For a moment, I am going to step outside of my London bubble. The reason? Next year’s Eurovision Song Contest is currently staging a showdown between two other UK cities – Liverpool and Glasgow – one of which will host 2023’s campathon, with the victor expected to be announced in the next few weeks.
I don’t take the Song Contest at all seriously, and whether this is all a matter of prestige is highly debatable. But, let us imagine for one moment that this is actually a prize awarded to the most culturally significant city. Who would come out on top?
I think most people would argue Liverpool, and that is down to The Beatles, undoubtedly the most influential (and to many minds the greatest) band in the history of popular music. Tales of the Cavern Club abound 60 years later, and lazy pop historians talk about the Liverpudlian invasion of America as the moment when popular culture shifted irrevocably (of course, it’s more complicated than that). Music is deep in the heart of this port city, and if you look at some of the bands that have followed in the wake of the Fab Four – OMD, The Coral, The Real Thing, The Icicle Works, The Mighty Wah! – all have been possessed of an exquisite musicality. No one can write a better melodic line than a scouser.
Some of the world’s great TV and stage dramatists have also come out of Liverpool. Men with beards making an impassioned plea for tolerance is definitely a thing, as anyone who has watched Boys from the Blackstuff (Alan Bleasdale), Broken (Jimmy McGovern) or Educating Rita (Willy Russell) will attest. And while the city is known for its great sense of humour, it is worth noting that the woman who subverted the sitcom stereotype to create something more profound, more truthful, is West Derby-born Carla Lane, the writer of Butterflies, starring Wendy Craig.
And yet, if you are talking about Liverpool as a great city of culture (and it was awarded that title in 2008), a destination for patrons of the arts, the argument starts to fall apart. It is true that it has one of the greatest orchestras outside London (the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic), and an enthusiastic review by our chief theatre critic Dominic Cavendish of the new Shakespeare North venue proves that the city could once again be a hub for drama (the pioneering Everyman having sadly dropped out of the cultural conversation many years ago).
But in other areas, it falls short, with no art galleries, dance companies or opera houses – at least not any that carry any great significance beyond the North West. The city’s greatest receiving house, the Liverpool Empire, is often stymied by the fact that it can comfortably seat 2,350 people, a daunting prospect for any touring company trying to sell tickets for one of the more highbrow art forms.
Glasgow is another matter entirely. It is also in another country, and I think that is important when assessing the “dear green place”. Scots have a stronger sense of their cultural heritage than the English. I will never forget a survey conducted about 25 years ago that asked people in the street to name the greatest Scotsman of all time. Not Alex Ferguson or Kenny Dalglish or even Tony Blair (joke), but Hugh MacDiarmid, the Scottish poet who I doubt most of the English have even heard of. Imagine a similar survey in England. Heathcote Williams at number one? Unlikely.
The fact is that Glasgow is a city where you are constantly aware of the arts. It has two world-class galleries and museums – the Hunterian and the Kelvingrove – and also the coolest art school in the UK, the Glasgow School of Art (though its splendid Charles Rennie Mackintosh shell is pinioned by scaffolding and irrevocably damaged by the devastating fire in 2014). In fact, Mackintosh is a consistent presence in the city: the Lighthouse, the Willow Tearooms and the splendid Queen's Cross Church were all designed by him.
But, it isn’t all about legacy. This is a city that never sits still, and an evolving attitude to the cultural agenda can be seen in the work staged at Citizens Theatre, at Scottish Ballet and Scottish Opera. Of course, most people see the Scottish capital as the country’s artistic hub, and while it is true that Edinburgh has much to offer, Glasgow has the edge. If you were to take away the Fringe Festival, the second city (actually larger) would win hands down.
And as for the music… well, some of my favourite bands – Primal Scream, Teenage Fanclub, Belle and Sebastian – were formed in the city, while the greatest cultural moment of the Queen’s funeral (a musical setting from the New Testament’s Epistle to the Romans) came from James MacMillan, not quite a Glaswegian, but someone who grew up about 20 miles from the city.
Glasgow’s musical talent shows it is a city that thrives on eclecticism. There is no homogenous sound that defines it, which adheres very nicely to the “something for everyone” idea that I was certainly struck by when I visited last year.
So, who is the real winner here? Both are great cities that, when I think of it, make me realise how much I regularly miss out on by being constantly stuck within the M25. But, I think Glasgow has the edge; a city with culture on every corner.
I have no doubt that any Slovenian nu-metaller or Portuguese balladeer will be seduced by its charms next May. Of course, whether the good Scottish citizens want to be subjected to any of this is another matter.