When I was in my late teens I couldn’t wait to get away from my home city, Stoke-on-Trent. Admittedly the city was in a poor old state at the end of the 1990s. The decline of coal and steel in the 1970s and 1980s, coupled with the later out-sourcing of the pottery industry to the far east left the city struggling. Our sturdy chaps with the strength and skill to tame the earth, to shape iron, coal and clay from the land, were abandoned by the government and the industries they had served for generations. I know it wasn’t that simple. I know about recession, free market economics, globalisation and finite resources. But I also saw the impacts and it devastated a generation. More than a generation. Parts of the city still haven’t recovered. Some parts of the city still had 50% unemployment in 2010. It’s hard for people who conquered the land with the might of their hands and strength of their will to make a dignified living in a call centre or a warehouse. Again, I know it’s not that simple either. Honest work is still honest work. But our identity as people and as a city had always been tied to the raw processes of the land and they were gone.
The word I used there in that last sentence – “our” – is the reason for my writing today. As a young woman I never felt a connection with my city. I just wanted to leave. I worked hard in school, kept my head down and did what I had to do to get away to university. And beyond that I lived abroad and then moved to rural Suffolk. But as I approach 40, I look back to my home city with a nostalgia that I never thought would be possible. The openness of the people towards strangers is the thing I miss the most. As much as I love Suffolk (and I do. I really do!) I feel like a real weirdo when I try to chat to people in a queue or make small talk with a shop assistant. And when I’m back and someone calls me duck, it brings tears to my eyes.
I miss the industrial environment – I never thought I’d be saying that either. Bury St Edmunds is not short on history; its bucolic tale wends back to the early days of our nation. Many of the events of the town have been formative for our nation-state – the preparations in the lead up to the signing of the Magna Carta are probably the most famous. Stoke-on-Trent is a city of the industrial revolution – in years its still a babe in comparison with Bury St Edmunds – but it has contributed so much to the formation of modern Britain. It makes me smile to think that some of the earliest canals – mass transit methods of the early industrialising age – were built there; and now Stoke is renowned for its distributions centres – mass transit in the age of just-in-time production and global logistics.
Maybe it’s inevitable that encroaching middle-age makes one nostalgic for one’s roots. I know I’m looking back through rose-tinted glasses. The Stoke-on-Trent that I grew up in is not really there any more and I didn’t like it much when it was! I’m pleased to see inward investment making improvements to the economy and really happy that some of that is trickling down to the people who live there – and about jolly time too. It’s lovely to see improved housing, new businesses and better roads going up all over the place. I just hope that I’m not too late in coming to love Stoke to appreciate the city it once was before it’s renewed, refreshed and ready for the post-industrial age.