The Wisden Writing Competition 2024

Another year, another entry, another fail. I’ve reached double figures! It’s the tenth time I’ve failed to win the Wisden Writing Competition. Only three others have failed more often. Not even a lucky loser. Clearly I am failing to hit a soft spot in the anonymous judging panel. Perhaps indicating the Editor might use AI for his Notes was a little over the top. Will I try again for the 2025 edition? Why not?

First a word of congratulations to the 2024 winner, Sohan Maheshwar. In keeping with tradition (after 12 editions the competition surely can have traditions; after 20 it acquires heritage status) it was his debut entry. That´s 10 out of 12 first time winners. It´s also the third winner with a touching father/son memory but the piece does break two new grounds. The first by a winner based in EU27 (Amsterdam) and the first to mention women´s cricket (the 2017 World Cup final at Lord´s).

The game itself is in turmoil. Long standing rhythms are being upended especially in England. The sudden rise (by cricketing standards) of franchised T20 tournaments around the world, many backed by billionaire businesses from India, are eating into the very fabric of the warm beer and village greens of nostalgic memory. The upcoming privatization of the new “Hundred” competition in England is causing explosions of angst amongst many county members (well at least those on social media if not attending actual meetings) to match those potential investors rubbing their hands with glee. Even MCC, that bastion of privilege and conformity is seriously thinking of having a franchised team. As an aside its Annual Report is far more informative than county reports; its long list of obituaries of members illustrates just how privileged the club is.

The 161st edition of Wisden reflects many of these changes. This year the focus is on the politicisation of Indian cricket, “bazball”, and the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket. A fascinating survey of Jewish cricketers around the world stops short of discussing why none has appeared for England men´s team or if any are currently in county cricket.

The Writing Competition tends to avoid this turmoil. Last year’s winner, a polemic against Melbourne Cricket Ground, recognised change but hopes that this was the start of a trend are on hold. It remains a haven of normality, of cricket lovers remembering those cherished moments cricket brings them. Will I enter for the 2025 edition? I suppose a piece less than fondly recalling a day spent under an umbrella, dodging showers, paying for over-priced and under-tasted burgers and chips and seeing ten overs in the day´s play might be in order. Or perhaps the most blatant breaches of the “spirit of cricket” seen in a local village cricket match. Or jumping between tabs on YouTube watching county and Caribbean cricket streams. As a wild card, perhaps a full throated shout out for the T20 format and welcoming the gradual demise of interminable low attendance red ball county cricket (but KP has already bagged that one).

Returning to the 2024 competition, a quick review, my fifth. Only 81 entrants this time around, the lowest of the 12 editions. A long way down from the 2021 peak of 193. A wide global distribution it seems but still a low entry from women (less than 10 I guess).

Now onwards to the 2025 entry.

Placemaking: the Capitals way

Valencia is the European Green Capital for 2024. In 2022 it was both one of the two European Capitals of Smart Tourism and the World Design Capital (which led in 2023 to entry into UNESCO´s 350 strong Creative Cities network). This collecting of titles is not unusual. The emergence of “Capital of….” titles has been growing almost exponentially in recent years. In this short review I´ll focus on “European” titles but I recognise there are many other national, regional and worldwide titles (far too many to record; I tried but gave up).

Along with the Green title, 2024 sees, in Europe, titles in Innovation, Smart Tourism, Youth, Volunteering, Democracy, Sport, Christmas, Inclusion and Diversity, Access and Cycling. Some of these have a secondary title or one for larger cities and one for smaller. And let´s not forget the most well-known and longest running title: the European Capital of Culture (ECOC) with three title holders this year. What distinguishes almost of these titles is the competitive nature rather a marketing-led self proclamation. Their proliferation seems to have crept up by stealth.

I´ll look at the titles from three points of view: of the organisers; the cities (winners and candidates) and the impact/ legacy etc. I´ll end with a list of the current title holders.

Who runs the titles and competitions?

Although the titles use “European” they come from different stables. Often reviewers treat the titles as if they are of the same provenance. Most do follow a standard template: a call for candidates, set criteria, candidates submitting bidbooks, a selection panel to evaluate bids, perhaps a shortlisting and then a final winner is announced. Detailed processes vary, especially on geographic and city eligibility. Few have a financial prize ( the main ones are Culture €1.5m, Innovation €1m). Geographically most candidates have to be within the EU and EEA but there are exceptions: the Youth short list included networks in Georgia, Moldova and Lviv in Ukraine. Cities in Brexit UK could enter for the Innovation title (but haven´t yet).

Organisers fall into three categories. The EU leads the way through the various directorates-general of the Commission; secondly two European networks supported by the EU and thirdly a mixed group of private not for profit organisations.

The EU has few opportunities to engage directly with cities and clearly has seen from the Culture experience that a “Capitals” approach enables them to bypass governments to showcase and promote their objectives at a local level. Unlike the Culture title most of the new competitions recognise recent, rather than projected, performance in the relevant sector. Valencia submitted an incredibly detailed 290 page bidbook for the Green title recording, with evidence, their environmental credentials. Here are two typical introductory statements:

The European Capitals of Inclusion and Diversity Award is granted to local authorities that exemplify outstanding dedication to creating safe, inclusive spaces where all feel that they belong and can flourish. The winning local authorities transform the ideal of inclusion and diversity into tangible deliverables. This serves to inspire others. I thank these European capitals for taking the Union of Equality to citizens at the local level.”

In 2024, we are celebrating the 10th anniversary of the European Capital of Innovation Awards (iCapital).  The competition rewards those European cities that are courageous enough to open their governance practices to experimentation and push the boundaries of technology for the benefit of their citizens.”  

Smart Tourism, Green and Access City complete the European Union titles. The EU´s Union of the Mediterranean recently launched its award. Tirana and Alexandria have been selected for the first Mediterranean Capitals of Culture and Dialogue for 2025.

Youth and Volunteering capitals fall into the second category. Both are organised by European umbrella networks, supported by grants from the EU.

The third category is varied, a key feature being a not for profit basis. The longest running, since 2001, is Sport; recent examples include Democracy, Christmas and Cycling. A new title and organiser emerges in 2025: a European Capital of Local Retail (Barcelona is already selected as the idea originated there!). They all seem to have been the initiative of an enthusiast who has managed to attract funding and launch the programme. The degree of transparency varies considerably for titles in this category (eg details of candidates, names of evaluation panel, selection criteria and panel reports).

