Tristram Hunt MP: Launching the Stoke-on-Trent Literary Festival this June
When in 1857 the cotton merchants of Manchester decided to host a fine art festival, the response from polite society was one big guffaw. 'What in the world do you want with art in Manchester?' scoffed the Duke of Devonshire. 'Why can't you stick to your cotton spinning?'
And that was exactly the point: Manchester wanted to say something different about itself. The 1857 Art Treasures Exhibition brought some of Europe's most spectacular fine art - oil paintings, sculpture, tapestry - together under one steel and glass roof at Old Trafford. It allowed so-called Cottonopolis to rebrand itself as a city concerned with more than just spinning and blanching, money and manufacturing. Instead, it said here was a city full of art, creativity, design and civic pride.
So too with this summer's literary festival, 'Hot Air.' A lot of people have sneered, 'what in the world do you want with a
literary festival in Stoke?' You just stick to your pits, pots and footie. And that, again, is the point.
For what the
Stoke-on-Trent Literary Festival- generously backed by The Sentinel, Emma Bridgewater Ltd, the Bertarelli Foundation, Goodwins International, The Sun newspaper, Stoke-on-Trent City Council and others - is about is promoting adult literacy, celebrating creative writing, bringing tourism to the city and (like 1857 Manchester) encouraging outsiders to think differently about Stoke.
We know that this is an extraordinarily creative city, whose originality can be traced in its drama, music, literature and, of course, ceramics. But media and public opinion still too often dismisses Stoke-on-Trent as a city lost in a pre-Clean Air Act smog of dirty industry, heavy drinking, and Five Town parochialism. This is our chance to prove them wrong.
First of all, it's always inspiring to have top-class authors come to speak about their work and its meaning. David Starkey on Henry VIII, Anthony Beevor on World War II, and Joanna Trollope on her latest Stoke-on-Trent-based novel are particular favourites for me. Then there is Andy McNab recounting his remarkable life story from illiterate car thief to soldier to best-selling author to adult literacy advocate. Add to that Matthew Parris, Melvyn Bragg, and top children's author Lauren Child. All of it set amidst the urban-industrial back-drop of the Emma Bridgewater factory.
More than that: this is about Stoke's literary heritage and its current crop of successful authors. We will be looking at Arnold Bennett and his place within The Potteries' pantheon, as well as showcasing a crime fiction round table with the great Mel Sheratt. Meanwhile, The Sentinel's Too Write competition is working hard to ensure that we are discovering the next generation of talent.
Now, I have been to a fair few literary festivals in my time. And they each have their own unique atmosphere. Hay-on-Wye feels like a Bohemian encampment amidst the Black Mountains of the Welsh borders; Cheltenham is full of clever types, with a whiff of GCHQ; Edinburgh is a big beast, with books just one part of that city's great arts festival; and Ilkley is an island of enthusiasm amidst the Pennines. My favourite festival is probably Charleston, set down in the deep English beauty of East Sussex where the Bloomsbury set once gathered. It mixes book with place, literature with geography, to brilliant effect.
And that is what we want from this festival: a celebration of the role of literature in Stoke-on-Trent and a celebration of the city. We want local residents to be inspired by great authors, to be able to listen to up and coming talent, and have a family day out. And we want tourists and day-trippers to sense something of the magic of Stoke, catch an author, paint a mug - and just begin to think abit differently about 'Smoke-on-Stench.'
In the aftermath of the 1857 Art Treasures Exhibition, Manchester became known as the 'Florence of the North.' A city just as renown for its architecture, fine art, and culture as its cotton mills and manufacturing. Our little
Literary Festivalmight not quite secure us that title, but I'll be happy if it marks another step in Stoke-on-Trent's own renaissance.
Tristram Hunt MP is the Shadow Education Secretary.
Stoke-on-Trent Literary Festivalis from 20 - 22 June 2014