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Heritage Sent to Coventry

JOHN GREEN pays tribute to the West Midlands city that’s to become Britain’s city of culture in 2021

I WAS very pleased to hear that Coventry has been chosen to become Britain’s city of culture in 2021. 

But then I’m biased, being an Old Coventrian, having spent my childhood and teenage years in this medieval city. 

It is said that the expression “being sent to Coventry” originated from the 17th century, when royalist prisoners were kept there during the English revolution and were ostracised by the staunchly republican citizens.

In the late ’50s the great Afro-American Bass Paul Robeson sang to an enthralled audience at the city’s Hippodrome

My parents’ home in the city centre was flattened by Hitler’s bombs during the Blitz and only after the war were we rehoused in one of those “temporary” (they were still being used well into the ’60s) asbestos prefabs built by prisoners of war.

The city rose phoenix-like from the devastation of the Blitz, and with its radical Labour council began an adventurous and innovative rebuilding programme. 

Its architects department (remember when councils had such things?) drew up plans for spacious, well-built council housing estates, one of the first pedestrianised shopping centres in the country, an attractive new Herbert Museum and Art Gallery and a new, intimate, modernist theatre.  

Its visionary new cathedral attracted contributions from leading British artists, like John Piper who designed the windows, Graham Sutherland its magnificent tapestry and a powerful, secularised, St Michael and the devil sculpture by Jacob Epstein to adorn its portal. 

Its visionary left-wing administration twinned the city with other cities badly damaged by the war, particularly in eastern Europe, with strong links to Stalingrad, Lidice and Belgrade, the latter supplying the beautiful wood for the interior cladding of its state-of-the-art Belgrade Theatre. 

It was there, in the ’50s and ’60s we could see premieres of Arnold Wesker’s trilogy about an East End communist Jewish family, new militant plays by John Arden and a production of Brecht by a young Trevor Nunn. 

There were concerts by top artists from the Soviet Union, like Emil Gilels, Marx Raizin, Galina Vishnevskaya and Igor Oistrakh. Only later did they become world-renowned. 

Also in the late ’50s the great African-American bass Paul Robeson sang to an enthralled and packed audience at the city’s Hippodrome. 

In the ’60s, at the height of the cold war, the city’s then mayor William Callow caused a furore by visiting his counterpart in East Berlin as a gesture of reconciliation. 

The city became a byword for post-war efforts to drive the movement for reconciliation and peace. 

The Coventry Committee for International Understanding played a key role in promoting links with eastern Europe across the cold war divide and campaigning for peace.

It was very much a homogeneous working-class city, the centre of Britain’s car and engineering industry. There was hardly a family that didn’t have someone working in that sector. 

It was here that the strong post-war shop stewards’ movement grew and where a young T&GWU official called Jack Jones cut his teeth. 

The radical Labour council, with a far-reaching planning and development remit, in the days when local councils still had real powers, rebuilt a city fit for a post-war generation, full of hope and optimism. 

However, from the late ’70s onwards, with Thatcher’s policies of deindustrialisation, the city suffered its second and arguably worst blitz, its industrial base becoming totally devastated. 

During those years, from its roots in Coventry, The Specials led by Jerry Dammers brought multicultural ska to a world audience. 
The band captured the vigour of a new multicultural generation but also expressed the anger at the industrial vandalism the city had suffered. 

Sadly, in retrospect, that appears to have been the city’s cultural swansong. I hope becoming city of culture in 2021 will once again help revive its cultural and economic life.



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