Stoke, 2045

A chapter from It’s All About The Road

He dreamed of rides like this. A stiff backwind pushing him on, the roads clear, all the way down from Hanley. Leaving the factory he’d been working in, downhill, turning towards home and there was the wind, pushing him down the long straight road that seemed to balance, tipping away to the valley on one side. Homes on one side, terraces; industry on the other.

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An old elephant outside a warehouse, years of layers of paint glowing in the low evening sun, held behind a chainlink fence in case it tried to run down the road. Fibreglass advert for some company that had long since gone. But
no easy way to get rid of an elephant, so it stayed. Straight on, the wind a hand pushing him, the teeth catching perfectly with each gear change, smooth. No cars, just trams and bicycles all the way down the road clear straight past the university. Dip down under the railway bridge, low rumble as the London train crossed overhead, up and across the canal and the road, three lines of transport, connection, transit running parallel. Rail to Europe, motorway to London, canals to the docks and the sea. Left, and a dogleg through the town centre, curving round the old town hall,

Spode Village to the right, where the money stacked up, slowing to pass through the Thursday night drinkers outside the pub on the corner.

He glanced towards the night market opening up, a tram unloading passengers, the smell of street food, first customers. In the morning this was a food market, fresh potatoes, kale, beans, carrots from the city farms that had filled the corridor where the old Garden Festival had been, repurposed the old industrial sites alongside the canal towards Burslem, cleaned the dirty soil with fresh growth.

But in the evening the market cooked the produce; Chinese, Caribbean, Polish, Nepalese streetfood alongside Stoke Oatcakes and local ale, made with Trent water.

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Cycled on, right and a short push uphill, pounding, adrenalin slamming as he turned left onto London Road, the last kilometre to home. On the right, the Library Club and Art College, a low susurration (chat, guitar, fiddle) as the day’s lectures, debates, discussions ended in drink and dancing. In an hour, they’d fill the night market, the first pints from the college’s tiny bar making them hungry.

The solar panels on the roof of the market would have charged the batteries enough and the soundsystems would play until well after dark. He’d come back later, once the dancing had started.

But for now straight on, the baked dry biscuit smell of the big pottery, firing all day now, third largest in all of Stoke. Half a million pieces of ware rolling off the lines every week. Scottish machinery at the sharp edge, Japanese touch screen control, but English hands still touching everything produced.

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He passed The Villas on his right, blockpaved road straight up the hill, halfway up gaslight flared in a lamp. An old electric light converted to burn bio-waste; some strange conservationist in-joke. He was slightly obsessed by these houses, the hopes and aspirations of Victorian industrial revolutionaries made in brick. Elegant, European, classical yet oddly post-modern, very English. Now they were home to the people who grew up and graduated from lofts in the Spode Village, moving to here when they had children. University lecturers, cloud technicians, graphic designers, digital musicians. Mid-21st century techno bohemia.

On, a last right turn, and then standing on the pedals for the last push up the steep hill to home, Penkville Street, standing, the muscle in his calves straining, standing, as gravity and the steep degrees of the landscape pushed against him at the end of a flying ride. Mid terrace house, old front door painted rich gloss blue. Sash windows, metal column between them topped with tangled gothic foliage. Through the door, muscles burning, lungs suddenly empty now he’d stopped moving, as if the onward momentum had been pushing the air into him, inflating his lungs.

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He lent the bike against the wall, white Michelin tyres reflecting on black Minton tiles. Took off his shoulder bag. A Chapman Satchel, 30 years old, waterproof British woven tough blue Cordura, red strap faded to pink, ash toggles. Handmade in Cumbria. Thin trail of soft black road dirt on the underside but that would wipe off. A good bag for his tablet, and the tangle of cables and adaptors he used to jack into any of the machines in any of the potteries he worked with. Uploading new specs, tweaking the slip mix to a different purpose, adjusting the angle of printer nozzles, making the spinning 3D models the designers worked on in light and pixels into real clay shapes. Listening in to the machines on Flare Audio cans, the bubble of slip in the printer’s pipes like blood in veins

Bent over, pulling his jacket over his head, head spinning as the excitement of the ride crashed in. Vertigo, a short hard version of jetlag, the post-cycle rush like the instant hit of short black coffee. Threw the jacket on the stairs by the bag, then pushed himself upright, straightened, turned and wheeled the bike through to the back of the house.

It was his regular ride, a handbuilt, Lee Cooper of Coventry, lugged steel. 50 years old, sky blue paint waxed and polished to a perfect shine. Every Sunday, road dirt brushed off, degreased with Dirty Harry, three coats of hand-rubbed wax in the room at the back of the terraced house. He wheeled it back there. Other bikes against the wall An old red Saffron Frameworks, a white Ellis Briggs from Shipley, older than the Lee Cooper. He laid the sky blue against the white against the red.

And on the wall, golden yellow, the finest bicycle he owned, held on the wall by two brackets, the frame wrapped in old cotton where the clamps held it. A religious object, pinned to the wall for worship. Cycling shrine, like the niche carved to hold a pottery representation of a household god in a Roman villa. A Brian Rourke frame, seventy years old, made to the leg measurements of a forgotten rider, found in a secondhand shop on London Road. Fastest bicycles in Britain. BR crest transfer on the headset over the words in small, plain type, ‘Made In Stoke’. His next project, a month of weekends planned, the stripped parts carefully labelled in wooden trays on the side. New cables coiled ready, tense with potential energy.

