Monday, 10 November 2008

Being Stoke

Jesus, I've been living in the Potteries for nearly five years.

During that time, a lot has changed both for me personally and in these, my adopted towns (though I think I've managed to avoid ever stopping in Fenton except to visit the bike shop). This is the place where I arrived an outsider, where I settled and ultimately started a family.

To some extent I'm still a distinct outsider. I know of people who grew up five miles from Stoke and claim to feel like outsiders in a way that I'd never imagine feeling in, say, Coventry. And despite the fact that I too grew up watching those Potteries derbies on Central Match Live, Burslem is the one place that I've ever been called 'immigrant' to my face (and that's just plain odd).

It's too easy to overstate the parochialism cliche, and just as easy to underestimate it. There's a distinct a multifaceted identity here, and it's dripping with saccharine sentimentality. "In the old days, way back when... we were poor but we were happy, and you could leave your front door open," and the like.

This scent of roses may be equally pronounced elsewhere, but in the Potteries I challenge anybody to escape it. People so often sound fantastically proud in one breath, dejected and disinterested in the next. On the buses, in the street, and pretty much wherever you care to turn - "it's a shithole, mate..."

By the same token, we know and trust our neighbours and they know and trust each other. And much as they bemoan 'the way the country's going' - whatever way that is - there's a real sense of community that I've never experienced anywhere else, beaten down and diminished though people may feel. Things worth cherishing - "'s *our* shithole, in't it."

And still, disillusion abounds and rebounds, whether it's about regeneration, immigration, low pay, the ills of Federation, whatever. Community pride ever vying with the sense of betrayal by complacent city fathers and fly-by-night council managers. Is it justified? I don't know - cheap shots at the council are ten-a-penny in these parts.

Know what? I'd hazard a guess that many outsiders settling here have very similar feeling - certainly more akin to the 'local identity' than you might expect. I don't think I ever expected to stay, and others I know tried living elsewhere. But here, eventually, we stayed. And we grew to like the place in a way that perhaps we never expected to.

This is a city that doesn't seem like it was ever really finished, such are the rubbled, empty expanses, even in the city centre. Some days it's depressing, a relentlessly downbeat place. But there's a really compelling undercurrent here - true Stokies and newcomers who sense possibility and potential, who coax out and sometimes broadcast the sense of "unconventional beauty" that prevades these parts.

History has not been kind to the Potteries; this isn't some Richmond or Knightsbridge - and yet people are creative; they acclimatise, develop ways of seeing and learn to create nothing less than A Beautiful City by looking closer.

None of this is overtly political. But our political climate is crying out for optimism, creativity, warmth and a renewed sense of perspective. This can come from artists, council managers, bloggers, whoever - just people, at the end of the day. In pubs, on websites, at the civic.

So it goes.

After all, this Being Stoke, it's our shithole too. And that's the great thing about living in this of all places, the city that's not quite finished yet.


David said...

I've found you - ha ha! Interesting topic. It's funny how there seems to be so much introspection about Stoke. Maybe it's my paranoia but I don't think so (he says looking round furtively). There are worse cities and towns about and lots of less interesting ones but I get the feeling they don't analyse themselves constantly like Stoke does (or commentators on Stoke, to be precise). I do it, too. The low self-esteem, constant introspection and often irrational belief that things are better elsewhere are classic symptoms of depression. Stoke (that intangible thing called a City) is depressed. Hardly surprising considering the constant criticism, bullying and derision aimed its way over the years.
A Sentinel report of Stoke v Hull was absolutely spot on the other week. It described the vastly differing welcomes the Premiership has afforded them; Hull the red carpet and Stoke the straw mat. Needless to say Hull's gamesmanship won't be mentioned anywhere outside Staffordshire, whereas the description 'big physical side' and 'gritty' will be wheeled out for the 6 millionth time in the newspapers to sum up Stoke.
I wonder why Stoke demands so much analysis? Is it the contrast between feelings of well-being and community clashing with criticism and league tables? Is it like wanting to play with the bullied boy at school despite dire warnings from the bullies? It's a quandary, that's for sure.

Meanwhile... said...

Thanks for the thoughts - I think your diagnosis of Stoke as being somehow collectively and psychologically (not just economically) depressed is quite convincing.

After one too many ales, admittedly, I think the term might be "civic schizophrenia." I find that hard to say, let alone spell right now.

And with that, I too am going to look around furtively and wobble off to my pit....