Stop the bad press: Southampton is something special

Last weekend, as I scrolled my Twitter feed through bleary eyes first thing in the morning, one particular post caught my eye.

It was this article: a piece on The Guardian called Southampton ‘fights for its soul’ as Covid-19 closes theatres by Vanessa Thorpe, about the recent devastating news that Nuffield Southampton Theatres (NST) had not found a buyer and had closed after over 60 years, making more than 80 staff redundant.

This particular theatre means a lot to me (as I shared in an essay I wrote after it went into administration). The story itself was heartbreaking, but what upset me further was the portrait painted about my beloved city in this piece.

What’s with the bad press?

NST Theatres Southampton

Thorpe explores our cultural demise at the hands of COVID-19, exploring NST’s place in the wider story of culture’s lack of support from the Government during lockdown, and asking what this means for Southampton’s bid to become City of Culture 2025.

Currently, all cities have cultural venues that are facing a shaky and uncertain future, but with NST being one of the first to ‘go’, we’re an obvious case study to use as an example. The problem is, this article makes it sound as if this closure, and subsequent redundancies, were inevitable – and appears to use them as a springboard to generally paint our city in a less than flattering light.

Southampton has so much to offer, and it saddens me that this is, once more, overlooked.

Thorpe begins her piece by describing Southampton as “a city that is an increasingly tough place to live,” and goes on to take a quote from someone who lives in Romsey about how the city’s high streets were suffering even before COVID-19 arrived. The interviewee describes Southampton as “tatty” and “run-down”, stating that “it looks so different to Bristol. Apart from the theatre, there’s nowhere I’d take a visitor.”

You’d be hard-pressed to find a UK high street without any boarded-up windows and a forest of To Let signs – but we’re doing pretty well for ourselves, with city-wide renovations, investments and facelifts. This is not the first time I’ve heard our city being compared to Bristol, and it’s something that never fails to fill me with disappointment. Of course Southampton is different from Bristol. No two UK cities are – or should – be the same.

Contrary to what this article suggests, Southampton has so much to offer, both for visitors and residents alike, and I will never get tired of it. Spend more than a few hours exploring our streets, buildings and spaces, and you’ll find a place full of heart, community and creativity.

Come and explore with me.

Let me show you the buildings that tell the tale of a city rising from the ashes of world-war bombings. We’ll talk about how the Grade II-listed Wyndham Court is beautiful in its brutalism, before enjoying how Westquay’s newer building highlights the beauty of the town walls, and how Bargate is still a sight to behold in our town centre. We’ll marvel at the beautiful ruins of Holyrood Church, and hunt down hidden street art, or walk the ancient city walls.

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Next, onto the newly revived God’s House Tower for a tour of one of our oldest buildings. We’ll learn about the prisoners who called the place their home, the fortress that protected the city, and the evolution of Southampton, before enjoying locally-sourced baked and brewed goods in the cafe. Before we leave, we’ll make time to experience the latest art exhibition, saying hello to the local writers gathered for their weekly workshop on our way out.

Let’s head back up through the city, and watch the skateboarders in Guildhall Square, who perfect their tricks in the shadow of Studio 144, where so many shows, exhibitions and projects have been shared at NST City, John Hansard Gallery, and City Eye. We’ll wait there until the next cultural festival begins, sipping locally-brewed coffee at Mettricks, or watching music fans queue for the evening’s gig at the O2 Guildhall.

I’ll treat you to a meal at any one of the independent restaurants. You might prefer a Thai feast at Mango, or Mauritian food at Masterchef-owned Lakaz Maman. Perhaps Popsi’s pizza will tickle your tastebuds; we can enjoy La Regata, Ottoman Kitchen and Bacaro next time you visit – because there will be a next time.

We’ll take a short bus ride to the University of Southampton, or stay central and visit Solent University, where we’ll be surrounded by exciting research and education. We’ll meet staff and students from all walks of life, with so much to offer, and we’ll feel reassured that our future is in good hands.

Perhaps we’ll head further to the Ageas Bowl for some world-class cricket, or catch a game at St Mary’s Stadium; the crowds will whip even the most unlikely sports fan into a frenzy.

A breather. We’ll sit and sun ourselves on Southampton Common, where we’ll forget just how central in a city we are. We’ll watch families play together, friends ride bikes together, and runners try to beat their personal best. The picnic blanket will come out, and we’ll read in the shade, before making a pitstop at the ice cream van, then moving onto the Cowherds for a cider as the sun dips lower.

Southampton Common

Come on in to our performance and music venues. We’ll watch poetry slams and open mic nights showcasing home-grown talent, and sing along to tunes from a band we saw performing beneath the City Walls at Music in the City last year. We’ll discover new favourites, and dance the night away to Cuban music, sipping boozy iced teas and making a beeline for the roof-top bar.

The next day, I suggest we spend a few rainy hours hiding in the Sea City Museum, learning about our maritime history, before nipping next door to the City Art Gallery, and then into the library for a writing workshop, or a life-drawing class. When the sun comes out, we can walk all the way down to Ocean Village, where, if we’re feeling fancy, we can pop into the Harbour Hotel for a cocktail – or even a spa treatment to refresh ourselves.

When the time comes, we’ll celebrate Pride, or head to the Mela Festival. But for now, as we walk back to the train station, we’ll find the Hoxton Bakehouse hiding in an unsuspecting industrial estate – the one that sells the most mouth-watering cinnamon buns.

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There are so many stories to be told here; and in my ten years living in various houses across the city centre, weekend visitors have never tired of their time in Southampton, asking to come back again and again (and not just because I’m here).

