Photo credit: Jenny Harper Photography
Stoke-on-Trent? UK City of Culture 2021? Are you joking? I'm a Stokie who left at 18 and returned 20 something years later after living all over the world.
Locals remember when everyone had a family member who worked in The Pots. My Nana painted plates at Wood & Son, my brother-in-law was at Royal Doulton. As a teenager we'd train out of season by running up the slag heap that is now Hanley Forest Park. 'Stoke-on-Trent' was synonymous with 'The Potteries'.
People still haven't forgotten the multiple and continued redundancies as pottery firms moved overseas and the mines closed. The middle-aged who'd worked for the same employer since leaving school suddenly found themselves unemployed with limited transferable skills. Their children had the rug pulled out from under them. This mass unemployment had a negative impact on the entire local economy. This is recent history, and people are still bitter. If you didn't live here then, you simply don't understand why people felt so let down and angry. I left simply because I could.
Could this explain why Stoke is the UK's Brexit capital? 70% of people are unhappy and have been for decades. If you don't know how you can pay for heat, and your children are hungry you aren't going to be supportive of the council proposing a sculpture costing £3.5m. The first reaction is always going to be "Owww Much??" followed by random comments about taxpayer's money. Now that they're off their sofas (joking...), Brexit voters should start petitioning their elected representatives, and visiting their MP's surgeries. Unfortunately, Stoke-on-Trent's current Labour MPs didn't grow up here, so they don't understand.
When the writer David Sedaris visited Stoke in 2015, he made a simple pronouncement, not unkindly: "You people need to get some civic pride". He's right. We'll move on from the misplaced local council initiatives like Ceramica, and the design of One Smithfield (is it the ugliest building in the UK?), the rejected 'Winter'-fest in place of a Christmas market. I could go on... Lucky for us when the council gets it so wrong our grassroots organisations get it right.
If Stoke-on-Trent is to be selected as the UK City of Culture 2021 these organisations must work together. There's B. Arts who are on a mission to improve lives and places. The astonishing Wedgewood Institute (pictured) in Burslem is supported by the Prince's Regeneration Trust and European Regional Development Fund. If this building was in any other city it would be a landmark, instead it was placed on English Heritage's Buildings at Risk register. Is there a better symbol for a city of culture than a building created to educate the working class in science, business and the arts?
The Prince's Trust also supports the regeneration of Middleport Pottery which is the home of handmade Burleigh. It's the location for the Great Pottery Throw Down, hosted by the lovely (and Northern) Sara Cox. Where does she stay when she's filming? I'm sure it's not in the Mothertown's much-faded George Hotel which still features a bust of Arnold Bennett. We have The Arnold Bennett Society (we really do, I'm not making this up), but there's no comprehensive visitor information detailing how to visit the locations detailed in Anna of the Five Towns. There's no Anna map.... What about the Arnold Bennett omelette? I know it was invented at The Savoy for Mr B when he was staying there, but why not bring it home?
We have many theatres and concert venues like the renovated Victoria Hall, The Regent, and the New Vic. We have brilliant museums, both large and small. There's a lively music scene. We even have Spoken Word nights at pubs, where colloquial poets sometimes need subtitles. There's Keele University with it's modernist campus (the website mainly shows Keele Hall to appeal to the international students), and Staffordshire University in the very heart of Stoke. Paul Williams of SU's Business School has been instrumental in the audacious idea that we could be considered as a city of culture, and is now on secondment to Stoke Council.
Our advantage over the other cities is that we already have an international reputation to build on. If we embrace our history: the Good (Wedgewood, Staffordshire Hoard, Gladstone Museum, British Ceramics Biennial, Sculpture Trail, Arnold Bennett, Neil Baldwin), the Bad (the neglected buildings and infrastructure) and the Ugly (1 Smithfield). We can move on. We can get over the bitterness that contributed to the Brexit vote. This city needs to channel it's entrepreneurial spirit and think big. We need our ambitions to be impossibly large. Only then can we take baby steps to be great again and regain our civic pride.