I owe a lot to Blackburn. I got a council funded place at a magnificent school Queen Elizabeth Grammar and the council also help fund my University education. Just as importantly it gave me the cultural grounding that set me up for a career in the creative industries. From the day my mum took me to see The Sweet at King Georges Hall when I was 11 I was off! My first concert on my own, weeks later was Slade I was 12 and I went to see David Bowie at King George’s Hall in Blackburn. I can picture every bit of it to this day. He was there in all of his splendour, in his make-up, the changes of outfits, and I remember seeing the next day a combination of things that really turned me on to style and music culture in a big way. One was that he was banned from Blackburn for wearing little apart from a sumo wrestlers nappy type thing. I thought “Great! That’s how it should be done; I want to be banned from Blackburn as well!” I went out and bought the Aladdin Sane album, got a feather cut, stopped short of buying a giant nappy, but bought a big pair of yellow wide legged Bowie trousers – and that was the start of me buying records, going clubbing and it introduced me to the most stimulating and enjoyable things in my life being fashion, music, youth culture, dancing, socialising. It allowed me to enjoy a career in a sector, the Creative Industries, that is vital to Britain’s economy and which we lead the world in.
I saw the Sex Pistols, The Clash, Blondie in the town, The Lodestar gave me Roxy and Bowie nights and the Golden Palms and The Cavendish Blackburn allowed me to build my love of soul, funk and disco. There were decent pubs a plenty, cafe’s and don’t get me reminiscing about the wonderful old cinema opposite the town hall Ames Record bar and the Record and Tape Exchange fed my nascent addiction to 7 inch slabs of punk and northern soul vinyl, whilst the humour at Ewood Park helped develop my Lancashire wit and East Lancashire Cricket Club helped me develop my love for the greatest of sports.
Blackburn truly was a great place to grow up and continued to help my first business Red or Dead, hosting our first shop and manufacturing unit. The town has suffered in the past couple of decades to the point where for many the idea of a night out in Blackburn is laughable. Blackburn with Darwen has a population of almost 150,000 and not one single hotel or restaurant of note in the town centre that is open in the evening and no town centre cinema.
You can be sure that there are young people that could be the new Michael Winterbottom (a world renowned film director who was in my class at school), Christine Cort (another friend and night clubbing contemporary of mine) who runs the Manchester International Festival but they won’t have the cultural opportunities close to home that we had.
An initiative that I am involved with Blackburn is Open is looking to change that.
Blackburn is Open is looking for industrious and ambitious craftspeople, makers and artists to answer the call and be part of a radical new initiative for the town centre. The scheme is waging a war on empty shops, offices and spaces and rather than just thinking about replacing lost retail with retail the scheme is looking to fill premises with entrepreneurs and ideas that revolve around ‘making’.
They are offered discounted premises with support and mentoring to help them build successful and sustainable enterprises as part of a new ‘industrious’ community in the heart of Blackburn.
In addition, discounted business rates are being offered to already established creative businesses to encourage them to relocate to the town centre. So far we have helped a number of young businesses to “have a go” and the signs are very encouraging. Take a look at the website there are some great trades and crafts starting to become part of these project and we there are signs of a bit of evening life coming back into town with First Thursdays and Friday Night Live.
The kind of trades and crafts the Blackburn is Open is attracting were once in the centre of any town and that’s where they should be again to maintain vibrant and living town centres. Blackburn is a town of ‘making’ and manufacturing with around 25 per cent of jobs in the manufacturing sector, that’s over twice the national average and a fact that can really help the town prosper as ‘Made in Britain’ continues to grow. To keep this ‘making’ tradition in full view of the citizens of Blackburn as they go about their daily business has to be a positive thing and can inspire a new generation.
The project is being brought together under a new ‘manifesto’ for Blackburn called Arte et Labore and this moniker might be the marketing glue that helps Blackburn is Open stick. It had been staring me in my face The Latin phrase, which means ‘through skill and hard work’, appears on the borough’s crest as well as being the motto of Blackburn rovers as well as being on my school blazer town’s football team. It refers to the area’s proud industrial heritage.
The Blackburn is Open manifesto pledges to build on this historic legacy by boosting opportunities for people to develop their skills, creating conditions for small businesses especially ‘makers’ and those in the creative industries and increasing employment choices particularly for young people.
There are now plans afoot for a FabLab a creative hub for makers and even for a Festival of Making.
Blackburn is successful as a manufacturing town and we may just have found how to tap into the DNA to get its town centre mojo working.