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He liked to know where things came from. Chapman bag. British Boxers from Leek, Hiut Denim jeans made in Wales, Josery polo shirts from Hucknall, Norman Walsh shoes, Flare headphones from Sussex. In the kitchen he sliced London Road Bakehouse bread, dropped two slices into a British-built Dualit toaster, filled and turned on the matching kettle. Pulled out a plate, took the teapot down from the cupboard, and a mug; no doubt about where they were made. Portmeirion Pottery. Down the road, the smell of the kilns that baked these pieces of ware was on the air he breathed every day.

He put the tea and toast on a tray, carried it back to the front of the house. Put the tray on top of a pile of old magazines, real old. From newspapers, from the days when newspapers were printed, last century. He’d found this whole box of them in a house clearance round the corner, pulled out of a corner of the coach house at the end of the garden. Daily Telegraph, ‘Myicuria’ penned in the right hand corner on each cover. Full of stories which made no sense, time captured, moments lost in time like tears in the rain. He’d bought a box of crockery, Biltons; one of the lost and forgotten local potteries, insignificant in the history of industry.

Some old tools, thick with grease, ‘Made In Sheffield’. And this box of old magazines. If he wasn’t careful the First Law would kick in, the house would fill with kipple, there would be whole rooms he couldn’t enter any more.

Shard ruck, a room like a shard ruck.

But he liked to gather old things, collect stories, imagine who had owned them. In the gathering of magazines, books, old bookmarks, postcards, in the dark metal tools and battered old tins, in the old cabinets of worthless pottery ware; in all of it, he could see threads, connections and patterns.

Somewhere was the point it all came together, here in Stoke, the node.

He poured the tea, English tea.

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An Industrialist and an Elephant: Lord George Sanger in Stoke

From the introduction to It’s All About The Road, where this first appeared in print: ‘An Industrialist and An Elephant’ is presumed to be written by Lord George Sanger; it is taken from a copy of a manuscript in the archives of the Dreamland Trust. Thanks to Jan Leandro from the Dreamland Trust for access, Sarah Vickery from the Shell Grotto for the introduction, and Kate Kneale from HKD for the loan of Sanger’s ‘Seventy Years A Showman’.

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After our winter in Liverpool, we again headed south-east, stopping our grand procession in Stoke-Upon-Trent, the first of six stout Staffordshire towns known as The Potteries. I have good reason to remember that first stop on that season’s travels, by an exciting incident that occurred.

The rectangular green where we pitched our wagons was just outside the town, on a road leading to the countryside. At night, on one side of our encampment was darkness and the hoot of the night owl, but on the other side the town was alight through the night with the glow of the fires in the hearts of the pottery kilns. These bottle-shaped brick structures were amongst the most impressive of any buildings I have seen in the northern industrial cities, and there were many hundreds across Stoke-Upon-Trent and the neighbouring towns of Tunstall, Hanley, Burslem, Fenton and Longton.

I endeavoured to visit this industry, which to my mind blended the arts and the sciences in a most interesting fashion. By the best of chances, I was able to visit a new manufactory which was just opening. Mr William Kirkham had bought an older works on the very road on which we were pitched and was using it to make earthenware and terracotta. His purpose was the manufacture of hospital and laboratory ware, school and artists’ requisites, chemists’ receptacles and a wide range of components for industry. Mr Kirkham was only too pleased to provide a tour of his magnificent works, to show me some of the hundreds of items produced and exported around the globe, and to explain the various chemical processes involved in the making and the subsequent decoration of pottery wares.

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I visited Mr Kirkham’s factory again in subsequent years, and we became firm friends, confirmed in the propinquity of our interests in the arts and the sciences together. Mr Kirkham became an active figure in local politicking, and was thrice Lord Mayor of Stoke-Upon-Trent. He also acted with great responsibility as the chairman of the committee appointed to implement the Technical Education Acts in the borough. He was a member of the town’s school board, was elected to Staffordshire county council and was county justice of the peace. I am certain Mr Kirkham was a great aid to the development of one of the finest towns in the Empire, but in that first year he was also of great aid to me.

The unique circumstances of our pitch in that first year, with wilderness on the one side and industry on the other, was to unsettle some of our company. As I walked our encampment at night, walking-stick in one hand and oil-lamp in the other, I was aware of a slight susurration which was not always present. The glowing of the kilns and the noise of the continuation of industry through the dark was unsettling man and beast, and there was a chatter throughout that first night. If I had acted promptly that night, I do wonder if the events of the next morning might have been avoided.

As we always did when in a new town, that very fine spring morning we staged a procession to advertise our arrival. We formed up the parade on the green where we had stayed that last night, with Mrs Sanger costumed as Britannia sitting atop a gold carriage at the fore, with a Lion and a Lamb at her Feet. Behind her were some of our finest horses in full regalia, a herd of elephants dressed in Indian garb, and assorted jugglers in tights and spangles, rope-walkers in fleshings, the clowns, pantaloons, harlequins and at the very rear a demon. All the attendants would be as Roman Gladiators, Crusaders and other such characters. We would parade up the road towards the town, passing Mr Kirkham’s manufactory, stage a brief demonstration of juggling, clowning etc. outside the local market, I would proclaim our hours dressed in my customary Hamlet clothing, and the band would then perform before leading the procession and the towns-people back to our circus-site.

