I’d never heard the phrase “sent to Coventry” before my first term at university, which is ridiculous given I’m not only from Coventry but also did a degree in English. Yet I somehow spent the first nineteen years of my life in happy ignorance of this seventeenth-century popular idiom in which my home city is a metaphor for being ostracised or treated as invisible. Though I quickly learned that Coventry itself was invisible to my fellow students. When confronted with the same tedious questions lonely and eager Freshers have asked each other since the beginning of time – what’s your name, what’s your course, where are you from? – my reply of Coventry or Cov always drew blank looks. The most I got was a dawning “ohhh” from those who could roughly geo-locate my explanation “near Birmingham”. Londoners hazarded it might be “near Covent Garden?”

For sure, Coventry isn’t on the tourist map. Cov is no Cambridge, no Canterbury. In fact, I can’t see it at the top of anyone’s list of UK places to visit. Why? I think it’s a class thing. Cov is not a wealthy city. We don’t have a plethora of ancient buildings: those were all bombed in World War II. We don’t have a centuries-old university, a grand museum or a competitive market for independent bookshops. Cov is, at its core, a working city. To the browsing middle-class eye, it has little going for it and only hit the spotlight in the past five years when Binley Mega Chippy went viral over a silly song. It’s a city that is invariably cast aside for somewhere “a bit nicer”.

But Coventry is just one example of a problem across the country. As London-centrism continues to run rife, and “new Londons” begin to form in other major urban centres, attention is turned further away from cities like ours, and our working-class inhabitants risk being further isolated in the process. Yes, it’s probably good that cities like Manchester and Liverpool – working cities – have ended up gentrified. That doesn’t mean the Skegnesses of the country don’t continue to struggle. The Midlands are notoriously neglected, and Joe Lycett can only change so much by bringing television production to Birmingham. Without a shift in the travel mindset of the nation, whole chunks of the UK will remain unobserved to the more privileged, and local economies will continue to suffer.

A visit to Cov, however, reveals a warmth and spirit I have yet to see matched. Coventry is a special place. It died and was reborn; ruined by bombs and reconstructed into a half-brutalist, half-medieval, multicultural conglomerate of slightly shit schools, council estates and Turkish barbers. It is often bleak, yet it is also beautiful. To me, the walls of every building breathe the soul of a community of people linked over centuries by the shared hope that one day things will get better; a sense of compassion is woven through the population. It is built on a different history to middle-class cities with wealthy foundations, forged by the collaboration of people slaving to make a better place for their children. Even the legendary Lady Godiva rode naked through the city centre to convince her husband Leofric to lower taxes for the poor.

A visit to Cov reveals a warmth and spirit I have yet to see matched

Listen to one song by The Specials – the Cov legends and 2 tone pioneers – and the city’s credentials will be laid out: a borderline monstrous place, perhaps, but ultimately a joyful one. The band were born and bred in the city, formed by its history. They consisted of 40 members over the years, black and white artists creating a new shape for music, that accurately represented the city. They are perhaps most famed for Ghost Town, a song documenting the harrowing experience of living in Coventry in postwar, Thatcherite Britain, when there was no employment, no funding, and no hope: “no job to be found in this country / Can’t go on no more, the people getting angry”. And yet, in “Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think”, this doom is transformed into an urgent desire for pleasure. That’s the spirit of the city encapsulated: we may not have the O2 or gilded concert halls, but we demand a life as rich as we can make it.

Artists across the city have built on the pain of their struggles to produce original, transformative work. When can Cambridge or Canterbury give you a Cov-style art gallery/music venue/creative hub flourishing in a soon-to-be-demolished pub that was once a car showroom? Coventry redefines “the arts” so they’re not about privileged connoisseurship but about nourishing original talent that becomes part of a city’s life force.

Why then is Cov, alongside other little-known British towns and cities, so ignored? Pair all this culture with the parks, the festivals, the pubs, and (more regrettably) the independent coffee shops, and you’ve got all the basic ingredients for a Great British Weekend Away destination.

Who is going to pick Coventry over Oxford, though? Not when Oxford is so grand, so crowded, so flooded with opportunity. The problem is the middle-class mindset: their need for a city’s charms to be presented on a golden platter, their reluctance to go anywhere a Pret subscription can’t be maximised. Maybe Coventry doesn’t have the Radcliffe Camera, but the more curious traveller can discover its two extraordinary cathedrals standing side by side: one half-bombed, the other a feat of radical architecture by Basil Spence. They present a breathtaking picture of the city, and the country, pre- and post-World War II. The ruins of the medieval cathedral now serve as a venue for markets, concerts, film screenings and theatre; the second is a magnificent spiritual building, constructed in 1962 on the idea of “reconciliation”, its beautiful baptistry window by John Piper casting a technicolour glow over the pews. Not showy, but magnificent, these two buildings prove how Cov can, did, and always will, rebuild itself.

Working class cities need to be given more attention, and the middle classes need to get off their high horses in support. There are endlessly rewarding travel experiences to be had as soon as you find it within yourself to go to a city without a Waitrose in it. At some point in their lives, everyone should be “sent to Coventry”.

Lily Webb is a recent Oxford University English graduate, currently writing and bartending

More Like This

Get a free copy of our print edition

June / July 2024, Main Features

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed

Your email address will not be published. The views expressed in the comments below are not those of Perspective. We encourage healthy debate, but racist, misogynistic, homophobic and other types of hateful comments will not be published.