A FRESH START
From The Mill Magazine, May/June 2023
“Paisley is a dump. Paisley is rundown. Paisley has nothing to offer. Paisley is (insert your own complaint here)", and so on and so forth. These comments, often accompanied by expletives, were not the disparaging and dismissive views of folk from outside Renfrewshire, but the commonly held views of a great many who lived in and around this town.
The area's collective self-esteem was probably at its lowest ebb back in 2015. This was the backdrop when Renfrewshire Council decided to bid for the title of UK City of Culture 2021.
You could almost hear the derisory laughter as many locals snorted, "City of Culture, us? Aye, that'll be right". Perhaps only drowned out by folk outside of Paisley saying, "Paisley? Culture? Don't make me laugh."
Given all of the above, the Council's bid seemed ambitious to say the least.
However, once you sat down and analysed the bid, you came to realise just how much Paisley has going for it.
For example, Paisley has the highest number of listed buildings by area of any town in Scotland, as well as the second highest concentration of listed buildings outside Edinburgh, a built heritage that reflects Paisley's past. Like many locals, I didn't know that.
PACE Youth Theatre is the largest, most successful organisation of its kind in the UK with over 1,000 young people aged between 3-21 attending weekly workshops in drama, music and dance. J & P Coats, who funded and built many of the listed buildings referenced above, employed over 10,000 people in its Paisley mills, and astonishingly, were the world's third biggest company at their height. Guess what? I didn't know any of that either.
It turns out there was a huge amount I didn't know about the town I was born in and from conversations with friends and many others over the next few years, it was abundantly clear that so many of us were as unwittingly ignorant about our hometown.
You will never secure support from 100% of the people for anything. Many Paisley Buddies instinctively supported the bid, while others took some convincing.
With each passing week and month, the outstanding campaign which was overseen by Jean Cameron, Louisa Mahon and the entire team not only convinced a great many sceptics in the town, but caused people from across Scotland and the UK to look at Paisley in a new light.
My only real criticism in the early days of the bid was the assumption by some that Renfrewshire-wide support would be automatic. It wasn't and I told them so. A lot of work was required to engage and elicit support from the rest of Renfrewshire. Fortunately, the engagement and messaging improved thereafter.
Coventry's success may have been disappointing (I still regularly chin John Glen MP, the minister who announced it), but the longer-term effects of the bid will change lives and boost our cultural capital in a way that will continue down the years and decades to come.
In my opinion, there are three strands to the legacy that the bid has enshrined in the area.
The first one is physical. Our built heritage was one of the town's real strengths. Too many of us hadn't been looking up enough to fully appreciate this. However, some of those architectural gems required substantial work if they were to remain relevant in the coming decades.
Despite the hurdles and delays caused by the pandemic, the programme of refurbishment and renewal of our publicly owned cultural infrastructure is nearing its final stages. Paisley Town Hall will reopen for business later this year after a restoration programme which will subsequently make it one of the crown jewels in Renfrewshire's cultural life.
Likewise, the new learning and cultural hub is taking shape on Paisley's High Street, a fantastic asset combining a traditional library with spaces and facilities aimed at inclusivity across the board.
Next year will see the reopening of a completely revamped Paisley Museum which is now fully integrated with the nearby Coats Observatory. The plans look fantastic, but was fortunate enough to have visited the site last year and I cannot wait until it opens.
Another pivotal location that I managed to get along to is PACE's proposed Exchange theatre and venue at the old IKON nightclub. What an addition this would be for the town and the wider area.
When combined, these projects will amount to a complete rejuvenation of Renfrewshire's cultural capital and have the potential to put Paisley on the national map as far as creativity is concerned.
Next, we have the boost to Paisley's reputation across the rest of the country.
Glasgow's successful bid to be European City of Culture in 1990 is still influencing the city's reputation in arts and culture. In retrospect, it was a transformational event in the city's history.
You'll still find Glaswegians who were around for that year and know how the world's perception of a city so often coloured by negativity changed over the space of 12 months, with the city being reimagined as a European city the equal of any across the continent.
