Culture clash: Perth v Paisley in title fight

Jean Cameron, Project Director of Paisleys UK City of Culture 2021 bid. Picture: John Devlin
Jean Cameron, Project Director of Paisleys UK City of Culture 2021 bid. Picture: John Devlin
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In Dunn Square in Paisley, the statues of industrial giants Thomas and Peter Coats gaze proprietorially over the skyline their success helped create. The brothers, former owners of J & P Coats thread mills, face away from each other. Thomas has a top hat in his left hand and his right tucked into his waistcoat. Peter sports sideburns Paul Weller would kill for. Each has an imperious expression on his face and a seagull perched on his droppings-encrusted head.

More than a century after the brothers’ deaths – and 25 years after the closure of the Anchor and Ferguslie mills – Paisley is a two-storey town. Look up, and you see only wealth: the spires and the towers, the domes and the columns, the angels and the cherubs and the gargoyles – all legacies of its powerhouse past. Look down, however, and you can’t miss the poverty: the hard-bitten faces and the empty shop fronts – a consequence of globalisation and being stuck in Glasgow’s shadow.

Tucking into a poke of chips, Sharon Thomson, a care worker from nearby Penilee, says she only came into the town because she thought terrorists were less likely to strike there than at Silverburn. “Och, the High Street used to be buzzing, but now there’s just M&S, bookies, amusements and charity shops,” she says.

Sixty miles away, Perth preens itself on the banks of the Tay. The Fair City – and unlike Paisley, it is a city – has always benefited from its Gateway-to-the Highlands location. Today, the continental pavement cafés that line St John’s Place are bustling with students, tourists and ladies who lunch.

Though, like all Scottish towns, there are empty shops – the closure last year of the 150-year-old department store McEwens was a major blow – the town has higher than average employment and a wide range of big-name retailers.

There is no shortage of history here, either: Perth was occupied by Jacobite supporters on three occasions, John Knox preached on idolatry in St John’s Kirk, and the Battle of the North Inch was memorialised in Walter Scott’s The Fair Maid Of Perth. But the city hasn’t always been good at preserving its heritage. There were plans to demolish the B-listed City Hall – “an Edwardian interloper” – to create a public space before Historic Environment Scotland put the kibosh on them, while St Paul’s Church has lain empty for over 30 years.

The two cities could scarcely be more different: Perth, the sober matron; Paisley, the stroppy street fighter. Yet they are going head to head (along with Sunderland, Stoke-on-Trent, Hereford, Coventry, Wells, Swansea, Warrington, Portsmouth and St David’s) for the title of UK City of Culture 2021. Each hopes the accolade, the £3 million of funding, and the raised profile the title brings will serve as a catalyst for regeneration.

Both Scottish contenders have powerful cultural figures in their corners. Paisley is being backed by John Byrne, Gerard Butler and Paolo Nutini, Perth by Stuart Cosgrove and Colin McCredie. But which stands a better chance? To find out more, I asked the driving forces behind the bids to take me on a whistle-stop tour.

It’s 1pm on Wednesday, and I’m meeting Jean Cameron, Project Director of Paisley’s UK City of Culture 2021 bid.

The buddy (native of Paisley) – who has raven-black hair, bright red lips and infinite energy – was born and brought up in Ferguslie Park, the scheme that tops the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation. Her mother was a doffer at the mill there and recently appeared in the BBC documentary The Town That Thread Built.

As a teenager, Cameron remembers looking out of the library window to see punks – then banned from Glasgow – congregating in the street outside Listen Records, before heading to the Bungalow; later, she danced to Talking Heads at Toledo Junction.

After leaving school, however, she moved to Glasgow because there were no opportunities to study or work in the arts in Paisley. She went on to lead the cultural programme for Glasgow’s 2014 Commonwealth Games.

A pragmatist, Cameron acknowledges the decline that has turned parts of the town into the “poster child for deprivation”. But, she insists, there are other ways in which Paisley’s cultural stock has risen. Nowadays, for example, a school-leaver could choose from a range of courses in the creative industries at the University of the West of Scotland and West College Scotland, while PACE Youth Theatre – where James McAvoy and Richard Madden first trod the boards – has 2,000 young members.

“We think this award would mean more to Paisley than any of the other cities taking part. It’s not going to solve everything, but it would be truly transformative,” Cameron says.