ACES Europe, who run the Sport and Cycling titles, now awards 18 different Capital of Sport titles, including World, African and Winter. It is the only title to require a registration fee (currently €12,000) for candidates. In addition to the European Capital of Sport title it also awards, in 2024, 13 other cities with the title of European City of Sport. It is also the least transparent on its website with no information on whether there are actual competitions, the criteria and who is on the selection panel. A case study in over-reach perhaps or an example of the demand for any title, from cities?

The Democracy title introduced a new form of selection: an expert panel reviews the bids and produces a shortlist. Final selection is by an online poll of over 4,000 self selecting people in a “Citizen’s Jury”. Voters cannot vote for cities in their own country.

The increasing race to win a title

Cities have not been slow to bid for these titles. Over 80 cities put forward bids for the European titles in 2024. Smart Tourism led the way with 30 bids for the main title and a further 11 for its smaller city awards.

Cities are often serial candidates. Genoa, for example, bid for both the Smart Tourism and Sport titles. Former ECOCs are very active in seeking new titles. I remember the then mayor of Riga saying that cities of that size need a title every few years. It keeps the momentum of change alive, rotates into different sectors of city life and builds an international awareness and “brand” for tourism and inward investment. The Mayor of Tirana, host of the new Mediterranean title highlighted this strategy of collecting titles: “We have a fantastic experience with Tirana’s reputation as the capital of Sport, the capital of Youth.“. (Youth in 2022 and Sport in 2023).

The budgets and programmes for the titles look relatively small, considerably smaller than ECOCs. As the awards are based on achievement there is less emphasis on kick starting a new legacy than with the Culture title. Most programmes have a few new conferences and workshops, some new public activities but mainly rely on repurposing existing activities and events. The finances are difficult to find out, there is a definite focus on secrecy and non investigative journalism! Bristol´s Green title in 2025 had a £12.6m budget. In contrast Ljubljana in the following year allocated €600,000. Valencia´s budget for the World Design Capital was €5.5m.

That awkward question: any legacy?

The Culture title has, since 1985, generated a vast library of reports, books, articles, theses and evaluations. The newer titles have not yet reached that level of review. The Green capital seems the most likely to generate interest. It encompasses urban planning, climate emergency, environmental concerns. This 2019 article looks at Lisbon 2019 and Oslo 2020 Green Capitals and seeks:

to determine its (the Green Capital) utility as a policy instrument to catalyse the substantive urban transition to sustainability that the much sought after label seeks to recognize, highlight and honour.

Several Green capitals have produced reports on their year. Most have been self congratulatory rather like many ECOC evaluations. An exception is the very informative report 36 page report on Bristol´s Green year Perhaps its most important finding was the discrepancy between the European Commission’s objectives and those of the city. A common issue with ECOCs.

Ljubljana issued a both report on its year as Green capital in 2016 and a “5 years later” review. (I´ll write a more detailed post on the Green capital). Smart Tourism prompted this survey from China. A feature of some of the titles is a formal network of past winners to share ideas and developments.

What next?

I think we will see even more competitions emerging. Clearly there is a demand both from cities, and a willingness on new organisers to administer. The topics are almost endless! The titles will gain more visibility the longer they continue. The lack of a financial award does not seem to be an obstacle.

There is scope for more analysis, especially of a cross sectoral basis, exploring the effectiveness of these placemaking initiatives: do they meet the objectives of the organiser (especially the EU); do residents respond? Are cities on a roller coaster of bidding? Is the continual bidding worth it? Are many of them little more than a PR opportunity for a city with little programming depth?

The current arrangements for the ECOC run until 2033. Soon the Commission will presumably start a review of both the process and performance of ECOCs to guide any decisions on continuing the programme beyond 2033. There are many lessons to be learnt from these newer competitions (yes, another post is in the offing).

There will be a a new European Commission and European Parliament later in 2024. City mayors, recently through Eurocities, seek to be round the table for EU decisions and policies. In their manifesto for the upcoming elections they call for an Urban Envoy in the Commission to coordinate all EU policies aimed at cities. Time for a working conference involving all the Capital programmes?

Many titles need to become more transparent, both in the selection process and, importantly, by title holders reporting publicly on their activity and legacy.

And the 2024 title holders:

Capitals of Culture in 2024; A title held by 25 (now 26) cities worldwide

Welcome to my 8th annual review of Capitals and Cities of Culture around the world. As usual I only include those where the title has been awarded by an external organisation rather than a self promoted marketing slogan.

The main news this year is Russia´s first Capital of Culture. Despite destroying Ukraine´s cultural infrastructure and killing thousands of Ukrainians in its illegal war of aggression Russia attempts to show “business as usual”. The competition was open to cities over 250,000. Selection has a novel twist: an online public vote, followed by a public presentation to an expert panel. The general criteria were: “Experts assessed the preservation of historical and cultural heritage, the level of development of the urban environment, theatres, museums and archives, education and enlightenment, the introduction of innovations and creative industries.” Nineteen cities put in bids leading to a shortlist of eight: Grozny, Kaliningrad, Nizhny Novgorod, Novosibirsk, Samara, Tomsk, Cheboksary and Chita. Nizhny Novgorod topped the poll with 189,151 votes, 2,000 ahead of Samara. The city is preparing a programme of around 150 events (well worth a read). Unexpectedly, Grozny the Chechen capital, was appointed as the 2025 title holder by the president of the organisers (a member of the Duma and under Western sanctions). It was a very controversial announcement. Several of the other shortlisted cities vented their surprise and anger at this impromptu decision. With the war continuing both Nizhny Novgorod and Grozny are to be boycotted. (No normal activity in an abnormal situation). The long standing regional Capital of Culture in Krasnoyarsk goes to Uzhursky.

