Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Not much changes...

For the present day, the word 'dead' has been banned from any editorial coverage of Burslem in my newspaper. The word rings around too much like a mantra for me to want any part in reinforcing it, as it does no service at all to all the living, breathing people working hard in the town*. You'll find the script here if you scroll down the depressing Doulton story and even more depressing bulldozer comment, by 'Burslem resident'.

Today I was told about a video from the 60s in which people talk about the decline of Burslem, which surprised me. To hear about that period today, you think it was the most bustling, thriving time. It reminded me to dig out a passage in the Old Wives Tale, coming up to its centenary next year, with Sophia's reflections upon returning to Bursley after a few decades getting rich in Paris:

In its contents the Square had not surprisingly changed during the immense, the terrifying interval that separated her from her virginity. On the east side, several shops had been thrown into one, and forced into a semblance of eternal unity by means of a coat of stucco. And there was a fountain at the north end which was new to her. No other constructional change! But the moral change, the sad declension from the ancient proud spirit of the Square--this was painfully depressing. Several establishments lacked tenants, had obviously lacked tenants for a long time; 'To let' notices hung in their stained and dirty upper windows, and clung insecurely to their closed shutters
The Square really had changed for the worse; it might not be smaller, but it had deteriorated. As a centre of commerce it had assuredly approached very near to death. On a Saturday morning thirty years ago it would have been covered with linen-roofed stalls, and chattering country-folk, and the stir of bargains. Now, Saturday morning was like any other morning in the Square, and the glass-roof of St. Luke's market in Wedgwood Street, which she could see from her window, echoed to the sounds of noisy commerce. In that instance business had simply moved a few yards to the east; but Sophia knew, from hints in Constance's letters and in her talk, that business in general had moved more than a few yards, it had moved a couple of miles--to arrogant and pushing Hanbridge, with its electric light and its theatres and its big, advertising shops.

The heaven of thick smoke over the Square, the black deposit on painted woodwork, the intermittent hooting of steam syrens, showed that the wholesale trade of Bursley still flourished. But Sophia had no memories of the wholesale trade of Bursley; it meant nothing to the youth of her heart; she was attached by intimate links to the retail traffic of Bursley, and as a mart old Bursley was done for.

* However, it does make for a great Facebook group title.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Voices from Burslem, Tunstall, Middleport, Cobridge...

As I think I've written here before, Global Voices is one of my favourite websites. It collates world voices in a way that amazes me - volunteers who manage to put together views of their region that are both comprehensible and complex. From my computer I've felt closer to people and countries that I may never visit but that tempt me with their stories of culture, current affairs and, often, food.

One of my criticisms of the site - though I understand the reasoning - is that they don't include disenfranchised voices from the so-called developed world. In an area like Stoke, blogging has not yet taken on the importance that it has in many of these countries. The internet is taken for granted as a tool for entertainment, education perhaps, but rarely self-expression. D'log and Two Up Two Down are two great local blogs that lead the way and Mindblogging has also made a good start with a directory of blogs encouraging people to write about mental health issues as well as everyday life. The bloggers in the group are exploring the medium, supporting each other and using blogging to engage in dialogue with each other, rather as they do in areas covered by Global Voices where bloggers have formed communities. There is a form of self-expression on the website of the main local paper but... I would cause myself problems if I wrote anything more about how soul-destroying it is.

In the first month of my new project, the articles I'm probably proudest of (many not written by me) have been those that give a flavour of local voices. A front page article had a hint of dialect in one of its quotes. “Them that’s got vehicles, they’re OK and I don’t begrudge them, but there’s a lot of us old ones today who never learnt to drive and can’t get very far now.” Bob Adams, whose handwritten contributions I'm loving even if they have to be typed out, writes about Burslem's past in a way that evokes local conversations about history, and again there are bits of dialect in there. "Mum and Dad however weren’t struck on Blackpool. “Your money goes too quick there, you’ll be spent up in no time.”" And a recent article included quotes from a public meeting, giving a voice to residents of Slater Street. Although the dialogue there is continuing, it felt important to reflect the anger expressed at the meeting in a way that gave the sense of the meeting (in Quakerly terms). I didn't include, but liked, the phrase "As far as I can see, you've gone all the way round Burslem and come back again".

This area is one of constant conversations. In Tunstall people are in more of a hurry, but in Burslem many now know me or know they can come to the shop to talk about some aspect of the area. When giving the paper out, it is normally impossible to cover the length of the shopping area on market day without having given out all my papers while talking to someone or other. In the first issue, we had an article about Sytch Village, one of our displaced/demolished communities, and people are still coming to tell me about their lives there. In Burslem, the past is constantly layered upon the present as older residents remind each other of what used to be where. Sometimes this is couched in negativity, but not by everybody. Our shop, for example, used to be Slacks, and because of the stories of so many people I can forget the bleakness of a quiet day and think of it when it was the place where girls used to wait for their dates for the evening. Those that could afford it went to one of the two cinemas on Bournes Bank, while those with less money, or no date, just walked round and round Burslem with their friends, meeting each other and eyeing each other up. Sometimes they would spot a celebrity near the Queens Theatre, but they wouldn't have been as interested in them as in the everyday interaction amongst themselves.

The constant conversation is also an education. Nothing is ever simple. Far from the safe office world where you are roughly in agreement in everybody, you have to grapple with your own views in the face of real experience of racism, crime and economic deprivation. After three weeks full time in Burslem, I suffered a real bout of culture shock, no longer knowing where I fitted in amongst the groups that we tend to classify: the people often bought in from outside trying to regenerate the area, the economic underclass, the creative workers, the traders, the powerful, the powerless... I could see parts of myself in all those groups and felt in danger of falling between the cracks. It doesn't help that there is a level of personal scrutiny that I was unprepared for. In this area, you have to constantly guard against bitterness here and where everything is a risk you have to avoid looking for people to blame. Luckily, I've got a support network of inspirational people who help me embrace the struggle to succeed and who affirm that it is worthwhile to try.

And so, in all, it's a lot of fun. And with more resources I hope that my project will draw more local voices out and help to represent this indefinable area in its true light: vibrant, problematic, diverse, exhilarating... just as other places have been able to do through Global Voices.