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FEATURES - BALTIS AND BALLET

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In the penultimate look at the UK's nominations for European Capital of Culture 2008, Nick Triggle finds Birmingham...
In the penultimate look at the UK's nominations for European Capital of Culture 2008, Nick Triggle finds Birmingham keen to talk about its industry as well as its culture

Two striking figures stand either side of the shield on Birmingham City Council's coat of arms. To the left, is the man of industry. Dressed in work clothes he holds a hammer above his head. On the opposite side is the lady of the arts, who holds an easel and brush. Together they symbolise the city's well-established and closely linked heritage of industry and arts.

And it is around these two pursuits that Birmingham's European Capital of Culture 2008 bid is based.

Birmingham established itself at the heart of European trade throughout the 18th and 19th centuries after the industrial revolution started a stone's throw from the city's factories in Ironbridge. In its heyday two-thirds of Birmingham's manufactured goods were exported to the continent and it was the city's entrepreneurs who oversaw the creation of steam power, transforming much of mainland Europe in the process.

The bid document, put together by the council, private sector, and local cultural groups, is quick to make the link with the city's past. 'The pride the city has in its past is also the foundation for the future,' it explains.

The industrial heritage is also in evidence in each of the bid's six key themes: the imaginative and sustainable city; connecting the region; learning; creative individuals and networks; diversity and celebrating success; and lifting aspirations.

Mik Barton, seconded from the council to run the bid team's media relations, says Birmingham has placed industry at the heart of its bid because it is inextricably linked with the arts. 'Industry itself is a creative process. During industrial times the arts were used to give the entrepreneurs inspiration. Now it is termed the creative industry. Birmingham is a huge employer in media, design and publishing. And just think, half of all UK patents are registered in the West Mid lands.'

It is a theme which John Lamb, from Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, takes up. He says the private sector and arts are 'intertwined', adding 'business makes a massive contribution to the cultural well being of the city - from baltis to ballet.'

He believes Birmingham has a strong chance of winning as it has a proven track record in 'delivery', from the G8 summit in 1998 to the recent World Indoor Athletics Championships.

Local Conservative MP Julie Kirkbride agrees. 'Our collective capacity to deliver time and again has given the West Midlands the deserved confidence to deliver a celebration of this magnitude. It lies at the centre of the country and was the heart of the industrial revolution. It is this legacy of creativity and inventiveness that fires such a collective, yet distinctive, imagination.'

She adds Birmingham is Britain's strongest contender for the title and that winning would create a worthy European centre and a cultural model for regions aroundthe world. 'The bid is a means to long-term change, a new regional identity and a stronger rural/urban relationship.'

Birmingham is also making much of its multiculturalism - one in five people are from ethnic minorities.

Andrew Kerr, the council's director of leisure and culture, says: 'Birmingham is much more representative of Britain nowadays than any of the other bidders. We embrace multiculturalism, but have not had the disturbances that say Bradford has, for example.

'I think one of the lasting legacies of the capital of culture will be that multiculturalism will be far more embedded.'

Indeed, if the bid can be identified by industry and cultural diversity it is noticeable that these two are linked by one characteristic - pride. Birmingham projects an image of a city that is very much at ease with itself.

Mr Kerr says that Birmingham is 'proud of itself' and does not deserve its reputation as an unfashionable city - after all the city can boast more canals than Venice and more trees than Paris. Referring to the grim p opular perception outside the city, Mr Kerr adds: 'Becoming capital of culture in 2008 will change all that.'

But he does not believe the city, which was infamously hailed as the 'new Bilbao' along with three other areas by culture secretary Tessa Jowell, is in the same position as Glasgow which was able to reinvent itself after winning the title in 1990. 'We already have a world-class infrastructure with plenty of cultural facilities from museums and theatres to sport centres. Birmingham is the cultural hub of the West Midlands,' he says.

But despite already having a well-developed infrastructure, winning would undoubtedly bring a major overhaul of the city. It is estimated it would bring in £100m of inward investment and thousands of additional jobs.

And as well as the festivals and concerts in the pipeline to celebrate 2008, a series of major developments are tied in with the bid.

A 10-year multi-billion pound regeneration of the city's Eastside, including a 15ha urban park and shopping centre, will almost be complete by the time 2008 comes around and the year will also see the formal opening of the new £330m Queen Elizabeth Hospital to name just two.

By September this year the new Bullring, which originally made its name as one of Britain's greatest markets during the 1800s, will be unveiled complete with shops, restaurants and open spaces.

And as well as putting forward Birmingham's case, the bid makes much of the surrounding regions by claiming Britain's number one cultural jewel - William Shakespeare - as one of its own.

Nonetheless, even with the Shakespeare link, Birmingham, unlike Newcastle/Gateshead with the Angel of the North and Oxford with its spires, does not have an iconic structure to pin its bid to. Officials are hoping the new £130m library, which has been designed by the Richard Rogers Partnership as part of the Eastside regeneration programme, will fill the void.

However, the fact remains if you asked someone now to name a famous landmark in Birmingha m they would probably say Spaghetti Junction.

But it seems even the country's most infamous road juncture is something to be proud of. With only a hint of irony, Mr Kerr says: 'It is a marvellous piece of architecture.'

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