Monday, 17 January 2011

Clone Town v Real Town

This is a story of two towns. One I left at the age of 10 and the other that has been my home for the last 16 years. I have a memory of being about 6 and looking across the road at Campbell Pace at thinking how modern and busy Campbell Place in the centre of Stoke seemed to be. I stood at the same spot last Thursday. It was an appalling vista. Woolworth’s was closed, as was Ethel Austin. A shoe shop was empty, as was a Subway sandwich bar. There was an area of dereliction and decay about the place.
Yet my memories of Stoke in the 1960s were of a bustling town writing some 30 years before the writer JB Priestley in his "English Journey remarked on work and industry to the existence of the 6 towns for without either the place had no reason to exist. He wrote of "a fantastic collection of narrow-necked jars or bottles peeping above the housetops on every side, looking as if giant biblical characters, after a search for wine or oil, had popped them there, among the dwarf streets."

Certainly if I could draw a picture of the Stoke of my childhood it would be an industrial landscape and particularly a soundscape. The sound of factory hooters, the grinding sound of flint being crushed in a local mill, the shrill sound of a saw from the coopers across the road, steam trains, the clatter of goods wagons in the siding and the chugging of barge engines. The canal in the 60s was still a working place with barges filled with bones, clay flint and pottery.

As a child one of favourite places was the old Stoke Market especially in winter. The place always seemed a magnet for the good humour of crowds. And if Proust had his madelines to evoke his childhood I had Brown’s sausage rolls- delicious and warm.

Years later I went out with Beth Brown. I now realise that if I had played my cards right I could ended up heir to a sausage roll empire.

That was in the 80s and contrary to the myth even in the early 80s with Thatcher Stoke still survived. My brother moved to Oakhill in 81 and there was still an excellent range of small shops, greengrocers, butchers, a bakery, a model shop and the Legendary Lonnie’s record shop along London Road. That was beginning to change by the 90s and in the following decade

I worked for SRB 4 about ten years ago whose aim was to regenerate Stoke for a community mediation service and one of the decisions which proved fatal to Stoke along with moving the football ground was the building of Sainsburys.

You might know that metal box which sits uncomfortably over the road from the 19th century Library the glorious creation of Charles Lynam. Why is it that Stoke Council always seems to allow really shoddy architecture and design?

Perhaps I am not being fair to lay the blame for the squalor and despair that I witnessed in Campbell Place solely at the door of Sainsbury. But if ever there was an example sometimes used in supporters of supermarket’s that such developments enhance town centres Stoke serves as a grim warning.

I now move to Leek, which is about to under go its own battle against two supermarket developments. Applications from Sainsbury and Tesco are both before the council. Leek is a throw back to the 50s. It has a good range of independent shops it even has a well-stocked independent book shop. Despite the recession it still has excellent pubs. A friend of mine who visited me from Wolverhampton last week was envious of the choice of great drinking places in the town. It has an ironmongers, good value butchers and the rather eccentric Home and Colonial Store which is something of a treasure throve and a busy market in a Sugden designed building of 1896.

There was a public meeting on the proposed development in Leek also on Thursday. It started off promptly enough with about 80 people present, although only 3 of them were Councillors. There was a panel of 5 speakers one of them was an architect who gave a good overview of the planning laws and appeal procedure. A couple of shopkeepers followed who feared the impact of their business of a successful supermarket application.

The UKIP Councillor, Steve Povey gave a typical speech, bombastic and black and white with the angels on one side- of which he was one- and the villains, most noticeably the planning department and other Councillor’s on the other. This did not the meeting or the campaign very far. Robert Warrilow son of Ernest the photographer and well known in the town for the very old fashioned tea shop that he ran beside the Nicholson Library. He spoke about the importance of planning an alternative strategy for developing the town’s tourism appeal based on the interesting principle of the "open air supermarket" - in other words using local shops.

No one should have any doubt that it will be a long and hard battle.
The game against the small independent trader’s and their supporters is fixed against them. David may have beaten Goliath, but nowadays David has one hand tied behind his back while the judge is all too often in the pay of the giant. A deadly combination of the power of corporate business abetted by government- of whatever main party- is destroying the independent shop.

Does it matter? Well yes it does because the small independent shop is an integral part of the landscape. From my boy hood I can remember the names of the small shops along City Rd in Stoke- Mr Rennie who sold sweets, Mr Powner the newsagents and Joyce at the corner shop were all part of my urban landscape. Whether a high street is a patchwork of independent business or a bland vista of corporate business does matter. It makes a difference to the character and look of the community, the quality and type of jobs and the diversity and quality of the products. It will decide what sort of Britain that my 6-year-old daughter will end up living in

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Cold kills more older people in Moorlands.

