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Towering ambition

Silaja Suntharalingam and Christopher Whalen meet the man behind Oxford’s bid to become the 2008 European Capital of Culture “I’ve never had an aspiration to strive for second best. I believe in going to win and I believe in trying to be best.” Were we listening in on grand plans of world domination or the aspirations of the next Olympic gold medallist? No, this was simply PR babble from our man from the council, Joe Simpson. Oxford’s coordinator of the bid to become European Capital of Culture 2008 shared his vision with Cherwell. “It’s about putting invention and innovation centre stage,” says Simpson who sees the strength of Oxford’s bid as coming from its people, rather than its architecture. He says the city inspires “every generation that comes through the place to make a difference.” Unlike the offers required to get into the prestigious university, 3Bs are good enough for Simpson – Books, Business and Bioscience. The bid will focus on Oxford’s cultural lead in these three spheres. “Find me a Booker Prize shortlist that doesn’t have an Oxford author on it. Compare this with south Tyneside: its Catherine Cookson country. That’s the one literary talent that south Tyneside has produced.” He goes on, “If, forty years ago, you said that this university would be at the centre of business creativity, people would have laughed at you.” Now the joke is on the cynics. In terms of bioscience, Simpson points out that the University has nurtured “thirty millionaires courtesy of the spin-offs in science” – a vast improvement on the situation twenty years ago. This is why “Oxford is a jewel that is worth celebrating.” Simpson sees this accolade as a recognition of existing cultural prowess, rather than an excuse for “ghastly” urban regeneration, such as that promised by rival bidder Newcastle-Gateshead. On this criterion alone, he believes Oxford can swipe the prize from under the noses of other competitors. Speaking of this opposition, he says, “Consider it from the position of the consumer: what would you like to do? Would you like to go and see something that is excellent, or would you like to see something that is a bit third-rate? Imagine the first people you are going to tell this decision to. I just find it unbelievable that Blair would say to Chirac, ‘It’s Bradford”. Not happy to sit back and let the dreaming spires alone wow the judges, Mr Simpson hopes to use the lead up to the bid to add a fresh slant to the city’s existing culture. Simpson cited the example of the Saïd Business School – where he chose to launch the bid – to explain his philosophy. He hopes to make Oxford reassess its “not always inclusive environment”, symbolised by its introspective quadrangles, towards a more all-embracing, outward-looking atmosphere such as that conveyed by the Saïd’s glass frontage. Whilst Britain’s cynical media would argue that Oxford will never escape its enclosed world of fantasy, Mr Simpson sees it as a simple process based around the question of access. By starting a “park and glide” system using the city’s waterways, he seeks to capitalize on the hitherto under-developed east and west sides beyond the tourist trapping trinity of the High Street, St Aldate’s and Broad Street. In theory, his vision for the city is rather attractive. In practice, the plans do not hold much water. The “dirty back yard” of the west side beyond the station could, apparently, with sensitive treatment become the “jewel” of the city. With these plans, Simpson would seem to be contradicting his own views, suggesting that instead of celebrating and enhancing the already well developed cultural centre of the city, tourists should instead be ferried towards its periphery. Will the appeal of a poor imitation mini-Venice stay afloat? In many ways, development of the east and west sides is the only way in which Oxford can progress culturally without opposition. Yet after his first-hand experience with the doomed Millennium project, Mr Simpson stresses that Oxford will not be putting all its jewels in one casket with this bid. “What we are talking about are some new uses and enhancements for the buildings. This is a project which is predicated around celebrating creativity, not celebrating building construction.” Improving the access to and use of the existing architectural gems would be greeted with open arms by both locals and tourists. Yet his vague unwillingness to discuss specific strategies suggests that these aspirations will merely remain a twinkling in Mr Simpson’s eye. “Imagine”, “Inspire” and “Innovate”: not the names of Calvin Klein’s latest range of fragrances, but the hollow keywords around which the bid is focused. Grounding these vague ideas in reality before they float past the dreaming spires themselves will be Simpson’s hardest task. If Oxford is marketed with these household labels, the city’s magical mystique, which Simpson hopes to capture, will be dispelled. It seems that Simpson’s imagination may have taken a step too far when he dreamily invited us to “Come and join us on the journey!” It would have been as hard for us to leave our cosy tearooms as it will be for Oxford to change its deep-rooted outlooks. If Simpson’s hot air balloon ever gets off the ground, it will only too soon be burst by Oxford’s stubborn spires. ARCHIVE: 1st Week MT2003

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