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A short way along the road, it became quite clear that the beasts were restless after their somewhat disturbed night. Now our elephants were calm and placid beasts, in the usual run of circumstances. As I have commented elsewhere in this book, though, if you want to keep the animals in your care safely and in good health, there must be no relaxation in the attention they are given either by night or day. This meant that their handlers had been awake much of the night, and were as tired this day as the elephants.

One of the elephants, an old beast called Charlie, was of an independent mind. Shortly after we passed Mr Kirkham’s, where my friend and some of his managers had stepped outside to watch our parade, Charlie decided he would rather return to the green field which was his temporary home and catch some more winks of sleep! His handler, a young man called Reeve who with the aid of some darkening made an excellent native called ‘Indian Joe’, was pulled quite off his feet and dropped the elephant’s harness.

Luckily, the folk in procession behind the elephants were quick to respond to the changing circumstances and pulled to the side of the road, allowing Charlie to pass. He was chased by poor Reeve, who was very tired, quite in a flap and was unable to catch a hold of his harness.

As Charlie came alongside the factory I had visited the previous day, my newly-made friend Mr Kirkham and three of his managers stepped forward to the aid of Reeve. With some stout rope from the factory yard, they were able to catch a hold of Charlie. The five of them together were able to bring my elephant quite to a halt.

That afternoon I was able to profoundly and publicly thank Mr Kirkham when he visited our matinee performance. It was the start of a friendship of which I am most proud, and in subsequent years we visited Stoke-Upon-Trent again, and the other towns in The Potteries.

We could always rely on Mr Kirkham. Unfortunately, as you shall see in a subsequent chapter, we could not always rely upon Charlie and it is with some regret that I imagine how different things could have been if I took firmer action that day in Stoke.

The Vampires: From It’s All About The Road

This is a chapter from It’s All About The Road, a collection of stories and essays which, together, tell a complete history of Stoke, from the Ice Age to thirty years from now, through stories from one road. This story was inspired by the death of a Polish pottery worked, Demetrious Myiciura, which is the only time in the UK  vampires are mentioned on a death certificate. the real story happened in 1972, and this one happens around then. Much of the detail is real, what happened after Lidice is true, the house as described here exists and I’ve stayed in it, and the head on the penny was designed by somebody who lived a few doors up from it.

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P1130169.JPGThe rubber seals around the windows were cracked, and where the barrier was broken rivers ran down the curved walls each time the dark red bus turned its sides to the wind. The water pooled at the edges of the floor. It wasn’t the only water inside the double decker; the heat from the bodies had steamed the windows. So the world outside was filtered through two layers of water, thick rain outside and thin condensation inside. Like looking through the dirty lenses of old glasses, the world was grey and indistinct, occasionally details lurching into sharp focus. A tiled street name, Park Street, painted out in black. A masonic square and compasses carved in stone. Shakespeare’s face mosaicked in tiles. A tin sign advertising Spratt’s Canary Mixture, ‘Sold Only In Packets’. All fragments, a brief focus on a cinematic story happening, off camera, away from the lens of the bus window.

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Better than the days after he first moved here, though. There was the blackout then. But smog too, and a man had to walk in front of the buses with a torch. The only thing that could penetrate the dark then were a pair of searchlights by the gates of the Michelin Factory up the road.

In the seat in front of him, a woman sneezed into a grey handkerchief. The cotton was frayed, and would never wash to clean white again. He realised that what he had thought to be a stain was an embroidered pattern of deep violet pansies which had faded to a different shade of grey. Each outbreak of sneezes was followed by a dry, rasping wheeze. She had sneezed three dozen times since he had got on. Thirty six sneezes, thirty six wheezes. Again – thirty seven. Each time the bus hit a pothole and shook, he reached for the handle on the seat in front of him, and his hand brushed against the thick, rough knitted wool of her coat. It was thick with damp, and under that, grease that had built up over years. Each time he brushed against her, he closed his eyes and flinched.

He got off a stop early, stumbling down the curved metal stairs, off the bus, relieved to be in the open air again. He didn’t mind the rain, or the cold, or the wind. He had grown up somewhere colder, and whenever he felt the chill he remembered, and thought himself lucky to have this new country. The winds at home had been harsher, the things he had seen worse than anything that could happen here. But even so after the forty years he had been here, it was still new, and often surprising, and still not home.

This town welcomed foreigners, and always had. He remembered, not long after he had arrived, meeting the children who had arrived here on the Czech Kindertransport. And the way that the miners here had raised funds to rebuild Lidice, after the Nazis destroyed that village. ‘Lidice Shall Live!’, Stoke had declared, and it had. But while Stoke was warm, and generous, it kept foreigners as foreigners, held them at a distance. The contradiction was at the heart of this place. The potteries were always bringing new people in, always embracing the new ideas, technology, skills they brought. The pottery where he worked was full of Germans at the moment, bringing new lithographic machines and transfer cutters. He avoided them.

Generation after generation of immigrants, but still Stoke stayed distinct, and cherished history and tradition, he thought, guarding its own local food and the rich dialect. He spoke Stoke’s English but still with a Polish accent. To the Englishman he met when in London for meetings, he sounded like a man from Stoke; to the locals, he sounded foreign. To theoccasional Pole he met at work, his Krajna dialect sounded archaic, full of forgotten words and old inflections. He knew he was adrift, a refugee, and had been for the past forty years.