The Cultural Cities of East Asia programme gains strength every year. Despite the frequent political differences between the three countries (China, South Korea and Japan) this cultural programme thrives. The 2024 title-holders are Weifang and Dalian in China, Ishikawa in Japan and Gimhae City in South Korea. Weifang is in the UNESCO Creative Cities network for crafts and folk art. Dalian stands out for its 30,000 cherry trees and their blossom. Ishikawa was hit by the earthquake on New Years day. The Korean title holders have formed a network. At their second meeting in September the five previous title holders and Gimhae held a workshop and “shared practical challenges of the current CCEA project and debated on diverse ways to overcome such limitations“.

The Cultural Capital of the Turkic World goes to Änew in Turkmenistan whilst the Commonwealth of Independent States selected Samarkand in Turkmenistan. Änew has important archaeological ruins from the 15th century and an impressive White Wheat Museum whilst Samarkand is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Tripoli in Lebanon hosts the Cultural Capital of the Arab World. The original plan was to hold the title in 2023. It seems a combination of COVID19 and lack of preparations led to a postponement. Marrakesh In Morocco and Shushi in Azerbaijan are the two Cultural Capitals of the Islamic World. Let´s hope they have better luck than Benghazi who had to forgo their programme in 2023 due to the effects of Storm Daniel.

Another UNESCO World Heritage site becomes the Capital of Ibero-American Culture: Sucre in Bolivia. Designated by UCCI and known as the La Cuidad Blanca, reflecting the white painted colonial era houses. The State of Nayarit (Mexico) is the American Capital of Culture continuing the Spanish only nature of this NGO run title.

Time now to look at the 12 Capitals of Culture in Europe.

It is “welcome back” to the Portugal CoC. This lasted for just two editions in 2003 (Coimbra) and 2005 (Faro) before a change of government closed the programme. The restored title follows the example of Italy: the three unsuccessful shortlisted candidates for the European Capital of Culture 2027 are recompensed by holding a national title. In 2024 Aveiro takes the honours followed by Braga and Ponta Delgada before Évora holds the European title.

Pesaro holds the Italy title. A key takeaway from the handover from the 2023 holders, Bergamo/Brescia: In the coming years, at least 200-300 million new tourists are estimated in the world, strongly attracted by the beauty and culture of Italy. The problem is that the ‘historic’ art cities, therefore Rome, Venice, Florence, are already overbooked. For this reason, a network of medium-sized cities is needed, such as Pesaro, Mantua, Parma, Matera and Bergamo and Brescia themselves, to serve the country to increase its competitiveness and attractiveness “. No wonder 26 cities have sent in bids for the 2026 title, now reduced to a shortlist of 10, with decision in March.

The second Serbian title goes to Užice after bids from 12 cities. Kaišiadorys becomes the Lithuanian CoC. There was no Slovakian title holder last year. Humenné beat off competition from Brezno and Šaľa to take the 2024 title.

In the folk-art/traditions group the Finno-Ugric title has not yet been announced. Belarus has selected Belynichi from five candidates.

Regional Capitals of Culture in Spain continue with Sabadell taking the Catalan title and Monóvar (for places over 5,000) and Bicorp (under 5,000) the two Valencian titles. The latter has spectacular cave paintings, (another UNESCO Heritage site)..

And finally: the three European Capitals of Culture: Tartu (Estonia) and Bad Ischl/Salzkammergut (Austria) are joined by Bodø (Norway). The three are probably the smallest trio of ECOCs since the title started in 1985. All three are including rural communities to widen their appeal. The gap between national CoCs and the European title narrows. Bad Ischl is the first “inner Alpine” title holder and Bodø the most northerly. Bodø opens (with memories of Galway) on “On February 3, we’ll gather in a circle around the marina – regardless of the weather – and enjoy a spectacular show before moving inside and continuing the party in town.” All three cities appear in the Guardian´s top ten cultural destinations for 2024.

You may have noticed some missing CoCs. Several titles with 2 to 4 year cycles are in their “off–year” so no UK, Eixo Atlântico, London or Africa title holders. I´ve also dropped the cities which become a CoC on the basis of the location of the summit meeting of an inter-governmental organisation (eg ASEAN and Portuguese Speaking Countries). Has anyone heard if a regional CoC in the Veneto region of Italy exists?

And I missed the French Capital of Culture!!!! It is Pays de Montbéliard Agglomération, a joint venture of 72 communes.

25 and now 26 Cultural Capitals for 2024! Enjoy.

Sportswashing: the Wisden writing competition gets serious

Wisden Cricketers´ Almanack has made its annual appearance, number 160. 1616 pages, ultra small print, thin paper and the familiar yellow dust jacket. The Writing Competition is now in its 11th appearance and the winning entry is a new departure. Previous winners have focused on reflections of the past, sometimes nostalgic, occasionally humorous. A Duncan Hamilton approach. It´s taken an Australian (predictably?) to buck the trend. Dan Crowley (tweets at @dancrowley99) goes behind the scenes and brings some ethical thoughts into the global game:

Gone are the days when sport ads target actual consumers, flogging products we can buy at a shop. Now it´s an exercise in sportswashing, using the exposure of a major sporting event to target abstract concepts such as legitimacy, authenticity and trust.

His particular gripe is with Aramco, the Saudi Arabian fossil fuel company (as well as alcohol and betting companies), a sponsor of the ICC and IPL. He applauds Pat Cummins´ refusal to take part in ads for Atlinta, a major carbon emitter and sponsor of Australia’s Test shirts, as it conflicted with his activism on climate change. Crowley concludes:

Hopefully this is the way of the future, and more players, fans and administrators will have the courage to call out cricket´s unethical sponsorship deals.

This is the first time the competition winner has tackled a current topic. He certainly hit a nerve. Lawrence Booth (@BoothCricket) in his Editors´ Notes writes ” Despite its monstrous carbon footprint, international cricket has behaved as if the climate emergency is someone else´s problem“. Tanja Aldred has a full article on cricket and the environment (predictably the Daily Torygraph dismisses this: “if you crave the woke, about the game and climate change”). Crowley would have written before the competition closing date of October 2022: He was not to foresee the news (and neither did Booth or Aldred) that Saudi Arabia is bringing its sportswashing to cricket nor that Yorkshire is seeking Saudi money to stave off bankruptcy (or even worse the return of Graves).

As an aside it looks like the majority of first class counties in England and Wales have local shirt sponsors with only one stand out (Gloucestershire have the Cayman Islands). And England have a used car company.

