City 41: Stoke


Out of the Darkness

Out of the Darkness

A Bloke From Stoke

If Sheffield is steel then Stoke is clay. Clay for pots baked in the potteries, that loose collection of towns in the North of Staffordshire, Arnold Bennett felt so compelled to write about. 

It's 2014. After weeks of rain, a day of sun arrives, like an exotic visitor from foreign climes. A cloudless March sky offers its benediction, placing its gentle palm on my waiting head. Not much to shout about of late, not much to cheer in recent days, but black rain and black fish in ever darkening pools. Emotional weather has set in and set up its stall. The rain coated, umbrella-wielding English sag in cobbled streets. 

But that was Lichfield.

Today is Stoke on a Sunday when the world no longer pauses but goes about its madness in its own way, with the weight of sadness pressing down on every life, as inevitable as gravity. Awakening early I enjoy a lie in and gear myself up to do nothing really in particular. Or something. Should I stay or should I go now, the Clash sang. I am confronted with the same dilemma. I arise, in  a state of irritation and make a phone call. I am expected it seems so I had best make like an ice hockey player and get the puck out of here. 

I rev my proverbial engine and make a quick escape down the A5 then gun it down the Wolverhampton Road to the M6. On at Junction 11, off at Junction 15. Forty minutes or so has elapsed and the sun is still shining. Taking the A500 I enter the city. To some this is the land that time forget, progress too, but not me. I find the craftily smoking chimneys  homely, invoking a hazy nostalgia. 

A sign with a missing letter says Toke, and I laugh out loud, not exactly losing my tits in the process, but it's a hearty guffaw. I continue driving, seeing Stoke's version of the Parthenon, the Britannia Stadium, up on a nearby Hill. I drift off down a minor road at the sat nav's request and rock up outside the house where I will be meeting my contact for today's exploration of the city. I knock on the door with what I hope is the right number having only a postcode and no number to text. 

It is then I encounter my guide, the Shadow. He looks me up and down and then points to his car. We get in and drive, or rather we go for a rally. Dante, for his descent into hell had the poet Virgil as his guide and I have the Shadow. It seems a fair exchange.  The Shadow knows these streets like the back of his calloused hands. We spin around the city on two wheels taking in the sites at a rate of knots, a voice over delivered at speed in Stokese.  

It's both dangerous and exhilarating and I start pondering my initial brief to myself to explore England's fifty cities on foot, taking in the highs and lows, historically and architecturally speaking in a user friendly, client-orientated manner. 

I've been here before, to this City. At present I'm 42. How many times have I visited over the years? 9-10? More? Less? Hard to say. I was here a few years ago making films. The first was a short called Ambition about a kid who rows up to be a stripper, the second was called the Spaces between Words, directed by Paul Reeves. It was an improvised piece and sadly the lady I made it with has since passed away. 

Every city is a time machine made up of memories. Layer upon layer of sound and changing light states, aging bodies and crumbling buildings. The new rapidly becomes old, rusting and tarnished, left to rot or bulldozed and replaced. Everybody sees the same city and everybody sees a different city everyday.  I'm no different. On the way to Burslem we pass the Red Elephant self-storage depot. There's a life size red elephant outside made of papier mache or something resembling it. A good landmark and an obvious talking point.  

How quickly the terraced streets pass, with the town leaning over itself in an effort to get away from the sun. The shadows are long, the sun being low and the town seems beautiful to me. What better way to pass a Sunday than riding shotgun taking snaps as an aide de memoire. Port Vale football club looms large behind impale you railings, then disappears behind endless houses, corner shops, tattoo parlours. There's a Mr Whippy Van and a YMCA, a park with a bandstand and pigeons and kids kicking a football against a red brick wall at the end of a row of houses. At least they can afford a football. In Egypt I saw kids playing football with a dog's head. Total poverty is never attainable, it can only be approached by degree.  

We return to base for a brew and a brief pause to review the snapped images then its back out on bikes for seven miles to observe the city and its inhabitants at close hand. For me it's a  seven mile smile but for the shadow, less so. Not with that saddle. Ouch. Good Old Yellow pages. 

Suddenly exposed, we're out on the road, minnows amongst pike with poor lane etiquette. Everybody is taking part in the same rally as the Shadow, desperate to get somewhere they are not. We take in a Black Panther murder site, the Shadows narrative garbled but never less than lucid, as its shot over his shoulders, as he rides like he rallies, down steps and onto  a towpath. I can’t get a word in edgeways but that’s okay. Today is his day to speak, to seek, to find. 

On the canal bank I'm right at home, my parent's house being not more than 100 metres away from the Coventry Canal. Freewheeling down towpaths was a right of passage. It's joyous and effortless. Passing the pole anglers, the Longshoremen of Newcastle are remembered. The shimmering ripple of a reflection on a wall elicits a shout of joy from me. So intense that the conurbation that stretches for twelve long miles smiles and opens the Gateway to the North and Manchester. Southwards and one rolls into Brum. But here is Stoke, forever and always. The six towns like warring Victorian families trip off the tongue. 