The report in the Post and Times that an increase of 23% of vulnerable people dying in cold weather that would be normally expected in the rural areas is truly shocking. It seems that Staffordshire Moorlands has one of the worst records for excess winter deaths in the UK is utterly reprehensible. In the mid 80s I worked on a project called "Elderly at Risk" in the Staffordshire Moorlands which even then flagged the higher than average deaths from hypothermia and other cold related deaths. I would have thought that we had moved on from then. It seems not to be the case. And that this area tops the poll in a country, which has in any case a shockingly bad record when, compared with countries like Norway and Canada. What are other countries are doing right that we are not?

It is inevitable that the death toll will be higher this year as fuel costs have risen and more people are finding it harder to make ends meet. Gas costs have surged by 50 per cent in a year and electricity by a third, adding around several hundred £s to annual bills. This winter swill be a costly one in every sense of the word
There is so much more energy companies and the Government could be doing: clear marking of electrical goods; pressuring the energy companies to reduce the prohibitive costs of pre payment meters; allowing people to pay bills at post offices again; and helping with winter bills now. Proper energy conservation measures like those in Germany and Sweden where all the housing stock will be adapted to low energy use should have begun years ago. It seems to me not only a means to tackle fuel poverty but also energy saving and job creating as well. Why the delay? It seems a no brainer to me .A more sensitive approach from Government and Energy companies to the needs of the poor and vulnerable would also be a great help. Instead all we have are measures that warm the pockets of the energy companies- an increase of 38% in recent months – while an additional 76 Moorlanders shiver and die.

Monday, 10 January 2011

The King and I

I saw the " King’s Speech" yesterday and it made me wonder about my relationship and contact with royalty over the years. I can recall going down to Wolverhampton in about 1962 to see the Queen present the new standard to the Staffordshire Yeomanry, which my father belonged. I cannot remember much except I was bored and the event seem to drag on a great deal of time.

I was also bored when my primary class in Stoke waited for an age for Princess Margaret to attend to some civic duty in Stoke in the early 60s. A large car pulled up a woman is greeted by a Mayor and then outside. "Is that it" I would probably said " Not even the dummy Princess Margaret"

I did see the Duke of Edinburgh though when he attended a civic luncheon in the mid 80s. He seemed genial enough but more latterly he blew the gaffe when he called the City a "ghastly place". He was given some pottery. I felt at the time given his shooting interest that the figure should have been a surprised grouse rising from a clump of grass. I don’t think the Lord Mayor’s Secretary was game for that.

I have never met Charles although the late Director of the City Museum Arnold Mountford told me that when the Lord Mayor of the City at the time Cllr Les Sillitoe- notoriously prone to gaffes- wanted in his speech to attract people’s attention to the "Muriel". Being a good public servant Arnold corrected him. " The word is mural Lord Mayor". He was thanked and the event came to a head when the New Museum was opened in May 1981 only weeks from the wedding. The crowd was getting excited and chanting Lady Di’s name. It proved too much for the Lord Mayor who ran down the Museum ramp tugging at the Prince’s sleeve. " Have you seen our Muriel".

Faux pas involving Lord Mayors and the Royal Family seem to occur frequently as an incident with the Lord Mayor in the mid 90s demonstrated. At the opening of Bradeley Retirement Village John Birkin introduced the uniped Ted Smith who unfortunately lost a leg to illness with the comment that "When you were last here Your Majesty, he had two legs". I don’t think that John was being sardonic, but it was just an unfortunate slip of the tongue.

On the subject of Diana I missed her twice once when she was in Wigan in 1989 and then again about 6 years later when a scrum of photographers told me that she was in a restaurant in Soho. In the case of her visit to Greater Manchester I stuck to my desk and I could hear the cheers of the crowds nearby. Given what happened to her I have always felt that if everyone were as indifferent to her as I was then perhaps she would be still around now. It is also true to say that the universal grief that encompassed the nation was not shared at Keele where I went to a classical music concert on the Friday evening before the funeral. When the violinist of the trio informed the audience that the piece of music was to be dedicated to the memory of the late Princess of Wales an audible groan went up from the audience.