As for the competition itself, Crowley wins with his debut entry. That makes 9 out of 11 first-time winners. Nonetheless some doggedly plough on. The three “always present” entrants remain: Paul Caswell, David Fraser and David Potter. Five more have tried unsuccessfully 9 or more times. This year 109 entered with 8 using the full allowance of two entries.Two-thirds are first timers. The entry level is down on the bumper (COVID) year of 2020 with 193 entries. Only three first timers from that year have played every time since.

The competition still attracts fewer entries than the parallel photographic competition (almost 500 entries). But its first prize of £1,000 is financially more attractive. The writing competition now offers a credit of £250 to spend at Crowley´s winning entry this year opens the doors for more to tackle contemporary topics, perhaps even controversial. You have until the end of October 2023 to send in your 480 words!

Can ChatGPT help European Capital of Culture candidates?

ChatGPT is all the rage, instilling joy and fear in equal measures. I gave it a try. I asked it to write some advice to a city mayor considering bidding for the European Capital of Culture. In 350 words. Note: bidding, not winning the selection process.

What happened? In seconds, yes seconds, it came up with a plausible letter. And then a few seconds later it came up with another plausible letter. I say “plausible”. If a mayor is asking for advice on whether to enter the competition they normally want some high level, general points: the big picture. Many of the essential boxes were ticked in a general way. It´s not the time to get bogged down in the tactics of preparing a bid let alone gaming the selection panel. There are plenty of consultants out there to do that. My next Chat request will see if it can put them out of business! (joke)

Here is the opening paragraph:

If you’re considering a bid for European Capital of Culture in 2031, congratulations! This is a unique opportunity for your city to showcase its cultural richness and diversity, attract international attention, and boost your local economy. However, winning the title requires careful planning, strong commitment, and effective communication.

Not a bad start. Culture, diversity, local attention and economy tick boxes. And practical matters to the fore. Onwards:

Start early: Preparing a bid for European Capital of Culture takes time, resources, and collaboration with various stakeholders. Ideally, you should start planning at least five years before the application deadline, which is usually in the middle of the previous decade. This will give you enough time to identify your cultural strengths and weaknesses, engage with the local community, and develop a comprehensive bid book.

So far so good. Engage with local community is up there and the “bidbook” makes an appearance. “At least five years” hints at a longer preparation time.

Focus on your unique identity: One of the key criteria for selecting a European Capital of Culture is the city’s cultural and artistic identity. Therefore, it’s important to showcase what makes your city unique and different from others. This could be your historical heritage, contemporary art scene, traditional music, culinary traditions, or any other cultural asset that reflects your city’s identity and diversity.

Goes off on a tangent here. But it is clearly picking up from the countless media articles about an ECOC which, for the most part, regardless of country, fail to understand the central aspect of an ECOC being the future proposed programme rather than the existing offer. A weakness evident: ChatGPT may not be able to prioritise rather than look for the majority sources.

Involve the local community: A successful bid for European Capital of Culture should be rooted in the local community and reflect its aspirations and needs. Therefore, it’s crucial to involve various stakeholders, including artists, cultural institutions, business leaders, civil society organizations, and ordinary citizens, in the bid preparation process. This will ensure that the bid is inclusive, participatory, and relevant to the local context.

Not much wrong with that but misses the international aspect.

Think beyond the year of the title: Winning the European Capital of Culture title is not only about organizing a year-long cultural program but also about leaving a lasting legacy for your city and its citizens. Therefore, it’s important to plan for the post-title period and think about how the cultural infrastructure, networks, and partnerships developed during the bidding and hosting process can benefit the city’s cultural and economic development in the long run.

Legacy, post-title, networks etc again good points, even if it uses the American “program”.

Communicate effectively: A successful bid for European Capital of Culture requires effective communication and promotion both within and outside the city. Therefore, it’s important to develop a strong branding and marketing strategy that highlights your city’s cultural strengths, engages with various audiences, and builds a positive image of your city as a vibrant and creative place to live, work, and visit.

Obvious but well said. Aimed at the post selection period but awareness needed at the start.

And finally a rather bland ending:

In summary, preparing a bid for European Capital of Culture requires a combination of creativity, collaboration, and strategic thinking. By following these pieces of advice and engaging with various stakeholders, you can increase your chances of winning the title and leaving a positive legacy for your city and its citizens. Good luck!

The second attempt was along the same lines but with this improved opener:

Develop a clear and compelling vision: One of the most important elements of a successful ECOC bid is having a strong vision for what you want to achieve. Your vision should reflect the unique cultural identity of your city and demonstrate how it can contribute to the wider European cultural scene. It should be creative, ambitious, and inclusive, highlighting your city’s strengths while also addressing its weaknesses.

At last the “European ” gets a mention. Until that point the advice could apply to any of the increasing number of national capitals of culture. With so many alternatives the European aspect of an ECOC stands out even more as the critical criteria. ChatGPT doesn´t quite understand it but perhaps after a few more attempts will get there.

Summary: Not good enough to send as it is. Covers many of the key points but not quite there. It is a good enough draft for anyone writing that opening letter to the mayor and wondering how to start. It needs a more tweaks. There is no overt reference to tourism which mayors often get hung up on. Some comment on the money side (both costs of the bid/ECOC and the expected return to the city; there are plenty of studies) would be useful as well as more Europeaness. Marks out of 10: 6 or 7.

Will robots take over? Yes in many things, can we stop them, no, should we, no. This blog was written by a human.

My Awards of the Year for Capitals and Cities of Culture around the world in 2023

Welcome to my sixth annual preview of cities with a title of Capital or City of Culture (CoC). This year I´m introducing my Awards of the Year.

The Solidarity Award goes to Comrat which was due to be the Commonwealth of Independent States CoC. But Moldova withdrew from the CIS because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. So no CIS CoC for Comrat. Principles, and survival, come first.

The Never Give Up Award goes to Leeds. Brexit spoilt their bid to be an ECOC in 2023. Not to give up Leeds 2023 is a year long programme of “explosive creativity”. A role model for unsuccessful candidates. (and a late award to Volterra which was pronounced Tuscan capital of culture in 2022, after being unsuccessful in the Italian CoC for 2021. over 300 events in 2022).

