The positive role of culture in the life of a city was amply illustrated in the second programme of the BBC’s series “Town”. The series, presented by geographer Nicholas Crane, features four cities, their history and their present. Scarborough , in Yorkshire, on the eastern coast of England was the focus of this second programme.
Many people will know of the song “Scarborough Fair” thanks to Simon and Garfunkel’s re-working of a traditional folk song, few will perhaps know the fair’s origin. The fair, starting in the 13th century, was for several centuries Europe’s largest fish market and an international trading centre. As competition reduced the fair the town re-invented itself as Britain’s first spa and seaside resort until that gradually declined. The town’s economy, as many tourist resorts, was based on a short six week season.
Scarborough has had to re-invent itself again. It appears to be doing so successfully. By 2005 the creative and cultural industries accounted to 19% of the town’s economy. Scarborough won the 2008/2009 award for the most creative and inspiring entrepreneurship initiative in Europe.
For many Scarborough’s main cultural connection is Alyn Ayckbourn. For over 50 years the playwright has lived in the town and his plays are almost always premiered there. He is, the programme noted, the world’s most performed living playwright. Productions start in Scarborough and the company tour the world. Culture putting the town on the global map.
For me the real revelation of the programme came with a more recent artistic intervention. Scarborough has a geological problem. The outer reaches of the town are built on the debris from the last Ice Age. 12,000 years ago Scarborough was at the southern end of glaciers. As they retreated they left debris on top of the sound sandstone rock foundations. Now, slowly but inexorably, the surface is being washed away into the sea. Houses are literally falling off the cliffs into the sea.
An enterprising artist, Kane Cunningham, bought one of the houses for £3,000 using his credit card. It is not a long term purchase; the house will topple soon. As well as a canny way of providing cheap studio space Cunningham has made the house an art installation in its own right.
It’s the perfect site-specific installation – a stark reminder of lost dreams, financial disaster and rising sea levels. It’s global recession and global warning encapsulated. This little house is feet away from the edge of the cliff – it can go at any moment. The idea is to create an artwork on a scale never seen before in North Yorkshire and to stimulate within the imagination of the public that this house falling into the sea can become a work of art. If the aim of art is to stimulate discussion and debate on issues, then surely this will get people talking.”
Crane voiced his scepticism before entering the house: is this really art? Within a few minutes, as he reported afterwards, his view had changed. Cunningham has linked the house and its fate to correspondents around the world. He invited local schoolchildren to write letters. Some are marked “Not To Open”; the letter will fall unread into the sea. One letter poignantly expressed a child’s’ fears over a parental divorce.
The house has indeed got people talking, taking time out to reflect and to imagine. It is indeed “an art work reflecting the times we live in”. It has become another key element in the cultural landscape of Scarborough.