[Guest blogpost by Ola Animashawun]
A tough gig! This was my initial thought when I received the briefing from Talking Birds for the latest outing of The Cart last Monday, 24 April. A briefing which included phrases like, “….there will be audio challenge from traffic and music”…..(and the ear infection in my left ear as it turned out)…. “its outdoors and very windy, (and it was, and increasingly cold as the day wore on)……but, unless there’s horizontal rain we should stay dry”…..the rain wasn’t horizontal, but it was abundant, and we didn’t stay dry.
However, after all that’s said and done my first time out as a go (getting) Cart Keeper, was expectation-confounding and suitably uplifting. Yes it was a tough gig, of course it was, which is exactly why Talking Birds had chosen to position us in Volgograd Place, under the Ring Road on a fairly nondescript Monday morning. They knew that, like the traffic on the aforementioned Ring Road, the human traffic crossing from the city centre to Swanswell and its oasis of parks; health centres; surgeries and educational establishments (and back again) is voluminous, varied and constant. As a representative cohort of the city, this particular travelling populace may not have been 100% diverse, (anyone representing the white middle class, was a definite minority) but they certainly presented us with the very voices which are usually excluded from anything as luxurious as a debate about the arts and the possible cultural life of the city.
As expected a lot of people were a mixture of either too busy; or too shy; or too suspicious; or too absorbed in their business\headphones; or too under-confident in their ability to speak English well enough to articulate their point or, as was the case in the latter part of the day, too wet to stop and engage…..irrespective of the amazingly enticing offer of free cup cakes, free tea or coffee and free and amazing live entertainment from HMS Cupcake and The Upsiders respectively. Still, even the experience of getting a lot of ‘no’s’ became surprisingly philosophical and enlightening, as I played the game with myself of trying to second-guess who would stop and engage and what it was about their body-language and my approach, that made me think I could guess right.
When the people did stop, the music, the cake and The Cart are a winning combination. The key is of course the fact that the people have got to have the time to stop….and that only applies to certain types of people at certain times of day. However, if you have got the time….even if its only long enough to drink a hot drink on a very cold day, The Cart provides the perfect environment to have that conversation with a complete stranger that you wouldn’t normally have, and you certainly hadn’t left the house that morning expecting to have. So when it happens, its great to hear what, when gently pushed, people really think about Coventry, culture, growing up, growing old and living in this city.
The sense of connection is palpable. Everyone who spoke to me, all had this same thing in common, a genuine connection to this city, they cared about it and had strong opinions about it, and were quick to say what they liked about it, didn’t like about it and what it could and should be.
Though not everyone had heard about the City’s bid to become the UK’s next city of culture, most had, and even those who hadn’t, once the idea was out there, they all agreed it had to be good.
My interactions took me on a discursive journey that included the importance of hobbies – “everybody’s got a hobby, so if it [becoming the City of Culture] gives people more chance to indulge in their hobbies, then its got to be a good thing” – reclaiming history – “yes, I think we should celebrate Coventry’s history a lot more, promote our historical past. There’s one street in Coventry that played a pinnacle role in the War of the Roses, but no one knows it, no one’s aware of it. The council should put up a plaque and make a lot more of this fact and loads of other historical facts like it , so we can be proud and show it off to the people who live here and to people visiting from other places. The same with the colour, Coventry Blue, we should bring that back into popular culture, and big it up.” – acknowledging the social role theatre can play in breaking down barriers – “Culture is good for foreigners like me, to get involved. Particularly through theatre. I would like to do something theatrical, but language and speech is a barrier. This would be a way of getting over that.” – to positive suggestions for advanced town planning and re-design – “Where I come from there is a river running right through the city. It is beautiful, and it feels like there is always something to do, because everywhere you go looks beautiful, inviting, comfortable. Coventry isn’t like that, it needs more beautiful spaces, where you can go, look, play, relax….feel comfortable.”
At the end of the day, even the most hardened of cynics, a man who wanted Coventry to return to the glory of it’s industrial and manufacturing past, freely admitted that if Coventry was to win the bid, “It’d be good for the people”.
Power to the people, and power to The Cart, wherever it should pitch up next, I know the conversation will flow like a blue river of inspiration and dreams. A Coventry Blue river, of course.