The Blink and You Miss It Award goes to Luanda. The Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries give their CoC to the host of the annual summit (as do several others). Luanda managed their programme in just one week in 2022. No news on the 2023 title holder. No news either of the ASEAN CoC, another which rotates with the chair of the organisation. Indonesia this year.

The Under the Radar Award goes to the Valencian Community. A CoC programme since 2018 managed to escape my notice (and just about everyone else´s). Two title holders (below and above 5,000). In 2023 Geldo (population 700) and Guardamar del Segura (pop 15,000). Who needs PR and marketing?

The It was good whilst it lasted Award goes to the South Asia Association of Regional Cooperation. SAARC is on ice because of regional political differences so no more CoCs.

The Welcome to the Club Award goes to Čačak, the first holder of the Serbian CoC. The programme starts in the Spring ” through four sub-themes that together create one whole: “On Freedom”, “On Morava”, “On the crossroads”, “On the cobblestones””.

The Award for Let´s remember you were the first, and hardest, cities in Europe hit by COVID-19 The Italian Capital of Culture has, exceptionally, two cities this year with no competition. The Italian culture ministry chose Bergamo and Brescia in recognition that the two cities were at the forefront of COVID-19 when it first appeared in Europe. The two have a joint programme BGBC2023 with over 100 projects and 500 initiatives.

The Award for Let´s hope they actually do something is shared by the Arab CoC and the three Islamic CoCs. Tripoli (Lebanon) is the Cultural Capital of the Arab World, organised by ALECSO. The three Capitals of Islamic Culture, organised by ISESCO, are Abidjan (Cote d´Ivoire), Selangor (Malaysia) and Benghazi (Libya). The title holders in these two programmes vary from doing not very much (most of them) to a full programme of arts and conferences (rarely).

The Award for We may have serious financial problems but we will carry on goes to Croydon, the fourth holder of the London Borough of Culture title. The programme starts in the spring so little information so far. A major concern surrounds the programme as the council is deep in debt and has applied for significant central government funding.

The Award for Second Time Around is shared. St Helens holds the 2023 title of Liverpool City Region Borough of Culture, five years after holding the original title. The title rotates between 5 of the 6 districts of the region (omitting Liverpool). San Jose in Costa Rica held the Ibero American Capital of Culture in 2006 and repeats in 2023.

The Award for We are far more than Roman Walls goes to Lugo in Galicia. The only city with its Roman walls intact (2km, 71 towers, 10m+high). It is the Eixo Atlántico CoC (EU Interreg project covering northern Portugal and Galicia in Spain). The programme opens in late February and runs until November.

The Award for Let´s split the programme over two years goes to two cities. Both run their programmes until May. Rabat as the first African Capital of Culture and Revúca in Slovakia.

The Award for Supporting traditional culture without threatening contemporary culture goes to Kuhmo, the first time a Finnish municipality has held the Finno-Ugric title.

The Award for Supporting traditional culture whilst imprisoning hundreds of creative workers goes to Slutsk, the Belarus title holder. There are still many cultural workers in prison and artistic freedom is not possible in the country.

The Award for Not Noticing French and English speaking countries goes to the American Capital of Culture “aimed at all the countries of the Americas” which after 24 editions still has not picked a city in the 20 French or English speaking American countries. There is no title this year. The same organisation (Xavier Tudela) has arranged for Lloret de Mar to be the Catalan title holder. Package holiday makers will enjoy a change from the beach.

The Award for Optimistic Budgeting goes to Tauragė the Lithuanian Capital of Culture for 2023. A municipality of 21,000, it will receive €100,000 from the culture ministry and aims for around €500,000 for a full programme.

The Award for Upgrading goes to Shusha. Already nominated by the Azerbaijani government as the cultural capital of the country in 2021, the city gets an upgrade as the Cultural Capital of the Turkic World. At the handover from Bursa “the speakers especially noted that this event was hopeful, proud, and very important.”

The Award for Most Over-looked Cities of Culture is shared by the Cultural Cities of East Asia. Two from China, Chengdu and Meizhou; Shizuoka Prefecture in Japan and Jeonju in South Korea. The cultural ministers met, virtually, in September to formally appoint the cities; good to see the ministers meeting – the heads of government summits have not taken place since 2019. 11 cities competed for the China nomination. There is an interesting review of the Chinese selections since 2013 here. Jeonju (a UNESCO Creative City in Gastronomy) has the largest collection of traditional Hanok houses. It plans 4 major events and 17 projects, mostly festivals. Shizuoka outlines its programme.

The Award for Hey, There are Three of Them Again goes to the European Capital of Culture with three title holders again this year, a consequence of the impact of COVID-19 in 2020 on the programme. Three last year, three next year. Elefsina (or Eleusis) in Greece opens its programme on 4 February under the three themes of “People | Society, Environment, Labour”. Chris Baldwin, fresh from his success at Kaunas, directs the opening event. Timișoara  opens over the weekend of 17-19 February. The year long theme “Shine your light – Light up your city! is the motto that reflects the journey from individual to conscious and involved European citizen, in which community values and passion are rooted.” The third title holder is Veszprém-Balaton in Hungary. It opens on 21-22 January with a distinctly national focus on the Hungarian national anthem and the day of Hungarian culture. Very Orbán.

The Award for Let´s Not Forget Mariupol. Readers of my review for 2022 will recall I mentioned the first Ukrainian City of Culture, Mariupol, in 2021. The destruction of the city, its iconic theatre, the mass murder of its citizens, the looting of heritage and arts, the torture, the forced migration of children, all horrors of the Russian invasion. There have been calls for both Kyiv and Kharkiv to be awarded an ECOC title. The Ukrainian Institute, the organisers of the Ukrainian CoC (and now an associate member of EUNIC, the network of cultural relations institutes of the EU and UK), has asked for a boycott of Russian cultural organisations. Accordingly I am simply recording that Yeniseisk is the Krasnoyarsk Region title holder; where the railway was sabotaged this week. Russia has announced its own Capital of Culture programme for 2024. It is unlikely to improve Russia´s international reputation, one of its aims.