I'm not a Glaswegian and I was only 10 in 199o, but I still remember much of the activity around that year, in particular, The Big Day in which hundreds of thousands supported what was Europe's biggest free street party and musical event. Sadly, I only really remember Aswad and Hothouse Flowers!
I campaigned hard for our bid, mainly in Parliament and with ministers directly, but the conversations I had with people at the start of the process were very different from those towards the end. Based on its reputation, many struggled to take the town itself seriously, let alone the City of Culture bid. By the end of the process, so many of these stereotypical attitudes had shifted.
I was always proud to captain Paisley Rugby Club and go round the country representing the town, but it used to rile me just how dismissive and downright derogatory folk were about Paisley. Of course, I'm not for one minute suggesting that the town is now viewed in an overwhelmingly positive fashion by all, but we have made significant progress.
The third and final legacy strand is the most important in my eyes and that's the Paisley residents' attitude to their own hometown.
There is no denying the hard knocks that Paisley has taken over the years. At one stage, it was one of the wealthiest towns in the country. But there cannot be many places that suffered as many blows in as short a time as it did in the latter third of the last century.
Entire industries which had underpinned not just the local economy, but had played a part in creating a local culture, disappeared virtually overnight, leaving behind a community experiencing wide-scale poverty and deprivation at a time when it seemed like the entire country was being thrown on the dole.
Paisley's present hasn't been helped by decisions made by its leaders' past. Leaders political, business and cultural have all, in 20:20 hindsight, made mistakes that have had a lasting impact.
When The Paisley Centre was devised, it seemed a good idea at the time. Not enough people questioned whether to put another large shopping mall in the centre of a town which already had the Piazza, at a time when out of town retail was popping up all over the place.
The perceived death of the High Street is the "recent" event which has shaped many a Buddie's opinion of the town. This is not a Paisley phenomenon of course, out of town retail parks and shopping malls, plus the exponential growth in online shopping, has made life very hard for those trying to regenerate our town centres.
Many excellent efforts have been made to revitalise the High Street, including making the town centre a place to live in again. All of the above are traumatic experiences for a town and it's residents. For too long, these events have discernibly shaped Paisley locals' sense of themselves and the place they call home. But now, we've reached a point where Paisley is now a sought after place to live, with our wee town being named Britain's top property hotspot by Rightmove in 2021. At that point, the market had grown by 15% and what did those who were buying claim to be at the forefront of their decision-making? Paisley's "fabulous culture".
For many, the 2021 bid removed the scales from their eyes and they were able to see Paisley in a new light. Some just needed reminding what they had, others needed to see it for the first time. Today, many more walk around their town looking up, instead of at their shoes.
More than any building refurbishment, this, for me, is the overriding legacy of the 2021 bid.
It goes without saying that a legacy is a living thing. It needs to be nurtured and supported or it will wither. In terms of upcoming events, we'll see the Royal National Mod return to Paisley this October, a decade after its last visit, with the festivities serving as one of the first major events to hit the Town Hall after its completion; it is not just an opportunity to show off a revitalised building, but to strengthen and reaffirm the far-reaching Gaidhlig heritage of Renfrewshire which is woven into our local culture and the very names of the places where we live.
Beyond that, it must be acknowledged that in terms of producing cultural figures and icons, Paisley has punched well above its weight, from Robert Tannahill to Paulo Nutini and everything in-between. With the rejuvenation of our cultural venues and the drive of folk like Grant and Jenni Mason running PACE Youth theatre, not to mention the thriving arts and music scenes that are producing exciting talent on a near-monthly basis, that trend is set to continue well into the future.
Just like those place names, buildings, and landmarks, Paisley's bid to be UK City of Culture is found in the past. But as those things shape our culture of today, so too has that dismaying outcome.
It's now up to all of us, not just the local council, to make sure that legacy continues for years to come - and ensure the future generations can look back on our time as an era that helped build a better culture and a better place.