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The smell of baked bread was strong on the wind, and brought him back to the here and now. He remembered the last of the bread which he had burnt under the grill that morning. He had never mastered the grill and would lean forward watching the bread below the flickering gas flames. But he never judged it right. It had been a long time since he had tasted toast without a thin layer of burning, and his breakfast every day was like a burnt offering to an old god. He pushed through the heavy half-door of the bakehouse. As always, it pushed back, as if the shop didn’t want him to enter. Getting inside always felt like a small victory. He celebrated by buying a small loaf, and two scones. The bread here tasted faintly of the coal that fired the ovens, and for the second time, he remembered the place where he lived before. Bread baked in the kitchen that was the only warm room in a cold house. The room his wife so rarely left.

Distracted by the remembrance of his Yetta, his little home ruler, he hardly noticed he had stepped outside and then he was at the end of his road. The rain had pushed thick streams down the side of the rough dirt road. The rain remembered there used to be a spring here and was trying to find the fastest way down to the river at the bottom of the valley. Two thick pools stirred at each corner of his road, brought up short where dirt road met tarmac, and thin twigs twirled and twisted as they were caught in the contradiction. The pool on each side spun a different way, he noticed. There was some order behind the chaos of this small flood.

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He turned towards home. The thick stone slabs on the narrow pavement were slick and the smooth leather soles of his boots slid. He felt uncertain, unbalanced, the world shifting slightly. Stepping across the kerbstone, over the temporary stream, he walked on the dirt road instead. As he looked down, the road sparkled. White bones, broken bones, children’s bones underfoot. No. Crushed unfired pottery had been used to grog the road. He shivered at the understanding of what he had thought he had seen.He forced himself to move, through the heavy wooden gate, up the stone path, and under the porch. The rain was a thick sheet pouring off the tiled roof and down the dark red stained glass in the windows at the porch’s side. The light here always disorientated him. When the sun was bright it felt like being in a church, but on days like today the stained glass turned the light into something slow, thick and shadowed. He always thought this porch was an ambiguous space, and felt he was at the tipping point in a religious ritual. What was inside the front door might change, depending on this balanced, pivotal moment. He was in a liminal place, the connections fragile. But then bones and blood and ritual were forgotten as he felt the bread slip from under his arm. He caught it, reached for the key in his coat pocket, turned the lock and opened the door. His gothic mood was broken by the mundanity of a loaf of bread.

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He understood that he hadn’t chosen this house. It had chosen him. It wasn’t an English house, and he wanted to be English. The road was lined with near-identical buildings, all built in what the agent who rented the house to him had described grandly as ‘the European style’. He had thought to rent a house in one of the terraced houses nearby, not in this walled enclave where the well-to-do foreign factory workers had often lived in the past.

He had found old papers belonging to Mr Léon Arnoux in a cupboard in the kitchen. And had traced this man’s story, an engineer who became an artist and moved from the Sèvres factory, to the Minton works down the road. Every house had a similar story, a Louis, a Léon, an Alphonse, an Adolf. Why had he thought of that last name? Not a good name, not a name to remember

But when he’d asked for a house in a terrace, the agent had shown him this one. He had been promoted again, just before moving here, and although the rent was cheap this house matched his new status. He was, after all, an important man now, in charge of a department in an important British company. An Englishman’s home, a Pole’s castle. But it was too big; he knew it was too big; just for him. His Yetta and his children would have loved it but he felt adrift in the spaces his new home gave him. He couldn’t allow himself to think of them here.

He wasn’t even sure how many rooms there were, but there would have been enough for all of his family. There were five doors off the hallway downstairs and he climbed the stairs ahead of him. The hallway at the top was an L shape, and he was standing at the corner. He turned slowly, looking back at the front of the house. A tall window above the front porch let in more light than seemed possible for such a slender opening. It reminded him of the embrasure in a concrete pill box he had once stood inside, abandoned in the English countryside. A defence against something that never came.

He turned slowly and counted under his breath. There were seven doors there. He pushed a hand into his pocket, looking for a scrap of paper he had put there at the start of the day. His fingers found it and he pulled it out, dropping a copper penny as he did. It landed on the bare floorboards. ‘Tails’, he thought, but as he bent to pick it up the light caught the queen’s coronet. He always called tails, not heads, and he usually won. This was not a good sign. He dropped the penny back in his pocket and unfurled the scrap of paper. ‘Seven’, it said in his black spidery writing. There were still seven doors. Reassured that the upstairs was as he’dleft it he went back downstairs, and shrugged off his wet coat. He hung it on a hook below the staircase and stepped through to the kitchen at the rear of the house.

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The kitchen was where he spent the most time. There was a dining room next door, a grand room with a bold arch and a bay window where curved windows caught the light and flooded the room. He had a dining table which was an antique, bought from a junk shop on London Road and carried here by him and the shop’s dusty old owner. It had six matching chairs, the velvet on the seats worn, the gold thread faded to a dull green but still good. But he never ate in that room. The kitchen had an old, square pine table and two battered Victorian chairs. One was for his newspaper, and one for him. This was enough, so it was where he ate. He knew an Englishman should have a dining room, so he had one, but he couldn’t see a use for it.