Our theatres are a huge draw and a huge asset, and without them, our city would – maybe will – be all the poorer; but it would be wrong to suggest that their absence would equal a complete absence of culture and celebration within our community.

The list of places to go, things to see, and events to be a part of is almost endless, and ever-growing. I have lived here for ten years, and I am still discovering and experiencing new things every week.

We are a city of journeys. We have, for many years, been a resting place for people midway to their destination; a pitstop, a port, and a place to rest your head en route. But I urge you to consider us as a place to stay; as the purpose of your travels, and not just a port of call, but a safe harbour in which to be welcomed and entertained.

We are a mishmash of ancient history and post-war quick fixes. We are small, but we are a close-knit community. We are home to wonderful venues, initiatives, independent businesses and bright, brilliant people. We support each other. We have impressive views, and stunning surroundings, peaceful riversides and hidden gems, and what we lack in the way of beaches we make up for in green spaces. We have a story to tell. We March On.

When Thorpe writes in her piece, with what sounds like a hint of derision, that our high street is “heralded by a hotdog stall”, she neglects to mention that this particular hotdog stall is home to the singing hotdog seller – a much-loved character familiar to locals and visitors alike. Every city has its personalities, and every city has it’s on-street hotdog stands. Who’s to say that isn’t a worthy part of culture, too?

Southampton rose from the ashes of invasions and WWII, and we are still rising. The fallout of the pandemic may set us back a few years, but we’ll get there; and while our cultural landscape may look a little different in the future, our exciting, underestimated, and creative communities will still be there, making the city our own and sharing our stories.

I am so very proud to call Southampton my home. Without it, I wouldn’t have achieved half of what I’ve done in the last decade, and I’m in no rush to leave it behind. This place was supposed to be a three-year stepping stone on my life’s journey, and yet it has become a permanent home. I’m planning to stay a little while longer and soak up all it has to offer.

Won’t you join me?

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5 thoughts on “Stop the bad press: Southampton is something special

  1. Dameon Garnett says:

    Southampton is a great city that grows on you. It has character and so much history – if you care to find out. It survived the loss of over 500 of its residents in the sinking of the Titanic, and the blitz. It will survive a theatre closure – sad as it is.

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  2. Dave Juson says:

    Great article.
    I do get weary of being told what dump I live in. Usually by people who live in the “country” (e.g. Chandlers Ford, Fair Oak et al) and claim that they haven’t been into town for half a decade or more: “… and it’s so noisy!” “The history has all been demolished! What’s there to see?” Well, three magnificent medieval gates, which is two more than the rest of the country’s walled towns put together.
    And how many other city’s can offer you village cricket five minutes walk from it’s busiest shopping district? I could go on, but I have a home town to enjoy.

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  3. Trevor says:

    Great piece, but a shame you completely forget the number 1 museum in Southampton, Solent Sky Aircraft museum.
    Current number 3 in 100 things to do in Southampton on Tripadviser and a fabulous place to explore the Southampton heritage.

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  4. D-man says:

    Nice one Jo. As someone who had zero emotional ties to or friends living in Southampton when I first moved here, it’s testament to the place that I’m still here 14 years later!

    In that time it has always been a city – slowly – on the up, moving in the right direction. I’ve never felt a decline that many others in northern towns or somewhere like Newport in South Wales, to give a specific example of another port town, would have felt since 2008 – we sadly see a lot more homeless people in doorways, but the city has otherwise weathered the storm compared to many places which have seen their souls completely ripped out.

    The piece you reference is not even the first sniffy Guardian article I’ve seen about the Cultural Quarter, with another commentator (following the opening of the arts venues) decrying what they saw as bland architecture and a city beholden to big finance/developers for these sort of projects. (https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/feb/22/studio-144-southampton-new-arts-venue)

    The last point is somewhat true of course, but the writer of the article did not stop to think whether or not this was still an incrementally good change, which it surely is.

    The city has always had an image/confidence problem, and is not great at shouting about what it does have – this perhaps makes it an easier target for lazy or myopic journalism.

    I will say that the music scene is a bit crap though. Aside from the Joiners / Heartbreakers / The 1865 (for generally smaller up and coming bands), the Brook (generally tribute acts) and the Engine Rooms / Guildhall for the odd medium / bigger artist who can be bothered, bands seem to pass Southampton by in favour of other South coast destinations like Brighton.

    Our one proper music festival, Common People, folded, but I don’t blame this on the population of Southampton at large being culturally stunted – it was more because because Rob da Bank was spreading himself too thin and had lost the magic touch of making *thematically great* festivals – like Bestival used to be – instead of generic fayre that appealed to no one in particular…

    We do have some great home-grown initiatives like Music in the City, and there’s always the 80s retro fest that is Let’s Rock, but I’d love to see Southampton make a concerted effort to attract more artists and rebrand as more of a proper hub for the arts, which I assume is exactly what the 2025 bid is about!

    Finally, the sniffy article which inspired my own ire includes a quote at the end about Bilbao which is added to be ironic but again I completely disagree with the sneer and believe it to be an excellent idea – as someone who has visited the place myself I think we could take a huge leaf out of Bilbao’s book. Also originally a smoggy port town considered rather ugly and industrial, they have pumped millions into their own arts and culture rebrand, have upgraded the museums and galleries, have a fab visitor centre and now run several great festivals – I would absolutely see it as an inspiration for Southampton if it wants to win in 2025 – not sure where the money will come from though!

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