Wednesday, 9 July 2014


A 5am start and a very early train to Stoke (via Bristol Parkway) saw me pitching up at Airspace Gallery just after the strict 9.30am start we had been ordered to adhere to. Sure enough, introductions were underway and I had the ever-so-slightly awkward walk through the room to take my seat at the back. Previously, I had only ever been to Stoke on four occasions; twice to teach at the university (and anyone who knows the location of the uni knows that on such a trip, you see the train station, a roundabout and the uni, nothing more), once when I was living in Derby and Port Vale made it in to the LDV Vans Trophy Final (a mate in Derby was from Burslem and a loyal Vale fan, so we all trooped up to Stoke to get a coach to Cardiff with hundreds of other Vale fans, to watch Vale triumph over Brentford in a half-empty Millennium Stadium) and once when I was working for a brief time as a guitar roadie for the legend that is Bernie Tormé (not a name familiar to everyone, but the man that replaced Randy Rhoads in Ozzy's touring band, whose first gig in that position was to a sold-out Madison Square Gardens. Needless to stay, it wasn't quite the Gardens we were paying in Stoke). So, in short, my knowledge of Stoke was undeveloped.

What unfolded over the next two days was a genuinely inspiring series of talks, walks and activities. Having an outsiders perspective on the city-centre-rebranded-Hanley was, I believe, a useful thing. I was struck by the volume of independent shops. Sure, there are a lot of empty shops too and places that could do with a lick of paint, but that's certainly not unique to Hanley. The lack of chains screamed to me way more than the chains do themselves; over the last twenty years I've lived between Derby, Nottingham and Cardiff, all great cities in their own right, but at one point in Nottingham you were never more than 200 yards from a Subway. I guess what I was noticing could be argued to be a city that's yet to take off – many thriving independent scenes being born as a reaction against gentrification and chains, not simply there as the other stuff hasn't happened yet, but I liked the feel of it. I was also struck by the positivity of the artists involved in the workshop, particularly those based in Stoke itself. A current lack of provision and engagement wasn't discussed in negative terms, it was discussed as opportunity. The recent graduates I met have stuck around as they can see the chance to make things happen; I was reminded of a late-90s/early-00s Nottingham where cheap rents and cultural gaps were enough to make the likes of Reactor, Moot and Stand Assembly stick around, and the city has literally never looked back since. Of course, this was a fairly rarefied environment we were existing within for our 48 hours together, but one that had a tangible generosity and willingness to add to the fabric of the fast-changing city centre. I look on with interest to see what happens next.

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