This was supposed to run in today’s Times, but didn’t. They were after something about Stoke/Wedgewood as pre-plug for The Working Class Hero. Might as well rebrand it it as a Blog Exclusive!
The news of Wedgwood’s demise made the headlines not because of what it is, but because of what it was. In times when a business like Lehman Brothers can go under for a figure that few can picture or comprehend, the death of Wedgwood – a firm that was famous for making things – provided a moment of nostalgia. This was what bad news used to be like when you could understand it, this was a closure that made sense. A new 64-piece dinner service was a low priority even during the good times.
If it had taken place during any of the recessions of the ‘eighties or ‘nineties, the news might have provoked a riot, or at least a demonstration, in Stoke-on-Trent. I grew up in the city. During my teens there was a war on, a war my people were losing: manufacturing industry and unionised labour was under sustained attack from, on one hand, the visible enemy of the Conservative party, and on the other from a covert force as represented by ‘slave labour from the third world’. And then there was an invisible front: the employers themselves. Ask those who have lived their whole lives in Stoke where it has all gone wrong and you’ll hear many different answers, but one that keeps coming back is ‘the families’. This means the families who owned the pot banks and who actively discouraged other businesses from investing in the Potteries. Why? In order to maintain their monopoly on the pool of cheap labour they had created. As a teenager, with a poster of Che on my bedroom wall and an army surplus jacket on my back, I used to march about the city in a filthy temper wondering how it could be that I lived in a feudal society. Here was the nearest you could get to third world slave labour without leaving these shores. The wages on offer for the ‘piece work’ (where workers are paid by the number of plates they can back-stamp, or by the number of handles they can attach to a cup, per shift) were paltry, and none of the local MPs or councillors seemed interested, or alert, enough to lift a finger in the service of change. These days, the BNP has nine seats on the council. This is not so much because the residents are more or less racist than elsewhere, it’s a comment on the inertia of successive Labour councillors.
Nature abhors a vacuum: in a city distinguished by an absence of imaginative leadership, the skill that the people of the Potteries have always specialised in is looking after themselves. Not a day went by without rumours of layoffs, and counter-rumours of where they might be ‘taking on,’ and as the fortunes of the various firms – Spode, Johnson Bros, Mintons – rose and fell, the gossip of the pot banks provided a fuel in itself. When there is not much else to be had, gossip is a genuine sustenance; it is gossip that is the main constituent element of the legendary friendliness of the natives. Do people talk to you on buses? Yes, they do: about how bad things are.
Wedgwood was the last blue chip survivor of an industry that has been on the rocks for as long as a generation has been available for work. Its swansong has been explained away as the natural consequence of the rise of Ikea culture: we have come to live in a flat-pack world and we eat, if crockery is used at all, from cheap white plates made in Indonesia. The miracle is that Wedgwood was able to survive to see in its 250th anniversary year. The firm always made strange items: black vases in order that women might show off the whiteness of their hands against them, unglazed cameo trinket boxes that your aunt collected and that set your teeth on edge when you touched them. As crockery became a non-essential good, and one that in any event could be imported cheaper from overseas, jobs were sometimes saved by circumstance: there was much rejoicing when Charles announced his forthcoming marriage to Diana. Demand for genuine Staffordshire-made souvenirs of the Royal Wedding was intense and saw the unlikely and short-lived return of overtime and extra shifts. Americans, in particular, wanted the genuine article Prince Charles mug.
If Prince William were to signal wedding bells now it would be too little royal lust too late. Most of the kilns have gone, and the jobs with them, to be replaced by other low wage activities. One of the main off-topic complaints on the Oatcake – the Stoke City messageboard named after the local food delicacy – is that the new jobs, such as they are, are in low-pay low-skill activities in call centres, or in warehousing and distribution. The great shame is the loss of the craft skills that accompanied the mass production, the talents of the gilders and the decorators. Our lurcher, Ollie, died last November. An old friend from the Potteries gave us plate with Ollie’s portrait on it for a Christmas present. Such was its accuracy, that for a second I thought it was a transfer from a photograph. But on closer inspection it turned out to be hand-painted by an artist who had once been laid off by Royal Doulton. Ollie was an elegant and noble animal, and though the plate is the last thing on earth I would have ordered, it is beautiful, has a pride of place position in the house, and is something we will always treasure. But the knowledge and experience involved in its making will be lost forever unless the Receiver can act with imagination. The greatest irony I’ve heard this week is that the wealthy Asian classes are keen to purchase Wedgwood, but only if it is made in Staffordshire; they don’t want the stuff they produce domestically. There’s a niche there somewhere, if only it can be realised and marketed.
Marketing is precisely the sort of new-fangled idea that ‘the families’ have so often resisted. In the early ‘nineties John Harvey-Jones made an attempt at resuscitating an ailing pottery business in his programme Troubleshooter. You did not often see Harvey-Jones confounded, but at one point, after being guided up some back stairs to the ‘design department’ where two ladies sat under a pair of 40 watt bulbs drawing pictures of flowers, he laughed in exasperation and retired to the pub next door for a pint of Bass. ‘We try new things, but they’re not interested,’ one of the ladies informed him on his return, as he enquired after the figure that was being invested in product innovation. On learning that this was about 10k a year he let out a further incredulous bellow. I watched plenty of those programmes, but I don’t think I ever saw him as frustrated as he was in the Potteries. There was nothing he could do to fix this, the problem was ingrained in the culture; not in the culture of the workers, who were flexible, willing and able, but in the culture of the management, who weren’t. It is the endgame of that lifelong entrenchment that delivers the current situation – a trade in fakes on ebay, and a Wedgwood visitor centre with interactive gizmos where, no doubt, you can Wii-throw a pot.
Where most of the post-industrial north has adapted in some way, Stoke lags behind. Even in Liverpool people can live in dockland flats with a view of a Tate Gallery. The football team (who, incidentally, play Liverpool at the Britannia Stadium in the Premiership this evening) are finally in the top flight after a 23-year absence. The press that Stoke City has attracted has been far from flattering. Under pragmatic manager Tony Pulis, the football is limited, uninventive, and basic. This does not mean it is not sometimes effective, but it does mean that the best reviews it can command consist of a grudging respect for its efficiency, rather than admiration for its adventure or ambition. The supporters who follow the club in huge numbers, on the other hand, have been complimented from all quarters. Senior staff at Anfield were moved to comment that our following was the best they’d seen for years. It was spine-tingling to be there, as it has been spine-tingling to be on the road with the tribe that I revisit once every week for the majority of this season. But as for the football, so for the rest of it: if we go straight back down to the second division, it won’t be because the crowd has failed. The spirit, and the talent, of the people of Stoke-on-Trent has always deserved better leadership than it has seen.