So he opened a tin of soup, and tipped it into a saucepan. The pilot light never worked, and he wondered if they ever did. So he struck a match, matches from the Bali Hai Nightclub – Margate, held the match until the sputtering gas steadied into a constant flame, and warmed the soup slowly while he sliced and buttered his bread.

From the cupboard in front of him he took out a bowl, which had travelled the shortest possible distance from the factory to his house. The Biltons pottery was just across the road, and although that wasn’t where he worked, he liked their designs. His work was traditional, with crinkled edges and gold trim. But this Biltons pattern was modern. This set of crockery had a series of concentric circles, each ring made up of small squares. A central circle of black squares overprinted in green, and an outer circle left white. As he looked it induced a slight sense of vertigo, the pattern turning as he looked at it. He poured the orange-red tomato soup over it to hide his confusion and sat down to eat.

He finished quickly, and realised he had nothing else to do until going to bed. He dropped the saucepan, bowl, spoon and breadknife into the washing up bowl. Eating little, using little, he often took three days to gather enough dirty crockery to fill the washing up bowl and make it worth turning the immersion heater on. He left it and picked up the Daily Telegraph Magazine from the seat next to the one he’d used. Stepping back into the hall, he checked the number of doors, five, before choosing the one that led into the long, thin front room.

Running from the front to the back of this house, this was the room in the house he liked the most. There was light from each end, and he looked out of the back window, down the overgrown garden to the old coach house. This was a building he didn’t use, full of a tangle of chairs, small tables, bicycles, broken garden tools and chests of drawers which could never be opened again. The accumulated junk was like the inside of a sewing box which had been overturned, threads, needles, pins and buttons twisted, tied together into new, interesting but ultimately useless configurations. Nothing could be removed. It had all grown together. He had an intense dislike of the space inside the coach house, which seemed to grow smaller and tighter around him whenever he entered. He hadn’t ventured further than the few clear feet of cobbled floor inside the door from the garden, and had never risked the bowed and twisting wooden stairs which led to the coach house’s upper floor. He was happy to leave the building padlocked, and suspected it would, eventually, just give in to the future and crumble

Turning back to the front room, he chose an armchair as far from the back window as possible, and sat down by the empty fireplace. He knew he should light a fire to fight the continual dampness in the house, but the effort was too much. He picked up the magazine; ‘The Artist As Entertainer…Philosopher…And Social Conscience’ said the cover, with a photograph of a longhaired portrait artist, painting an old tramp squatting in a makeshift shelter in some woodland. He flicked through the magazine, enjoying an article about the problems of a button-shop owner with 50,000 buttons on which he had to calculate the new Value Added Tax, and an unlikely story about a seaside town in Northern Ireland, a world away from the bombs and bullets causing trouble elsewhere. He paused to read an advert, ‘Drive a Michelin. It makes a good car better’. Although he had no car, and consequently no interest in steel-braced radial tyres, they were made just down the road; his was the interest of a neighbour.

The main article, on page 36, told about an arrogant artist, ‘with a talent for upsetting people’, who was painting tramps and vagabonds. This artist, Lenkiewicz, an ordinary commercial portrait painter and an unconventional muralist, was the child of emigres. A couple who’d escaped from a corner of Poland, from Krajna! He felt a sudden lurch, the unlikeliness of this connection pulling him up physically. Today had been a day of reminders, blood red light and bread, pottery underfoot and painters in magazines. He felt old now, suddenly, and tired.

Perhaps the woman’s germs from the bus were already affecting him, bringing him down with a cold. That English phrase, ‘a cold’, when everything here was already cold and damp.He decided he should prepare for bed early. It was already half dark, the sun behind the heavy wet clouds providing little light and no warmth. He could forget today in sleep, and wake tomorrow.

He stood up, still holding the Telegraph Magazine. As he dropped it on the table beside the chair, a piece of square-cut wartime utility furniture with one leg shorter than the others, the room seemed to lurch. No, it was just the table, resonating on a loose and warped floorboard.He needed to use the kitchen to prepare for bed, but in the hour he had been home it had got darker. The kitchen, at the back of the house, didn’t get enough light late in the day. He pushed the solid Bakelite switch down. There was a slight fizz before the dusty bulb lit. Bare. It brought as much dark with it as it brought light. He turned to the sink, twisted the tap, filled the electric kettle, turned it on at the wall socket. While that boiled, he moved to the larder, opened the three-panelled door and found the cloves of garlic in a basket on a bowed shelf to the right.

Next to the board where he had sliced the bread earlier was a pestle and mortar, and he used it to break the garlic bulb into smaller cloves. He dropped the cloves into a small bowl.

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A drum-shaped jar, white ware from the factory where he worked, was full of poppy seeds. They were collected from the garden behind the pottery, the thin flutes of seedpods picked while green and carefully dried out on an old side-plate before being stored. He measured three teaspoons of them into a discoloured sherry glass.

The kettle started to whistle, so he pulled open a drawer and took out a rubber hot water bottle. He filled it, wrapped it in an old towel, and placed it on the side. He poured milk into a small saucepan and fumbled with the matches and gas again. A slow warming, a low heat, stirring constantly. The smell of warm milk meant the end of the day was near. He pulled out a silver tray, put a dimpled glass tumbler on it, and poured in the warm milk. He put the bowl of garlic on the tray, the glass of poppy seeds, added a salt pot, and tucked the hot water bottle under his arm. He turned the kitchen light off as he left.

