Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Potteries and Kettles…

Cheeky git:

Stoke-on-Trent like Afghanistan, says pottery director

Poor old Stoke has been battered and abused by businesses, politicians (locally and nationally), authors (like Orwell) and pretty much everybody else for the past 300 years, but it's still a great place: 'an ugly, lovely town', as Dylan Thomas said of Swansea.

He added: “If you go around Stoke these days there is lots of bare land where things have been demolished. I’ve no idea what it looks like in Helmand Province but I get a feeling it would look a little like here.
“There is always this idea that we have got to demolish everything to put things right. A blank canvas they call it. But I’d rather see people use the buildings in regeneration and development.”

The pottery director in question is Matthew Rice, husband of designer Emma Bridgewater, and what a surprise - he has a book to plug (which I've already bought, of course). The reference to Afghanistan is entirely gratuitous and attention-seeking (Stokies buy heroin, not grow it) but his general points are good: that local authorities have paid virtually no attention to Stoke's built heritage in their rush to 'regenerate' the city every ten years (each regeneration a plaster on the gaping wound). Rice is a little unfair: the business élites in the city have largely decamped their factories to eastern Europe and Asia, trading on the Potteries heritage while profiting from its subversion, though Rice and Bridgewater are doing their best to withstand the march of globalisation. You can't just blame the useless and corrupt politicians of an impoverished city.

Rice's book, The Lost City of Stoke on Trent is a beautiful paean to a vanished society of elegant Methodist chapels and public buildings, but I don't see a sophisticated analysis of how such places came into being and were lost. The most famous example is the magnificent Bethesda Chapel, of Restoration fame (my photos here): a massive 'cathedral' of Methodism which fell into dereliction because Methodism - once the backbone of radical, working-class Stoke - fell out of favour under pressure from secularism (excellent) but also of capitalist globalisation and individualism. The force that civilised Stoke was civic pride and unity: these values have been subverted by economic forces (this is the central contradiction of Conservative ideology: they're all for capitalism while also going on about the atomised, selfish, consumerist society it calls into existence).

The big problem is this: what do you do with a city all of whose industries have gone: potteries, coal and steel? Close it down and move everyone elsewhere? Attract exploitative, low-wage, unskilled McJobs? Accept that some places will permanently depend on benefits and the public sector? These are structural problems which need addressing, and I don't see the Tories' Big Society or Labour's 'globalisation with a smiley face' addressing them. Not everyone can be a web developer or management consultant. Without strong, comfortable societies, you get weak communities, poor political leadership, no economic or social vision and endless dereliction. Poor quality 'iconic' buildings built on shonky PFI plans won't do much more than accentuate the dependence and decline - ask Owen Hatherley about that.

Look on Stoke, ye mighty, and despair. What it is now, your town soon will be.

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