Tuesday, 5 December 2017

We'll Keep the Red Flag Flyin' High

I’ve never been to Coventry, Stoke-on-Trent or Swansea, and my only experience of Paisley was watching a play one snow-filled evening in early 2013. I’m sure all four places are as deserving of the title of UK City of Culture 2021 as Sunderland is. I won’t begrudge a non-North-Eastern winner, but being a Sanddancer, and therefore a cousin of the Mackems (as well as, for my sins, a lifelong SAFC fan) I am throwing my hat into the ring in support of Sunderland’s bid.

The Sunderland I first got to know over a decade ago is a different place to the city we see at the end of 2017. Thirteen years ago, in 2004, when I started travelling into St. Aidan’s sixth-form on the 35 bus from South Shields, the city was…well, it was an unknown quantity. Making the mile-and-a-half trek between Park Lane interchange and sixth-form in Ashbrooke, twice daily for two years, I began to see the place as more than just home to a football stadium. When I attended Roker Park as a very young bairn, and later matches at the Stadium of Light, there was no need to travel into the city centre itself, especially given that we were always heading home in a northbound direction. In the confines of the SoL (and Roker Park before it) both occupying sites to the north of the Wear, it is easy to forget that Sunderland is an iceberg: two thirds of it lying below the water line. I feel that, in the run up to the DCMS decision on the 7th December, Sunderland probably still occupies such a position for many people—especially those ‘down south’, but even those in the wider region. How many people in Newcastle, Northumberland, North Tyneside, Durham or Middlesbrough  – even Gateshead or Jarrow – have really spent much time in Sunderland? The facetious answer, and I’ve heard it all too readily, is that Newcastle has it all; why would you bother going to Sunderland? I think it’s important that we cease thinking along these lines: partisan tensions between cities which, after all are only thirteen miles apart, are not only old-fashioned and redundant, they are preventing the region as a whole making progress. It’s time to go diving.

Let me be absolutely clear and upfront from the beginning: Sunderland city centre, as well as some of its outlying suburbs, are still materially deprived. The reasons as to why are manifold and do not form the core concern of this blog, but let it be hypothesised that several things have (or, crucially, have not) happened. Recently, seven years of brutal austerity measures have cascaded down from central government to the Labour-ran local authority, Sunderland City Council, which, like so many other local authorities, has had its hands tied. Forced to make savings in one area at the detriment of another, there is resentment and confusion (Witness Brexit, and Sunderland being unfairly lauded as its ‘poster boy’). The same formula is true in Newcastle, as it is in other towns and cities up and down the land, but the consequences are felt most keenly in the North, Midlands and South-West. In Sunderland, the closure of local libraries, museums and domestic violence services – to name just three – are the direct result of this callous government and its lack of concern for ordinary people.

Secondly, the vacuum left by the calculated withering of once-thriving industries such as shipbuilding and mining (did you know that the Wear, not the Tyne, once produced more ships than any other river in the world?) since the 1980s has largely not been filled. The opening of Doxford Park, a 1990-designated Enterprise Zone four miles south of the city, has no doubt stemmed the flow of further emigration from Sunderland, but its physical remove from SR1 has had the knock-on of making the city, at 12 o’clock on any given weekday, void of sandwich and coffee-buyers. I’m not suggesting that a city’s entire economy can or should be propelled by a one-hour sales window of hungry office workers, but there’s a certain illogical premise to situating several thousand of your gainfully-employed populace away from the nucleus of the place they live and work in. The re-development of the Vaux site, then (derelict for a staggering 17 years) into mixed-use office, leisure and retail, can only be a good thing for a city which all-too-often feels like the shutters have been pulled down before closing time.

Sun rise, Roker Beach: A new dawn?

