Christa Ackroyd: Bradford's future is bright, if locals believe it too

Someone much wiser than me once told me that if you can’t be proud of your roots, then you can’t be proud of yourself. Where you come from, where you lived in your formative years, shapes you for life, for good or for bad. And so this week, I say all hail Bradford.

Bradford gets a bad press. Only last year it was rated as the most dangerous city in the world… more risky, said some ridiculous survey, than Ukraine. Of course it is not. According to national policing statistics, it is rated outstanding for its response to crime. But no matter what the police and the good burghers of the city had to say, the ridiculous claim by some spurious Serbian-based TikTok group was actually repeated in national newspapers and what is worse by those who live there. And you know what they say, mud sticks. Or it does if you let it.

More than two decades ago I wrote another column in a national newspaper when the editor’s secretary called asking me to attend a meeting that afternoon. When I explained I didn’t actually live in London, she was shocked that the capital was not the centre of my universe, which is why I had been asked to write the column in the first place. “So where would you be coming from?” she asked. “Bradford” was my reply.

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Quick as a flash she responded with “Poor you”. So once again I found myself defending a city which much like any other in the country, including London, has had its troubles, has its pockets of real deprivation, but as far as I am concerned stands tall, proud and, above all, aspirational.

The moment Bradford finds out it has been awarded UK City of Culture 2025 in Centenary Square. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.The moment Bradford finds out it has been awarded UK City of Culture 2025 in Centenary Square. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.
The moment Bradford finds out it has been awarded UK City of Culture 2025 in Centenary Square. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.

Last weekend I took a wonderful group of mostly Bradfordians on a bus trip to walk in the footsteps of the Brontës as part of the Bradford Literature Festival. And in case you too have fallen for the myth of three spinster writers living among a beautiful olde worlde cobbled town with flowers around the door, let us be clear it was anything but.

Beautified Haworth belies the fact that when the Brontës were around almost 200 years ago, the streets were a cesspit of open sewers, the average life expectancy of an adult was 24 and four out of five children died before the age of six. Beautiful it was not. And yet from that era of starvation, of no sanitation, of children working in the mills, came the biggest social changes this country had ever seen. The Factories Act, the free education for all movement and indeed the founding of what became the Labour Party all had their heart in Bradford. So don’t tell me nothing can be achieved if you put your mind to it in Bradford.

What disappoints me most is the attitude of Bradfordians themselves. I was apoplectic when I saw the response to a Facebook survey from a Bradford history group about being proud of your city. Comments ranged from “it’s a dump” to downright racist, but the overall consensus or so it seemed was that there is nothing to be proud of in Bradford. They are so so wrong. And I am not just talking about its glorious past but its future too.

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When the two women who founded the Bradford Literature Festival spoke of their plans almost a decade ago, they were ridiculed. Who would want to come to Bradford was the consensus. It’s a good job they had more belief than was expressed by the good people of my home city in that survey.

My little annual bus trip, one of the highlights of my year, to talk about my beloved Brontës is the story of women who refused to accept that writing about topics of race, class, gender and, more importantly, women knowing their own place led to books now hailed the world over.

It is just one of hundreds and hundreds of events during the literature festival which attracts more than 70,000 visitors to the city each year. What’s more the average price is £7 a ticket, with almost 70 per cent attending free of charge or with discounted entry, meaning that it has been hailed as the most inclusive and diverse festivals in the country. Which is pretty fantastic when you consider the population is also pretty diverse both culturally and economically.

Since its inception, the festival has engaged with 70 per cent of schools in the city, reaching more than 80,000 young people. It works with 35 grassroots organisations from refugees to children in care, mental health providers to hospitals and the homeless, to develop creative and educational activities which give hope and support to those who may feel excluded. And that, my friends, tells you all you need to know about the possibilities of self-belief and the blood, sweat and tears upon which Bradford was founded.

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In two years time, Bradford will be the UK’s City of Culture, also greeted with derision in some quarters, which will see over 1,000 performances and events, 365 artists commissions and a number of major arts festivals under the banner of Our Time, Our Place.

And if you cynically don’t want to come along for the ride, then you are missing out. Next year will also see the reopening of the former Odeon cinema as a concert and arts space with almost 4,000 seats. If it wasn’t for a group of die-hard supporters of the city, the whole building would have been torn down and heaven knows what erected in its place. But it has been saved because of the passion and belief that the best of the past can also become be part of the future.

Look at the Piece Hall in neighbouring Halifax. When I first moved to the town as a cub reporter more years ago than I care to remember, it was a dump for rotting fruit and veg and destined to be pulled down. This week and last week you couldn’t get a ticket for love nor money for one of its open-air concerts featured the likes of Sting, Madness, Hozier and James. It has been voted the most beloved refurbishment project in the whole of the UK. It has lifted the town and its residents, achieved worldwide recognition and what’s more is a tranquil space shared by all. And we nearly lost it.

In Bradford, Halifax and elsewhere film-makers and producers flock to our towns, cities and countryside to feature us on both the big and small screens.

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If it’s good enough for Hollywood or the best of the best of British television, then it’s certainly good enough for me.

My dad always used to say to me when we went on our little trips to share our love of architecture and history that if you want to know the story of a place, look up. Look at its setting, look at its buildings, look at its statues, and look at its pride in who they were and who they wanted to become. He was right then and he would be right now.

If the Victorians shaped our industrial landscape in the past, it is up to do the same for our futures.

Be proud of who you are, be proud of where you came from but above all be a part of what is to come.