Stoking the memory

Apart from London, which was my birthplace, my favourite city in Britain is Stoke-on-Trent. It holds a hoard of memories for me, not all of them good, but each with a powerful resonance. Most of all, there are the people. It seems improbable, since people are people and much the same wherever you meet them, that one city should appear to contain nothing but kind, decent human beings. Stoke does.  

So it was sad to see that self-effacing Stoke, seldom in the news, never complaining, was pushed to the national forefront in the recent by-election. Sad to see it described as the UKIP centre of Britain. Sad, because there can be no city in Britain, not even Liverpool, that has been so crucified by the changes of the past 50 years, and where so little has been done to compensate for them. I could have forgiven Stoke if it had returned Paul Nuttall to Parliament.

I first discovered the city (or, to be accurate, the Five Towns or, to be more accurate still, the Six Towns – why is Fenton always omitted?) through the writings of Arnold Bennett. His novels, set there in the early decades of the last century, relate the hardship and grind of a working life in the Potteries, but also the improbable success of this huge collective endeavour, and the wealth it generated.

From the late 18th century until the late 20th century, Stoke-on-Trent was perhaps the best example in Britain of a one-industry manufacturing city, a masterpiece of vertical integration. Clay was dug from pits on the Staffordshire moors, processed on machines forged in Staffordshire ironworks, fired in kilns fuelled by Staffordshire coal and turned into articles of function and beauty, that commenced their journey to the ends of the world on Staffordshire canals.

Some of this still happens, but on a smaller and smaller scale. In reality, Stoke ceased to be a one-industry city many years ago, although even now it retains the illusion. For anyone who has read Arnold Bennett it is easy, when visiting the Five Towns, to imagine what he saw in every detail. Most of the neat Victorian terraced houses in which his characters lived are still there, as are many of the crumbling pot-banks in which they worked. The bones of that past survive: it is only the flesh that rots.

For 15 years, I ran a pottery business. We started with a factory in Northamptonshire and then, in 1995, bought a second factory in Stoke. For three years until the business closed, I visited the city every week. Our small factory was by then the only one still operating in the vast Royal Albert Works. The rest of it had been derelict for years. Across Parsonage Street, its sister factory – the Royal Victoria Works – had been converted into a car park for the Royal Doulton factory on the next block. The Royal Doulton factory itself is now long gone. Throughout the Five Towns, the abandoned ruins of dead potteries crumble and are unwanted.

Most of the reason for the demise of Stoke as one of the great pottery manufacturing centres of the world can be laid at the door of the usual culprit, globalisation. Ceramics are produced everywhere. The process does not have to be high-tech, although it now often is. Almost anywhere outside Europe is a cheaper place to produce, often substantially so. It is to the eternal credit of Emma Bridgewater that she, almost alone, has bucked the trend and proved that it is still possible to manufacture ceramics successfully in Stoke.

But, sad to say, there has been another reason for the city’s decline. Even at its height, Stoke was an insular city: the centre of its own universe. It produced what it had always produced, and assumed there would always be a market for it. When the buyer from Liberty asked a leading pottery to produce some different styles for the store, she was told that they didn’t do that sort of thing. When the businessman John Harvey-Jones was troubleshooting at another major pottery, he was told that the company was in the habit of paying £20 for a new design. He burst out laughing. Design and innovation, a finger on the pulse of the market: these were skills that had been lost since the days of Josiah Wedgwood.

It was a familiar tale in Stoke how the small pot-banks would rummage around in each other’s skips, hoping to find something discarded that they could use. It had become an incestuous, introverted place, going round in decreasing circles until there was nowhere left to turn. But always with a smile on its face, always with a helping hand for everyone.

In Anna of the Five Towns, published in 1902, Arnold Bennett described the city like this:

[The five towns] are mean and forbidding of aspect – sombre, hard-featured, uncouth; and the vaporous poison of their ovens and chimneys has soiled and shrivelled the surrounding country till there is no village lane within a league but what offers a gaunt and ludicrous travesty of rural charms. Nothing could be more prosaic than the huddled, red-brown streets; nothing more seemingly remote from romance. Yet be it said that romance is even here… Look down into the valley from this terrace-height… embrace the whole smoke-girt amphitheatre in a glance, and it may be that you will suddenly comprehend the secret and superb significance of the vast Doing which goes forward below… Out beyond the municipal confines, where the subsidiary industries of coal and iron prosper amid a wreck of verdure, the struggle is grim, appalling, heroic… On the one side is a wresting from nature’s own bowels of the means to waste her; on the other, an undismayed, enduring fortitude. The grass grows; though it is not green, it grows. In the very heart of the valley, hedged about with furnaces, a farm still stands, and at harvest-time the sooty sheaves are gathered in.

Now, the vast Doing has become the vast Undoing. But the struggle remains grim, appalling, heroic. And there is still an undismayed, enduring fortitude, and not just on the part of nature.