A Fabulous afternoon at Festival in a Factory.

I have been wanting to go to the Literary Festival held at the Emma Bridgewater Factory for a number of years but I have always been too disorganised and by the time I got my act together the events I wanted to attend had sold out. I was determined that was not going to be the case this year. I was particularly keen to get tickets to see the talk given by Oriole Cullen, the curator of the V&A exhibition Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams. I had been unsuccessful in my attempt to get tickets to the actual exhibition so I jumped at the chance as soon as  The Festival in a Factory began advertising their speakers back in February. My friend also managed to bag a couple of tickets to see one of the hottest names attending the festival – Mary Portas. As the two events were timed at 12.30pm and 5pm we decided to make the most of having an afternoon together and grab some late lunch too in a restaurant I have been meaning to visit for sometime. It’s not very often that I get to have such a culture filled afternoon so I was very much looking forward to it!

What is The Festival in a Factory?

The first literary festival took place in 2014 following an idea born out of a brief discussion between Emma Bridgewater and the then MP for Stoke Central, Tristam Hunt

Festival founder and trustee Emma Bridgewater says, “From our first festival in 2014 our aim has been to bring the very best writers, commentators and thinkers to Stoke-on-Trent where there has always been a great appetite for debate, but also with the hope that we might inspire people to explore ideas, provide stimulating encounters with award winning authors, poets and playwrights and foster the joy of books and reading. From a small conversation Tristram Hunt and I had several years ago we now have a truly established, a very warmly received and joyful festival, busy with book lovers of all ages that attracts friends old and new to Stoke-on-Trent. “

Though no longer an MP, Tristam Hunt remains a Trustee for the Festival and is able in his new position as Director of the V&A Museum to attract a range of interesting speakers to the Festival including Oriole Cullen.

The Festival has become a much anticipated annual event and takes place over three days with a variety of speakers, there are author talks, panel discussions, interviews and workshops. All of the events take place around The Emma Bridgewater Factory, a working Victorian pot bank where the iconic pottery has been made for the last 20 years.

We were lucky that the sun was shining when we arrived at the factory to see Mary Portas. We were able to stand in the cobbled courtyard and enjoy the bustling atmosphere of the place filled with people ready to be entertained by the various speakers. There were free refreshments available which I thought was a nice touch as the organisers could have easily just left customers to purchase drinks from the cafe.

Quite a number of school children of various ages could be seen attending the events and this is made possible by the support of the Bertarelli Foundation enabling free tickets to be given to local schools and youth groups.

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The venue for the Mary Portas talk was The Meakin room. I’m not sure what this room would have been used for originally but I would describe it as being like a big barn. It was perfect to house the large number of people who had managed to get tickets but still felt intimate. The stage was set with a video montage of footage spanning her career and the Mary made her entrance alongside Charlotte Higgins the Chief Culture Writer for The Guardian who was to lead the discussion about Mary’s book ‘Work like a Woman’. I was interested to find out that Charlotte Higgins hails from Stoke on Trent and from a little bit of background reading I have found she doesn’t return to the city very often so it was good to see that The Festival was enough of a draw to bring her back. She did a great job and an entertaining and inspiring discussion with Mary Portas ensued. Mary talked about her experiences working in the male dominated retail world where only 10% of Women make up Retail Boards. She spoke of an Alpha culture and work practices and codes that mean that business are often run in an atmosphere of fear. With her years of experience Mary feels that there is a better way to work and this is something she has put into practice at her own company Portas Agency and has documented in her book Work like a Woman. Mary did say that the book could have equally been called Work like a Decent Human Being but the values she is enthusing about are those most typically aligned with women. Values of caring and nurturing and instinct. Mary made the point that we are at our best as individuals when we can truly be ourselves and that only happens when we feel safe so she questioned why wouldn’t you make people in business feel safe? She argues that by breaking the codes and creating a feeling of community and caring and respecting those who work for a company then there will be higher staff retention and profitability as those who feel cared for will payback the company with loyalty and love. It was incredibly inspiring and gave a real sense of hope for the future – change is coming. Mary certainly marketed herself well as following the talk my friend and I immediately joined the queue in the shop to buy her book and get our copies signed. We both admitted to being quite in awe of her and starstruck!

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We were certainly ready for some lunch so headed to the The Quarter in the Piccadilly area of Hanley. This is an area of Hanley that has been having something of a renaissance in recent years with a number of independent bars and restaurants opening up around the Regent Theatre. I had heard good things about The Quarter so was keen to see what it had to offer. I wasn’t disappointed there was a lovely atmosphere and the decor provided lots of things to look at and photograph. The menu was varied and interesting and there was plenty to choose from. I had toasted sour dough with scrambled egg, smoked salmon and avocado which was delicious but I did feel rather jealous of my friend’s deli platter – I’ll go for that next time. I will definitely return hopefully on one of the occasions when there is live music as these look great. If you want to find out more about The Quarter you can head to there website by visiting here.

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For our final treat of the day we headed back to the factory to listen to an incredibly informative talk by Oriole Cullen. She gave us a history of Christian Dior himself and how the brand was established before talking us through how the exhibition had been put together showing us various images of the flow of the exhibition and some of the stunning garments on display. I am still sad not to have got tickets to the actual show at the V&A but this was possibly the next best thing. I even summoned up the courage to ask a question at the end! I asked Oriole why if an exhibition such as this one proves to be so popular, the period of its showing is not extended to say a year. She responded with an answer that with hindsight obviously makes sense that there is too much of a risk that the garments will be damaged if they are exhibited for a prolonged period. Just gravity of the garments hanging on display and so many people walking passed everyday can cause damage to the fibres.

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We had such a great day and came away feeling inspired and planning to meet up over a glass of wine to discuss ‘Work Like a Woman’. I just need to get on and read it now…….

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The Festival may be over for 2019 but you can keep an eye on the event’s website for details of what is to come in 2020. A link to the website is available by clicking here.

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