MW: Now then, let’s have a look at Leicester’s bid to become the UK City of Culture for 2017. Next week the bid will be submitted to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Going up against ten other areas (including Chester, Hull and the combined forces of Portsmouth and Southampton), Leicester’s bidding team hopes that the city’s arts, ethnic diversity and of course archaeological assets (I think you know what I’m alluding to) will help us win the title. But how much might religion play a part and tip the odds in our favour? George Ballentyne is from the Leicester Council of Faiths and he joins me on the line now. George, good morning.
GMB: Good morning Monica.
MW: This is an incredible opportunity for Leicester but I just wonder, how big a part are we allowing the faith culture of Leicester to play in our kind of cultural culture – if you see what I mean.
GMB: Well it’s quite interesting you say how big a part are we allowing – I’d like to see what could be done to keep the faith communities and organisations out of the process, because it is something that Leicester is very well known for. There’s an upside and a downside to that and I hope that we get the chance to speak briefly about both of them. But I would also say that, you know, there’s more than one meaning of the word “culture” and sometimes people can get the wrong end of the stick about what culture would mean and what the City of Culture might mean. You know, there’s the kind of high culture aspect, which is about, you know, art and opera and exhibitions and the like and there’s a kind of pop culture version of it too. But you also think that, you know, people can use the word “culture” to mean a kind of messy laboratory set-up in which experimental things happen and unpredictable things and interesting, organic, lively things can be generated out of that. So I hope that all three of those meanings of the word are going to come up when we‘re talking about this over the next few weeks and months
MW: Absolutely. And I take it that the faith communities are absolutely on board with this and backing it to the hilt?
GMB: Well, we’d never presume to speak for absolutely every faith community and organisation in the city, but we really do feel confident that there’s a strong, solid backing for the bid.
MW: Now in what way will the backing – you know, are they kind of quietly backing it, or is it going to be part of the bid?
GMB: Well, I don’t need to tell you that Leicester has become well-known, or famous even, for its faith festivals, you know, we make such a big play of having the biggest Diwali event outside of India, there’s a huge Vaiskahi event that happened just last week and we have Christ in the Centre at Easter time. Per head of population, Leicester has more – and more varied – places of worship than any other city in Britain and these are facts about Leicester that would surely be used in support of the bid. But on the other hand – and I’m sure that you’ll know that I speak about this often enough, whenever I get the chance– there aren’t that many occasions when the people of Leicester see the faith communities in all their diversity standing together, out in public. So we’v e got things about the faith communities as individual groups and then we’re going to have to do some stuff about getting them together to do a kind of collective response to it and a collective presence.
MW: That will be a really exciting thing to do and a real purpose behind it, it’s not something you’re just doing for the sake of it, there’s a real aim behind it, isn’t there?
GMB: Yes, well all these festivals and these events will go on, whether we’re granted this City of Culture status or not but they’re part of the organic, regular life of the city, they really do have to feature quite prominently in any kind of attempt to get us into that position.
MW: Absolutely – and earlier on, when you were describing the different meanings of the word culture, I just think the religious aspect takes our bid to a deeper level, I think.
GMB: Yes, I think so. I don’t think that any of the other cities that are bidding have actually got this string to their bow like we have.
MW: Absolutely not. So, are you like me, are you holding out high hopes for Leicester to win the bid?
GMB: Well I should say that, you know, Glasgow was made European Capital of Culture (which is a different thing altogether, the Leicester bid is for UK City of Culture). But back in 1984, Glasgow was made the European Capital of Culture, which – that came to a city which was really on its last legs I think – and completely transformed its fortunes and it’s become a proper, European cultural city. I know that some of your listeners might find that hard to believe and I always fly the flag for Glasgow, but it really did make an incredible difference, not just to how other people saw the city but to how the people of Glasgow saw themselves. It just coincided with the year I left Glasgow [MW laughs] so I didn’t get all the benefit of all that, but t I’ve seen, first hand, what this kind of thing can do to a city. There’s some scepticism and cynicism about why are we doing this and why now, when there’s such pressure on funding, but if we get this I really think it will make a huge impact and 99% positive
MW: Absolutely. It’s interesting what you say about Glasgow because I don’t see it in the light of being run down any more. I see it as a very vibrant place, somewhere I would like to visit, so it’s almost like a vote of confidence isn’t it?
GMB: Yes it is, but what you’re talking about there is the impact of more than 20-odd years ago that that happened and it’s almost – well, 30 years ago actually – and it’s really had a fantastic positive effect on the people and the place - and we can get that.
MW: Absolutely - not that we haven’t got it already, [indeed] but it would take us up a notch won’t it? Have you been part of the bid at all? Has the Council of Faiths been involved?
GMB: Well, our Chair – Councillor Manjula Sood – she’s Assistant Mayor with responsibility for communities, cohesion and equalities so she’s very closely involved in the bid and some of our members (I always stress that I am an employee of the Council of Faiths, not a member) [right] we’ve taken part in the stakeholder bud events which the Mayor hosted at Curve about ten days ago and made contributions to them, and we’re soliciting suggestions and ideas from our member communities and from prominent individuals in the Faith or religion sector (as it were) in the city. So yes, we are playing, I think, a strong and positive role in what’s going on right now and we would like to, you know, If we get on the shortlist then we hope that that will increase and there will be more momentum from the faith communities behind the bid.
MW: Absolutely. It’s an exciting time to be in Leicester and it’s nice to know that so many people are on board and backing our bid. George, great to talk to you this morning
GMB: Okay, thanks Monica.
MW: Thank you [okay] George Ballentyne, from Leicester Council of Faiths. Next week it is, when Leicester will submit its initial bid to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport in a bud to become UK City of Culture for 2017 competing against ten other bidding areas for that title, which could bring massive benefits to the city not least of which economically – huge economic benefits as well. So watch this space and you’ll hear more about that I’m sure, here on BBC Radio Leicester.
Follow Monica Winfield on Twitter: @MonWRL