Sean Dissington || 6th September
“Culture is what happens when somebody takes your art and feeds it to you”.
I read this quote a few days ago, and I keep coming back to it whenever I daydream (which happens with distressing frequency).
I’ve not been involved in the day-to-day machinations of the bid, but due to some work I’ve done and some of the people that I work with I’ve had more of an insight than ‘the man on the street’ might have done, and one thing has struck me.
Nobody knows what culture is.
We all know what our culture is, but culture, like all aspects of activities that a group of people undertake, is fluid. Do I love wandering through the Tate Modern and stopping for a drink in the members lounge? Yes. Do i enjoy reading a book about Soviet politics whilst enjoying a lovely Chablis? Yes. Do I love binge-watching Castle with a fish finger sandwich and a mug of tea so strong the spoon stands up in it? Damned right. Our cultural isn’t so simple to define as the sum of our education plus where we are on some socio-economic scale. Life experience, travel, our expectations for the future are all part of what we as individuals might fall back on as we try to understand what being a city of culture might mean. It’s a tough time for the city to be working this out, part way through our journey from manufacturing to service economy that started in the 1980s we’ve discovered that there are still elements of manufacturing that we are great at - we’re a city with an identity crisis. We aren’t really the Potteries (not in terms of pottery being our biggest export) but we are still a world renowned source of knowledge about ceramic process. We are so rooted in our past that it threatens our future, like that friend we’ve all had that can’t get over an ex.
It’s against this backdrop that we have to project an image of being ‘cultural’ if we are to succeed in the bid (I’m almost certain that the rules are a little tougher than that), and of course, it’s the sort of time that various agendas get wheeled out. “We should have a marble statue of Robbie along the M6”, “lets have more lantern parades”, “free kittens for everyone’ (I made that one up, and it’s a GREAT IDEA). Lots of people will benefit if Stoke-on-Trent wins the bid, many of them regular people who live and work here - previous CoC winners have seen investment in art, business and infrastructure all of which Stoke would benefit from. These translate in to employment offers, and ease of opening business, or monetising existing hobbies.
If we are to benefit in any way though, I think it should be from learning to ‘think different’ as Apple once said. We are more than Stoke and Vale, more than pot-banks, more than Robbie Willams and more than sodding Oatcakes. Taking inspiration from other cities isn’t denying who you are or where you’re from, it’s recognising that someone else has had a great idea. Just because there has never been a coding academy in the City doesn’t mean that there can’t or shouldn’t. Just like there’s no reason we can’t have an orchestra, a class on the alchemy of making paints and glazes for firing, or a ballet school - if as a city we value aspiration and are willing to work to progress ourselves then the only barriers are the ones we choose to place in our way. Don’t forget that we come from a city that built a fortune on clay. Clay. Just think about that for a moment.
We’re a city on the up already - Hanley is getting a facelift, and parts of our polycentric city are really starting to have defined roles - allowing them to stand out amongst the five towns whilst still working within the constrains of the city. Investors are writing cheques to build large scale programmes such as new hotels confident that they will get the returns to replay the loans. This sort of change hasn’t happened in Stoke in the 37 years that I’ve been here. We won’t suddenly be thrown in to the dark ages if we aren’t the overall winners in December, to be honest I think we’ve won already.
There isn’t really a snappy conclusion I can write to draw this together, only to plead that the next time you see or hear someone scoff about an initiative that’s intended to improve the lives of people in the city, or your children’s prospects - challenge them on it. Why shouldn’t we have the best in digital training, or languages, or dog-grooming? Who decided that as a city we would settle for second best just because there are no coal mines any more - I know I didn’t vote for that, and neither did you.