I hope these are most of the 2023 CoCs. I suspect there are more lurking unseen in Google in various languages*. More smaller cities/municipalities. CoC programmes are centred on arts events and festivals; few venture into social issues or creative industries and tourism is the main driver for many. Last year saw exceptional CoCs in Procida, Coventry, Kaunas and the first French CoC Villeurbanne. Good to see the emphasis on evaluation in Coventry. Few CoCs get beyond reporting the numbers of events/audiences/tourists. No doubt CoCs, and candidates, will soon be using ChatGPT software to write evaluations and bid books!

Have an enjoyable year!

  • I knew it! The Veneto region in Italy has its own CoC. Now in its third edition. Applications are now open for the 2023 title holder, closing date 15 February.

The future of Mastodon?

Most twitter users had not heard of Mastodon until a week or so ago. What they did know was that Elon Musk had bought Twitter, turned it into a private dictatorship and was throwing out an eclectic range of changes and ideas of what he wanted to do with the site. For multiple reasons the Twitterati sought an alternative and Mastodon became the chosen one.

Mastodon is a decentralized federation of “instances” or servers. It has been around since 2016 and had a few hundred thousand users. Until last week! It has been overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of users fleeing from Twitter, or at least creating a back up social media presence in case the worst fears of a Musk-run Twitter arrived. By 7 November it had over one million active users and is growing fast.

This massive increase in users has not been universally welcomed by existing Mastodon users. Hugh Rundle outlined many of the concerns in this article. “I struggled to understand what I was feeling, or the word to describe it. I finally realised on Monday that the word I was looking for was “traumatic”. Overnight almost Mastodon transformed from a platform for relatively small scale interactions based on small scale IT set ups to a fledgling mass operations.

In many cases the instances/servers couldn´t cope and closed themselves to new entrants. Others need considerable technical upgrades. the core programming language is possibly not suited to a fast, large scale, environment.

So what happens? Some thoughts.

Traditional Mastodon users will continue as before. Small user numbers, focussed around their interest, not accepting many, if any, new members. They will continue with small IT capacity, seeking ad hoc funding via Patreon. A few, like mine, which has 11,000 members and has closed to new ones, will ask for a small subscription.

Many new users will develop their own small, closed, instances: family and friends, clubs, NGOs etc. This may mean users need more than one address.

New users will upset the historic members, by default, until either they adapt to the new environment or new servers develop more suited to their aspirations.

The 500 word toot limit will mean more “mini blogs” appearing with regular author building a readership and discussions.

The very idea of decentralisation should mean a faster roll out of new server areas.

Larger, and very large, new instances/servers will appear. Well funded with more than adequate IT systems to cope. Some may be specialised (eg by a sport, or politics or cooking, cities etc) and will emerge as the general mastodon leading servers. A few may even, in time, accept sponsorship from selected organisations but not link users information to those sponsors. These will become the norm for most users in 2023/2024; general media, NGOs, politicians, political organisations, etc.

Some will be as argumentative as twitter as the “wrong type of twitter user” migrates. Mastodon servers can block other servers as well as individuals. Instance owners will need to be vigilant. The difficulty in finding other users is irritating. The idea of joining servers by invitation of an existing member (memories of the original LinkedIn) will enable small groups to continue.

The Home, Local and Federated streams needs tweaking. Federated is far too busy and large. As there is no algorithm the chronological order overwhelms any attempt at use. The local was fine if the server it applies to is a small relatively coherent group. Home, i.e. those you follow can be augmented by lists. (I see the use of lists expanding considerably)

There will be an increase in tools (eg languages translation, better handling of videos). Mastodon does appear USA centred at the moment and will need to adapt to a more global user base.

One major weakness is the lack of a Mastodon link on the “Share This” systems and on media articles etc. Given there is no single Mastodon account to link to not sure how this can be resolved.

Perhaps more to follow….. comments to

Ten years of the Wisden Writing Competition

Wisden Cricketers Almanack 2022 appeared a few days later than usual but back to its usual size after last year´s slimmer version. As usual it provides fascinating insights into the game with keen readers spotting the subtle changes but those are for another review!

The Wisden Writing Competition remains, now in its tenth year. A chance for “aspiring” writers to shine with a short essay. The entry level is back down to the normal level with just over 100 entries. Relatively few of the first timers of 2022 tried again. The number of entries from women seems to have fallen.

Congratulations to this year´s winner, Peter Hobday. He gives us a “Proustian Madeline” moment as he opens a long unused bag of his cricket equipment. The smells and touch of gloves, a bat, helmet clothes and other items trigger a Remembrance of Games Past and a wistful thought of a future game.

Mr Hobday´s success is in line with the ten year trends. A first time entrant making it eight out of ten wins for debut competitors.

You can read all the winning entries here.

It´s time for a new records section, the Wisden Writing Competition, the first ten years. Unlike Wisden, accept a possibility of errors in the listings!

Number of entrants: 648

Number of once only entrants 528 (81%)

Most entries: 10 (Paul Caswell, David Fraser, David Potter) 9 (Richard Reardon, Christopher Sharp) 8 (Steve Green, Mark Sanderson, Peter Stone)

Winners on debut entry: 8 (the other two were on their second and fifth entry)

Largest entry 2021 with 193

Smallest entry 2014 (82), 2020 (“more than 80”)

Winners from outside England 1 (USA)

Most popular winning themes Nostalgia of times past 3. memories of specific cricketer 2 , humour 2,

Number of winners mentioning T20 (IPL, Big Bash, Vitality etc) 0

Winning entries looking to future of cricket 0

The competition is open for the 2023 Wisden, closing date is the end of October. A piece full of warmth for the game, a touch of its effect on you, staying clear of controversy. Full details here (under the Photography Competition details which attracts many times more entries!).

Stop press. The runners up are now printed in the Wisden Quarterly magazine The Nightwatchman. 12 are printed is issue 38 and 8 of them are from first time entrants. Yet more evidence that newcomers seem to have a definite advantage. perhaps enter under new names each year?

Capitals of Culture around the world in 2022

Welcome to my annual preview of Capitals (and Cities) of Culture. The global pandemic disrupted society in 2021 and naturally CoCs were not exempt. Many ran smaller programmes, others deferred to 2022 and some unfortunately failed to take place. In early January we do not know what will happen this year but at least 26 COCs are making plans even with travel restrictions and capacity limits. This year I´ve added videos to the review: to improve our awareness of many of the cities! I’ve also put those CoCs who earned their title though a competition ahead of those who have been simply nominated by the awarding organisation.

