Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Stoke as a Place of Beauty

'Stoke' and 'beauty'. There's two words that don't go together, a bit like 'Liberal Democrat' and 'promises'. But in his new book, The Lost City of Stoke-on-Trent, Matthew Rice argues my home of 15 years, blighted as it is by joblessness, derelict property, wasteland and Port Vale football club, possesses a proud heritage and a unique beauty. And this provides the key to the successful regeneration of The Potteries. Way back on 14th November about 80 upstanding citizens and I were invited to his book's launch at Fat Cat's in Hanley. The evening was compered by Stoke Central MP Tristram Hunt and saw contributions from the writer AN Wilson, historian and Sentinel columnist Fred Hughes, English Heritage and the National Trust speakers (whose names I didn't catch). And lastly the eponymous Matthew Rice himself, who spoke first.

His opening set the tone with a lamentation for what The Potteries has lost. We live in a city that is abused and not cared for, an industrial city in a post-industrial age desperately in need of regeneration. For outsiders, he mused, the impression Stoke conveys is a place that's falling to bits. But under the surface still lies the ceramic capital of the world. The pottery industry remains a strategically important employer and driver of the local economy, and it would be churlish to turn our back on it in the name of moving forward. The buildings of the city, at least those that remain from Stoke's halcyon days, offer a framework for collective memory. For good or ill they anchored Potters' identities in place: the factory, the methodist chapel, the pub, the cinema. Leaving them to rot or wiping the slate clean for regeneration projects effaces that memory. With each bottle kiln pulled down Stoke becomes alienated from the history that made it. Every new mini-megaproject makes the past more strange, more foreign. Regeneration therefore should be people-focused. Investment in the people of Stoke will give them the capacity to regenerate the six towns themselves.

Fred Hughes more or less repeated Matthew's argument, but (perhaps inadvertently) flagged up the problems Stoke's parochial culture has bequeathed business and local politics. The pottery industry grew up as family concerns in particular localities where there were already established villages and towns. As the factories expanded workplaces and business were infused with a localist flavour. For instance, Fred said his granny - a proud Burslem resident - prided herself on never having visted Longton (and this attitude is very much alive today). So despite the 1910 federation of the six towns into the glamorous metropolis of Stoke-on-Trent this localism has persisted. But during the 'heroic' period of Stoke's industrial expansion it found an outlet in architectural expressions of civic pride, such as the Telephone Exchange in which Fat Cat's sits. All of it contributed to a sense of place that appears to be absent today.

AN Wilson talked about his family's roots in The Potteries. His grandfather, Tom Wilson, was described by contemporaries and historians as the 'last of the great potters'. And later on his own father was MD of Wedgwood. Stoke's decline however lies not in the whirlwind of deindustrialisation that howled through the city in the 80s but much earlier. The first was the Wall Street crash and the second was the floating of Wedgwood on the stock exchange in 1962. By changing the traditional pattern of outright family ownership Josiah Wedgwood V (apparently a self-confessed Marxist) exposed the firm to the rapaciousness of international capital and imported its dog-eat-dog ethos to North Staffordshire. Family firms folded or were absorbed by big business and then the whole system undermined itself as money was chased to the exclusion of all else. He argued that the burgeoning ceramics industry in China is based on the lessons of what made Stoke an industrial powerhouse, of close-knit family businesses rooted in communities. There was more than a hint that if we can go back to basics, then Stoke has a chance of breaking out its cycle of decline.

The speaker from English Heritage said ceramic production in North Staffs goes back to the Roman occupation. Two thousand years on the city is literally built on centuries of pottery waste. When a lift was built onto the back of
Burslem School of Art a few years ago, piles of rare 15th century pottery was unearthed. He concluded by saying a successful regeneration process has to incorporate this heritage.

The National Trust speaker said the cultural legacy of Stoke is of national importance. Quite apart from the global contribution the city has made to ceramic design and manufacturing it has made itself felt in
literature and scholarship (and music, then again ...). Stoke's home to buildings and sights immortalised by Bennett and Hoskins, and they deserve preserving. She thought Matthew's book offered an optimistic vision of the city, and what policy makers and the city's people have to do is create new stories to animate the space. The NT's contribution is make the case for beauty, which can still be found in Stoke, but it is a beauty that has to be "reclaimed" to find its place in the city's future.

