Why Stoke-on-Trent’s first literary festival should be write up your street…

A Waterside Primary pupil during a creative writing event at Emma Bridgewater.

A Waterside Primary pupil during a creative writing event at Emma Bridgewater.

A cultural wilderness. That’s how one rather unkind soul described Stoke-on-Trent when posting a comment on The Sentinel’s website and mocking plans for the city’s first literary festival announced this week.

Of course, the internet is a strange place where people are far more likely to be disparaging of new initiatives than be welcoming or to accentuate the positives.

I suppose it always was easier to knock than to praise.

They say there’s a book in all of us. Personally I just wish there were a few more lying around in homes across the Potteries – instead of mobile phones and games consoles – and that more parents locally took more of an interest in helping to open their children’s eyes to the joys of reading.

Then again, if the parents themselves struggle with words and left school with a limited grasp of the English language then the idea of picking up a book or writing a story or poem with their children may seem like an alien concept.

Talk to many primary school teachers and they will say that they can spot within the first few weeks the children in their new intake who will do well in class and they are the ones who are properly supported at home.

They are the children who are read to at night before bed and who, in turn, read to their parents. They are the children who receive help with their homework, eat a decent breakfast before school and whose packed lunch doesn’t simply consist of chocolate, crisps and a sugary drink.

The sad fact is that more than 40 per cent of the city’s three-year-olds start school with literacy levels below the national standard because their parents/guardians couldn’t be bothered – or haven’t been able – to give them enough help and support.

Among these you’ll find parents who use the television as a babysitting service and bribe toddlers with biscuits and crisps just for some peace and quiet. You’ll also find mums and dads simply struggling to cope with being, well, mums and dads.

Because of the start two-fifths of children in the city are given, it is perhaps no great surprise that results for seven-year-olds show Stoke-on-Trent is at the bottom of league tables in England for reading, writing and maths.

These are depressing statistics which drill down to the heart of why many people locally fail to aspire to further and higher education and are unable to fulfil their wider potential.

You can get by without some subjects and certain knowledge taught in schools but, in terms of basic life skills, being able to read and write to a decent standard is fundamental.

The irony that Stoke-on-Trent’s first literary festival, entitled Hot Air, was announced during the same week that The Sentinel published a story revealing 300 odd Staffordshire University students had been caught cheating by plagiarising other people’s work was not lost on me.

When at high school and Sixth Form College, Fenton, I’d walk a couple of miles from my home in Sneyd Green to the reference department at Hanley Library in order to fish out whichever books I needed for homework, essays or exams. My generation used a fountain pen from the age of 11 onwards in order that we could improve the standard of our ‘joined-up’ writing.

If I made an error on a six or seven page A4 essay for my A-Level English Literature teacher, Mr Adshead, out came the Tipp-Ex. Better that gunky mess on one line than having to re-write the lot from scratch, eh?

These days students rarely use a pen and don’t even have to get out of bed to do their homework. They can Google (other search engines are available) whatever topic they require and find reams of information – often written by previous students – which they can steal bits of, recycle, and then present as their own work.

This is one of the reasons why I would argue the age of copy and paste has done very little to improve literacy standards.

It goes without saying the internet is a wonderful tool which provides countless benefits but for every advantage it gives us as a society there’s usually a downside.

In the case of literacy standards, the internet and indeed the ‘text speak’ which has become prevalent through the use of mobile devices is killing the Queen’s English.

Some experts will tell you that language is always evolving and you shouldn’t get too uptight about the use of numbers where letters should be or the general malaise over literacy standards which pervades our everyday lives.

Then there are Luddites like me who believe it’s just plain wrong for councils to run Uth (youth) centres and drop apostrophes from road signs because some people don’t know how to use them.

We have a problem with literacy standards here in Stoke-on-Trent and so the idea of staging a festival aimed at encouraging reading and writing makes absolute sense.

It also, with the attendance of stellar names like best-selling authors Joanna Trollope and Dr David Starkey (as well as our own rising star Mel Sherratt), promises to be a lot of fun.

A literary festival isn’t in any way a silver bullet for the problem of poor literacy standards locally but if it encourages people to engage with libraries, meet authors and handle books or perhaps pick up a pen or approach a keyboard in order to write something, then it can be regarded as a success.

If The Sentinel’s Too Write! competition for authors of all ages inspires hundreds of children and adults to try their hand at storytelling then it too can be deemed to have done its job.

