You may have heard that Stoke is bidding to be the next ‘UK City of Culture’ (2021). This accolade brings to the title-holder economic benefits of millions according to the 2014 Government consultation paper and has previously been bestowed on areas commonly considered cultural backwaters (Derry 2013, Hull 2017). The very idea has met with derision in some quarters, but Stoke is in with a chance on two counts – it fulfils the implicit criteria of economic depression and social deprivation, as well as the stated requirement for ‘a high quality cultural programme that builds and expands on local strengths and reaches a wide variety of audiences, creating a demonstrable economic impact and a catalyst for regeneration as well as contributing to community cohesion and health and wellbeing’. In recent years community-directed arts programmes such as Appetite, B-Arts and Live Age have burgeoned. Stoke also hosts the very well regarded British Ceramics Biennial and now has its own ‘Hot Air’ Literary Festival.
There is a small but distinctive literary heritage, for those who care to look. Stoke’s best-known literary son, Arnold Bennett, realised quite early in his career the potential of the Potteries for artistic representation and attempted to awaken his audience to the grimy glories of the industrial landscape:
They 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 …. Yet be it said that romance is even here – the romance which, for those who have an eye to perceive it, ever dwells amid the seats of industrial manufacture, softening the coarseness, transfiguring the squalor, of these mighty alchemic operations. Look down into the valley from this terrace-height where love is kindling, 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.
Today award-winning, Stoke-born author, Lisa Blower, nods to Bennett in her forthcoming novel Sitting Ducks, a story set squarely in post-industrial Stoke: http://fairacrepress.co.uk/shop/sitting-ducks/. Watch this space.