The subsequent questions came thick and fast: how important are ceramics for Stoke's future? What to do about 'generic' new builds? Are Stoke's difficulties cause by the state? Does Stoke need better marketing? Is the obsession with the past preventing Stoke from moving on?

New builds are obviously a bugbear for Matthew. He argued contemporary designers have lots of good intentions but exciting elements tend to evaporate. They require vision, good planning, and the participation of the Potteries public. Unfortunately, AN Wilson couldn't muster much optimism. He believed the fate of the city is governed by forces external to it. But he did speak approvingly of the
Potteries Museum, which he felt possibly homes the most aesthetically pleasing collection of pottery in the world. The problem is no one nowhere is coming close to the craftmanship of Stoke's early industrial period today. If ceramics is going to make a big comeback this is where Stoke's heritage offers it an incomparable advantage.

Closing the formal part of the night, Tristram observed that at least where ceramics are concerned the pendulum of competition maybe swinging back in Stoke's favour. Paul Farmer, MD of
Wade Ceramics reckons he can come to within 10 pence of Chinese prices thanks to automation. Will the plants shipped out to China and Indonesia make a return to Stoke?

In all it was an excellent evening peppered with free drinks, nibbles and establishment networking opportunities. But what I found very interesting was the nostalgia on display. The platform didn't so much as enunciate a longing for an England of Spitfires and sonnets beloved of home county Tories but a very specific appreciation of the past that maps onto a fraction of manufacturing capital: the fraction that was eviscerated when Thatcher turned Britain into a neoliberal laboratory. The contributions of Matthew and AN Wilson hark back to a time when people did useful things and they, or rather their ancestors, could be sure of their position. The transition from a more "caring" capitalism to one in which all human relationships were reduced the cold cash nexus sundered the intimate ties binding pottery families to their workforce. The ceramics and buildings of bygone eras speak of the talent and patrician pride their class fraction once had. Now heritage is a weapon they wield to try and exert its influence once more as Stoke is remade by
public projects and big business. It is a rearguard action to try and convince the next generation of organic entrepreneurs of their validity for the 21st century.

On one level, the battle is won - no one disagrees that Stoke might recapture its civic beauty if the old is restored and the new respects the city's vernacular. But the decisions about how the city looks is taken elsewhere, by remote state and private bureaucracies. To reclaim that control, to realise the vision of Matthew Rice's book demands - as he recognises - the mass participation of locals in the city planning process. His position concedes the day of enlightened local elites is long over. If Stoke is to recapture the glories of its heroic period and surpass them, now the city's working class is the only social force capable of realising it. What this shows is how abstruse debates over art and architecture within elite circles can overspill and become an object of class struggle itself.


Loz said...

From 2002 to 2005 I spent three years witnessing Royal Doulton and several dozen other firms commit industrial and economic genocide on the people of Stoke-on-Trent as they shipped out production to the far east, closing factory after factory and putting thousands of specialist skilled workers into the hands of the bloodsucking employment agencies and low-skill distribution depots.

When people then see banners going up "celebrating the heritage" of these very same companies around the city centre ring road, it is really not hard to see why working class people of Stoke-on-Trent are so disengaged from the system.

The politicians cannot simply shift the blame on to the employers in this either - I remember several senior New Labour figures boasting about how British employment laws were the weakest in Europe and British workers were the easiest to sack. This neoliberal dogma simply meant global companies could target Stoke-on-Trent workers in their drive to move to low wage countries all of which has led to the current situation of people feeling there is no hope whatsoever for the area in which they live, whilst heartless Tories cynically cut off the remaining few state economic lifelines that still exist to punish the local people for voting Labour.

It is extremely interesting to hear the comment from the MD of Wades over automation and Chinese prices - it is very clear that before long the cost-savings these short-sighted and traitorous companies made by laying waste to huge areas of Stoke will pale into insignificance as the global economic power changes. But I cannot see a re-emergence of mass-produced ceramics being a serious prospect for any large-scale regeneration in Stoke in the short to medium-term.

