Graffitti seen in Pasaje Montserrat De Andrés, near Plaça d'Espanya, Barcelona 19 February 2016.
Immediately after Easter I will be leaving the Potteries after 23 years.
We all moved here in the Summer of 1992 when I became the Church of England Vicar of St Werburgh’s, in Burslem. We arrived with our five children, aged from 3 to 14 years. At that time Stoke and Vale were both in the newly formed Division Two. It was the first year of the Premier League: yes it is that long ago!
Since then I have become a Catholic, trained as a teacher, trained teachers, been ordained priest, served as parish priest of Bentilee, Hanley and Fenton, spent a little time as chaplain in hospitals, a prison and schools , given 10 years as Dean of North Staffordshire, and during all this time seen our family increase by 18 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
So, as I now creep closer and closer to my sixtieth year, the Archbishop of Birmingham feels I am “ready for a new challenge” and has appointed me the parish priest of St Mary’s, Cannock. (Mercifully at least, still in Staffordshire).
What will I miss most? someone asked me recently. I thought about this. The answer may be a little surprising.
Of course, I will miss some special places. This wonderful location in Hanley - so close to the Coachmakers, Robertos’s, Jaflong and the Venus Fish Bar each of which I have frequented perhaps a little too often. I will miss the charming beauty of Our Lady's Church, at Fenton, and the magnificent glory of the Church of the Sacred Heart in Hanley, the most stunning in the City.
I will miss the annual carol service at Hanley, our exuberant celebrations of Pentecost, the Fairs, and the Pea-and-Pie suppers.
I will miss Our Lady's School in Fenton, which I have served for the past five years, and the group of nine schools in the Newman Collegiate in the north of the city: so many dedicated teachers and enthusiastic children, who have been a great joy to know.
I will miss so many people in numerous other parishes too: the ones I got to know during my years as Dean and who still great me with warmth and affection.
I will miss my occasional articles for The Sentinel, the interviews on BBC Radio Stoke (usually early in the morning!) and the staff in the local media who have always been so supportive and helpful.
I will miss the volunteers who give extraordinary amounts of time as school governors, fund raising, managing Church resources, and leading parish activities.
I will miss meeting again the children I have baptised, the couples I have married, the bereaved I have accompanied through sadness - and parishioners who I have laughed with, learnt from, preached to, infuriated and sometimes, perhaps, even inspired.
I will miss colleagues: priests, our parish deacon, and the sisters of the Immaculate Heart; and also others: teachers and other school staff, doctors, nurses and care assistants, funeral directors and cemetery attendants and yet more, too many to count, who have become more than colleagues.
Of course, all these I will miss, yet this might be said by any priest in any location moving on to a new post.
But what I will miss most of all is the richness and diversity of this wonderful city, and Hanley, itself, which can never be matched wherever I may go.
I will miss the ordinary folk of this city, and the tremendous diversity of those who have made their home here. I will miss those who bring the 25 or so different languages to our current community: the ordinary Potteries folk with their warmth and humour and deep roots in the city; the Filipinas for their wonderful culinary contributions to our celebrations; the Nigerians and other Africans for their piety and devotion; Zimbabweans, Ethiopeans and the Keralan Indians for their kindness and generosity; the Eastern Europeans - Czechs, Slovakians; and the priests of the Polish and Ukrainian communities who I have been privileged to work with so closely.
To be sure, the diversity of our city certainly brings its challenges, but also, for a priest some small rewards: I have helped an Eritrean woman get a visa for the United States, appeared before a tribunal to plead for an Iranian man to be given the right to reside in this country, and supported many applications for Citizenship. I have helped get children of asylum seekers into schools. I have heard harrowing stories from people who have suffered persecution and violence and who have fled to this country for refuge.
“Do you prefer being here?” I said a little sceptically to one family of Roma (gypsys) who had moved here from Eastern Europe, where they are a persecuted minority. They were living in far from ideal conditions, crammed into an unpleasant flat in the City Centre, with little more than the mattress they slept on. “Oh yes,” said the Father, “in my country, people shout bad things at us, and spit on our children in the street: but never in this country. ”
I will miss Hanley. I will miss Stoke-on-Trent. Love your City and North Staffordshire. It is a great place to be, to live, and to be valued.
