Cities of Culture: They make creative use of history, but where's the talk of art or aesthetics?

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The Independent Online

Visit the glossy websites of the front-runners for the title of Capital of Culture 2008 and you'll be hard pressed to detect much about aesthetics amid the droning buzz-words of urban aspiration.

Visit the glossy websites of the front-runners for the title of Capital of Culture 2008 and you'll be hard pressed to detect much about aesthetics amid the droning buzz-words of urban aspiration.

This is about vision and goals, input and outreach, diversity and empowerment, regeneration and repositioning. And "repositioning" may well be the most important promise of all. Ever since Glasgow demonstrated in 1990 that a city laid out by the Luftwaffe and most famous for the finesse of its facial scars could successfully reinvent itself as a lifestyle honeypot, everyone has realised that the title of City of Culture does actually have an effect. Wish it hard enough and it will be so – particularly if the wish comes with an endorsement from Europe.

The magic wand of rebranding used to be waved by the European Council of Ministers but the title is now conferred on the Buggins's Turn principle – and in 2008 Buggins is us. Cue a mighty mobilisation of the good and the not-so-great – and a national scraping of barrels in the search for occasions of civic pride. In some circumstances the preservation of this sentiment is little short of heroic. "The history of the city is all about cultural diversity", said Belfast's bid director, "but that's never been packaged positively." Something of an understatement that – but then it's a bit difficult to put a positive spin on those traditional expressions of cultural diversity, the nail bomb and the street riot. Difficult, too, to see how local tensions could quickly be refigured as "creative" – for all the talk of "living life in the BelFAST lane". But the evidence is that Belfast, like other competing cities, is relying on the Trivial Pursuit factor to pull together the local community. "What have Milk of Magnesia, the Immersion Heater, Superphosphate Fertilisers and the Pneumatic Tyre in common?" asks its website. All invented in Belfast, naturally. And which football player broke Pele's record as the youngest to compete in the World Cup finals? Norman Whiteside – a Belfast boy.

Bradford can handle anything that Belfast can throw at it in the way of football, though, because it was at Fattorini's workshop on Canal Street that the FA Cup used from 1911 to 1991 was manufactured. Bradford was also the first local authority in Britain to introduce school meals and the site of the Mecca ballroom in which Kiki Dee began her singing career.

In the search for local heroes, even fictional characters will do – one of the current suggestions for events in Bristol is the commissioning of a statue of Long John Silver. Will this be enough, though, to overcome what the working paper candidly describes as "the legendary Bristolian apathy and conservatism"? And should this doubtful virtue even be alluded to at a time when other cities are ready to pounce on the first sign of weakness?

What is clear is that local roots are not essential. Current suggestions for cultural landmark events on the Inverness and Highlands website include Madonna's 50th Birthday Concert, the Tiger Woods Highland Golf Challenge and – most surreal of all – a stage of the Tour de France. As far as wishful thinking goes I haven't found anything to cap that – which suggests Inverness and Highlands can't be written off yet.

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