Stoke needs to be proud of its heritage of hard work and manufacturing (and not the fake heritage of feteing and lauding employers who conspired with each other to keep this area a low-wage economy during the boom times).

Ultimately, Stoke has to move forward. The government should be ploughing investment into green jobs - how about a mass production solar panel manufacturing and development plant in Stoke for starters? How about clean coal technology, or electric cars? Or, dare I say it, developing new energy efficient sustainable heating systems as we seem to be entering a new ice age whilst the gas runs out?

Sadly, the current government seems to be doing little more to encourage this sort of positive and useful growth. Instead, the plan seems to be floating the idea of tax cuts for the rich and planning the weakening of employment law to "encourage" low-value and low-security jobs to be created, presumably by the same kind of short-term profiteers who have done so much to damage this country already.

I hope that a future government will be serious about using public money to start up big and useful enterprises in areas like ours, whilst doing everything it can, by both stick and carrot, to retain and encourage high-value private sector ceramic jobs in Stoke-on-Trent.

Gary Elsby said...

I've heard this the term 'heroic' used to describe the historical links of the pottery industry to this City 4 times now,
1. Tristram Hunt
2. Tristran Hunt
3. Fred Hughes
4. Phil BC.

Please explain what you all mean.

Phil said...

Re: Wades, I think everyone knows that the age of mass produced ceramics employing tens of thousands of workers in Stoke is truly gone. Thanks to automation the Wade plant can now produce the works of hundreds of workers while employing a skilled but much smaller workforce that tends to the machinery. If plant comes back from China and elsewhere they will be taking Wades's lead. I can't see the trickle down from company directors and the smaller workforce having much of an effect on the local economy or making a dent in the unemployment figures.

Regards the rest Loz, I couldn't agree more. Stoke needs more state-directed investment, not less. If anything has taught us about the decline of Stoke over the last 20-30 years, the private sector will not step in - despite the best efforts of local small business and social enterprise.

Phil said...

Context is everything, Gary. What do you think 'heroic' means here?

Lobby Ludd said...

One doesn't wish to lower the tone, but, historical accuracy aside:

Q. Why didn't the Germans bomb Stoke during the 2nd World War?

A. Because every time they flew over it they thought that they had bombed it already.


Bloke visits the devastation of 9/11. Standing in some kind of reverence an American next to him says:

'You're not from around here, are you?'

No, he replies, 'I'm from Stoke, in England.'

'Really', the American says, 'What's it like?'

'Pretty much like this' says the bloke from Stoke.


Gary Elsby said...

Phil, all of you, and I assume the author, used the term 'heroic' to suggest something about the history of the pots and the people of Stoke.
I gather that all of you are interlopers in stoke (not sure of Hughes) and so I ask again, why use the term. 'heroic'.

I'm expected to take this book seriously and I'm expected to view a historian within the same context as a designer and architect.

Just benefit the blog with an interpretation of our 'heroic' presence within Stoke-on-Trent because I think it's pure bollocks.
How many kids died at the hands of the Wedgwood family?(as they continue to bullshit themselves up).

The bombing of Stoke in WW2 was to target Shelton steelworks.
Many German bombers targetted Liverpool docks as first choice, but if failed,Shelton was on the way home.

Gary Elsby said...

On the point of Chinese plant returning to Stoke. I can't see this in the near future or even further. I'm not sure why I would want to buy an automated product made in Stoke, when I can buy one in Stoke but made in China.
The only saviour here is that China stops exporting deflation and returns to an acceptable exporting of inflation. The chances of that creating a more balanced marketplace is a long shot.
It's well known thatFord wanted to locate a car plant on Meir aerodrome, but was stopped by our well meaning Council and (a named) individual with clout.
The reason was a wage war between the cheap wage pottery industry and a relatively higher auto industry.
The road network around this City is second to none, with motorways either side, accessed within minutes and airports in all directions within one hour. We also have a rail stop within minutes from anywhere in North Staffordshire.
All of the ingredients are there, but there remains a deliberate unwillingness to promote this area, while Birmingham and Manchester are favoured.
The whole political outlook is administered within Stoke, that reduces us to a second player to Birmingham.
Administered from Sandwell to our Town Hall.We fought them to a standstill because there is no link between us and Birmingham.
We are North, not South or Midland(well ok, a touch).
The clue is in the North, of North Staffordshire.