On her tour, we stop to look at the imposing architecture: the 850-year-old Abbey, where Robert the Bruce’s daughter Marjorie gave birth prematurely and then died after falling from her horse; the red sandstone Thomas Coats Memorial Church with its flying buttresses and grand staircase; and the soon to be extended museum and art gallery which boasts a large collection of Paisley pattern shawls.

She shows me the iconic Arnotts building, now restored to its former grandeur, its upper level turned into affordable flats, its lower level about to open as a restaurant. And I am granted a sneak preview of the ornate marble lobby of the Russell Institute – a former health clinic where Cameron remembers being taken to get her jags. The stunning art deco building, with its bronze angel protecting two young babies perched high above the main door, has been empty since 2011, but is about to open as a training and employability hub after a £4.5m refurbishment.

Cameron is also keen to highlight new murals by local artists. One is a tribute to the psychedelic Sixties (when the Beatles’ endorsement of the Paisley pattern turned it into a cult phenomenon). Another features local girl Eva Rose Ross, the distinctive skyline reflected in her sunglasses.

The mural of Eva Rose was made by Caroline Gormley. Today, she and her partner, Alexander Guy, are working in an underpass at Gilmour Street station. Using tinfoil flan cases as palettes, they are painting a large Paisley Tartan backdrop on to which images of well-known city figures and landmarks will be superimposed.

“This means a lot because it’s all about community,” says Gormley. “It’s not just about putting a nice picture on a wall, it’s got to relate to and involve the people of Paisley.”

“Aye, we get dog’s abuse from them,” chips in Guy wryly. “We get comments, like ‘Is that all you’ve done today?’ and ‘You’ve missed a bit’.”

Much thought has also been given to revitalising the High Street. In the short term, many empty shop fronts now have brightly painted hoardings, but long term more innovative plans are afoot. One premises is being converted into the country’s only city centre museum store.

Another unit is already being used by InCube – Invest in Renfrewshire’s business programme – to grow creative industry retail companies. Up to 20 a year are given access to funding, mentoring and a space to showcase their products. Those benefiting at the moment include Paisley Pins, which makes funky Paisley Pattern brooches from laser-cut acrylic, and The Canny Squirrel, which specialises in handmade Harris Tweed cushions.

So, the bid team and its wider partners, are focused on the intersection between culture and business; but they are also determined the arts will be used to reach out to disenfranchised communities.

Live Music Now has been touring Mill Memories – a new piece of music inspired by stories of the thread mills – round the city’s care homes, while Street Stuff, a charity which has helped cut youth disorder, has acquired a “culture bus”, equipped with games consoles and DJ-ing equipment.

Another beneficiary of the £1m Renfrewshire Cultural Heritage Events Fund has been the theatre company Historical Adventures, who – as I visit – have just finished a performance in British Sign Language at Paisley Arts Centre.

Director David O’Rourke, who can hear, learned to sign because he realised the deaf community was culturally isolated. For the past eight weeks, he has been teaching BSL to children at St Catherine’s Primary, enabling them to stage Communication, a show about an island where the inhabitants struggle to make themselves understood – for a mixed deaf and hearing audience.

We also stop in at the Sma’ Shot Cottages – two weavers’ homes, from the 18th and 19th centuries – situated in Shuttle Street, a cobbled alley which Cameron hopes will soon have all the vibrancy of Ashton Lane in Glasgow’s West End.

On Saturday, the Shuttle Street will burst into life for the Sma’ Shot Festival – which celebrates the weavers’ uprising of 1856 – and the Charleston Drum, used to rally the masses, will be once again be beaten through the streets. The Sma’ Shot Festival and the Spree Festival in October help draw people from all over the west coast, and the town is now attracting prestigious events such as the Scottish Album of the Year (SAY) awards which are being held there on Wednesday for the second year running.

In the A-listed Bull Inn – a beautiful art deco pub with stained glass and original taps – deputy manager Alex Thomson is talking about his plans to track down photos that used to hang on its walls and to restore the old coal fire. “I think becoming UK of City of Culture would bring pride back to the town – that’s exactly what we need,” he says.

The next morning, I travel to Perth. As bid leader Fiona Robertson is not available, I am shown round by city development manager John McCrone.

McCrone is originally from Fife, but has lived and raised a family in the city for the past 30 years. He is dressed in a grey suit, blue shirt and spotty tie and I am about to peg him as an archetypal council apparatchik when he tells me he was once a bass player in a punk band called The Biafran Lepers.

