There was something uncannily gothic about much of today’s TEDx Stoke: City 2.0 event. The venue set the gothic mood, a vertiginous room at the very top of a high and crow-haunted tower, surrounded by a mist-shrouded landscape running away in all directions.

Above: The YMCA Tower, the tallest public building in the city, on the brow of a hill, with its SkyRoom conference room at the top. (My photo).

After a plague of technical gremlins had been banished, the opening video was the Chris Stone (Blood & Bone China) documentary about a Stoke man who died because of his belief in vampires. “Vampire of the Villas” [watch] would have us believe that… “Stoke is a hub of the paranormal”. Nope, sorry… I’m a horror writer myself, but I have to say that it just isn’t. The city’s undead local politics are quite scary enough for most people. But the video’s embroidering of a real historical event did usefully point to the ways in which a city’s sense-of-place can be reshaped by new stories. Also the ways in which the great British cultural tradition is the invention of tradition.

This video was followed by a short “Action Pitch” on hacking (not the horror-movie kind of hacking), saying that the city needs to instill a sense of what’s now possible in the unofficial hacking of affordable technology. Again, this set me thinking about cultural hacking. Of how Walpole’s original neo-Gothic revival was a sort of hacking. The neo-Gothic in literature was a re-purposing of the by-then-defunct medieval superstitions, mixed with elements from a fading Christianity which had by then lost its fever-grip on most educated people. It hacked into these once-popular notions, blending and re-purposing them as entertaining horror novels. Only the new gothic didn’t stop there. In time the neo-Gothic moved from literature to become the general style of Victorian architecture, and then the de-facto official style of the British Empire. The moral precepts and intellectual ideas of the neo-Gothic also fed into and strongly rejuvenated existing establishment worldviews. Thus, what started as a playful and irreverent movement inadvertently served to fundamentally reshape our physical and intellectual worlds. One wonders if hacking and the hacker ethos is destined to have similarly inadvertent long-term consequences in our own time?

Three jet-black crows then came and preened on the metal struts at the end of the YMCA SkyRoom 1 — another nice gothic touch. The Christian YMCA CEO Danny Flynn talked about “taking the lid off passions” — a gothic motif, if ever I heard one.

Stoke’s bITjAM then gave a short live VideoDJ performance of found footage which continued the gothic feel. Public-domain footage from the famous early vampire movie Nosferatu (1922), plus the industrial gothic of Metropolis (1927) and various “monsters invade” 1940s sci-fi b-movies. Eerie looped voices moaned in the soundtrack. Like the original neo-Gothic cultural movement, this was a re-purposing of motifs (vampires, living automata, monsters) which had once held a strongly eerie cultural charge.

The gothic bubble was then ably burst by Bret Shah’s excellent TED-like “Action Pitch” on the idea of a “positive thinking” game, the Happiness Game. Remember when you played a game as a child where you noticed cars of all one colour or one marque? Then you started noticing them everywhere, because your mind had become attuned to spotting them. Bret suggested a similar mechanism for his game. Choose two things to be happy about. Then just start to notice or ‘spot’ them. Gain points, keep a tally. Yet… even this idea evoked the specter of happiness’s gothic “other”, a moaning Stokie cloud of murky gloom only to be kept at bay by an attentive daily ritual.

Carl Plant (bITjAM) gave a short “Action Pitch” on the value of uncovering data, and the idea of an Open Data City. Again, there was an unintended gothic resonance here — evoking classic gothic notions of a hidden secret knowledge, and of the arcane methods needed to recover such secrets.

Many outsiders have a hazy gothic notion of Stoke as ‘a wasteland’. This view is certainly contradicted by the all-round green vistas to be seen from the top of the YMCA. We surely have more mature trees and parkland per-head than any other city in the UK. But the idea of wasteland cropped up in the presentation from Status Grow. Their worthy idea is to create new vegetable-growing allotments on wasteland 2 or unused land, as a loosely affiliated North Staffordshire outcropping of the national “Dig for Victory”-style Landshare movement. The aim will be to provide fresh veg to those “in emergency need”, and they already have a first allotment plot underway in Silverdale. Very worthy… but I worried about the need for a strong mechanism by which to prevent wastage of those hard-won veggies. People don’t tend to value ‘free’, generally. Nor raw. Perhaps the veg could be made into appetizing pies and soups by Stoke F.E. College’s new catering training kitchens, rather than delivered raw? Perhaps the recipients of the charity might have a hand in baking those pies, and thus gain some job-worthy skills? Since a job is the only thing that will cure the poverty, rather than simply alleviate it.

Of course the monster of absolute poverty is an ongoing reality for some. 3  This was succinctly summoned up in a talk from Sue of the Food Bank North Staffordshire. Since May 2012, the Food Bank has distributed 1,495 food parcels to help feed those in crisis need. 517 of those parcels went to homes which had people under 20 in them. That’s about 86 food boxes a month to homes with young people in them, in a city of 104,000 households. On the back of this need, many tonnes of food are currently being collected from churches, charities, and now also from primary schools. The Food Bank needs a new warehouse to store it all.

The event ended with a short video clip of Desmond Tutu, wildly praising Stoke-on-Trent while on a visit to the city in 2008.

All in all, a curiously gothic and very ‘Stoke’ take on the idea of City 2.0.

  1. The YMCA’s SkyRoom can be rented from a very reasonable £150
  2. The Stoke-on-Trent waiting list for allotments is currently around 250 people
  3. 16,340 of Stoke-on-Trent’s 0-19 year olds officially ‘live in poverty’. This means they live in a household with less than £1,400 a month coming in (roughly £16,800 per year). By the standards of most artists, that amount would be untold riches. One third of the Society of Authors’s writers earn less than £8,827 per year. According to DACS, UK artists average only £10,000 per year. The UK’s University of the Arts, before the recession really hit, found that 30% of its graduates had an income below £10,000 per year.