“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
Friedrich Nietzsche – Philosopher
All dressed up with no where to go?
So here we are the day after, the day after, the night before. The circus has left town and Swansea is left to get ready for Christmas. But what a feeling there was in the Hyst on Thursday evening. After months, no years, of preparations a couple of hundred people had gathered Swansea High Street to witness the announcement of which city had been given the title UK ‘City of Culture 2021’ and we were buzzing.
The dedicated members of staff at the Hyst prepare for the big event
If felt the right place to meet to put some demons to rest. 4 years ago, the venue was then known as Mosaic. The decision for City of Culture 2017 had come down to a 2-horse race, Swansea and Hull. I still the remember the slightly surreal feeling that morning when Hull was given the nod. It felt wrong, as if someone, somewhere had made a huge mistake. I wanted a recount, I wanted a judicial review, I wanted to know why. But that decision didn’t kill Swansea’s cultural ambitions, if anything it made everyone even more determined to prove not just the DCMS (Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport) but also the whole world wrong.
Thursday was a difficult day from the start. On Wednesday, together with the folks at MGBPR, the company responsible for a lot of the PR around the bid, we had tested all of the technical facilities to make sure there would be no technical hitches on the night. In what appeared to be the worst kept secret in media we knew the decision would be announced live on The BBC One Show which started at 7pm. Andrew from MGBPR had all sort of videos he wanted to play on all of the various screens we have dotted around the Hyst.
One of the wonderful things about High Street and certain other areas of Swansea is that we have an extremely fast broadband system. BT are actually using Swansea for trials for this cutting-edge technology. With so many broadcasters heading for the Hyst and with so many guests expected to be there twittering and Facebooking having such a wide bandwidth was a fantastic facility which we intended to put to the test.
This is how Thursday morning started
Now after years of ‘winging it’ these days I try to think through everything that could possibly go wrong. On Wednesday evening I decided it was a good idea to email our friends at BT to make sure they were aware of the size of our event on Thursday just to check it there were any planned disruptions to service. With a positive response I headed for bed late on Wednesday evening with my usual question ‘What could possibly go wrong ringing in my years’.
So…it came as no surprise to me that on Thursday morning I was woken early with the news that we had no Internet service at the Hyst. Being the technical genius I am I suggested they turn everything off for a couple of minutes and then turn it back on and see what happens. After an hour of powering up and down we knew we needed help. The cavalry arrived in the shape of 2 BT engineers with big bags of gear and plenty of confidence.
As all of this was happening we had camera crews and radio stations all turning up expecting to plug into the super highway. At first we tried to circumvent any questions relating to the internet. After a couple of hours it soon became obvious that we had a major problem we couldn’t ignore avoid any longer. It wasn’t just us that didn’t have internet, it seemed to apply to the whole of the superfast highway in High Street. It wasn’t until 6 o’clock, as the guests were arriving that we heard someone, somewhere, had put their digger through the Digital Superhighway.
But in the meantime, the engineers managed to find a work around to get everyone the connections they needed by hooking us up to a slower, but fully working broadband service from a different part of the building. At least we were up and running even if it meant we had wires and cables running all over the place. It could have been a disaster but it wasn’t. By working together with the neighbours, we found a way to work around it.
By 5 to 7 there must have been a couple of hundred people at the Hyst. The air was cracking with excitement. We all have coping mechanisms and if you are an artist it’s an essential part of your armory. You have to develop some form of detachment as people will always judge your art or performance and what’s more will delight in telling you what they think. Everyone is a critic. Being detached is actually easier said than done as most of the work we do is so personal that when anyone attempts to give you constructive criticism its hard not to want to lash out. My coping mechanism is to hope for the best but always expect something slightly less and always have a smile ready even if you want to cry.
The beautiful trouble was everyone was so positive. Earlier in the day we had heard back from the Swansea team in Hull that instead of a 70 minute presentation they had been given an 80 minute grilling. It had gone so well Kevin Allen, the film director, had been videoed on a street in Hull playing a grand piano and singing ‘Who are we, Jack Army’. I’d never seen Kevin smile before let alone sing and play the piano. The positivity was infectious.
As with all of these reality type TV shows, the One show was determined to wring out every last drop of emotion from the announcement. The show started with representatives of all 5 city bids gathered in Hull holding up their banners. They also had camera crews back in the 5 cities. After the little tease at the beginning the show then went on to talk about cooking! Except for the second half Championship Play off Final in 2011 I have never known time pass so slowly. I was so full of electricity I could not keep still and the waiting only made it worse.
Finally, at about 7.25pm the studio returned to Hull for the announcement. After that it all became a bit of a blur. I saw someone open an envelope and saw the word Coventry and I knew that yet again it wasn’t going to be our turn to be UK City of Culture. I took to the stage and told everyone to keep their heads up and after a rousing speech from Cllr Robert Francis Davies, slowly, people started drifting off home.
Here we are again, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed but what I know is that we now have ‘culture’ right at the heart of Swansea. The High Street has changed so much in 4 years and the plans to build on the artists and theatres and galleries will go on. As the new Chair of the Swansea International festival I know that as we celebrate our 70th Anniversary next year we will deliver a programme that will reach out to all and bring some wonderful International Artists to this city.
The process of putting together the bid has brought together, artists, politicians, media outlets, business and local government officials in a way that otherwise might not have been possible. We cannot let those connections and dreams fall away just because we didn’t get given a title.
A dear friend of mine, the BBC broadcaster Alan Thompson, who sadly passed away earlier this year, once said to me ‘Do you know what I admire most about you?’ I wondered if it was my song writing or my voice, maybe my sparkling wit? ‘The thing I admire most about you is that you never gave up.’ Swansea and I share a similar view here, whatever happens, good or bad, no matter what anyone says or whatever decisions are made we will not give up so the whole world better get used to that!
They might take our freedom, they might take our title ‘City of Culture’ but they’ll never take our amazing bay.