Culture

‘The Guardian? What are you doing here?’ My odyssey through England’s cultural cold spots

Alisha Miller is recalling the time the Abbey theatre, the heart of arts and culture in Nuneaton, set up a weekly gathering for all the creatives who lived in the Midlands market town. “I had this vision of me being like Francis Bacon talking to other Lucian Freuds,” she says. “But in the end, it was only me that turned up.”

Miller is 51 and has been making public art in Nuneaton for most of her life. It’s hard to walk around the place without bumping into her work: a bench outside the town hall made in tribute to George Eliot, who lived in these parts; digitally printed vinyl artwork on bus shelters; a big blue curved stripe across the exterior of the hospital (she had to climb up the scaffolding herself to help paint that one).

But Nuneaton is not, by any stretch, a place with a buzzing arts scene. In fact, it’s one of several areas listed by Arts Council England as having the lowest levels of cultural engagement in the country. Miller and her partner Spencer Jenkins, also 51 and also an artist, wouldn’t disagree with that verdict. “We try to bring our work to places where people who wouldn’t normally encounter art can see it,” says Miller, who meets me at the train station in front of one of her colourful permanent window artworks. “But at times it can feel a little bit like it’s just the two of us.” Jenkins nods: “It’s a bit of an uphill struggle.”

I was born in Nuneaton, at the hospital that Miller painted, and by the time I had grown up in nearby Hinckley, I was desperate to broaden my horizons. As a teenager, the place seemed stifling and I wasn’t at all surprised to see Nuneaton and Bedworth appear on the list. So what keeps Miller and Jenkins here?

Spencer Jenkins with his newest public work, Balteum Fibula, at Manor hospital, Nuneaton.
‘Uphill struggle’ … Spencer Jenkins with his newest public work, Balteum Fibula, at Manor hospital, Nuneaton. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Their plan was never to stay in Nuneaton. Miller moved to London after art school to do a textiles degree but found the experience intimidating: when she graduated with no job or income, she had no support structure to keep her there. Jenkins, meanwhile, had moved around a lot as a child and was looking for stability. Meeting Miller, he says, changed his life. She encouraged him to believe in himself as an artist (a term he still struggles with, despite clearly being one) and now they work as a twosome, bouncing ideas off each other, encouraging each other through low moments. Despite wondering what might have been had they moved away, they’re happy and have genuine affection for Nuneaton.

It’s not always easy being artists here, however. Miller says that often the local reaction to a project, such as the recent Sanctuary memorial artwork by David Best in Miners’ Welfare Park, Bedworth, is: “Well, how much is that costing? Don’t you know we’ve got food banks?”

I witness this in person when we take a look at a recently unveiled multicoloured sculpture in the centre of town which would double as seating if locals weren’t too intimidated to sit on it. While we are looking, a passerby joins us. “Load of junk,” he says before complaining about the price and providing detailed instructions on how it could be unscrewed from the ground and disposed of. “See what we’re up against?” says Miller with a smile.

Being on the list means that funds will be made available for “levelling up”. The couple hope it might be spent on education, helping people to appreciate the arts and what’s on offer. Miller notes that sometimes she has taken her art students on a trip to Nuneaton Arts Gallery and they hadn’t known it existed. It would be great, she says, if people understood that big projects have benefits: they provide memories, teach people new skills and help local businesses too. That sort of education, they say, is far more important than having a big artwork plonked somewhere with no context or explanation.

Miller’s work at Nuneaton bus station.
Just the ticket … Some of Miller’s vinyl art at Nuneaton bus station. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

The couple would love to change their town’s thinking. “If we had some studio spaces,” says Jenkins, “people would go, ‘Oh, I could work in that space.’ It would change the mentality and normalise being creative.” He laughs while telling me how people react to finding out he’s an artist, as if he’s some far-out bohemian alien living out on the edge of society. “When I’m very much a part of society. I take the dog for a walk. I’ve got two kids. My life is quite boring really!”

We end our tour of Nuneaton back at the station, in one of the rare arty spaces: a former cafe that has been transformed into a tiny studio and gallery. A sewing group called In Stitches are currently there, finishing off a collaboration they did with “living sculpture” Daniel Lismore in Coventry. “The Guardian?” they say, laughing. “What are you doing here?”

Miller and Jenkins are great company. Spending half a day with them has been a refreshing experience. Their passion for bringing art to a culturally deprived area has been eye-opening and their local pride has certainly made me re-evaluate my own frosty relationship with my hometown.

‘I have strong feelings about what constitutes culture’

If local pride is on display in Nuneaton, then it’s off-the-scale in Chatham, in the Medway area of Kent where I go to meet folk band the Flowing. It does not have the greatest reputation as a place to live, with its high street full of bookies and boarded-up shops. But to walk around the town and nearby Rochester with band members Vicky Price and Dave Pickett is to be let into its many wonders: the history of the docks; the magic of the pubs; even the local drunkards are talked about with deep affection. Pickett grew up here and has a love/hate relationship with the place but Price moved to the area for the music scene and her infectious passion for all things Medway challenges the idea that cultural engagement is low here. “I have strong feelings about what constitutes culture,” she warns me before I arrive. “It’s not always straightforward.”

Medway folk band the Flowing, from left: Hannah Ellerby, Dave Pickett, Vicky Price.
Medway folk band the Flowing, from left: Hannah Ellerby, Dave Pickett, Vicky Price. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

A case in point: Medway may not have big theatres or galleries but, thanks largely to local musician and artist Billy Childish, it has a firm DIY ethos that infiltrates the music scene yet might escape the Arts Council’s attention. “In Medway,” says Pickett, “you have to do everything by yourself. There are no promoters or agencies down here. And it can be hard. We’ve never been signed, never been on a funded tour. It would be nice to have more exposure. But I will always be content writing and playing music. That’s what makes me happy.”

