Made in Stoke

The Midlands –

By far the best part of England.                                            <BBC Midlands today>

1. A fictional place in Britain because no one knows where it really starts or finishes.
2. Re-named to Birmingham to disguise its poor identity and reputation. This didn’t work.                                                                                  Urban Dictionary

I grew up in the Midlands, a part of England that you only know about if you live there. Many people think of my hometown Stoke-on-Trent as the North. But we thought of ourselves as Midlanders. After all, there was a lot of North above us and the distant shimmering wealth of the South below us.

What does it mean if you define your identity as something in between things with stronger identities? I have often helped people locate Stoke by describing it as ‘between Manchester and Birmingham’. Two bigger cities with more people, more bands, more shops and more prominence. And Stoke in between them, just off junction 15 on the M6.

Stoke was once known for its pottery industry, exporting ceramics all over the world. Work was found in factories that had been there for more than 200 years. It was craft that generations passed down to each other. I remember watching a friend’s mum painting the lids of pots and the delicate brush strokes that it took so much patience to repeat. They would become part of someone’s best china, the prized ornaments that they kept ‘for best’. Now I have plates made in Stoke in my cupboards and I use them every day, purposely not waiting for an occasion.

The legacy of pottery back then was inescapable. At school we were split into teams with the names of the potter patriarchy: Wedgwood, Doulton and Aynsley. There were also coal mines, some of which were still active and providing local jobs. Once on a school trip we travelled deep into the mines where we had to turn off the lights on our helmets to experience total darkness. Like many educational experiences of my youth, I’m haunted by the memory. I was silently suppressing claustrophobic panic until we were allowed back into the daylight.

As in other parts of the UK, traditional industries had been in decline and factories were closing when I was born. I grew up with the sense of jobs being scarce. There was a sadness about people no longer being able to pass their trade on to their families. What was once prized seemed to have been discarded. This feeling runs through the roots.

There is a sense of humour that is unique to the Midlands and to Stoke in particular. It’s hard to describe but something like this: self-deprecating, knowing, stoic, down to earth, acknowledging the absurdity of life and taking it on the chin. It doesn’t always translate and sometimes confuses people. You may not know it, but there is a gentle dry humour to most conversations.

When I moved away, friends would joke about my coming from a place where the greatest attraction was the World of Spode. I felt the faint sense of wounded protectiveness you get from someone joking about your family. Yes it was funny and ridiculous but also that was my home and those were its treasures. At least no one can knock the chips. When I go back to Stoke, I make a pilgrimage to Milehouse Fish Bar which has been serving the best fish and chips for as long as I can remember eating them. Please never change, Milehouse.

I don’t know if World of Spode is still going but the pottery industry finds ways to regenerate. Emma Bridgewater created a new distinctive style of ceramics, opening a factory in Stoke which is going strong after three decades. A clock from her old range is one of my favourite things. More recently Middleport Pottery opened a refurbished factory, tea rooms and studios for independent artists. It’s a really interesting mix of the old and new, and well worth visiting.

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Every now and again the Guardian runs an article about Stoke and this year they released a video series to show different perspectives on the city and local characters. It’s a worthy effort but why not sponsor local students to tell the story, like those on the film course at Staffs uni? Because you need to live there to have the insider view. From the middle of the Midlands.

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