Right, no more negatives! In February this year, my partner and I moved to a flat just north of Sunderland, in the suburban village of Cleadon. Quick bit of history: originally a part of the city until the Local Government Act of 1972 created the metropolitan county of Tyne and Wear, Cleadon was then subsumed into the newly-formed borough of South Tyneside. This is why it still has an SR6 postcode (like neighbouring Whitburn) and Sunderland on the address, despite its bins being emptied in Shields. Equidistant to both Wear and Tyne, however (with its wealth coming from industrial magnates building grand homes here from the 18th century), Cleadon has always felt to me like a hinge point: the liminal space between Geordie and Mackem. As somebody writing a PhD about North-Eastern identity, this makes it an opportunistic vantage point: both for ease of access to the wider county and an ideal spot from which to observe, and participate in, Sunderland’s bid.

When my partner took a job at the University of Sunderland, at the City Campus on the south of the river, I once again started making regular journeys from South Tyneside into Sunderland. A drive of no more than five miles, I feel this year that I have been re-examining my former self. In 2004-2006, sat on the bus going over the Wearmouth Bridge, I had had time to build up resentment for the city and for the wider area. As a hormonal and fickle teenager, more interested in music made in California than Castletown, I had neither knowledge nor inclination to think critically about the myriad, complex reasons why this place seemed so destitute, and so my irrational brain made up its mind: Sunderland was irredeemable and I had to leave. That did, of course, turn out to be a brilliant decision: applying to UCAS in spring 2006, the University of Chester beckoned, and six months later I was 180 miles away in a delightful, middle-class haven in North-West England. I don’t think I ever considered what Sunderland and the North-East would be like over a decade later, nor how I would become actively involved in its creative economy and an ambassador for its cause.

When making the fatal mistake of reading comments beneath Sunderland Echo (and Shields Gazette and Newcastle Chronicle) articles outlining the development of the bid, I have been stunned to see the reactions of some people from Sunderland and the wider region. Ranging from at best antipathy to at worst stereotypical jokes about there being “more culture in a yoghurt pot – har, har”, there is a bizarre (mis-)representation from certain quarters that people would rather nothing happened. To me, that kind of mindset is probably an indirect result of the already-mentioned austerity, but it is not helpful and residents of Sunderland and the wider North-East region ought to realise that this bid has the potential of being transformative for the area. Speaking as somebody with vested interests in Higher Education, yes, but also as somebody who simply wishes the region’s universities to succeed, the following should be obvious: if your student populace (drawn from national and international pools) have further opportunities for work, entertainment and living after their degrees, more of them will feel inclined to stay, rather than feeling compelled by the all-too-understandable lure of ‘brighter lights’ in London or Manchester (or Newcastle).

I can see the appeal. Looking at flats earlier this year, I had initially wanted to be based north of the Tyne. Not necessarily in Newcastle (though I study there, so it would have been easier), I had in mind the feeling that Tynemouth or Whitley Bay would be excellent places to live. I’m sure they are: I have friends in both, and I enjoy visiting them. But, with my partner’s job being in Sunderland, it made sense to live nearer the Wear. When we found the flat in Cleadon, knowing it was a short walk to East Boldon Metro station (itself only a twenty-minute ride into Newcastle), I realised we’d struck very lucky. In a fifteen-minute walk from our front door we can be up on Cleadon Hills, one of the North-East’s most glorious areas of natural beauty, with stunning views over Wearside, Tyneside and right out into Northumberland, County Durham and North Yorkshire. In thirty minutes, or five in the car, we can be at some of the best beaches in the country: from Marsden in South Shields to Whitburn, Seaburn and Roker, there are miles of coastline here which, in my opinion, are much more varied than anything the north side can offer. The one downside to Cleadon is its lack of a decent pub. True, The Britannia does a cracking carvery, but The Cottage is not the bouncing boozer of five years back. But then, two miles away in East Boldon, there are an abundance of watering holes and eateries, especially for a small place. Highlights include the recently-transformed (from sad, sorry and smelly) Sleepers into Beggar’s Bridge, and the stunning wine bar come Charcuterie, Black’s Corner. At the risk of a) this sounding like a food and drink supplement and b) me sounding every inch a man on the precipice of thirty, let us re-focus.