This was originally written for publication in the Sentinel newspaper on 20th January 2016. This is a slightly expanded version of the article.
We have been hearing a lot about the “Northern Powerhouse” recently.
Please forgive me if I am more than a little cynical about the whole thing. The North-South divide is acute and has long been so - and it is welcome that there should be a particular focus on the woes of the North of England (because of course, this debate is in no way about Scotland, nor indeed about Ireland or Wales).
It echoes the late, great Margaret Thatcher (forgive now, the transparent irony) who spoke of a focus on the cities and, I vaguely recall, was delighted about winning “the Boltons” (as if they were “the Carolinas”).
However, Mr Osborne, and the Tories in general (if they are to take up Osborne’s baton), will have a tall order. A report today indicates that the North-South divide runs far deeper than just a few years of economic decline. Children aged under five from poor families in the north of England perform less well than even the poorest children in London, according to a report from The Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR).
But it goes even deeper than this. The North-South divide is by no means only a recent phenomenon.
Some of us are old enough (just) to recall when the North was, literally, the Powerhouse of the Nation - in the days of manufacturing, of coal, and steel - the days before (here she is again) Mrs Thatcher.
But even in these “powerhouse” days, there was a North-South divide. Poor children in the North were being educated only as “factory fodder”, as the teacher Mrs Kay states in Willy Russell’s 1977 television play Our Day Out - and by the time the play was turned into a musical ten years later, the teacher adds “but now the factories are closed”.
These days, the 1980s, saw the emergence of “Loadsamoney”, when the Chelsea supporters waved their bundles of notes to taunt the fans of Newcastle United.
But this was just a manifestation of the same, very old divide. Its goes back at least 450 years.
In the 16th Century the North of England rose against the South and was brutally tricked, defeated and smashed. The uprising against Henry VIII is known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, and was at the time in no way framed as a social uprising nor even a geographic one, but was a revolt against the religious changes enacted under Henry VIII. The outlines of what happened at that time are well known, but perhaps only in a superficial way.
Henry VIII declared his independence from the Pope. He refused to accept the authority of Bishop of Rome over any matters in his realm.
But that in itself is too simple a reading of what happened. Henry’s revolution had very little to do with religious belief (he always considered himself to be a Catholic), but was much more to do with greed and egotism. It was in fact radically secular.
Henry’s reform did not mean the rejection of the power of Rome, but rather the assumption of the Church’s power into the Monarch. It was therefore the abolition of any countervailing power in the nation, and the removal of any court of appeal over the actions of the King. The relationship between society and Church was certainly ready for reform, but this was no reform, but rather a concentration of power that was formerly distributed. The Constitution was radically changed, and without even a referendum (such things were unknown, of course!) England moved suddenly out of Europe, and any checks on the authority of the state were eliminated.
The Monasteries, certainly wealthy, but also centres of employment and learning, of health care and charity, were dissolved. Ancient treasures and manuscripts were destroyed, hospitals and almshouses closed, and centres of employment vanished. Henry took the land and property to himself and much was sold at low prices to a new class of wealthy individuals. It was massive privatisation which led to the destruction of an effective welfare and educational system, and an extra-ordinary increase in unemployment, in poverty and in vagrancy.
In the wake of these changes, the North rose up, not perhaps yet aware of the social consequences of what was taking place, but certainly alarmed by Henry’s egotism and greed. The rebels were offered a compromise, and a willingness to listen to their concerns, then tricked and crushed in a brutally unrestrained manner, with no one to enjoin restraint or moderation.
All sounds a bit familiar doesn’t it?
And so the subjugation of the North of England to the south was established, and is rooted deep into the fabric of England. It took about 400 years for the state fully to embrace the responsibilities formerly undertaken by the Church and the monasteries of mediaeval England.
Which is why, deep in the North of England, those posh people live in Downton Abbey.