Essay of the Week
by Pat Kane
WHILE visiting my mother in Coatbridge last year, I came upon the town’s newest landmark: the Coatbridge Superhero Archway.
At the mouth of the Monklands Canal, two guys were bolting the cast-iron sculpture on to some old pillars. The arch depicts three masked and caped crusaders, surrounded by flora, fauna and the industrial workers of the town’s past. On the way back, I ran down the old canal to the high street. What used to a be slalom ride of broken Buckfast bottles – the green, green glass of home – is now a veritable sculpture park. Witty, outsized objects, riffing on Coatbridge’s heritage as the "Iron Burgh", open out into an amphitheatre that could (on that single day in June when the cloud breaks) be adequately described as Mediterranean.
And here, instead of lost, angry guys swaying and muttering their way home, there were clumps of Glee-like, floppy-fringed teenagers, using this stage to mount their squeaking, shrieking rehearsals for life.
For a town which won Carbuncle Of The Year in 2007, this has the makings of a municipal counter-attack. The superhero arch was inspired and supported by comic book and movie writer Mark Millar, a local lad done good. The sculpture promenade is a thematic extension of the Summerlee Heritage Museum, which elegantly frames a lost industrial past as well as any comparable institution.
There is one more unexpected glint of cultural gold I’ve discovered in my home town (apart from its reserves of excellent pop stars and unstoppable footballers). A very accomplished and influential mover in the Scottish arts establishment told me proudly that his child has just got into Coatbridge College’s performing arts department – "he’s delighted to be there, it’s very highly rated". And on checking, so it proves (which might explain the Glee Kids down at the Canal). Who’d a thunk?
So does all this activity mean that Coatbridge might count as a "creative place"? I ask because I’ve just completed my judging duties on an awards scheme, begun by Creative Scotland this year, which aims to "celebrate and recognise the hard work and imagination that contributes to the rich cultural life of a community, as well as its social and economic wellbeing". It was a fascinating process, and a delight to meet the excited winners. But it’s made me think hard about how we might define a "creative place". Can creativity be conjured out of your fly-blown town by some adroit marketing and branding exercise? Is it right to place an expectation on parts of Scotland that might be doing their best to survive, that they find a way to make themselves sing and dance for passing tourists as well? Or is there something new here about finding untapped sources of optimism and energy in the country – rooted in local action and imagination, rather than the usual political flyting?
The Canadian economist Richard Florida has made a global career for himself by advocating a formula that "technology, talent and tolerance" is what’s required to make your area "creative". Technology meaning a combination of networks and transport, allowing mobility and connectedness; talent meaning universities, start-up zones, cultural sectors; and tolerance meaning a willingness to accept bohemian, non-majority lifestyles, and thus the kind of personal eccentricity that drives innovation. (Florida is notorious for his "gay" index – the healthier your gay scene, usually the higher your creativity quotient). Florida’s template has been criticised for its cookie-cutter approach: the unedifying spectacle of burghers scurrying around looking for their local "3Ts", then handing it over to a branding agency to polish up for the tourist/investment market.
The Creative Place Awards are a fascinating counter to the idea that there is a formula for civic creativity. If any finalist was close to Florida’s 3Ts, it was Huntly – where its head (a German artist) had commissioned a South African artist to rebrand the market town, and whose vision for the moribund central square partly involved turning empty shopfronts into artistic installations.
Creetown, one of the category prizewinners, was also setting itself up as an "art town" – but the link seemed more integral: the local granite mines had attracted acclaimed Japanese sculptor Hideo Furuta, who then redesigned its Adamson Square into a beautiful swirl of grey, glittering carvings. Kilmartin House had built a steady visitor attraction from its neolithic remains, but Prestonpans took the model of a not-for-profit community pub as the basis for its artistic programme. Another category winner, Wigtown, was making the most of the current appetite for readers and writers to find themselves in congenial places, the better to contemplate ideas and experiences away from the digital chatter.
Did St Andrews – which probably fits most of Florida’s categories already – really need to be awarded its category winner prize (towns with a 100,000-plus population), even given its plans were by far the more developed and ambitious? This is perhaps a flaw in the Creative Place approach that needs to be addressed: the extent to which localities can even get to the starting gate of effectively promoting their "creativity" to funding agencies. Those which already have more cultural capital and confidence will be able to make a much more fluent case than those at the hard-scrabble end of Scottish life.
AT the end of the ceremony, I sensed that Andrew Dixon, head of Creative Scotland, had registered this problem – putting a call out to places like Raploch in Stirling (home of the El Sistema/Big Noise project, otherwise losing its funding this year) or areas in Glasgow such as Govan.
Yet his other prompts – to Ullapool, a centre for ideas driven by the energies of new MSP Jean Urqhuart, or to Skye, with its Gaelic College and other festivals – recognises that Scotland might have a particular answer to the "creativity" question: one that comes from the way that island or rural communities draw from language or landscape, as much as from post-industrial communities grappling with their heritage and legacy.
At the ceremony, I couldn’t help quoting the famous MacDiarmid lines: "Scotland small? Our infinite, multiform Scotland small?" But I also recalled what the Channel 4 executive Stuart Cosgrove said when I asked him why he was buying a house in Glasgow’s Dennistoun: "Because there’s a thousand stories in every street." In his 1990s C4 show Halfway To Paradise and his obsessional football broadcasts, Cosgrove exemplifies that approach to Scottish contemporary life that looks for the beauty, the intensity and even the globality in the local.
