Byline: Paul Dale
In a little over two months time Birmingham may, or may not, be named as the UK's first City of Culture for the year 2013.
There is no prize, other than the cachet of the name and the satisfaction of knowing that the other shortlisted contenders for the title - Derry, Norwich and Sheffield - have been consigned to the category of culture also-rans.
Is this actually important? Does it mean anything to anyone outside of a close-knit clique of chattering classes and council officials? Putting it bluntly: how many people in jobless, recession-hit Birmingham give a hoot if the city comes up trumps by ticking the right boxes in a governmentinspired feelgood competition? Birmingham City Council certainly seems to think that this is a challenge worth fighting for, although the hard truth is that the local authority's participation appears to be driven as much by marketing concerns as any great love of culture.
Sharon Lea, acting strategic director of culture at the council, is not the first person to wrestle with Birmingham's "perception problem". Winning the city of culture crown will, she believes, deliver a tremendous boost to the city's image in this country and abroad which ranges, according to market research, from virtual anonymity to a hazy notion of a grimy industrial city.
"We are in the business of marketing this city as a great place to live and work. The city of culture title would be seriously helpful. It would give a seal of approval," says Mrs Lea.
As ever with the smoke and mirror arts of marketing, the council's claims are backed by impressive sounding statistics.
Should Birmingham win, it is said that the benefit to the city in boosting the economy will be significantly in excess of pounds 200 million with the generation of 5,300 new jobs.
This calculation, which predicts how many additional visitors will come here because Birmingham is the UK City of Culture, is based on Liverpool's experiences after winning the 2008 European Capital of Culture contest.
An extensive poster campaign in Birmingham and London, along with generous media coverage, has generated 65 million opportunities to see and hear about the campaign, according to the council.
Mrs Lea is in charge of compiling the bid, which is about to be delivered to the Department for Culture Media and Sport. A five-person hit squad of Birmingham cultural leaders, probably headed by council leader Mike Whitby, will be called upon to make a 20-minute pitch to DCMS judges later this month.
Other members of the team are likely to include Midland Arts Centre chairman Anita Barla, Hippodrome chief executive Stuart Griffiths and Punch Records chief executive Ammo Talwar.
The bid will feature the top 30 events Birmingham plans to put on in 2013 should the city's bid succeed. These events "absolutely have the wow factor" according to Mrs Lea, although she is unfortunately unable to give any details at this stage because Birmingham is wary of sneaky Derry, Sheffield and Norwich stealing its ideas.
It is unclear whether any ideas put forward during a massive consultation exercise are included in the top 30. These include constructing a scale model of Spaghetti Junction out of pasta and remaking Cliff Richard's 1973 film shot in Birmingham, Take Me High.
Underpinning the bid is the council's almost evangelical commitment to consultation and the involvement of hundreds of arts groups in putting together the DCMS package. One line in the bid document refers to "37,000 things happening in Birmingham connected with culture" in any given year.
It's all very different to the 2008 Capital of Culture bid, which saw Birmingham lose out to Liverpool. A subsequent inquest branded Brum's bid elitist and out of touch with ordinary people.
Mrs Lea notes: "The number one criticism of the Capital of Culture bid was that it didn't involve the people of Birmingham enough. …