Stoke, Hanley, Burslem, Tunstall, Longton and Fenton. 


The sun on the blurred buildings can be glimpsed through vicious railings. The reflection of a decaying pink wall shimmers on bronze waters. Passing bikes coming the opposite way to us, rarely slow and suspicious eyes examine our faces. We live on the same globe obviously but inhabit different worlds. Off the towpath and back on the streets which lead us to the Church where the Wedgewood’s are buried, Josiah and his kin. That high class China will long be remembered but it's no longer English, sold off like the rest of the country for pence. Josiah must be turning in his grave. The gravestones are impressive, angular and lichen-swathed. That gorgeous Victorian Script. Imperial Nostalgia with an ironic twist. The moon overhead, like a wedge of lemon fished out of a glass of G and T. We pick up speed, careful to avoid the humps and lumps of discarded masonry lying hither and thither. The suspended rubbish in the brackish canal water has a peculiar beauty and the hint of sulfur in the air from smoking the smoking stacks is as pleasant as petrol or tarr. 

Nothing much dominates this skyline, other than the past. 

The day zig-zags erratically by, replete with the surreal. I’m not a native here, but an interloper who finds most things, however desperate, a laugh. There is a hint of danger in the air but nowhere as intense as London or Nottingham. Beside the canal are tracks of rambling rubble where growl dubious cars, with the windows wound down, and shadowed figures flicking out casual insults, like blades. The words can wound but not as much as several staccato kicks to the head. Best look away. 

The wheels spin and the world blurs. This City State accelerates me and I’m faster in my mind due to being with the Shadow.  Martin Amis coined the phrase Street Sadness but here there is Canal Sadness, vanquished, if only for a couple of hours, by joyriding. Canada geese on a grassy knoll down by Etruria, like the locals, are ready to hiss and spit if you get too close or look at them askance.  At every junction someone is dealing and the demented  skagrats are waxy, pale and thin. This is not Lichfield, not yet anyway.  A son and father sit together on the towpath, next to a bridge watching the float that may or may not go under. Red maggots, writhing in maggot boxes are massaged by the warming fingers of the gentle sun. Blairing out of stereo, muffled plumes of ragga, an alienating soundscape for an alienating landscape. Where is the soulful voice of transcendence. Not here, not now, now today. This is  a world of stark contrasts where all is lost; son dead, father inside, mother dying of cancer. This is an insular community grappling together in order to reconnect. 

Off the canal track and up the hill to the Britannia Stadium, the first and final place of pilgrimage and devotion for Stokies. CCTV is the eye in the sky but the Shadow shows me the brick in the wall that you can buy for a tonne. The triple statue of Stanley Matthews, like a religious effigy, a secular Christ Uniting his community, 1915-2000 rises up out of the car park. Back down the hill past factories and Michelins tyres, dented trucks, a fluttering union jack on a building, losing interest and drooping like a dying bird. Pheasants  are glimpsed in a field on the way home where oatcakes wait with butter and cheese, endless cups of tea. 

The long day closes and the Shadow and I return to our starting point as the sun slinks off,  like a chastened whippet. A quick brew and a handshake and I get back in the motor, typing in the postcode as I begin re-running the content of the day in my mind. The Shadow has been crucified by that saddle but you wouldn't know it. Stokie's are a tough breed. Today’s faces file before me in dumb parade. The junkies fixing up, the young testosterone swollen youths with their bull mastiffs and their yapping straining terriers. The slanting streets, half obscured by shadows.The primary schools and waste grounds, fenced off like concentrations camps… this is my third city. There will be more, many more even though the road is darkening and the city distant. 


A few weeks later the shadow is back in touch. He's found a link for a bike pathway from Stoke to Chester and I have another City. But how and when and with whom should I travel?



16.10.2021 23:33

I felt like I was walking the streets with you. Such mastery of words and evocative imagery. Thanks Stu.

The Shadow

22.10.2019 15:13

Stu thanks for taking the beautiful city of Smoke on Stench and making it a beautiful place to be for the masses. We enjoyed reading the review and it also made us revisit and reconnect with the city!

Latest comments

14.10 | 16:13

I know. I see that it's all over but concealed. Not part of a cities authorised biography or daily propaganda.

14.10 | 16:09

Ah thia latter letter reminds me of a man Iknew in Lichfield - now departed totally - he too was being hounded and oppressed and taken to court for nothing. See it isn't just Leeds!!

14.09 | 02:52

A joy to read Stu. Not only an expert tour guide (I have walked the Scottish Highlands with you twice) but a masterful storyteller who merges time and place into a kaleidoscope of imagery & metaphor.

13.09 | 17:29

Its so lovely to hear from you Mike and Jan. Your offer is very kind as are your memories of the trip we shared.

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