Loz said...


I agree with your view on the wages issue in Stoke - there always was a conspiracy to keep wages artificially low and this has ultimately led to the area being even more damaged than other cities that have faced similar de-industrialisation.

I do, however, take serious issue with your inference over some people being "interlopers" and therefore not able to have a proper opinion on the situation facing the city.

How far back do people have to trace back their genealogy in Stoke-on-Trent to be able to have an opinion worth listening to, in your view?

I faced a similar charge of being an interloper when I was taken on at CATU as a "recruiter" in 2001, to which I refer in my previous comment. The union's reputation across the working class of the city was shot to pieces, yet my job was supposedly to try to convince people that they should stay a member of the union as they were sacked they were sacked from ceramics companies like Doulton which were shipping out jobs overseas.

As you may imagine, this was a pretty difficult task and not many workers took the union up on the offer to remain a member as they went out of the industry to look for whatever work was available in supermarkets and distribution centres.

When I was taken to task by a number of members of the executive over the continual drop in CATU membership, I was told to my face that the reason I wasn't being successful in getting people to stay in the union was because I wasn't "from Stoke" and didn't "understand" the people.

In the end, I realised my role at CATU was to be blamed for the fact the union was continually losing members and influence - and take the spotlight off the employers and politicians who had created and allowed the decline of the industry in the first place, which ultimately led to the unions demise.

Blaming, or trying to blame, "outsiders" for problems or "not understanding Stoke people", in whatever form you choose to do that, makes you basically no better than the BNP idiots blaming a few refugees for all the cities ills.

The problems facing Stoke are peculiar and very political - but the solution is not to be isolationist and rubbish the views of anyone not "from the area".

Gary Elsby said...

It doesn't surprise me that people you spoke to wanted out and away from a link to the pots industry. Most people working in there thought the management was useless, from top to bottom. Sales led and not design led was the downfall.
Having a cockney accent is red rag to a bull, I'm afraid, and I have no inner feelings of Nazi sympathies at all (are you a member of Stoke Central?)
A manager I spoke to told me: " I spent all night thinking of ways to fuck him up!" and he told this to his workers face.Of course,it was Doultons.
He also told me, "Never promote someone better than yourself-rule number 1."
I don't blame outsiders for informing us of their wonderful idea, that would make me a bigot.
Where I fail to understand them (Hunt included)is why they think we don't know what's wrong.
A pile of bricks in a mound on Nile Street or empty space off Leek road, to them is our incompetence or misunderstanding.
The fact is, we know a night-club, a new pot bank or 500 affordable houses should be there.
YThey tell us nothing of importance or nothing we don't know already.They write books though.
They talk of our 'heroic'(something) and I wish they'd expalin it to me.Slowly will do.
Get the Wedgwood's on about slavery. Go on! Josiah did this and he did that to "end slavery".
I'll have the whole family ripping their f***** hair out while we talk of heroism in 1750-2010 industrial relations.
By the way, I've already tested this 'heroic' theory before an audience a few Months ago.They all gave an answer before I gave mine and we collectively fell about laughing in disgust.

Sister C said...

Loz, you are right about Gary and'interlopers'.

This is coming from the man that believes that i'm not from Stoke-on-Trent even though I was born in Shelton and have spent most of my life living here, but I spent 6 years living in Newcastle.

'How far back do people have to trace back their genealogy in Stoke-on-Trent to be able to have an opinion worth listening to, in your view?'

Well 3/4 of my grandparents are from Stoke, 6/8 my great grandparents are from Stoke, maybe I have to go back even further to find out!

Loz said...

I am a member of Stoke Central and do originally come from London as it happens, Gary.

It is the same London that thousands of young people flock to every year from across the UK (including many from Stoke) to settle, and the same London that is almost impossible to build a life within because of the absurdly inflated expense, unless you are prepared to exist in cramped, unsecure and overpriced shared rented accommodation and put-up with blindingly obvious wealth-status differentials as you walk from street to street.

People who grew up in London like myself are often forced to leave if we wish to have a less transient and more sedate existence - arguably because of the large number of people moving to London from around the UK as they all wrongly perceive it the only place to make a "success" of themselves - in economic terms at least.

