Old Citizen (1966 – 1972) Simon Newton helps steer York’s creative future


06 June 2019
On 1st December 2014, York became the UK’s first, and so far, only, UNESCO Creative City of Media Arts, one of only twelve worldwide. Acknowledging the growing success of the City’s creative industries, the designation was due in no small part to the initiative of Old Citizen (1966 – 1972) Simon Newton, former Director of Enterprise and Innovation at the University of York, who was instrumental in bidding for the title.

“This was really to help shift perception of the city as just a heritage and tourist destination,” he says. “The City has always had a great story to tell about its past but had seemed less certain about its future. The UNESCO bid team saw clearly that York had a fast-emerging creative sector that simply needed to be surfaced, seen, and connected.”

One expression of this new UNESCO status is a major biennial international digital arts festival, York Mediale, which is taking place for the first time this year between 27th September and 6th October. Simon is a member of the Steering Group for the festival.

“There will be performances and installations in historic and unexpected buildings and locations, on the streets and in the public squares of York,” he says.  “World famous, award-winning media artists from across the world are bringing their work together for the first time to exhibit at York Art Gallery. York Theatre Royal is hosting the world premiere of celebrated choreographer Alexander Whitley’s new audio-visual installation ‘Strange, Stranger’. And British Columbian born artist Matthew Plummer-Fernandez in residency at Fluxaxis, part of Stage One, based in nearby Tockwith, will be demonstrating the vital intersection between art and industry. Much will be brilliant and some of it might not be! It’s exciting to see how it works out.”

Now retired after a varied career in publishing, media relations and corporate communications, Simon says that his life would not have been so fruitful without his experience at City of London School and the inspiration of two teachers.

“I constantly draw on the intellectual resources provided by CLS,” he says. “Especially two great teachers - English teacher Peter Coulson and history teacher David Ward.  Their passion for their subjects and ability to enthuse the pupil were exceptional. Ever since, I have enjoyed reading for its own sake and maintained critical judgement about politics and events.”

A local authority scholar, Simon attended the old school on Victoria Embankment. “For an 11-year-old its size was intimidating with all its pillars and the smoke still pouring out from the Oxo Tower across the river,” he says. “Coming in from the north London suburb of Southgate on the Piccadilly Line every day, it gave me a buzz coming in to the heart of London. Raffish Fleet St was five minutes away and still the centre of journalism. Newsprint like giant toilet rolls were delivered each day to the buildings near CLS to feed the giant printing machines in the basements which shook the buildings when they began to roll each day. The Evening News, Daily Mail, The Sun, The Express, Punch, The Daily Telegraph were all within easy walking distance. All night Mick’s Café in Fleet St became a schoolboy destination. The more respectable, calmer (and richer) Temple Inns of Court were also close by.”

At CLS, he was involved in many activities, including sport, theatre, the school magazine, and the film society. “All these activities have fed into my various careers and pursuits,” he says. “CLS was a rugby playing school at that time and I was closely involved with some friends in helping to get football played. It probably didn’t help when I captained one of our first inter-school games and lost 18-0! I was also very active in experimenting in the ‘Tuck Shop Theatre’ encouraged by Peter Coulson. It was a risk-free zone where some things worked and some things certainly did not!”

From CLS, Simon “wafted up” to Cambridge but left after four terms. “I felt it was less than met the eye and more about privilege and advantage then education.  I have always been happy with this decision. Probably the only misjudgement by the school (and me!).  Stepping off the escalator, forced me on to a different educational path which was richly rewarding. I went on to (at different times) to get a BA in History and English from Sussex, an MA in Modern English Literature from Reading and then an MBA from the Open University.”

Simon says that his work choices clearly drew on the strengths discovered through the teaching of Peter Coulson and David Ward. “I worked in a bookshop and then became Assistant Publisher (and Circulation Manager) for the London Review of Books and for a book publisher. I moved into media relations and became Deputy Director, Communications for the Open University for ten years (where I also did a part-time MBA and did some part-time lecturing in History).”

A big shift for Simon was moving to York and North Yorkshire when he became Director of Enterprise and Innovation for the University of York, managing a team which looked to create public/private partnerships and develop research into commercial opportunities. Finally, he worked as Head of Partnerships for York St John University, a more community focused university.

Simon continues to pursue enthusiasms he can track back to his time at City of London School, Peter Coulson and David Ward. “I worked with a university project called Converge which helps those with mental health problems to become involved in the life of the university. I helped to develop a new charity, Out of Character, a theatre company comprising those who have used mental health services. I am now a Trustee. At the same time, I became a Trustee of Pilot Theatre, a company focused on young people based at York Theatre Royal.

“A few years ago, I tracked down both Peter Coulson and David Ward and was able to thank them for what they did for me. I encourage all those who had inspirational teachers to do so!”