Pop Choir at Fausto: Guaranteed to put a Geet Big Smile on your face

At the end of the summer, we began taking part in the pop choir at Fausto Coffee. Originally in a much smaller, end-terrace shop in Roker, Fausto moved around about the time we did, to a new, purpose-built unit on the seafront. Known for its eclectic range of sporting events and gigs (bike rides, sea-swims and morning fitness clubs sit happily alongside acoustic performances), Fausto is a community-driven café which, I’ve no doubt, would be the envy of everybody from Jesmond to Hackney Wick. Led by the Cornshed Sisters’ fabulous Jennie Brewis, pop choir’s short life has already garnered regional attention, with the group singing live on BBC Radio Newcastle (in support of the Sunderland 2021 bid), with a Christmas performance at Park Lane scheduled for the 16th December. While I haven’t been to every meeting (honestly, I’m feeling withdrawal symptoms having not been for a fortnight now), each Monday I do attend is a joyful opportunity to make new friends, drink good coffee and belt out the lyrics to George Michael and Tina Turner. My eighteen-year-old, NOFX-listening-self could scarcely imagine...

In the city’s other well-known coffee shop, on the other side of the water, Pop Recs has been going strong since 2013. Now onto its second location, the record store come coffee shop come performance space is a genuine grassroots marvel. Set up by the indie band, Frankie and the Heartstrings, and now operating from just around the corner to the bus interchange I used to miserably walk past, Pop Recs is the type of inspirational place that I wish my seventeen-year-old self had had access to. Of course, my seventeen-year-old self was swigging blue pints in Ku and gan mental to The Mercury League in the little room above Pure, so he didn’t miss out too much.

Walking through Keel Square a few weekends back (having attended an excellent, late afternoon performance by The Cornshed Sisters at Pop Recs), we went for a few drinks at some of the city’s newest establishments. The Old Fire Station, having recently undergone substantial structural and cosmetic surgery, is now a bar/restaurant and performance space that – when it’s fully kitted out with its auditorium – will be a fantastic asset for theatre-makers and audiences across the region. The place already feels like the cornerstone of a palpably-buzzing, upcoming cultural quarter, the middle of which is already home to what is known locally as the West End of the North-East: Sunderland Empire. With The Peacock and Dun Cow, two fine boozers brought back to their Victorian splendour, book-ending the area, it’s easy to imagine the light nights next summer being very well spent in this part of town. In fact, the Fire Station and Keel Square as a whole mark for me a bold statement of intent: with new street furniture, public art, fountains and clearly classy entertainment venues all in one space, the real question should be: ‘How much further can we go?’

As I said earlier, there are still some very worrying visible signs of deprivation in other areas of the city. But the feeling I have walking through Sunderland, and enjoying time on its stunning coastline, is that this is a city moving in absolutely the right direction. Whether or not that is enough for it to be crowned the UK’s next City of Culture on Thursday remains to be seen, but what is obvious is that there is huge momentum here and a growing pride across business-owners, artists, musicians and members of the public that Sunderland has the potential to be an absolutely terrific place to live, work and visit. Following Hull’s granting of UK City of Culture for 2017, interim reports already show impressive and wide-ranging benefits to the city, its wider economy and residents’ sense of pride. There is simply no way that, were Sunderland to be crowned the winner in 2021, our magnificent hotels, restaurants, shops, bars and assortment of other service industries wouldn’t gain. As a proud Sanddancer, I am certain this would also translate to increased revenue further up the coast, as well as incentivising tourists to spend time in our other fabulous towns and cities. Grumpy commenters: maybe you want to re-think your cynicism? If people in Newcastle – or Sunderland – don’t want to support that, then that’s up to them, but I’d urge them to brave the thirty-minute South Hylton Metro journey and see what’s on offer. And, if you live nearby and you haven’t paid the city a visit in a while, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Now, if only Chris Coleman can get the football team winning...

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