He put the tray and the bottle down on a side table in the hallway, and pushed the heavy bolt to make sure the front door could not be opened from outside. A formality; he knew that, for the visitors he might expect, that would be the last place they would choose to enter. He turned to the stairs, counting the five doors as he did, before picking up the things he had put down. At the top of the stairs he paused, turned, and counted from one to seven. Each door was still there, but he couldn’t remember what was behind the fifth and sixth ones.

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The last door, the seventh, was the one he wanted. He pushed it open with a foot and looked up at a second flight of stairs. While the stairs from ground to first floor were wide, solid, proud, this second staircase wasn’t one to be seen by anyone other than servants. It was narrow, and twisted to the left at the top, into his bedroom. He climbed, the long and thin staircase lit by the last daylight falling through a slit of a window at the top. The last step was loose, but he knew that and braced himself for the wobble. In his room, he put the tray down on a plain chest of drawers, and tucked the water bottle, without its towel, into the single bed. He turned on the lamp on the bedside table. Even though it was just a plain metal frame, bolted together, he thought it must have been incredibly hard to carry this up here, through the twisted stairwell.

There were two wedges in the sash window, and he pulled them out to open it. Across the road, flattened in the gloaming, was his house reflected. Each house in the street started as the same, a kit of pieces, the same porch and roof and window styles and at the top, this tower. The architect, he imagined, had started with a set of children’s toy bricks. Square, arch, triangle, cylinder, rectangle. But each house was slightly different in its arrangement. The one opposite was his house reversed. He had never been inside, but could imagine the spaces there. He wondered, briefly, if they noticed, as he did, that sometimes the internal arrangement of the rooms shifted. He wondered if they knew what was in the front two rooms on the first floor. He knew the lady who lived there, an upper class Spanish lady with her thick black hair always piled high, and that she took lodgers. She used them, he supposed, to fill the emptiness he felt in his house.

He picked up the glass of poppy seeds, and scattered them across the window ledge before closing the window and putting the wedges back in. On the inside, he scattered some salt. He poured some more in a straight line parallel to the end of his bed, reinforcing a line which he had made many times, but which was blown and scuffed away.

He undressed, folding his clothes and dropping them onto a chair by the drawers. From the top drawer, he took flannel pyjamas. He drunk the still-warm milk. He placed a clove of garlic on the floor by the head of the bed. There were a few from previous nights there already, some old and thick with dust. This was a regular arrangement, part of the routine of bed time.

It was a simple protection, against an enemy that had never come for him, but which, he knew with certainty would, one day would. It had come for his lovely Yetta, and for the children.

He had worked in a pottery factory in Poland before the war. He was the factory’s technical director, introducing new machinery to an old works. The machines often went wrong, the workers were unhappy at having to change, the world was uncertain (but he had little time for reading the newspaper anyway),and he often came home from the factory, late, and dirty, and tired. He knew though that, however late, Yetta would have managed. Food would be warm on the stove, the bread fresh from the afternoon. The children would be clean, and in bed.

Not on that day, though. There had been rumours of war all day, but with his head under machinery he had not had the time. It was unlikely that the German army would invade, after all, because Britain had sworn to protect Poland’s land.

So he was unprepared for what he found when he got home. He found his family, drained of blood. He knew where it had gone, most of it. It was smeared across the He knew where it had gone, most of it. It was smeared across thewalls and pooled on the stone floor. Something had ripped through the wooden window frames, breaking glass into a fine dust, and had torn them apart. He knew that the things happening in the world that year had woken the darkest things in Krajna. Things that wanted blood and warmth. Vampires from his home weren’t the gentlemen of the English stories he had read since arriving here in Stoke, but were brutal and animal. He had seen what they had done to Yetta, to his two children. He had fled, ahead of the vampires, tumbling across Europe until he found himself here.

He had not protected Yetta, the children, but he would protect himself. Many nights he knew, with certainty, that he was a foolish old man and he did nothing. But after days like the one he had just had, he was more careful.

He climbed into bed, brought the dark outside in by switching the lamp off, pushed the hot water bottle further down and shifted himself into the warm spot where it had been. He had a last clove of garlic in his hand, and he dropped it into his mouth, without biting. As he pulled the blankets tighter he realised he couldn’t move, and the garlic shifted to the back of his mouth. He couldn’t breath, his body restricted and the clove of garlic blocking the air to his lungs, and the bad signs he had seen all day rose again; children’s bones, blood, and the darkness rising in his eyes as the last light faded.

Photos from the London Road project

Stoke’s London Road connects the buzzing, active communities of Boothen, West End and Oakhill to the town centre along a long, straight road that’s full of history, unusual buildings, old architectural features and public spaces waiting to be brought to life. This year-long artwork commissioned by Appetite will end in the publication of a book. This will be a psychogeographical, slightly fictional telling of the story of London Road, from one end to the other, from the Roman to the modern day.

Here are some of the photos collected during the first six months of the London Road project,

Buildings and street scenes general photographs from London Road.

London Road – a Walking Tour – takes you from one end of the road to another. An archive of a Tweeted tour.

London Road as a green belt – is Stoke the greenest city in England?

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#chumbrella on London Road – an artwork by Sarah Nadin, commissioned by the London Road project and Appetite.

The abandoned London Road Library – inside a forgotten building, sold at auction in 2014 for £128,000.

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Inside Portmeirion Pottery – a successful pottery, producing 150,000 pieces of best-grade pottery every week.