The word content could be used to describe everyone I meet for this piece – and it’s not one I’d use to describe the majority of restless creatives working in the full glare of the spotlight. I wonder if living away from the centre of things can make pursuing an artistic life more enjoyable? When I ask Pickett and Price if they ever considered moving to London, they say in unison: “Never!”

Price says she’d probably end up being a backing singer, because that’s where the jobs are, when she’d sooner play her beloved french horn in a band she loves. Besides, you can’t imagine the Flowing existing outside of their hometown: Medway is threaded through Pickett’s songs, which place a twisted Kent spin on old blues, folk and country before gaining understated adornments from Price’s horn and Hannah Ellerby’s violin.

“When I hear Dave’s stuff,” says Price, “I always feel like it is Medway.”

“There’s a darkened underbelly that has always been there, almost seedy,” agrees Pickett. “Medway has a current of people going against the grain.”

the Flowing.
Against the grain … the Flowing. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

For all their talking up the borough, they both agree that a cash injection could be massively important – if spent in the right way. “It needs to support our venues,” says Price, listing a load of mid-sized venues that have shut recently: the candlelit Barge; the Good Intent pub. “We all have day jobs, and that’s the kind of scene Medway can currently support. It can’t support full-time musicians.”

More outreach work could be done too, to alert people to the availability and value of cheaper tickets at the local theatre. What they both hate seeing is an arts event being announced out of the blue with nothing to promote it beyond a newspaper advert – and it flopping. “Then that gets used as an example of why they can’t do things in Medway,” says Price. “It’s like, ‘Did you engage with local people? Visit them at their venues, their markets and homes? Did you talk to them about what they wanted?’”

The Flowing, who are all in their mid-to-late 30s, are currently in a good place. After over a decade together, they’re still playing live and putting out the occasional album or EP (most recently, 2020’s For the Homeless and the Lonesome). They’ve worked hard to ensure they’re booked regularly for the annual folk festival Sweeps in nearby Rochester, and have recently been taken on for Broadstairs folk festival too. Moving here has led to interesting opportunities for Price especially: she recently contributed to a song cycle called One Red Mitten, about a woman murdered on the streets of 19th-century London. “The world is not at my fingertips,” she says, “but I get opportunities like that because I’m part of this scene.”

‘I never realised you could have a career in the arts’

A few days after meeting the Flowing, I head to Stockton-on-Tees near Middlesbrough to meet Junior Durrani, who knows all about grabbing opportunities. Last year he quit his job as a teacher to pursue his ambition of being a full-time artist. The 33-year-old lives in Eaglescliffe which, with its vegan restaurants and golf course, is a reminder that not all the list’s areas of low cultural engagement are poverty-stricken (although the borough has its share of struggling areas).

Artist Junior Durrani in his studio in Eaglescliffe, Stockton-on-Tees.
‘I’d love to be in galleries’ … Junior Durrani in his home studio in Eaglescliffe, Stockton-on-Tees. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Guardian

“It never occurred to me that you could have a career doing something with the arts,” says Durrani, who studied art up to GCSE level. The local mindset, he explains, was not geared towards cultural pursuits so instead he trained as a teacher. It was only when his mum died, five years ago, that he started painting again – initially as a cathartic exercise. “When something like that happens,” he says, “it changes your perspective.” And so last September, he decided to go full-time.

Durrani’s projects so far are all local ones: recreating his misspent teenage years (a response to lockdown); capturing the atmosphere at Middlesbrough FC games; and most recently working on a project with photographer Mike Guess, to paint his shots of the steelworks being dismantled in nearby Redcar. Again, Durrani’s work asks the question: what is culture? He recalls visiting the Sydney harbour bridge and seeing the name of former steel giants Dorman Long on it: he was proud to discover that the bridge was made in Teesside. And yet it was Britain’s very own (just departed) culture secretary Nadine Dorries who removed the iconic Dorman Long tower’s listed status, so that the structure, part of the Redcar steelworks, could be demolished last year.

Durrani drives me to South Gare beach for a walk with his dog Luna. It’s a gloriously empty stretch of sand with the remaining steelworks in the backdrop. Ridley Scott has talked about how they were the inspiration for the brooding opening shots of Blade Runner. Until meeting Guess, Durrani didn’t understand the full history of the steelworks and the fascinating story they tell. His paintings have already generated interest: an exhibition at Cafe Etch in Middlesbrough recently showed them alongside Guess’s photos.

Man of steel … Durrani.
Man of steel … Durrani. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Guardian

Durrani’s reasons for not moving away, then, are obvious. But keeping afloat hasn’t been easy and, with a baby on the way, next year he plans to return to supply teaching to bolster his income. “I’d love to be in galleries,” he says, but he isn’t quite sure how to make that happen just yet.

As a former teacher, he’d like to see Arts Council money directed at schools, to promote the value of art to people from an early age. And he echoes the other artists in saying locals need cultural education too. “People here sometimes think the arts aren’t for them, but it’s not this weird thing that we don’t deserve.”

It’s a pleasure meeting all of these creatives, each keen to stress the potential of their place to other artists wondering where to move to. Vicky Price says she feels as if she’s won the jackpot living in Chatham. Durrani thinks social media and the boom in home-working makes it more likely that artists such as himself will be able to stay in their locale and find their niche. As for Alisha Miller, she has a grand vision of a new Nuneaton that could exist if only people would seize the opportunity. “It’s only an hour away from London on the train,” she says. “You could have cheap studios here, a thriving creative community. We are central in the country. It could be a fabulous hub for anyone.”

“There’s this idea,” adds Spencer Jenkins, “that you’re only successful if you’re in a city. But your work can be exceptional wherever you are.”

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