IT’S been a long, long time since Jean Cameron was last inside her childhood home, but the memories haven’t faded. The woman in charge of Paisley’s bid to be UK City of Culture in 2021 is standing – slightly self-consciously, as she admits – outside the house in Tannahill Road, in Ferguslie Park, Paisley. She vividly recalls growing up here in this four-in-a-block, of playing in the small, shared front garden.

“It was good growing up here. There was a lot of love," says Cameron. "I don’t want to be Pollyanna about it, because there are challenges here, but I felt very well loved.

“My mum worked in the mills. She was even on a TV documentary recently, The Town That Thread Built, talking about her time there with her old friends around a table in Paolo Nutini’s mum and dad’s cafe.

Loading article content

“My dad worked at Chryslers [car factory] but he was on strike a lot in the 1970s. So my mum was part of that strong Paisley female workforce that put the bread on the table while their menfolk were standing up for what they believed in in terms of social justice, up the road in Chryslers’. That was typical of the time.

“But at least I grew up knowing that I lived in a street that was named after a poet, a Paisley poet [Robert Tannahill, the famed Weaver Poet, born in 1774] who, it turns out, couldn’t take himself seriously because he was never going to be Burns. There’s something in that, isn’t there? He said, ‘An honest heart is never poor’, and there are a lot of honest hearts in Ferguslie.”

Cameron, who is 48, remembers growing up with a substantial family and church community. Both the local churches, St Fergus and St Ninians’s, had solid youth-work programmes, too.

She glances at her old garden. “I’ve got great photographs of us in that garden, in our school uniforms.” Her first love was dance, and she remembers taking part in a dance display at the age of three, in Paisley Town Hall. Dance allowed her to mix with children from other parts of the town.

She attended St Fergus Primary, then St Mirin’s and St Margaret’s High, where among the other pupils was one Gerard Butler, now a Hollywood star.

We’re walking down Tannahill Road at midday on a working day, and it is eerily quiet. A good number of the houses are boarded up. Tannahill Road and nearby Tannahill Terrace form part of a scheme that has sometimes been described as “notorious” in the tabloids; today, though, it looks perfectly ordinary.

A year ago Ferguslie Park, long a shorthand term for urban deprivation, found itself – once again – at the bottom of the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, or SIMD, but Renfrewshire Council is consulting on ambitious proposals to transform the area by investing in new housing and building a £15 million regional sports village.

A few minutes’ walk up from Cameron’s old home, and visible from its back door, is the eight-year-old stadium that houses St Mirren Football Club, the Buddies. A sponsorship deal signed with Renfrewshire Council in 2015 gave it a new name: the Paisley 2021 Stadium.

Cameron, now 48, was a Buddies fan when she was younger. “I was at Hampden in 1987 when we won the Scottish Cup,” she says. “And my mum and dad were engaged in 1959, the night the team last won the cup. I wouldn’t be here,” she adds with a quick smile, “without that St Mirren victory.”

Cameron, who is project director for Paisley's 2021 bid, is genuinely enthused by the possibilities City of Culture status would open up, and the social and economic benefits it would bring. And if anyone knows about culture as a catalyst for change, it's her.

After studying Italian and French with business studies at Edinburgh University in her late teens, she returned home to work at Paisley Arts Centre. She took the BA community arts course at what was then Jordanhill College then embarked on a successful career in the arts, initially in Glasgow, at such prominent venues as the CCA and the Arches.

She produced the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art and, 12 years ago, Scotland’s national presentation at the Venice Biennale. She worked on the Aye Write! book festival, and on Glasgow Mela, and was the lead in the international strand of Glasgow’s 2014 Commonwealth Games cultural programme. It’s an impressive CV, and she is now bringing her experience to bear on steering Paisley’s dream of succeeding Hull as UK City of Culture.

The town, she says, is genuinely excited by the immense rewards that victory would bring, should it be chosen ahead of its rivals – Coventry, Stoke-on-Trent, Sunderland and Swansea.

The Paisley 2021 campaign speaks of the equivalent of 4,700 new jobs being created over the next decade and a £172 million boost to the local economy, while a programme of “major events and world-class culture” in 2021 would attract audiences estimated at 1.7 million. The media coverage alone would be amazing, you suspect.

Hull has enjoyed over £1 billion of investment since winning the title four years ago; it’s interesting to envisage Paisley, a town that has suffered dreadfully from industrial decline over the decades, reinventing itself as a cultural beacon. Cameron acknowledges that Hull has “really seized the opportunity. They’ve set the bar very, very high and we have drawn inspiration from that”.

If the long bid process has energised Paisley, bringing the town together and snuffing out local sceptics whose reaction could be summed up as “yeah, right”, the looming final submission bid to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) on September 29 is concentrating minds. “That’s our send-off moment,” Cameron affirms, “and it’s wonderful, because it’s a collective focus for us all. There’s a lot to do, but it feels good, and we’re all focused on that task.

“The next thing that we know is that the judges will visit Paisley at the end of October. They’ll visit all five places then. They’ll want to see the 2021 Partnership Board and see that that’s authentic. They’ll want to see our venues and the cultural infrastructure.

“In terms of the buy-in for our bid, we’ve had over 33,500 face-to-face conversations with local people – we’ve had Paisley 2021 cultural conversations, we’ve had culture tours of the town. That represents over 40 per cent of Paisley’s population.

“We know that we’ll be in Hull on December 6 and 7, in the judges’ chamber, and that they’ll make an announcement pre-Christmas.

“For this final bid,” she adds, “it’s a case of re-stating your vision and your partnerships. We’ve had great feedback from DCMS on our vision, about the need in Paisley, about the role of culture as a driver of regeneration. It’s very much about the specifics of how you are going to do this, and what is your legacy?”