The point I am making is that the vagaries and brutalities of free-market economics affect people everywhere in different ways, not just in Stoke-on-Trent. People flood to London to chase the Dick Whittington, media-fed dream. Other people leave London and move to places like Stoke to get the hell away from the expensive and brutal commuter rat-race nightmare.

Stoke is my home, and has been for almost 10 years now. My opinion is just as worthwhile as anyone elses, regardless of the accent in which I may say it. You don't have to agree with it, but justifying people writing if off on the basis a certain accent is a "red rag to a bull" is no better than writing off someone's opinion on the basis of their skin colour or religion.

Gary Elsby said...

Whoa! Hang on a minute here.
You inform this blog that when you speak, members of Catu handed in their notice. You also inform us that Catu officials told you why this happens.
And then you liken me to Goebells.
I happen to agree (right or wrong) that your Catu bosses got it smack on. For the record, it's wrong of them to do so.
Believe me, we tire of 'here today-gone tomorrow' experts selling books and what have you, informing us that a pile of bricks should be a high-speed rail link (to leave Stoke faster).
They come here full of intent, they take soft questions from those that gush with admiration and have no fight in them whatsoever.
'Heroic' struggle my arse.

Sister C: Just in case you didn't know, I was the witchfinder General for Stoke Central.
If someone says they're from Stoke and wish to join, out comes my ducking stool. If they drown, they told the truth. If they live, they lie. Simple.
I booted out, at the request of all members, people who now sit by your side and F*** this City up!
Oh, how they lied.
As for you! You will be dealt with shortly (along with the rest of your mates).
There is no moral lead within Stoke Labour and it appears that Labour revels in providing anti Government propaganda that oversees 700 jobs going down the swanee.
Disgusting and immoral claptrap, based on fear and loathing.Labour should be ashamed and step up to the front on the attack.
And that is exactly what I would have done.
Fight for my City, not sit back and deliver redundancy notices (via taxis, no doubt).

Loz said...

"I happen to agree (right or wrong) that your Catu bosses got it smack on. For the record, it's wrong of them to do so."

I'm not sure exactly what you mean here Gary, but are you now suggesting that the members left CATU just because of my accent and background?

If that's the case, it might interest you to know that after I left CATU, the union took on two more people to do the same job, both of whom were "from" Stoke-on-Trent and had worked in the pottery industry and been union reps.

I didn't work with them, but had great respect for both individuals.

Unfortunately, I gather that the union membership has now fallen below 5000 for the first time in decades and the department both of those individuals worked in has now been closed. I can only presume that despite their best efforts and local accents, they also had trouble convincing people to remain in CATU as well, which doesn't surprise me in the slightest.

I have never met you Gary and our paths never crossed so I always kept an open mind about you and your decision to stand as independent candidate in the General Election, even going so far as to defend your position after the "parachuting" issue.

Unfortunately, your illogical, embittered and really quite strange rantings on here about some parallel "real" Labour party being in existence to take over the current CLP, and your tendency towards alienating pretty much everyone who is involved in the Stoke political scene who doesn't back you personally - seemably on the basis that they are not "properly Stoke" enough for you - has really made me question what it is you are actually seeking to achieve.

Gary Elsby said...

Loz, they didn't leave because you have a funny accent. They hated the industry and hated the union.
Saying that, you were on a no winner and the wrong person for the job. The history of stoke is pots, pit and steel and those industries are deep rooted and so are the political reasoning behind them.
Now this business of the General Election.
I was the only person around here sitting on the Panel for three years. I was suspposed to accept bullying against a long term tarde unionist representing the Co-Op.
I refused. They (the bullied) are of the lefter side of things and I was considered on the more moderate-right side of things. I still stood by them.
Corruption continued and even our local enemies (if you like) were booted off for the parachute.
5 MPs kept everyone off tht list.
I stood up to it all and it matters little that I lost.
The documentary (aired in January BBC2) should explain further why you lot are a part of bog standard corruption.
If that is what you want to be a part of, then good luck.
In the meantime, the shadow Labour Party will continue to administer socialism for Stoke-on-Trent, regardless.

catherine buca said...

