What was the inspiration behind A Manifesto for a New City?
It was really organic. Northern Stage was doing a stage production of Homage to Catalonia and I was sent to Barcelona with Bill Herbert and Linda France on easyJet. The idea was to write poems about Barcelona for a fringe event in Newcastle. There was a lot of individuality about Barcelona and I thought about how there are shops that only sell olives.
We were reading George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and thinking about the Spanish Civil War. There was a year during the war when the anarchists took over and they painted the trams and had their own marriage ceremonies. I suddenly thought that I would write a manifesto for Newcastle.
The manifesto ended up having nothing to do with Barcelona but that was the kick off. Actually I disapprove of Newcastle trying to be like Barcelona. Newcastle is Newcastle and shouldn’t try and be another city.
I felt very enthused about the manifesto and ended writing things like ‘we shall eat English apples.’ The more I wrote it the more I thought you could put these things into action. Everyone could have an afternoon nap. But what would really happen to the city if everyone had an afternoon nap? Would the city be able to function? Would we run out of money?
In my manifesto I removed all middle management so there is nobody in suits. All the flats have been given to artists. The artists are in control but they can’t organise anything. There are no cars so it would be a Luddite world. The more I thought about the repercussions, the more I thought it was totally impractical. My manifesto could never work.
Is the manifesto based on a utopian idea?
It started off as a utopia but like a lot of utopias became a dystopia – a nightmare. It was completely unsustainable.
The only way it could work would be in a fascist way. People who disagreed would be locked up. I was thinking about having a mad despot who told us all what to do and what would happen. For example, the despot gets rid of chain stores and makes everyone learn a disappearing language.
We had an evening called Flying Homages last April and it caught people’s imaginations. It made me realise that people have a lot of opinions about development – they are all going round like me, like grumpy old women or grumpy old men.
They love the Sage, but they have a feeling of ‘hang on a minute, what are all the those luxury flats doing going up?’ People have feelings of doubt and powerlessness about the speed in which the city has changed. The answer is to get involved in politics, but creative people don’t get involved in politics as politics is so boring.
Even though the manifesto doesn’t work there were glimpses of things which were really good. It was like saying to yourself: ‘Do you remember when?’ There have been moments in political history when someone has done something really audacious and memorable, and it has changed in a way how people feel about things. That is what I wanted the manifesto to really be about, glimpses of the possibility of change.
A clerk sings a song about having an afternoon nap and because of this she starts to dream more. Her dreams become much more vivid. She stops arguing so much with people at work and she gets on better with her boss. Everything got better for a brief glimpse in her life. She craves that little glimpse of peace that she had. By changing structures, interesting things can happen to humanity.
What do you think of the recent development of Tyneside?
Honestly I think artistic changes in the city are lovely. But when you go to places like Walker they look the same as when I first came here. They are no different and I don’t know how ordinary people relate to things in the Baltic.
Commercialism and art is a theme. Whether it is about bringing tourism and money to Newcastle or building a city which is full of interesting individuals and ideas. I think when most people go to Baltic they go to look at the views. On the whole it feels like the city centre has been taken over by another load of people.
In terms of me being an artist it is probably the best period I have ever known. So in a way I’m wrong as artists have it better, but they are mainly middle class artists and not working class artists. When I first came to Newcastle, one thing I loved about it was that a lot of artists were involved in communities. I know they are still, but I feel there is a widening gap.
I don’t care what people make. It could be cakes or dog collars for greyhounds. You don’t define artists through status or class. It’s about people making things. Personally I think people are happier when they make things. There is a class division between the art of the Baltic and the art of the allotment.
Has Newcastle become more sterile over recent years?
Just more predictable. I find Northumberland Street depressing. It could be anywhere, which is a shame for such a creative region. The Grainger Market however is a lovely place.
In a way A Manifesto for a New City is just a discussion. Someone purports this idea and I hope it is entertaining. If the manifesto was put into action what would happen? What would be the good things about battling something? I wonder if we are becoming too homogenous. We all eat the same apples, we shop in the same shops. It would be nice if we all ate English apples.
I was interested in the feeling of loneliness and people not connecting with each other. Who are the people living in the Baltic flats? Lots of new people are coming into the city but what is there relationship to the city? The whole community of the city centre is disappearing. I think that is a real shame.
There are some funny things though. Like Bar 55 was supposed to be young persons’ place. But loads of old people go there because they have piano players, which is really nice. I love that, there is something in Newcastle which will always return to what it wants to do. Sometimes it feels like the city has been kidnapped. And yet we are all going round, me included, saying, ‘Isn’t it wonderful? Isn’t it great?’
A Manifesto implies rules and governance. Is there a political element to it?
I don’t really know what is going on in the Civic Centre but I imagine most people in the city don’t know what is going on in there either. Unless we actively get involved with politics we don’t know the minutiae.
One of the metaphors for the whole thing comes from my daughter who has a one bedroom flat in the Byker Wall. It is a one-bedroom flat which looks over the Tyne and has a beautiful view. They are planning to build a glass tower of luxury flats which will completely block her view. Here is a girl who hasn’t got much money and soon she won’t be able to see the River Tyne because property developers have taken it away from her. I don’t think the city of Newcastle should be about that.
We haven’t got an overall sense of the horizon. Architects just seem to want to build the biggest building or most amazing building without looking at everything else which is around it. We are not thinking of the city as a holistic thing. The stakes have got higher as Newcastle is such a beautiful city.
I think people are becoming more politicised and I am hoping A Manifesto for a New City will be timely. I want it to be a bit of a stirrer. I want people to feel fired up.
* The controversial 32-storey Wimpey Tower Block was shelved and guidelines drawn to safeguard Newcastle’s skyline in 2006.