Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

Whisperings of change give Derry a subtle, inspiring aura

And so to Londonderry for an all-too-rare trip to the UK City of Culture. Shamefully, this is only the second time I've been this year. Put it down to Belfast-centric living and working. There's never enough time, is there?

We are off to the unveiling of the winner of the prestigious Turner Prize, the rarefied award for contemporary art, which often leaves us scratching our heads and marvelling at the breaking of boundaries at the same time.

We arrive in darkness at tea-time, feeling, in truth, a bit out of our comfort zone, and make our way across the Peace Bridge to The Venue in Ebrington for the big announcement.

The night air seems to bring out the best in the city. You can see what being a cultural capital has done to the place, the wonderful lighting and the exceptional buildings embracing you.

The new-found confidence seems to be carried on the same breeze that gently lifts the bridge and makes you feel you're floating over the Foyle.

Inside the soon-to-be-dismantled arena, there's a fair smattering of London types, who've gingerly made the trek. There are plenty of wayward ringlets of hair piled on top of heads and that's just the blokes from the Smoke.

In truth, it is a bizarre experience. Like all these TV-dominated things, this one goes out live on Channel Four News; we are but a hardly regarded crowd scene.

At least 500 of us are crammed inside, there's the odd secretary of state and a culture minister, and we are given a free drink and impossible-to-eat-standing asparagus nibbles.

On a stage behind a filtering screen, presenter Lauren Laverne (at least I think it was) is interviewing 'experts' as they run the form guide through the four entries that compete for tonight's prize.

So, we are to be little more than ghostly shapes mingling in the background. It's a bit like being at an upmarket Top of The Pops studio, bopping self-consciously around our handbags, except we don't even get to see the acts miming their stuff. The art is on show in another building and there's not even a video to show us the runners and riders.

Suddenly, it reaches its climax as the winner is announced. She just about keeps the right side of a Gwyneth (for La Paltrow's infamous Oscars meltdown is the gold standard against which all these things must be judged), disappears, and the TV crew begin packing up.

Personally, I think we should revolt against these bloody too-important TV types treating us like shoals of guppies, because we are sooo grateful they've bothered to turn out, but that's not the point of this column.

It is this. As a shame-faced outsider, it is clear to me that something has changed in Derry this year. I don't want to overstate it, because hard and fast evidence will be difficult to come by and, frankly, I'm not there enough to dig for it.

But the city's narrative has been rewritten a little and the word success seems not inappropriate to describe much of what has gone on.

Sure, the City of Culture year has had some great sideshows. How we watched amused as Shona (the Culture Company chief) fell out with Sharon (the 'town clerk' head of the council) over funding and such matters.

In fact, I half-wondered if they were going to win the Turner Prize themselves, jumping on stage to reveal it had actually all been a live year-long performance art project.

But, for the most part, it seems to be that there has been a reinvention here and, as far as I can tell, an inclusive one, too.

Pride seems to have been parcelled out reasonably fairly and hopefully the rewards have not just gone to the quangos and arts bodies that always make hay in these times.

Richard Haass is often told to turn his gaze north-west for some of the answers to our issues. Maybe it's time that we in troublesome Belfast did, too.

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