Martin Gooding || July 2016
Five years, five years, It's always five years. In September 2014 I stood on a stool in a dusty warehouse and made the following speech...
"November 17th 1989, Czechoslovakia. Vaclav Havel led a legion of students, artists, dissidents, writers, actors and theatre staff in protest. By November 27th 75% of the population had joined them, they called it the Velvet revolution. But now it's our time to come together to change our city for the better, to make it the vibrant, thriving cultural hub it deserves to be. This city was built by artisans, by craftsmen, by creators, we have the keys to its abandoned and derelict spaces and the doors are now unlocked. Once again these buildings will once again be home to the artisans, the craftsmen and the creators. It took the Czechs and the Slovaks just ten days to dismantle the communist state, just think what we can do with 5 years, ladies and gentlemen this is our Wenceslas square, it's finally happening, the revolution starts here!"
On that day I was speaking of ArtCity the huge, artist driven and Esme Fairbairn Foundation funded, programme to open much loved but underutilised spaces to musicians, artists, craftsman and creatives across the city. I tend to see that as my genesis, the day I was injected into this cocktail of stories that make up the narrative of Stoke-on-Trent.
Now when I say Five Years I'm speaking of 2021 that possible year of culture so many across the city are working tirelessly to bring to Stoke on Trent. The possibility that we may get the injection of support, investment and interest that we saw in Derry-Londonderry and will begin to see in Hull from next year. We daren't say too loudly in case we jinx it, we touch wood every time we mention it. We cross our metaphorical fingers and our metaphorical toes. Our internal dialogues silently debate that big question
"What happens when they have to pay attention to us?"
When the rest of the United Kingdom has no choice but to cast its gaze on it's most underrated city. Will the cracks show in our ceramic façade? Or will we once again rise to the challenge of becoming a significant cultural powerhouse. One to liken our neighbours to the North and to the West. A gateway city perfectly combining the influences of our geographical peers with our rich artisan heritage. Half Barnett Stross, half Arnold Bennet with a dash of the Josiah's for flavour, The Six towns is a Chimeric creature born of compromise and a joint will. Can those old routes that connected the towns and carried the clay start to flow with a new creative economy? Will this be enough to permanently alter the narrative of the city? How do we rewrite a story that will lead us into the future?
So let’s have a look at what we've got in our favour...
The audience for arts and culture events is ever increasing, with Appetite making huge moves in bringing world class theatre, dance and circus performances from the likes of Southpaw Dance, Periplum, Rara Woulib and No Fit State to massive crowds over the last three years. People are turning out en masse to see fire, acrobats, carousels, breakdance, ballet, brass bands that play Hacienda tunes and processions of the risen dead through the streets of Shelton.
The ArtCity programme has opened up spaces across the six towns to new creative endeavours and events such as Pilgrim's Pit, Paradise Now, Airspace's Kules Residency and Restoke's Voyagers. This means not only more venues but a larger variety of venues spread across the six towns and beyond. After the first year of the ArtCity project "... the Artcity Year One investment of £84,000 from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation generated a project turnover of £232,848... provided 817 days work for artists, engaged with 1,052 participants, in 105 workshop sessions, to make 12 new works, exhibited or performed over 71 days" (ArtCity annual report).
The ever expanding and increasingly eclectic local music scene will continue to be a driving force in the city's prospective future. In spite of the recent club and venue closures across many parts of the country, Stoke-on-Trent's DIY spirit has held strong with many successful independent promotions, bands, DJ's and venues propping up the musical community. The city has become a hot bed for house and techno with nights such as Housecats, Move, wOnk, Relate, Stoked, Therapy and Devil's Disco consistently pulling in large, enthusiastic and diverse crowds, where generation gaps are leapt through the power of music and a good old dance. Hip Hop is becoming increasingly prevalent in the city with Beats & Bars and, my event, CULT bringing through increasing numbers of talented MC's and producers, imposing the potteries experience on the genre. A thriving Folk, Blues and Rock and Roll scene being driven by regular events such as Choosedays, Psychadelic Rock bands, a load of metal, a die hard punk scene still fuelled by that passion that Discharge gave us all those years ago, one of the UK's best small venues, charting country singers, some excellent young grime producers and a load of bass music and that's barely even scratching the surface.
Most importantly we have the support of so many passionate and dedicated people who have continually refused to lay down and die in the face of economic decline, austerity, arts funding cuts, foodbanks, Thatcher, everyone else who came after Thatcher, some people who came before Thatcher, the closing of the pits, the closing of the factories, the closing of the shops, depression, and a thousand other things that have littered the proud history of Stoke-on-Trent.
It is important that going into this period of possible change and growth we remember we are more than Slash, Robbie Williams and Phil "The Power" Taylor, we are not a city of pop culture snap shots. Of course we should not forget these figures as we move forward but we absolutely must build new heroes, heroes built to reflect the present and future of Stoke-on-Trent, it is no longer good enough to be the city where Lemmy was born, we must make our own stars, driven by a deep understanding of life in the city, fuelled by oatcakes.
It always feels like five years to me but this could be the culmination of something much larger, an identity crisis forced upon us by external forces. They tried to take away who we are, they tried to make us nothing more than "Where Robbie's from" or "That pottery place".
Together we will take back our identities and tell a new story, like Bohemia just with canals and lobby.