As we walk round the city, he draws my attention to artistic flourishes he came up with. “Look here,” he says, pointing proudly at a metal grille with Scream-like skulls and bones on the site of what was once a burial ground. “That’s one of my things.”

McCrone seems aware that, while the city’s cultural heritage is undisputed, its need is less obvious. So, while Paisley tends to play down its problems, he plays Perth’s up, insisting it does have areas of deprivation. He also stresses that his bid is for the whole area – with its many outlying towns and villages – not just the city itself. “Our challenges are different to Paisley’s,” he says. “We have quite high employment but our wage level is quite low. This is about creating opportunities. What fuels economic growth? Innovation. We need to support the creative industries, alongside existing employers such as Stagecoach, Aviva, SSE. It’s not about culture in isolation, but culture is extremely important in terms of quality of life.”

McCrone’s tour starts at the river. He points up towards North Inch, where he and his wife walk the dogs on a Sunday morning before having coffee at the Black Watch Museum. He points across to the public sculpture trail on either side of the Tay which features statues inspired by biologist Patrick Geddes and poet William Soutar. And he points down towards two new pontoons from which boat trips will run throughout the summer.

In the centre, we pass the Museum and Art Gallery – which is about to undergo a £10m redevelopment – the 10-year-old concert hall and the Fair Maid’s House, the city’s oldest building, where the Royal Geographical Society is based.

Next to St John’s Kirk, with its animal carvings, is the aforementioned City Hall, the controversial building at the centre of Perth’s bid, which is to be transformed into a new visitor attraction.

If the city gets its way, it will become home to the Stone of Destiny on which the kings of Scotland were once crowned. The idea is to consolidate Perth’s place as the first capital of Scotland.

The controversy around the proposed demolition means public interest in its future has spiked. As a result, a steady stream of people come to look at a recently erected panel on which all five competing proposals are displayed.

Another huge building project involves Perth Theatre, Scotland’s oldest rep. The £16.6m refurbishment will see its interior restored to its original state and a new glass-fronted foyer incorporating a studio theatre. In addition, it is hoped performing arts group Circus Adventures will eventually move into St Paul’s Church, which is also undergoing a major renovation.

McCrone says the city is keen to boost its night-time economy, hence its attempt to bill itself as the City of Light. Though initial proposals to illuminate key city sites were met with scepticism, he believes the success of the Norie-Miller Walk Light Nights display at the beginning of the year – which attracted 53,000 visitors – won people round.

One of the features that distinguishes Perth is its medieval vennels – narrow passageways that run between the gables. Earlier this year, local street artists brightened them up with simple paintings, some of which can still be seen, and there are plans for further public artworks and illumination.

McCrone – who has four daughters – knows Perth is often seen as set in its ways, and is delighted by the growth in live music venues . He tells me he saw The Stranglers play here and once took The Levellers out to Greyfriars Bar. While established bands play at the Concert Hall, up-and-coming ones can be heard at the Twa Tams, the Green Room and The Venue, which has paintings by local artists for sale on its walls. The Green Room and The Venue are owned by Frank Burger-Seed, who has been nominated as a Perth Pioneer for his commitment to transforming the city’s nightlife.

Behind the bar at The Venue is Jordan Thomson, originally from Glasgow, who first moved to Perth to study for a Bachelor of Arts in popular music, and whose own band, One-Eyed Fish, plays in the Green Room. “I haven’t seen much change over the past four years,” he says. “I would like to see more people investing in art and music.”

But his colleague, Alan Livett, who has lived in the city for eight years , says: “What I like about Perth is that you walk down the same street and it changes almost daily. It’s a similar appeal to working here. Frank’s vision is all about making the city great.”

If Paisley’s challenge is to make sure the lives of its most deprived citizens are engaged, then Perth’s is to reach out to its rural communities. “We want to bring culture from our outlying towns into the city and vice versa. It has to be a two-way street,” says McCrone.

What unites Paisley and Perth is that they have both been energised by the bidding process. Like Dundee – which went ahead with the V&A, despite losing out on the UK City of Culture title – they will complete their major development projects whether or not they make it on to next month’s shortlist.

Nevertheless, neither of them is about to cede to the other. They are both in it to win it, their eyes fixed on the cultural prize.