In a Scotland about to stop the world and get on, we should be looking for ways that the vapours of self-confidence and optimism billowing from political leaders can suffuse every corner of Scottish society. Articulating your local story, and then using that as a resource for all kinds of enterprise – not just cultural and artistic – could be one obvious way to do that.
Yet why should we read "creativity" as meaning only arts, culture and media? The director of West Kilbride’s Craft Town Scotland, one of the Creative Place winners, told me with some pride that they were already a "Transition Town". The Transition Towns movement – comprising 700 places in 35 countries, adhering to shared practices of sustainability – is an example of how the doughty issue of low-carbon living can come alive, as a friendly day-to-day experience.
Its founder, Rob Hopkins, is quite explicit that one of the principles of Transition – apart from building up the resilience and self-sustaining nature of communities, and keeping their supplies as local as possible – is what he calls "inner" transition. People need an "engaged optimism", aroused by acting in concert with their neighbours, to defy hard times.
In Hopkins’ words, "playfulness, creativity and happiness" are key. The ends of a Transition Town might be to get off the treadmill of growth: but the means are carnivals, festivals, galumphing great local initiatives, using all the tools of arts and culture to incite involvement and commitment.
West Kilbride’s winning offer was due to its explicit vision about the role of "makers" as central to the wellbeing of communities. Makers is a broad new term from the US, celebrating the power of craft across arts, technology and the trades. (It could easily trace its origin to Scots: we call our poets "makars", a word close to the Greek root of poetry, poiesis, meaning an act of creation). It was genuinely exciting to hear Crafttown’s director, Maggie Broadley, enthuse about a new kind of "makerism" – putting technical apprentices, artistic producers and older mentors from other industrial eras into the same creative places.
We hear politicians’ abstract words about the "reindustrialisation of Scotland" in a green economy. But initiatives like Crafttown start to herald a new popular culture of ingenuity and daily enterprise in Scotland, which creates a seedbed for sustainable living, via an active, skill-oriented pursuit of wellbeing. This vision of "creativity" moves beyond the arts-media definition, into something like the basic human energy of a nation.
Yet my mind drifts back to my own experiences of place and creativity, and for some reason, it drifts to Girvan. Like many Coatbridgeans in their late 40s, my memory of the Scottish seaside town is full of bitter-sweetness. I shared with a graphic designer friend of mine an obsession about Girvan for a while – not just because of the smelly motorised boats that went round its concrete pond, but its 1972 commissioning of Keith Albarn (cybernetic artist and father of Damon) to build a psychedelic palace called The 5th Dimension (a kind of fairground ride for the mind) on its seafront: I’m convinced that a large chunk of my imaginative development began with me clambering around this unreal structure as a child. If anything is worth a retro reconstruction, it’s the 5th Dimension. (It also shows that Scottish localities reaching out for cosmopolitan artists is nothing new). But it’s an example that proves why the current "creativity" of any place should begin through a recall of the "creativity" that already exists there.
How many stories can we excavate, and perhaps generate, from the massive commitment to pleasure and freedom that the Scottish seaside town represents? Their current travails – in terms of poor employment and drugs cultures – are well known. But anyone who visits them, after they fight back their nostalgic disappointment, can see what a stage they could be for the imagination.
One element of Florida’s mantra – "it’s not new malls with high rents that support creativity, but old buildings with cheap rents" – applies directly to the Scottish seaside town. What could bohos and makers bring to these places? What would it take to drape a string of Brightons down Scotland’s coasts?
YETwhen it comes to my home town, I have to admit that the very idea of Coatbridge even being able to make an argument for itself as a "creative place" has its own poignancy. As a teenager, I found creative enclaves there, for sure: a local library teeming with European and American modernist literature; a school drama department; English teachers, who responded to my expressive hunger; and later, the Masonic halls and local pubs that would allow spotty musicians to mess about for hours. But I can’t deny that much of this occurred in a mild warzone of tall poppy-cutting – where sports were the only cultural expression worthy of a young man; where deviance from the herd was a kind of punishment in advance, for those not wishing to submit to the managed life.
So you explode out of that environment – to Glasgow, its universities, London and then the world (of ideas and of cities) – driven by the desire to shake off the shackles. But that explosion has its own psychological costs and pathologies; and over the years, you find out how many other interesting, idiosyncratic friends simply didn’t have the willpower to break away as freely as you did.
The idea that something like Creative Places – or indeed, the whole approach of a Creative Scotland – mollycoddles people into creativity that it creates an extended kindergarten that protects the real artist from struggle, or the need for do-or-die commitment … Well, it’s a soundbite.
But it’s possible to be in a historical moment where all the boats of human potential rise together – if we find ourselves with enough collective will, and the right tools to hand. Let’s be patient with a good big idea, integrative and sustaining, when it arises.
The standard Scottish snarl would be that schemes like this are bourgeois-bohemian jobs for the bourgeois-bohemian girls and boys: we should subject them to the X-rays of money and power analysis, and find them wanting. Alternatively, maybe this drawing-together of the dots of Scottish social potential is exactly the kind of native innovation we always thought a more autonomous Scotland would be all about. Sometimes, just sometimes, we are the answer to our own prayers.
And in a personal spirit of reconciliation, I urge the good burghers of Coatbridge to get their act together as a Creative Place for next year. With all due respect, it’s about time.
Pat Kane is one half of Hue And Cry, whose new album, Hot Wire, is out in March. His forthcoming book is Radical Animal www.radicalanimal.net