Saturday, December 13, 2003

My Home Town
I live in Stoke-on-Trent. Those who live in Newcastle-under-Lyme (an adjoining town a short walk from our house) are quick to point out the distinction. Stoke is a city with numerous claims to fame. We have produced some of most famous pottery in the world; Wedgwood, Royal Doulton and Spode are all very near to where I live. We may well wonder where the world would be without some of our famous sons and daughters. We have given humanity such luminaries as Robbie Williams and Anthea Turner. The captain of the Titanic also hailed from our important town. Stoke-on-Trent used to be considered as one of the nearest things to hell on earth. In the days when the kilns used to operate, their smoke would come down and fill the buildings and streets. The air became so polluted that in some places it was considered a good day if you could see the other side of the street. When the ovens were firing it was hard to see your hand held out in front of your face. The state of Stoke-on-Trent was so poor that, at one stage last century, an MP seriously suggested the possibility of abandoning the city altogether and starting elsewhere. Things have improved since then, but Stoke was still recently considered worthy of the status of worst place to live in England and Wales. It would not have hurt so much had Wales not been included. Apparently in Stoke-on-Trent you are six times more likely to be burgled or have your car stolen than the national rate. Good jobs are also scarce. The potteries are ailing as business goes overseas and much of the other heavy industry has closed. There is low income and high unemployment. Education in Stoke-on-Trent is not that great. The industry in the city provided a haven for academic underachievers with the thousands of manual jobs. As these jobs have departed a lot of redundant, now-unemployable, skilless workers remain. An education geared to prepare children for these safe jobs can no longer suffice. Unfortunately it has not yet caught up with the times. Stoke-on-Trent is not a very healthy city. It used to be the sickest city in Britain and still has the greatest problem with obesity, possibly a side effect of delicacies such as mushy peas smothered in gravy. However, anyone who has tasted Staffordshire oatcakes will admit that they are deliciously addictive! Stoke-on-Trent, Stanley Matthews' home city, boasts two mediocre football teams — Stoke City and Port Vale. City has attained to the heady heights of the middle of the first division; Vale still languishes in the second. City recently built a new ground, the Britannia Stadium, the hub around which many people's lives revolve. Whilst City used to have one of the greatest hooliganism problems in the country, it has been shedding this poor image with tougher policing. Stoke-on-Trent is formed of six towns that grew together: Stoke-upon-Trent, Hanley, Longton, Burslem, Fenton and Tunstall. In 1924 Stoke-on-Trent became a city. To this day neighbourhoods are very closely knit and retain a strong sense of identity. The picture I have painted may look bleak. However, Stoke has many redeeming features. Its poor image is in many respects undeserved. The surrounding countryside is beautiful and it is not hard to get out of the city. Housing is, as you might expect, dirt cheap. If you want to go to Oxford or Cambridge, coming from Stoke-on-Trent gives you a great head start as you will be considered deprived by the government and all the positive discrimination will work in your favour (if you don't have ethical qualms about this). Most importantly, you would have to go far to find friendlier people. For a short while before moving to Stoke, our family lived in Worcester — the city of my birth (and the birthplace of Edward Elgar). Worcester is a most beautiful city, full of historic interest (it also has one of the most picturesque cricket grounds in the country). It couldn't be more of a contrast. However, the people of Worcester are nowhere near as friendly as the Stokies are.

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