"In the meantime, the shadow Labour Party will continue to administer socialism for Stoke-on-Trent, regardless."




Come on Gary, give it up, you're knowingly having a laugh aren't you? It's got to be an act, playing up to the crowd. Right? Right? Because no one real actually has that little self-awareness, right? Right?

Phil said...

Leaving aside all this rubbish about interlopers (I guess I'm one too - I've only lived in Stoke 15 years), once again Gary, in the context I deployed it, what do you think my use of 'heroic' means?

Gary Elsby said...

Catherine, I don't know who you are and I've never heard of you so I can't decipher your odd way of messaging. Stoke-on-Trent couldn't be broken, so the rules were broken instead. Get on with it.
We have two recent sucesses. One the 'super' regional director is sacked.
Two (very important) "Labour broke the rules and therefore........."
Sorry, not allowed to write further, but keep eyes open.
The NEC are shitting themselves.

Phil.Your use of 'heroic', appears to be used widely by your friends. You use it to describe buildings.
Brilliant, and I'll look forward to brother B's view of such matters.
More kids died at the hands of these bastards than buildings going up. It's a long story Phil.
This business of interlopers amuses me a little.
They run the City, they are the politicians, they are our Councillors, they are our press and they are our authors.
I can't find a single argument thay have for not getting it right.
Get on with it and don't blame us locals!
The rules were broken to fulfil this goal, if they weren't, then we would have been guilty,but they were and we are not.
You fall into the silly trap of winning for winning sake and not winning because it is right.
If you sit on a pile of bricks and put up a big question mark (?) over their use for the City, then give an answer to your own question.
Any clown can shut a school, a children's centre and puzzle over deriliction.
Now you explain your 'heroic' period for Stoke.
12 hour days, six dsys a week, one week off with no pay, no dole, no sick pay.
Come on Phil: 'Nice telephone exchange'.
You deny me a platform for votes?

Phil said...

It's pretty obvious what 'heroic' means in the context employed above. It refers to Stoke at its most dynamic, as the thrusting industrial power that saw its products reach every corner of the globe. This doesn't denigrate the people who died as this was a triumph of the ingenuity and graft of the working class who laboured in the North Staffordshire mines, steel works and potbanks. For the people who spoke at the book launch, it was a heroic period because it was a time when their ancestors were at the forefront of development and innovation.

Now do you understand?

*Off to go and bash head against brick wall*

Loz said...

Gary, it really does seem that this whole debate about the future for Stoke has come down to whether or not you are "local" or an "interloper".

Reading what you are saying, I understand your view to be that had the "local people" of Stoke been left to their own devices - presumably in the same way there are still remote tribes in the Amazon that have not yet communicated with the outside world - then the city would now be a flourishing and prosperous metropolis. I'm afraid I just don't believe this is true.

There is one regime on earth that doesn't permit any foreigners or "interlopers" to come in to live and work and settle. It's called North Korea - not a great advert for isolationism. Freedom of movement enriches society and breaks down barriers that otherwise divide us.

The bottom line is that, over the years, Stoke-on-Trent has been screwed not by interlopers - but by market forces be they in the form of exploitative employers literally killing workers on the job, or in the form of rampant globalisation and profit-chasing laying waste to whole parts of Stoke.

Many communities in this country, and yes even in the south east, have been devastated by the same Neoliberal weapons of mass destruction.

The BNP and EDL would have us believe that Muslims/homosexuals/communist-liberals are to blame for this devastation. The Tories and lib Dems blame Labour "overspending". And of course, UKIP blame the EU for everything thats wrong!

You, however, seem to be blaming all the many ills of the city quite broadly, on "outsiders".

I cannot agree with you. I have friends living in my immediate neighbourhood many who are "born and bred" in the area, others from the Newcastle-under-Lyme authority boundaries, some from Derby and, shock horror, at least one other like me from London...we all seem to rub on quite well and, when it comes down to it, are really not very different and want to live peacefully and in a decent society alongside one another.

The problem we face is the current economic system we have just doesn't provide what we all need as things stand. The problem is not, as it seems both you and many other politicians seem to be suggesting, that there is some kind of plot or enemy from the "outside" trying to deliberately screw everything up.

Phil said...