Inside Middleport Pottery – a working Victorian pottery, restored by the Prince’s Regeneration Trust and making Burleigh ware.

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London Road Festival 2014 – a community-run festival, where the London Road project started.

Open air art gallery – part of the London Road Festival in 2014.

Expedition – performance on London Road – commissioned by Appetite as part of the London Road Festival 2014.

#chumbrella

The problem of how to create social spaces in public places is a well-known one, and there’s lots of attempts at regeneration that fail to make public spaces work.

At a recent workshop in Stoke, artists tried to wrestle with this problem. Sarah Nadin was one of half-a-dozen artists I worked with, and her solution was #chumbrella. Perhaps best known for her sculpture remembering Stoke’s connections with Lidice, which she produced as half of Dashyline, #chumbrella is a more light, agile and nimble approach to creating art in public places.

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Inspired by the act of sharing an umbrella with a stranger the day before, Sarah imagined a place where a distinctive hashtagged umbrella was a sign that the person was willing to share it with a stranger.

During the workshop, Sarah created a black-and-white prototype and took to the streets. It started conversations and got people’s interest.

So when I was looking at my own London Road project in Stoke, I could see a natural fit. London Road is one and a half miles long, but – and despite being plentiful in parks, gardens and green spaces – it’s not a very social place. People in shops stop and talk, but the street is all about bustle as you’d expect on the main road in and out of the city.

So as part of the London Road project, with funding from Appetite, I asked Sarah to move #chumbrella from prototype into production. She created a yellow and white design, the umbrella split in half rather than the more conventional segments, and had a first batch manufactured. It’s a move from big sculpture to being a social artist, so I feel like the investment is in the artist as much as the artwork. And if this idea spreads, she’ll be creating literal pop up social spaces in streets across the country.

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The first public outing for #chumbrella was a walk along London Road. Half a dozen artists agreed to be the first to carry #chumbrella, and they started a dozen conversations, as well as making lots of people smile as they walked from Campbell Place to The Boulevard and back again.

#chumbrella will be back on London Road in September, and I’ll be carrying one as a useful tool in my work there. But the aim is also to see how far it can be rolled out, creating a simple How To guide and distributing the first batch of #chumbrellas to people around the country who can use them. Open source, freely available public art? The medium is, as they say, the message.

Endnotes; The Canal, London Road

Sadly, the document I’ve been working on has been corrupted by a virus, so all that remains of this chapter of the London Road book I’m writing are the endnotes. I hope you can reconstruct the chapter from them.

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1. About halfway between Manchester and Birmingham.
2. The same latitude as Bremen in Germany, Petropavlovsk in Russia and Venison Tickle on the east coast of Canada.
3. 3 miles, or 4.82 kilometres.
4. In 1795, after an Act of Parliament made it possible, giving permission for ‘the making and maintaining of a navigable canal from and out of the Navigation for the Trent to the Mersey’.
5. Which had the only licence to carry coal.
6. Incidentally, completely unrelated to his namesake whose Flying Scotsman was the first steam train to travel at over 100 mph in passenger service, and whose A4 Mallard is still the fastest steam train in the world.
7. It can be found in early Stone Age pottery, making it more resistant to thermal shock.
8. Nicknamed The Knotty.
9. Over 130 miles or 209 kilometres of canals, waterways and the Rudyard Lake, named after a local man reputed to have killed Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field.
10. They liked it so much, they named their son after it.
11. In 1921.
12. By now, completely abandoned. Elsewhere this year, Alcoholics Anonymous is founded in Akron, Ohio, the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill On Sea opens and the world’s first parking meters are installed in Oklahoma City. Meanwhile, Adolf Hitler starts the rearmament of Germany.
13. Although there as late as 1971, these sidings have been removed.
14. A dry section remains at Oakhill behind the Cottage Pub.
15. Although the exact location is unclear, it seems the far end of this tunnel was near the Spode Factory site.
16. Near Glebe Street, where it joined the Trent and Mersey Canal. A stretch here remained and was used as moorings by the Stoke Boat Club until the 1970s.
17. Local councillor Andy Platt believes that springs running from the top of the hill adjacent to London Road mean that water was an important part of life here for a much earlier community, too.
18. Jumping from his footplate and over iron railings to reach her.
19. “Barathea is a noble cloth – a dense and heavy cloth of deepest navy blue
It has clad with distinction policemen and figures of authority for decades
And Timothy Trow is proud to wear his uniform
But barathea is a great soaker-up of water
And Timothy’s coat of office has now become a sodden coat of lead”
Ray Johnson, ‘Ode To London Road’
20. “It was lucky for the girl that the tram had stopped. In those times the engine was powered by steam and it would have been extremely noisy,” local historian Simon Birks suggests.
21. Although known by this name locally, it is officially called Coronation Gardens, and was opened in 1953.
22. Known as ‘The Boothen Boat’.
23. Although he was then a community artist, he is now the Cultural Development Officer at Stoke-on-Trent City Council. He trained as an artist in Coventry, around the same time that the 2 Tone scene was emerging there.
24. Ordinary terraced houses, except that each has two lines of glazed tiles running above and below the upper windows, each tile having the words ‘Gold Coin’ on them.
25. Francis Michael Moran, from the 1st Battalion of the North Staffordshire Regiment. Formed as the 64th Regiment of Foot in 1758, this regiment’s soldiers served across the British Empire. The 1st Battalion served in France from 1914-1918, and Moran saw action during the Battle of the Somme, the assault on Messines Ridge and the Third Battle of Ypres.
26. Built in 1920, this was the tyre company’s first factory in the UK. It was designed by Peter Lind and Co, who had offices in Central London and in Spalding, Lincolnshire. The company also built Waterloo Bridge and lter, the iconic BT Tower in London.
27. It reopened in 1987, housing Sir Terence Conran’s Bibendum Restaurant & Oyster Bar.
28. Originally known as the ‘X Tyre’, it was designed with the Citroen 2CV in mind.
29. He argues that post-industrial decline happened later in Stoke than elsewhere in the UK.
30. In fact, there are still more than 20 active potteries in the city. With names like Wedgwood, Moorcroft, Dudson, Emma Bridgewater, Portmeirion, Spode, Royal Doulton, and Royal Stafford still in the city, Stoke is still a major centre for pottery.