Once again the CoCs demonstrate the incredible diversity of culture and the arts across the world. From cutting edge digital arts to centuries old traditions, from cities of 8 million down to small hamlets of a few hundred, with budgets over €50 million down to less than €1m, organisers innovate and develop their offers. Stay safe in 2022 and enjoy your local CoC (there will be more streaming I suspect).

Pride of place goes to France. It is their first national CoC. An interesting competition, limited to places between 20,000 and 200,000 and running every two years. Larger cities are preparing bids for the European title in 2028. The short list of 9 candidates came from a pool of 29 expressions of interest. The successful candidate was Villeurbanne with a programme firmly based around young people. Opens on 7 January.

Italy provides another first. Procida becomes the first island to hold a CoC title. Nearly 400 cities have held a title, several cities on islands but none as an island in its own right. (I discount Singapore as an island-state!). The island, which has been very active in the build up to the year, has a programme of 150 events, 350 artists from 45 countries. Take a drone tour of this fascinating island in the Gulf of Naples.

There was no European Capital of Culture 2021 (ECOC), the first blank year since 1985. The unfortunate Rijeka and Galway from 2020 managed to run a short programme in late 2020 to March 2021 but small consolation for the disruption of their 2020 title year. The 2021 title holders were postponed and will catch up in 2022 and 2023. The three 2022 ECOCs held a joint launch, Kaunas, Novi Sad and Esch-sur-Alzette.

Novi Sad becomes the fifth city outside the EU to hold the title (the list is at the end of the post). Its model, 4P: people, processes, places, programmes, is reflected in the online programme book and in a short video. A longer view gives you a glimpse of the city.

Esch is tackling the regeneration of the city, and incorporates the region across the border in France. The programme has over 2,000 events including 310 performances, 137 exhibitions, 141 concerts and 360 participatory workshops. Its good to see events in Spanish and Portuguese. This article gives a good explanation of the urban decay background and this a wonderful video of time gone by. Watch out for the correct Esch! The director-general for Culture at the European Commission (or her team) made an awkward error!

 Kaunas promises “One big stage for Europe”. The spectacular opening starts on 19 January and involves over 800 artists in more than 100 events. “I think this is like no other ECoC opening, where a city game structure is used to introduce audiences and citizens to the events and themes coming up during 2022,’ says Chris Baldwin, the director of the grand trilogy of Kaunas 2022. One aim of the ECOC is to rediscover the city´s past and “The Jews of Kaunas” book is the first instalment. A quick view of the city.

Coventry was the UK´s COC in 2021. It skilfully delayed its start and runs from May last year to May 2022. One of the more innovative CoCs of recent years. The Reel Store, a permanent immersive digital art gallery opens in March. A review of the first 6 months shows ” Making the arts more accessible is a key focus for the Trust with 43 per cent of tickets being booked by people on lower incomes in the city so far. In this period, 673 local people have taken part in workshops, helping to create events and alongside over 1,500 community dancers, musicians, poets and makers who have taken centre stage as part of events”

Alytus is the Lithuanian CoC. It actually opened on 3 December with a theme of connecting bridges to culture. The video of the opening is well worth skipping through! The bridge theme links 7 platforms during the year. A walk through of the city is here. As usual there are ten smaller CoCs in Lithuania spread around the counties.

Whilst most attention in Slovakia was over the selection of the ECOC in 2026 (Trenčín won), the national CoC was awarded to Revúca. The programme runs from June 2022 to May 2023. “people often do not realize that it is not the icing on the cake – to have theatres, events and even the title City of Culture. It’s more of a starting line. It is an opportunity for you to bring quality, more program and start the city and region for development and better things, “says Karin Kilíková, director of the programme board and project manager of the City of Culture.” View the city and region.

Ukraine had its first CoC in 2021. Two actually as there are two titles, one for larger cities and one for smaller; Mariupol and Slavutych respectively in 2021. The title is organised by the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation, The 2022 title holders have been selected but the formalities not yet completed, so watch this space!

As an aside Serbia will join the national CoCs in 2023. Čačak will hold the inaugural title after seeing off 17 other candidates. A walking tour.

The Finno Ugric CoC is continuing. Two candidates for the 2022 title saw Baiterek in the Udmurtia region of Russia being awarded the title. The symbol of the title, a carved wooden bird, the “tsirk” is passed from one title holder to the next. A handy overview of the Udmurtia region is in this video.

In the Krasnoyarsk region of Russia, Lesosibirsk saw off 7 other candidates to hold the 2022 title. This is the longest running regional title and remains competitive. An overview of the cultural life in the city is here. Some videos of the closing ceremony from the 2021 holder give an indication of the vibrant cultural life.

Lewisham becomes London’s third Borough of Culture. A key theme is the call for action on the climate emergency. Let´s hope (and require) all CoCs to take the emergency seriously not only by raising awareness but of limiting their own emissions! A quick snapshot.

Now lets go outside Europe to East Asia. The only competitive title is the Capital City of East Asia, bringing China, South Korea and Japan together. Last year the Culture Ministers agreed that China would have two cities to sit alongside the other two. They also approved the ” ‘Kitakyushu Declaration’ with the aim of promoting new cultural and artistic exchange plans using cutting-edge technologies in the post-COVID-19 era” . In 2018 there was a meeting of ECOCs and the East Asian Cities. Last year a zoom meeting was also held: are we starting to see closer cooperation? In 2022 the four cities are

Wenzhou. This article gives a good survey of the proposal and their aims. Of interest is their ambition to work with ECOCs and Asian CoCs as well as the partner cities in East Asia. A quick trip

Jinan, a city of springs, in Shandong province China. Another quick view of the city of 8 million (perhaps the largest city in recent times to hold a title?)

Oita prefecture in Japan formed its executive committee in December. A walk through with a Studio Ghibli focus.

Gyeongju in South Korea, home to UNESCO World Heritage sites. Its slogan for the year is “Gyeongju that opens culture, peace that connects East Asia”. The city was originally selected for 2021 and now will run its programme in the first half of 2022. A drive and walk through.

Turning now to those CoCs where the organising body chooses the title holder without competition (as in the early years of the ECOC).

