Dani Garavelli: Paisley finds itself despite losing contest

Paisley Abbey lit up in anticipation of the City of Culture 2021 result last week. Picture: Kieran Chambers
Paisley Abbey lit up in anticipation of the City of Culture 2021 result last week. Picture: Kieran Chambers
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Confession time. Even though I have lived on the west coast of Scotland for most of my life, I had rarely been to Paisley before this year. Brought up in Prestwick, I had travelled through it, of course, on the train to Glasgow: Troon, Barassie, Irvine, Kilwinning, Dalry, Lochwinnoch and then Gilmour Street. Seeing that last sign brought a frisson of excitement, not in its own right, but because you knew it was the last stop before the bright lights and the big city; the place before the place you actually wanted to go.

As an adult, I went mostly to cover stories; and most of those stories were about deprivation. I suppose I came to associate the whole town with post-industrial gloom and low life expectancy. That and its horrible one-way system, in which I seemed fated to become ensnared.

It wasn’t until I came to write a feature about its efforts to be named UK City Of Culture 2021 that I properly saw it; in the space of a few hours, I had my eyes opened to its rich heritage and stunning architecture.

The catalyst for this epiphany was meeting bid director Jean Cameron. If you haven’t encountered Cameron (and she’s been fairly ubiquitous over the past few days, so you probably have), she is an irrepressible force of nature. Small with jet-black hair and bright red lipstick, she brims over with such positivity she could probably have got Slough on to the shortlist; but Paisley is her hometown, so she had added motivation to evangelise about its many strengths.

On a blustery day in May, Cameron showed me around: my own personal tour guide. And what an inspiring tour guide she was, with an interesting snippet of information to match every sight. “Look,” she said, pointing at an imposing statue of a medieval knight on horseback on top of the town’s cenotaph, “one of the very few British war memorials created by a woman [Alice Meredith Williams]”. And then, as we gazed at the newly renovated Art Deco Russell Institute, a former clinic, with its great bronze angel clutching two babies: “I remember being brought here as a child for my jags.”

But it wasn’t merely Paisley’s history – its famous teardrop pattern imported from Persia, or the plethora of buildings paid for by the Coats and the Clarks, the town’s competing thread mill families – that was the focus of Cameron’s zeal. Without trying to underplay the town’s obvious problems – its poverty, drugs and high unemployment – she eulogised about its creativity, its art groups and its festivals and about how culture could be transformative; how it could revolutionise people’s lives.

I came away from Paisley that day feeling energised and uplifted; and a few weeks later I returned with my youngest son, to show him the museum, the Abbey and the many vibrant murals in lanes and on gable ends.

What Cameron did for me, the bid team replicated on a national scale. Those at the helm, including Renfrewshire Council chief executive, Sandra Black, and head of marketing, Louisa Mahon, created an unprecedented buzz around the town. They believed in its worth and its potential, and, because they did, others began to believe in it too. Such was Paisley’s conspicuous need that local MP Mhairi Black referred to the bid as “a cry for help”, but it was more like a yell of defiance. In Ferguslie Park, which in 2016 topped the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation for the second consecutive time, there was a renewed determination to challenge the stigma and demonstrate its vigour and resilience.

The solidarity engendered by the process was palpable on Thursday as the countdown to the UK City of Culture 2021 announcement began. From the evening before, Paisley – which had already won endorsements from famous natives such as Gerard Butler, Paolo Nutini, David Tennant and John Byrne – was being bombarded by good luck messages from across Scotland.

There was a degree of self-confidence too. No-one knew for sure what the politics of the decision would be – might Dundee’s failure to win in 2013 and its Brexit-related exclusion from the European City of Culture 2023 encourage the judges to throw Scotland a bone? Or would the possibility of an independence vote before 2021 prove a disincentive? But Paisley was the bookies’ favourite and it had laid out a pretty compelling case for its own success.

In the end, of course, it was not to be. The envelope was opened to reveal the word “Coventry” and those who had gathered in the University of the West of Scotland for the big reveal were temporarily crestfallen.

Still, all is not lost. Paisley (a town, not a city) is the smallest place to have made it this far in the process – a huge achievement in itself. And simply producing the bid has created a momentum that cannot be stopped by something as trivial as losing out to a rival.

When Dundee lost to Hull in 2013, it pledged to press ahead with a waterfront development that will see the opening of the £45m V&A building, and set its sights on becoming the European City of Culture 2023: an accolade which would have brought an estimated £128m to the economy.

The news last month that it was being ruled out of the latter was a huge blow because it meant money had been invested in plans that never had any chance of coming to fruition. But even so, the publicity around its attempt has kept Dundee and its cultural regeneration in the public eye.

Simply taking part in such competitions increases resources and raises a city’s profile. In the past few years, Paisley has attracted national events such as the Royal National Mod and the Say Awards, while the annual Spree festival, now in its sixth year, includes a collaboration between the RSNO and a pop group in Paisley Abbey; overall, visitor figures have been on the rise.

The town now has a better platform from which to attract even greater investment and is already committed to a multi-million-pound transformation of the town centre; included in this is an extension to the museum which will allow it to better showcase its superb collection of Paisley Pattern shawls.

But none of this is as important as what the experience has done for Paisley’s battered morale. A town which suffered once with the decline of the textile industry and then again with the decline of shipbuilding has rediscovered its sense of self. Though its troubles are still evident in the vacant high street shops and the beggars, there is no mistaking the shift in spirit. Thanks to the bid, Paisley is now walking a wee bit taller. And that’s something money alone can’t buy.