• Devonport Column and a special Plymouth night

    Last night, it was a real privilege to witness the rebirth of Devonport Column. The place had been crowded all day apparently, with too many people queuing to be able to make their way up to the top of the newly refurbished tower. Never mind, there will be plenty of time for those who couldn’t get in to come back. We got there in the evening when the tower had been closed in order for the pyrotechnic team to stuff it full of fireworks. The place was going to go off with a bang.

    But before it did, around 9.30pm, there was a magnificent projection show. It is difficult to describe now quite how good it was. For about ten or fifteen minutes, the column itself was used as a screen to show the history of Plymouth and its place in the world from the time of its first opening in 1827. Using words and music and a beautifully crafted video show, we watched both a history show and a cheeky cultural overview, with witty cross-references: John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever (surely a key Plymouth cultural reference if ever there was one) to Scott of the Antarctic, via World War One and even a touch of Kraftwerk (does anyone remember the brief 1977-ish phase of robot dancing in pyjamas in Union Street?).

    The Real Ideas Organisation have been working hard to develop this area, and last night was a celebration of their vision of a restored Devonport. There was a genuine sense last night that this could be the start of something very new and very exciting. Project leader Ed Whitelaw spoke about the mix of people who had attended the day: from the Mayor to local councillors and MPs and the top Navy brass to local people curious both to see the restored icon and also, clearly, to express a sense of ownership of this scheme. This didn’t have the feeling of a top-down, hegemonic arts installation; it felt like an area expressing its identity. If we are to be considered for City of Culture in 2017, then yesterday will hopefully be shown to the judges as an example of what we can do here.

    Obviously these are early days, and Devonport itself has a long way to go before it recovers some of the pride and swagger of the 19th century, pre-Plymouth years. But this, and the restored Guildhall, is a start, and last night’s show should be welcomed by everyone in this city. It was a triumph.

    Oh, and then the fireworks went off.Devonport Column

  • City of Culture 2017 #Plymouth2017

    There’s a lot of activity around Plymouth’s bid for City of Culture status in 2017. I’m absolutely in support of it, and hope that whoever is putting our bid together will be successful. There have been some interesting posts and comments in support of it, particularly recently from YonYonson here, talking about work and activities taking place in different parts of Plymouth. The City of Culture status would give us a great opportunity to profile and boost all the truly talented and exciting schemes which are already underway. In no particular order, here’s my wishlist for the bid:

    Make the most of the library. libraryI used to love Plymouth library when I was growing up, and even though the staff there now are excellent and helpful, it’s an institution which could benefit from some love and attention. If we could make the library the true home of writing in Plymouth, open it in the evenings for readings and writers’ groups, bring in a cafe or a bar to make it a genuinely social place, it could be transformed. With the decline of bookshops and the continued growth of internet buying, there are less and less places for people to gather and browse books and generally think about books. Let’s get rid of all our conceptions of what a library should be, and turn Plymouth Library into the model of a new community-based literary hub, accessible to everyone night and day. If that means taking it out of direct council ownership, then so be it.

    Create a new community space for artists in all fields to use, with room for dance and theatre rehearsals, painters’ studios, musicians rehearsal rooms and recording suites, photographic studios. There are fine theatre and arts institutions in Plymouth, but this would be one to be run by and used by the community itself, not by professional arts administrators. Take a look at the entrepreneurial activities already of Plymouth artists. Vince Lee’s Plymouth Blues Society has its inaugural gig on 7th June and is a great example of collaborative thinking. The Beat Breakers dance group bring their hi energy talents to the Theatre Royal in May. Tribe magazine continues to bring new work by Plymouth artists to an international audience. What links all three of these is that they are artist-led developments. Let’s use City of Culture to celebrate this entrepreneurial spirit by making a permanent base for artists to use and control themselves. (It’s not as though we haven’t got quite a few empty iconic buildings in the centre of town…) The investment in fitting it out would easily be recouped over the long term from the artistic outputs that it generated.

    Bring the sea into the heart of our culture. The quaint new pub sign which the Council has put up celebrating Plymouth as Britain’s Ocean City is all well and good, but I’m not sure what it means. We need to drag the sea into the city, develop the shorefront so that it’s as busy as it used to be when I was growing up, when the rocks and huts at the front were filled with families spending the whole day there with picnic lunches. The Terrace Cafe on the seafront does a wonderful job of combining the perfect view with music and performance, but it and the rest of the shorefront needs the city to physically spend more time there. How about compulsorily purchasing back Drake’s Island and putting in a permanent boat connection and making the island a modern centre of water sports excellence? The wonderful Moby Dick Big Read project spearheaded by the University is a great example of how the sea can inform our culture here.

    Develop an annual Plymouth festival which is run by Plymouth business people – invite energetic people like The Range’s Chris Dawson to spare a bit of their hard-pressed time to give some proper business guidance, creating a financially feasible festival. A properly dynamic Plymouth festival featuring arts, sports, food and crafts could actually make money as well as giving an outlet for our artists and producers. But it would need some commercial minds to run it, because we all know there is not going to be much public money available for anything over the next few years.

    I wish our bid administrators every success in their work. Strangely, despite all the enthusiasm which there is for the bid, I’m not aware that many people know what it actually is – I certainly don’t. Can the administrators be a little more public about their ruminations and share with us all what they plan to submit? I’m sure they’d get a lot of support in return if they shared their thinking! Good luck to them anyway.