Things have been picking up speed in recent weeks. In recognition of the fact that Paisley is now carrying Scotland’s hopes, VisitScotland, the national tourism agency, has recently joined the 2021 Partnership Board.

Lord Duncan, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State in the Scotland Office, has enthused about the bid in an online video. Eleanor Laing MP, deputy speaker in the House of Commons (and, incidentally, the Paisley-born MP for Epping Forest) came back home to visit the town’s creative industries incubator, inCube.

The Paisley Pattern, the distinctive design that took the the town's name around the world, and which can trace its roots back to Persia in around 221AD, is now being “re-profiled as a great local asset”, Cameron says; Pringle of Scotland has used some examples of the Pattern, held in the town’s historic museum, to inspire its autumn/winter womenswear collection.

“It’s all about repositioning Paisley and its significance to Scotland, the UK and internationally.”

The Scottish Government’s West Coast public conversation on "Developing Scotland’s Cultural Strategy" will be held in Paisley on September 19 – “something else”, Cameron acknowledges, “that I suspect probably wouldn’t have come about without the bid.”

Paisley has the highest concentration of listed buildings in Scotland after Edinburgh. A stroll through the town centre takes you past the ancient Abbey, past the splendid Thomas Coats Memorial Church, past the Paisley Museum and Art Galleries. The latter is to undergo a £49 million regeneration to turn it into an international-class attraction based on the town’s textile and design heritage. And the architectural treasure that is the Russell Institute, a 1920s category-A listed building, has been extensively refurbished. The town also has a thriving arts scene. There is, plainly, a lot going on.

Industry is a different story, though. For generations Paisley was the thread capital of the world, thanks to the pioneering work of J&J Clark and J&P Coats. The two merged into J&P Coats, and at the industry’s peak it employed between 11,000 and 12,000 local people, a figure that had been drastically reduced long before the last Coats mill shut down in 1993.

Since the bid process got underway in November 2015, it has helped guarantee a string of positive news stories from Scotland’s largest town. “Thank goodness for that,” observes Cameron, “but, running parallel to that, at least 1,000 jobs have been lost in the town, or are on the cards to be lost, during that time.” Spirits producer Chivas Brothers is to close its Paisley plant but has offered 460 staff jobs at its Dumbarton facility.

That the town’s industrial decline still exists cannot be gainsaid. Perhaps this is what local MP, Mhairi Black, meant when she said earlier this year that the 2021 bid was “partly a cry for help”. It could, she added, also be transforming, and she was genuinely enthusiastic about the campaign.

Given the decline, says Cameron, it made perfect sense to seek to become City of Culture. “The creative industries are the fastest-growing industries in the UK,” she says. “One of the big attractions for me to return to Paisley was, when I was growing up, there weren’t the courses and creative industries and cultural skills that you have here now.

“There are something like 2,500 students between West College Scotland and the University of the West of Scotland campus, and that is a real talent pipeline. Being UK City of Culture will create jobs in an area of the economy and will boost the creative industries and cultural industries.

“It’s a really spirited area but it has real, real challenges," she says, referring to its status on the SIMD deprivation index. "But the people here have a can-do attitude. There’s a group of women here who go under the name of SWIFT – Strong Women in Ferguslie Together – and they absolutely want to be seen as people who are creative and aspirational for this place.

“The area has become much more diverse, too. Families First provide early-years training at Glencoats Primary School. Out of the 300 families they work with in Ferguslie, 19 per cent are non-white, people who do not have English as their first language. That has led to a big demand for ESOL [English for Speakers of Other Languages] learning and achievements.

“Statistically, 3,000 children in Paisley live in poverty, so in terms of creating a better future, the 2021 bid is so important. But there is a groundswell of something positive here – people are palpably feeling uplifted across Paisley by the bidding process.”

On her walk around her old stamping-ground she points, with evident pride, to things that have been added since her day – the multi-purpose community hub, the Tannahill Centre, opened in 1995, and the new St Fergus Primary School, which replaced the one she attended all those years ago.

Walking down Blackstoun Road, Cameron nods towards the Glencoats Lodge Nursery, located in the old gatehouse that served as the Coats family estate. “When I was growing up, the private gardens were like a wilderness you went into … we used to call it ‘the privies’.

“Three or four months ago,” she adds, “St Ninian’s Church threw their doors open and hosted an event for Syrian families in Paisley. It was standing room only, and it was a really sunny day. That sense of a community looking after its own is so here was.

“I remember being in primary six at St Fergus and learning Gaelic songs, and having a real sense of an indigenous Scottish culture. I remember, when I was in primary seven, and young people were invited to be part of the worship at the church. It was very creative, and I remember dancing as part of that and falling in love with a piece of classical music –Meditation, a piece for violin by [Oliver] Messiaen’s opera Thais, that has been with me since the age of 11. It’s a touchstone of my life, and I heard it in Ferguslie Park.

“So there was a definite sophistication there. There was never any dumbing-down here. I remember Scottish Opera coming to school, thanks to teachers who valued the arts. The arts have definitely been brought into this community.” She’s grateful for being exposed to the arts at such an early age: in retrospect it is no surprise that she went on to make culture her career.

Cameron recalls that the most recent time she heard the Messiaen piece was live at a Creative Industries Federation conference in London days before the shortlisting announcement.

“It was performed by the violinist Maria Shaker, who had been forced to flee her native Syria and now lives in the UK. I have to admit I did think at the time, 'Here's a wee something very special that reminds me of my growing up in Ferguslie Park tapping me on the shoulder and I did wonder if it might be a sign about the forthcoming announcement from DCMS.”

We’ll find out in December.

http://www.paisley2021.co.uk