Pottery memories

IMG_20140601_133829“I miss the company of the women in the potbanks. We had a good Union, good conditions, and we’d have a singsong in the afternoon.

I did piece work on the bench, on lithographic. When I started training at Spode, I was cutting prints first. Mrs Bolton was the forewoman, that’s what they called them. We learnt on easier patterns. Just before I finished the training, the law changed and they brought in a shorter week. We didn’t have to work Saturday mornings, I liked that.

After twelve months I was put on the bench. You had to be good. Everything at Spode had to be spot on. It was the best. We were all on piece work. We measured how hard we worked in money then – now it’s in minutes.

We started at 8 o’clock. We had breakfast at work, toast from the canteen and there was a boiler for tea. If you work in a shop, you have breakfast before, but we had it at work.

I started working in a shop first, a corner shop on London Road, for £3 10 shillings a week. But at Spode it was £10. At Woolworths it was £5, and nobody every left Woolies.

It was hard work. I was an underglaze sizer first. You had to put on two coats to make the print stick on when fired.

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The prints were all in the print safe, behind locked doors, kept at a certain temperature. Ten prints were stapled together to cut. We had a new German perforating machine once. The instructions were in German and they had to get someone over to show how to use it.

The work for the two ladies doing the Willow pattern was harder, bloody hard work. There were two women on that. It was below glaze work, and you had to work hard to rub the print through the glaze. It took a long time to get the print off. They earned their money.

Our work went to all four corners of the world, and we had visitors from all over. We had to be quiet when they came, no singing. Soon as they went we all started nattering again.

I left Spode when an American company took over. They moved everything around. People were unsettled.

I worked at Sadler’s after, up in Burslem. I thought the Greek Key pattern was Portmeirion, but it wasn’t, it was Sadler’s. The money at Sadler’s was not good and I left to have a baby.

I went back to Spode to learn on glaze lithography. But then Spode wanted to drop my money so I left. It was easy then, you could just walk into another potbank. Except Mintons – I’d have loved to work there but nobody ever left unless they died. I reckon Minton’s was good if you could get on there. And Doulton’s, up Burslem.

I went to Portmeirion. Everything was mustard and green, dark colours. The only white ware were rolling pins and those things you put under the bed, then. Susie Cooper took over and it went up. But Portmeirion was low paid and there was a bad atmosphere. I didn’t know the women there.

So I went to Crown Staffs, in Fenton. They brought in conveyor belts. You did your work, lithographed it, and put it on the conveyor belt and it went to the end of the line to be checked. It was really good there.

But I went back to Portmeirion. It had picked right up, with the Botanic Garden. I was working there aged 55.

It all seemed like hard work at the time, but it was all good in the 60s, with hindsight. I have happy memories from the potbanks, looking back – good times.

Working for potbanks, I still look for patterns everywhere.”

Memories of working in Stoke’s potteries (in local dialect, ‘potbanks’). In the big industrial manufacturers – Spode, Portmeirion, Sadlers – the women were the highest earners, skilled in finishing and decorating the pottery made.

This story has been collected from an anonymous lady who worked in the potbanks, as part of London Road, a year long project commissioned by Appetite with SWOCA and Second Look Stoke.

London Road

P1130382Stoke’s London Road connects the buzzing, active communities of Boothen, West End and Oakhill to the town centre along a long, straight road that’s full of history, unusual buildings, old architectural features and public spaces waiting to be brought to life. It’s a beautiful street, as the photos I’ve taken so far show.

So it’s going to be a great place to spend the next year as artist-in-residence for the whole road, collecting stories, working alongside local people, and making connections between communities. I’ll be living for a quarter of the year in Penkville Street, one of the steep terraces that climb off London Road.

To see some of what I’ve found so far, you can download a map of London Road’s significant people and places.

P1130397This year-long artwork commissioned by Appetite uses the whole street as a venue. As I uncover stories from London Road, they’ll be marked by the reanimation of unloved spaces, restoration of original features, reinvention of forgotten buildings, gentle reminders of why the road is special, and regeneration from the bottom up.

It will end in the publication of a book. This will be a psychogeographical, slightly fictional telling of the story of London Road, from one end to the other, from the Roman to the modern day. In that writing, focused on one special road and the people who use it, I’ll tell the whole story of Stoke.

You can follow the progress, and join in with the project, with the Twitter hashtag #allabouttheroad or on a Facebook page.