest programme includes Jeneba Kanneh-Mason, the 19-year-old pianist and member of the Kanneh-Mason family (March 20), and a series of lunchtime piano recitals held in the ballroom.

Although many celebrated back in 2017 when Coventry won against Paisley, Stoke, Sunderland and Swansea
for the 2021 City of Culture badge, not everyone felt positive.

“At the start, lots of people said that they didn’t think this programme was relevant to them,” says Chenine Bhathena, creative director for Coventry’s UK City of Culture 2021 programme. “We’ve worked with a lot of people to show that culture is for everyone – and that it can help spaces and businesses in different ways.” 

Claire Jackson is a writer and editor. claire-jackson.co.uk
@claireiswriting

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine out this week. Support your local vendor by buying today! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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