This weekend is the first for a while where I have been able to draw a breath and catch up on things. It has been a difficult and tragic week on this planet we call home, one which throws everything into sharp perspective and a reminder to celebrate the small things, be a little kinder to each other and focus on the positive.
I think for a certain weekend in June, the City of Stoke on Trent, aka The Potteries, had plenty to be positive about.
Firstly it was the start of summer and the weather was glorious. It was pure joy on Saturday 21 to celebrate the Solstice in the sort of balmy temperatures that allowed everybody to wring the very last drop of daylight from the longest day. Smiles abounded everywhere.
Another reason for smiles and positivity was inaugural Stoke On Trent Literary Festival – Hot Air 2014 held that weekend.
Now, I’m pretty certain a quick vox pop in any bar or restaurant would probably not generate much in the way of suggestion that Stoke on Trent these days is particularly synonymous with matters literary, in fact you probably only get responses that the image conjured up would be one along the lines of a forgotten industrial wasteland, depressed and depressing with maybe a little bit of controversy about the cost of the Stoke on Trent Show Garden at Chelsea 2014. Rumoured to be in the region of £450k – yes that’s a k on the end there! (It was rather magnificent though – in my opinion anyway).
It would be a shame and a disservice to cast the City in such a poor light on the literary front (and to be fair, many others too), because Stoke has not only some very deep literary roots but also some contemporary literary success going on. The city boasts Arnold Bennett (1867-1931), voted greatest West Midland writer in 2005 and author of a great many works including Clayhanger, The Grim Smile of The Five Towns, Anna of the Five Towns and (I love it) Literary Taste and How to Form It; John Wain CBE(1925-94) winner of the Whitbread Prize in 1982 with his novel Young Shoulders, our very own ‘Angry Young Man‘ (AYM) who in reality did not like to be lumped in with the other AYM — Osborne, Amis and Larkin– in that way and baulked at such appellation. Other luminaries include poet Pauline Stainer (1941) The Honeycomb, Crossing The Snow Line to name just two of her works; of course the very prolific A.N.Wilson (1950), The Potter’s Hand, The Victorians, London and contemporary psychological suspense and crime writer or as she calls it ‘grit-lit‘, Mel Sherratt – her novel, Taunting The Dead was recently #1 in psychological thrillers in the Kindle charts in a number of countries including the UK and US. So when it comes to things literary Stoke certainly can hold its own.
It was quite fitting then that both Mel Sharratt and A.N.Wilson would be among the list of distinguished speakers at the first Literary Festival.
The event was held at the Emma Bridgewater Factory which I must say was a first class location. A marquee malfunction on the first night meant a quick and hasty relocation to one of the decorating studios within the factory complex but hats off to the organisers for a speedy and seemingly seamless recovery.
Unfortunately because of work commitments I wouldn’t make any of the events on the first day and regrettably had to miss the A.N Wilson session however I enjoyed Joanna Trollope’s talk and found her to be a very gracious and interesting speaker. Her latest novel is set here in The Potteries with the pottery industry as a backdrop. I haven’t finished reading her book yet and I am reading with a little trepidation since my own work in progress has a very similar background—I think there is plenty of dissimilarity in plot and genre however to permit me to continue!
The Emma Bridgewater session was fascinating and what a great speaker she is. Her energy and commitment makes it easy to see why with her husband Matthew Rice, she has created one of the most recognizable and successful home-grown brands to emerge in ceramics in the last few decades. It was very special to have to opportunity to listen to Emma talk with such openness and enthusiasm about the genesis of her business and how she came to what was then a very dilapidated city, at a time when things in the area were pretty grim –with potteries going under and failing left, right and centre and the Miners’ Strike making its indelible and lasting deep scar on the area, instead of going for the big box unit on some ubiquitous industrial park, she instead took the risk and established herself in a part of the lovely old Eastwood factory in which the Festival was held, with its decades of history and stories of its own. Her commitment to her vision and the quality of her products are indeed a lesson that many businesses would do well to try and emulate. Her book, Toast, Marmalade & Other Stories contains a compelling collection of stories and not only that, it is a veritable feast for the eyes (and the stomach too since it also contains some lovely recipes).
I did the fan girl thing and had my copy signed and it was great to get a chance to chat to her.
I had a lovely lunch in a wonderfully renovated and repurposed church, aptly named The Church—however there was something ironic and not a little sad right across the street in the shape of a relic of bygone days, the derelict J H Weatherby Falcon Pottery. A stark reminder indeed of so much that the area has lost. The kiln you can see in this picture is a Bottle Kiln dating to 1906, it is one of only 47 kilns still standing (if you can call it that) today; at the height of productivity in the Potteries it is estimated there were some 4000 kilns in operation. We do however have the benefit of being able to breath clean air which as you can probably imagine, with thousands of fossil fuel fired kilns in operations, was not the case in the heyday of this industry.
I returned to the Bridgewater Factory for the afternoon session by way of the factory shop and a purchase of a rather handsome Festival mug and had the pleasure of sitting with friends in the lovely sunshine enjoying a very nice glass of local Lymestone Brewery cider.
The afternoon session, the closing event of the Festival, was Melvyn Bragg in conversation with John Shapcott, Honorary Research fellow at the Institute for Humanities, Keele University who has recently published the first critical analysis of Melvyn Bragg’s body of work. The session was introduced by the MP for Stoke on Trent, Tristram Hunt and was both interesting and entertaining. Bragg has a wry wit and was very down-to-earth and self-effacing. He opened the discussion with a favourite quotation from William Blake‘s Auguries of Innocence:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
I could have listened to him speak for hours but sadly the time passed all too quickly. The Q & A session that followed was lively and interestingly, men posed most of the questions, whether there is any relevance in that at all, I haven’t got a clue but I do know I left with a desire to read more of Melvyn Bragg’s work and even more books, among them Remember Me and Grains of Sand (So much for my resolve to buy no more books in 2014 –classic #resolutionfail). He will be back in the area in October at Keele University and I am hoping tickets for the event will be available to the public.
I sacrificed attending the London Short Story Festival in order to support this event and while it would have been marvelous to have attended both, I am glad I supported this very first Stoke on Trent Literary Festival, it was a rather good weekend indeed.