Bursa in Turkey is the Cultural Capital of the Turkic World. Türksoy, the organisers, are keen to link their title holders with the corresponding ECOCs (Rijeka and Khiva recently) and have already held a zoom call with Novi Sad. A walking tour.

Cairo as the capital of the Islamic World (Arab Region) is another deferral, from 2020. It now plans “the program to celebrate Cairo as the cultural capital of the Islamic world will be launched in mid-February 2022 and will last all year “. The title will be shared with the original 2022 nominee, Rabat (a walking tour). Yaoundé and Bandung are also listed as being the other regional holders of the Islamic title but I can´t find anything about them.

Rabat joins the select group of cities holding two titles concurrently. It is also the first African Capital of Culture, held over from 2020. Its programme starts on 24 January. In May the title organisers( ULCG Africa) will announce the next title holder in 2023/2024. Two cities, Kinshasa and Kigali, have already applied.

Irbid in Jordan holds the Capital of the Arab World title, another deferral from last year. Very active in preparation, the programme will start either just before or after Ramadan. A quick walk through.

Brasília takes its turn as the Ibero-American CoC. A fascinating video introduction to Oscar Niemeyer´s creation.

The Commonwealth of Independent States (the former USSR minus the 3 Baltic countries) have chosen Karakol in the Issyk-Kul region of Kyrgyzstan as their CoC. The title rotates between the member states. Your introduction to the adventure capital of the region!

There are three nominal CoCs: ones where the country is the host of the next regional political summit. Few seem to put on anything more than a short arts festival. The ASEAN capital is Siem Riep, the nearest city to the Angkor Wat World Heritage site. The Community of Portuguese Language Countries have nominated Angola but little news of any activity. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) have made no announcements for two years.

There are the two CoCs organised by Xavier Tudela under his “The International Bureau of Cultural Capitals” umbrella: the American goes to Ibagué  in Colombia and the Catalan to Igualada in Spain.

I have not mentioned the CoC in Belarus. Thousands of artists and cultural workers have been arrested and imprisoned by the dictatorship regime. Support the Belarus Free Theatre as it moves out of Minsk. Updates here.

And a final comment. Be careful: there are many press reports that Arles is a “Capital of Culture”. It is indeed the “CoC for Provence”. It is a title awarded by the regional government and rotates around the region as a tourist marketing promotion. This is a common tool in the tourism world as marketing people catch on the appeal of the “CoC” cachet. Arles has certainly jumped ahead in PR over Villeurbanne!

(And those ECOCs outside the EU? Four cities are still outside the EU. Two more have subsequently joined and there are two who were in but are now out. Bergen and Reykjavik in 2000, Stavanger 2008, Istanbul 2010. Kraków and Prague in 2000 were not yet member states. And no jokes about Glasgow 1990 and Liverpool 2008 please)

Have the Latvian candidates for European Capital of Culture 2027 changed since Simon Anholt visited?

I was listening to the latest podcast between Nick Cull (University of Southern California and expert on public diplomacy) and Simon Anholt (who coined “nation brand” and is a fierce opponent of “nation branding”). In their weekly “People, Places Power” podcasts they discuss various subjects (UK and Brexit, the EU, etc) . This week they tackled cities and their international impact and reputation. And Latvia, or rather Latvian cities, came up. Simon referred to his time when he was an adviser to the Latvian Prime Minister who wanted to improve the country’s international reputation. Simon relates the experience in his recent book “The Good Country Equation” (recommended). In his visits around the country he found that the provincial cities were not too keen on increasing the international profile. His recommendation was to focus on increasing not the national profile but to concentrate on promoting Riga.

Latvia, Riga, the capital, European Capital of Culture in 2014. Now name nine (9) other cities in Latvia. Take a pause but don’t use Google, Bing or Duck Duck Go (or for book lovers, an atlas). It’s called using memory. Nothing? Found just one (and sure that is not in Estonia or Lithuania?). Well, one of those invisible nine will be a European Capital of Culture in 2027. Nine cities are currently preparing their bids. None has a city population over 100,000 and many are much smaller even with the co-option of the neighbouring region. They are due to submit their bid books in June 2021 (and hopefully make them public online following Slovakia’s approach). The Selection Panel will meet in July to shortlist. And a journalist, Philip Birzulis, is helpfully writing about each candidate to let us know something about the candidates.

Each week he focusses on a different candidate city. So far he has done eight and to end your suspense they are (in no particular order, of course)

Ogre,  Cēsis,  Kuldīga, Valmiera, Liepāja , Jēkabpils, Daugavpils,   Jūrmala  Jelgava

The short articles are fascinating. The histories and attractions of the cities clearly show the differences between the cities (and not just in size). What I found missing is a recognition, in almost all of the articles, that the competition is for a European Capital of Culture rather than a Latvian national City of Culture. Neighbouring Lithuania has a annual national title, a legacy of Vilnius 2009. There are clear differences in expectations between the ECOC and a national title. In short, the former is outward looking and the latter more inward looking. One of the few European issues (globalisation versus localism) mentioned by a city in an article was rather put down by the journalist.

The journalist is also a tour guide so it is not unexpected that he highlights the heritage, natural and built, of the cities. These will not help the candidates. There is little on topics of “blocked memory” (which Kaunas 2022 is tackling extremely well). The criteria and scope of the title have changed significantly since Riga held the title in 2014. The Selection Panel will be looking, through six fixed criteria, for a transformational change in the cities. A successful candidate recognises that its current cultural offer is not fit for purpose for the late 2020s and beyond. This becomes even more important as we move to the post pandemic environment and a greater practical implementation of changes (rather than more talk and conferences) to combat the climate emergency. The emphasis is on the cultural offer, not place-making or tourist promotion which are side effects. Audience development, outreach, cultural strategy come to the fore, along with managerial and financial competencies. Key is the “European Dimension”: not simply being in Europe but both showing your own culture but equally importantly letting your own residents see the diversity of cultures in Europe.

It will be very interesting to see the bid books and how they tackle this essential criteria of the “European Dimension”. Have they changed since Anholt’s visits? Are they now actively seeking to engage on European issues? What can they offer to the rest of Europe beyond natural and built attractions and an arts festival?

We look forward to reading the bid books in June!