One way or another, Sent To Coventry, the new reality show combing the city for wannabe show-stoppers will have an impact on how people view the place. Whether good or bad, STC will no doubt be the biggest thing to hit Coventry in a long time.
In cultural terms, Coventry could be described as the Dresden of the West Midlands. The city’s landscape remains scarred by the mass bombings of WWII, carried out in revenge for the allied firebombing of the similarly medieval German city (as recorded in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five). Coventry was decimated by the attacks and much of its heritage was wiped out in a single night. Consequently, much of it had to be rebuilt in 70s-style modernist concrete, turning much of it into a Ballardian horrorshow, complete with criss-cross inner ring-road where cars take a daily death race and subway underpasses connect isolated grass roundabouts, some of the only green inner-city space, floating within the orbiting traffic belt.
There are many reasons to dislike Coventry: it has a regular listing in Crap Towns, an annual compendium of the worst places to live in the UK; the people are depressed in every sense because career opportunities are declining day-by-day to the extent that I’m just waiting for a nervy Midlands Today presenters to sigh deeply into their chest, fold up their papers and blow their brains out on live TV, rather than have to report another downturn in the local economy. The city also has one of the highest uptakes of food parcels from the Trussell Trust because people cannot get by on their benefits alone which threatens to further increase the number of homeless people living in the subways and under the notorious/iconic ring road. So severe is the uptake of food parcels in Coventry that the city was the subject of report by the BBC and a lengthy article by the Orwell Prize-winning Guardian journalist, Amelia Gentleman. There is also the high crime rate, ranging from the serious to the ridiculous, such as the lady who famously put a cat into a wheelie-bin. The cat was fine.
It’s not all bad though. As host for many of the Olympic 2012 football matches, Coventry enjoyed the substantial cash boost of half-empty stadiums and was granted a patch of grass outside the Coventry Transport museum (which, if you love cars, is well worth a visit) and some plant-holding football statues on the Wyken roundabout. And if you like violence (the people of Coventry love a fighter) there is a perpetually-struggling football team squatting in the Ricoh stadium, but if that’s too tame for you, there is always the Coventry Blaze, one of the best (hardest) ice hockey teams in the UK, and although the players are almost exclusively American/Canadian rejects, we’re happy to have them. There is also the huge blue monolith of an IKEA, that’s not really a substantive point but people fucking love IKEA – and it’s cheap.
For too long Coventry has been forced to trade on shell-shock tourism of the bombed-out cathedral, on this legacy of walking wounded in much of the cultural and historical promotion of the city, but new generations and new audiences demand a “new” future, something that is their own and reflects their current ways of life.
One of example of this is the EU/Big Lottery-funded FarGo project which aims to turn Far Gosford Street, a diverse but relatively divided area, full of wandering students and staggered drunks, who fail to walk in column and simply pick fights with fellow travellers, into a mini-strip of Camden Town (this could be both a good and a bad thing). There is already a great range of businesses and local amenities there, with plans afoot to include music shops (a brave move in the climate), bespoke clothing outlets and other indie ventures. By contrast, the current economy of “Far-Go” is based around a few independent retailers and the rolling of lushes (muggings) so as the students are robbed, they claim on their parents’ insurance and everyone buys booze all the time and so this knifepoint micro-economy keeps turning, though it is hardly an example of sustainable growth.
It will always be a struggle for any crap town to regenerate itself in one go, but by way of precedent, consider, at a stretch, Berlin. Mostly thanks to David Bowie and a burgeoning drug culture, it became notorious in the seventies for an end-of-the-world, squalid elegance, influenced in no small part by the decadent excess and faded glamour of the cabaret years. But even the swinging undercurrent of 1930s Berlin was simply a fallout from the glory days of the Weimar Republic and the inherited might of Prussia. Even now, Berlin is a relatively down-at-heel city which still attracts millions of visitors and despite high levels of unemployment in some parts, it continues to be a cultural force for the arts. Not to say that Coventry should try to go all Icarus and reach such debased and lofty heights, but there’s no reason to think it might not become a city of culture instead of Leamington Spa’s bastard brother, a blank slate of cheap rents and new opportunities, rather than a living gravestone for the decline of British manufacturing.
Ignorance and forgetting infect the city’s history, the expectations of its inhabitants, and how it is perceived by the rest of the UK. This is in no small part, thanks to the resurrected idiom, “sent to Coventry”, a medieval expression which refers to a break in communication when misbehaving monks were sent there to live in silence, rather than is commonly supposed a penal sentence to be carried out in a desolate Midlands town, though you’d be forgiven for thinking so.
Coventry deserves to be criticised, but only as a catalyst for change. Whether Sent to Coventry will try to highlight the worst and the best of the city and the people who live there, or it will simply be an exploitative freak-show of car-crash television remains to be seen. Either way, there will hopefully be people watching who want to make a difference and try and change the city for the good, to combat deprivation, help create a diversity of well-paid, skilled jobs and regenerate a city which has spent much of its modern history in isolation as it continues to try and shake off the dust of history and rise from the ashes.