Anyway, I’ll have to go. It’s World Book Day on March 6 and my two have decided to both go in to school dressed as George Kirrin from the Famous Five. I kid you not.

Do you know hard it is to find a decent satchel and a children’s outfit from the 1950s?

Still, better this than them going to school dressed as a character from the latest Disney movie that will have been forgotten next year.

Thank goodness for Enid Blyton, I say. It’s ginger beer all round in our house. Long live proper books with all that old-fashioned punctuation lark.

*The Stoke-on-Trent Literary Festival takes place at the Emma Bridgewater factory in Hanley on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, June 20, 21 and 22. Ticket information will be released on March 31.
For details on the Too Write! writing competition email: toowrite@thesentinel.co.uk

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Friday

Pottery firms: Still innovating and still the key employers locally

Ceramics 2013 logo.

Some people would have you believe we don’t make stuff in this country anymore.

It’s certainly true that manufacturing in the UK has changed beyond all recognition in the past 30 years or so.

No-one views us as the ‘Workshop of the World’ anymore – that’s for sure.

Great industries like coal-mining and steel production have all but disappeared and my native North Staffordshire still bears the scars.

Shelton Bar, which once lit up the night sky and where my great-grandfather was a foreman, is no more.

The pits where other members of my family dug for black gold are now but a memory.

But what of the industry after which this area is named?

They still call us the Potteries but is it a fair reflection on the Stoke-on-Trent of 2013. Is it even applicable anymore?

In recent years some civic leaders have stated that we should drop the name altogether – arguing that the label is neither helpful nor relevant to our city today.

The problem is, of course, that they had no clue what to replace it with. There was no alternative: No big idea on which the city could hang its hat.

Perhaps that’s no bad thing because the reality is that the industry for which we are renowned is still very much alive and kicking – despite what some would have us think.

Here, in what is often described as the ‘world capital of ceramics’, you will – of course – find the derelicts, the ruined hulks and the former factories.

Drive around the city and you’ll see the former Spode site and the mess that is Nile Street in Burslem where the behemoth that was Royal Doulton’s premier factory used to stand – now sadly reduced to rubble.

Then there are the smaller potbanks – too numerous to mention here – which are boarded-up, roofless and weed-choked.

But that’s only half the story.

The pottery industry may have shrunk considerably since its hey-day but it remains THE key employer locally.

More to the point, whisper it quietly but many of our foremost ceramics firms are doing rather well, of late.

As well as still being home for long-established family names like Dudson and Wedgwood, our neck of the woods still boasts brands such as Johnson Tiles, Steelite International, Churchill, Wade Ceramics, Portmeirion as well as relative newcomer Emma Bridgewater who are all world and market leaders in their fields – still innovating, still producing millions of crocks and still proudly employing hundreds of people here in Stoke-on-Trent.

Add to these dozens of smaller pottery firms operating across The Sentinel’s patch and you start to build up a very different picture of the area and its core industry.

That’s not to say, of course, that there aren’t challenges to be faced.

The global economic downturn has done manufacturing businesses no favours whatsoever – and suggestions of a recovery at this stage should be viewed with extreme caution.

As well as the continuing battle to underline the importance of the Made in England/UK backstamp, pottery firms are also wrestling with the problem of ensuring they have a plentiful supply of cheap energy – while trying to satisfy various green agendas.

So while there are many reasons for optimism surrounding the ceramics industry, challenges remain.

No doubt they will be discussed on Thursday at the Centre for Refurbishment Excellence (CoRE) in Longton when it hosts Ceramics 2013.

This event will bring together manufacturers large and small, as well as their suppliers, to showcase the very best this resurgent industry has to offer.

The fact that it is being held here in Stoke-on-Trent is no coincidence and the list of attendees and exhibitors is dominated by names we plate-turners know and love.

I’m chuffed to say that yours truly will be hosting a question and answer session with top industry names (at which all are welcome).

However, rest assured Thursday is far from a navel-gazing exercise on the part of pottery firms.

You’ll find students, artists, graphic designers and all manner of creative industries represented at this event – and members of the public are very welcome too.

With designer Wayne Hemingway MBE – founder of fashion brand Red or Dead – as its guest speaker, Ceramics 2013 is looking to the future and viewing our core local industry as a design-led, British success story.

It’s a story that I, for one, am only too happy to help tell.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel