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

Steve proud of the way old North Staffs Poly has scrubbed up

Few are better qualified to comment on the momentous changes taking place within the city’s University Quarter (UniQ) than Dr Steve Wyn Williams.

He’s a man who talks my language. A language that acknowledges that there was life before email and mobile telephones.

Earlier this week The Sentinel produced a special 16-page supplement updating people on the multi-million pound UniQ development.

It coincided with the official opening of the new £30m Science and Technology Centre on Leek Road – the UniQ’s latest piece of education-led regeneration which is transforming Hanley west, Shelton and Stoke.

The UniQ project is a partnership between Staffordshire University, Stoke-on-Trent College, the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College and Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

It aims to raise aspirations and levels of educational attainment among the people of North Staffordshire in order to make them more employable and while, at the same time, improving the area between Stoke Railway Station and the city centre.

It’s the most significant, focused regeneration project the city has seen since the 1986 Garden Festival and the results, thus far, are spectacular.

The UniQ is creating a distinct, ‘one-campus’ feel for university and college students alike and impressing visitors (and the locals) with stunning new architecture.

It is a far cry from when Steve first joined the staff at was the old North Staffs Polytechnic back in 1988.

He said: “It’s amazing really. These new buildings are making a statement. They are cutting-edge facilities and are really enhancing the learning experience for students.”

Steve, originally from North Wales, first moved to North Staffordshire 34 years ago when he took up a post at Keele University.

A geographer, he worked as a demonstrator for students at Keele – teaching them everything from map reading to data inspection skills.

Eight years later he joined North Staffs Poly as a lecturer in Geography.

He said: “I think it was a more relaxed time. Because the place was much smaller and had fewer students (5,000 to 7,000) there was also very much a community feel to it.

“I recall that everyone seemed to smoke back then – in the corridors, the bars and even the lecture theatres.

“You’d see lecturers puffing away as they taught. Indeed, the whole place seemed to be under a constant fog.”

Now aged 59, Steve has risen through the ranks to become first Head of Geography and is now Dean of Academic Policy and Development.

However, he recalls his early days at the old Poly, which became Staffordshire University in 1992, with fondness.

He said: “When I came here in the late 1980s we are talking about the very early days of computing. We’d write memos to colleagues and students and stick them in pigeon-holes and then wait a week for a response.

“The students themselves would carry around bags containing big, heavy text books which they would actually have to read.

“Students received grants, of course, and there was a sense that they felt privileged to be at studying at the Poly university because only a minority went on to higher education at that time.

“Nowadays, of course, around 40 per cent of school and college leavers go on to receive a university education which, in itself, presents different challenges.”

Nowadays Staffordshire University is a truly international place of study, looking after around 20,000 students, 2,850 of whom at the Stoke campus are from overseas.

Steve said: “We are acutely aware that students are now our customers. We like to view them as customer-partners because while they are paying to come here and study it can only be a success for them if they are prepared to put the work in.

“The university has always had a reputation for delivering courses which give students skills which are perhaps more vocational-based and enhance their employability skills and, given the current climate, that has never been more important.”

Steve added: “I’m very passionate about the university and our students and I’ve been lucky enough to have been involved with the UniQ project for several years now.

“Seeing the changes taking place, it makes me incredibly proud to have contributed in some small way and that the university I work for has such wonderful facilities and ambition.”

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

How The Stone Roses transported me back to that glorious summer of 1989

It was one for my personal ‘bucket-list’. An ambition realised seemingly against all the odds. As the light faded over Manchester four stars came out to shine.

Like many others, I never thought I’d see the day: The Stone Roses were back on stage together again and it was simply glorious.

It didn’t matter that summer showers had reduced much of Heaton Park to a Glastonbury-esque mudbath.

It didn’t matter that a fair proportion of the 70,000-strong crowd were wasted on drink or drugs. Or perhaps both.

It didn’t matter that 30 feet to the left of us a man was randomly urinating as he danced about – a JD Sports carrier bag full of alcohol slung over his shoulder as he twirled around.

Not pleasant, granted, but it didn’t bother us overly.

When the first strains of I Wanna Be Adored swept across the expectant hordes there was an audible gasp.

The disparate elements of an Eighties musical phenomenon had been reunited and the resulting chemistry was irresistible.

When the Stone Roses’s seminal first album was released in April 1989 it seemed to perfectly capture that moment in time.

They had produced arguably the perfect debut album. There’s not a single duff track which is why it sounds as good today as it did when Eastern Europe was in revolution and Maggie’s Poll Tax was being inflicted on Scotland.

The Stone Roses were in the vanguard of a renaissance for British guitar bands.

Without the Roses there would arguably have been no Brit pop. There would certainly have been no Oasis.

That’s why everyone from the Gallagher brothers to artist Damien Hirst and even Hollywood icons like Brad Pitt have lined up to pay homage to four northern lads who gave music a good kick in the you-know-whats just when it needed it.

In 1989 yours truly was 17 and a student at Sixth Form College, Fenton.

I had a Saturday job at the Brittain Adams fireplace and bathroom showroom in Tunstall which paid me a tenner.

That was enough to pay for student night at Ritzy’s in Newcastle where indie kids like me could jig about to everything from the Happy Mondays and the Inspiral Carpets to The Wonder Stuff and Carter USM.

But the Stone Roses towered above all other bands of that era. They were simply a class apart.

Their music. Their look. Their attitude. It was all brilliantly distinctive.

The Roses’s debut album was the most played cassette tape in my mate Rob’s blue Ford Orion. He was the only one of us who had a car, you see.

Long before Manchester United’s multi-million pound heroes were running out on to the Hallowed turf at Old Trafford with This Is The One ringing in their ears, it was the euphoric warm-up track for our pool team at the now-defunct Duke of Wellington pub at Norton.

On Sunday night in Manchester it was, for me, the high-point of a two-hour gig which transported me back to my days of long(ish) hair, baggy jeans and no responsibilities.

The classics flowed, along with the beer, as Fools Gold, Sally Cinnamon, Sugar Spun Sister, Made Of Stone and I Am The Resurrection brought the memories flooding back.

Square and safe as we were, my mates and I never did drugs and so seeing the ‘popper’ sellers on the streets and spaced-out people falling over in the mud was something of a shock. I guess we just forgot how strange and brave things were as the Eighties came to a close.

Will Ian, John, Mani and Reni manage to stick together to complete this tour?

Will we ever see a third album and will it be any good?

Who knows.

But for a brief moment at least the Mancunian band’s brilliance has been reignited for a new generation – as well as old gits like me and my mate Rob for whom the memory of last Sunday will forever be special.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

This Is The One I’ve waited for…

Music has that incredible ability to burn itself into your soul. To remind you of a place, a time – even a state of mind.

We associate certain tracks or certain bands with memories which keep us forever young.

It was 1989 when I first heard the Stone Roses. I’d like to say I was with them from the start but I wasn’t.

I caught the wave like most people during that unfeasibly hot summer when anything seemed possible to a 17-year-old at Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College.

For the next five years or so The Roses provided much of the soundtrack to my youth.

I couldn’t articulate it but, of all the indie bands I liked back then – from Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and Carter USM to the Inspiral Carpets and the Happy Mondays, The Roses reigned supreme.

They had tapped into something within that generation and what is remarkable is that their seminal first album is as brilliant now as it was back then.

No, Ian Brown’s vocals weren’t the strongest but strangely that has never mattered to me and I guess many other people.

What matters is the barn-storming tunes, the wonderfully evocative lyrics and the ‘couldn’t give a fuck’ attitude from a band which thinks it can save the world.

And who would bet against them?

Long before Manchester United’s stars ran out to This Is The One at Old Trafford our pool team at the Duke of Wellington pub in Norton used to put it on the jukebox as our warm-up song.

When the Stone Roses reformed last year I was over the moon. When I go to see them at Heaton Park, Manchester, on Sunday it will be me realising an ambition I thought would go unfulfilled.

I’m not bothered about the support bands. The Roses don’t need support bands.

When Sally Cinnamon, Sugar Spun Sister, She Bangs The Drums, Made Of Stone, I Am The Resurrection and the rest weave their magic over 80,000 people I will be back in the early 1990s having the time of my life.

This concert is for the lads of the pool team at the Duke which no longer exists. This gig is for absent friends. This Is The One I’ve waited for…