My brother and I share a distinction that we have both missed events when the Princess Royal was present. I think its two each. I missed her opening Brough Park Leisure Centre in 2002 and he missed her when he was on some sailing ship in Cornwall. Again nothing personal, but my view of Anne and Fergie for that matter can be summoned up in the Peter Cook anecdote of being asked by David Frost to meet Andrew and Fergie on a certain day. Cook goes off to consult with his diary. " Sorry David, I’m watching TV that night".

As for the lesser Royal the same brother received his degree whilst at Lancaster from Princess Alexandria the Chancellor unfortunately for him she choose to have a conversation as he walked past her seated figure.
"Hev yew gort e jorb"? He said her aristocratic tones making it impossible for him to understand her.

" Pardon"

"Hev yew gort a jorb"

As this progressed he had her hand and as the time elapsed the grip became vice like. Panic was displayed in Alexandria’s eyes. My father who was taking film from the back as my brother wearing a cape lowered his head to try to catch what the Princess was saying later told us that it was like Dracula about to bite someone in the neck.

It turned out that she was asking him about his employment prospects.

There you have it. I am a lukewarm republican and I think that the present lot are a bit insipid. I would like to bring back from the dead Charles II or Henry II who were at least interesting. I can not being doing with the deference bit in so far as much I have retained Quaker attitudes it is in this area where they are the most pronounced

Saturday, 8 January 2011

How to shun an ossifrage.

What connects the following phrases " a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush", " "baptism of fire", and " by the skin of the teeth". The answer is that all these sayings emanate from the Authorised Version of the Bible the 400th anniversary of which publication occurs this year. I therefore welcome events that Churches Together in Leek have planned to celebrate the event. One suggestion is readings from the Bible in the Market Place over the summer.

I hope it goes ahead and I would be willing to volunteer to read. The Authorised Version is also called the King James Bible after the monarch who commissioned the work at a conference held at Hampton Court in 1604. The newly crowned King tried to iron out differences between the Church of England and a dissident sect known as the Puritans and used a new translation of the Bible as a potential unifier. The leading academics of the time divided themselves into committees to tackle the various books in the Bible. It took seven years to create the volume. The Committees in their deliberations succeeded in producing a work of luminescent beauty. Their principal concern of the 47 translators was to produce a Bible that would be appropriate, dignified and resonant in public reading. And in that aim they succeeded, as bystanders in Leek Market Place will be able to appreciate later this year. As a child I was taught some of the great stories in the Bible and I think the Book of Daniel has wonderful tales. It is a pity that many students today are ignorant of this tradition. How can you have an understanding of the works of Shakespeare, Rembrandt or Bach without this grounding?

The men who produced the work had little inkling that the their Bible would be one of the great and influential books in the world. It is estimated that over a billion copies of the AV have been printed since the 17th century. Its language has had also had an impact on the language of the famous. The cadences of the Authorised Version infused the work of many people that followed such as the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King. The later "I have a dream" speech reaches its highest point with echoes of the prophet Isaiah. Some of the language and imagery, I admit, is difficult to comprehend what for example is an ossifrage in Leviticus which one is forbidden to eat.
But finally there is something wonderfully comforting in Ecclesiastes. "One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh, but the earth abideth forever" and so does the King James Bible.


Saturday, 1 January 2011

Old Bill's Almanack 2011

I thought that I would stick my neck out and predict 13 events to occur in Leek and looking a little further out national and international events for the New Year. As far as the last prediction as far as first contact with aliens during 2011. I checked and  Paddy Power are offering 100-1 on this eventuality. And if it does come to pass I will be having a pint of Vulcan beer in the "Final Frontier" pub next January 1st.
  1. A comfortable majority will vote against the Sainsbury road proposals on a small turn out in the January referendum.
  2. The Conservative led administration at SMDC will lose power in the May District Council elections.
  3. The Foxlowe Community Arts venue plans will begin to come into fruition in 2011.
  4. Unemployment will increase markedly in Leek during the year.
  5. Fear of crime will increase following a major incident in the town during the summer.
  6. The Churnet Valley Rail development will continue to gather interest and support throughout the year.
  7. Major civil unrest including riots in major cities in the UK will increase as unemployment rises towards 3 million by the autumn.
  8. A leading Liberal Democrat member of the coalition will leave the Government and defect to the Labour Party in the autumn.
  9. Pakistan will be subject to a military coup.
  10. An environmental catastrophe will occur in China.
  11. A major earthquake will hit California in June.
  12. There will be a major terrorism event in a European City
  13. Contact with an extra terrestrial civilisation will occur in September