I’ve spent the best part of this year back in Stoke and I’m starting to see the place with a fresh perspective.

I’ve not lived here permanently for 12 years. In that time I’ve lived in Sheffield, Newcastle and all over London.

At 19, I couldn’t wait to leave. To get out. Have some freedom. Try new things. Have new experiences. See the world.

There was a part of me that hated Stoke. I was annoyed that it wasn’t a good city. That there wasn’t much to do. I was worried about what I’d do with my life and I was searching for something different. At times, I felt like I couldn’t be myself here. People got started on for wearing different clothes on nights out. Being different got you looked at or taken the piss out of.

I had family members beaten up for wearing certain clothes, I heard the racial slurs in the stands at football matches. I worked out how to play it safe, keep myself in my lane so I didn’t stand out too much. I didn’t dream much, or try new things. I didn’t take risks with art, drama, or music at school. I played it safe, because fitting in was better than standing out.

At the same time, buried underneath the anger and frustration. I loved the place. Loved my mates. Loved my family and had a very happy childhood. I was sad that even though I did want to leave at the time, I didn’t really ever feel like I had a choice not to.

I remember me and the lads would say (and still do) “it’s a shithole, but it’s our shithole” and it was said with love and affection. Yet at the same time if you call a place a shithole, on some level I thought I was shit for living in it. I thought my life would be shit here.

I never thought I had a chip on my shoulder until I saw I have a massive one. A chip that I’ve met people along the way from cities who had different opportunities to me. A chip that I’ve felt like I’ve had to fight my lack of confidence, insecurity or fear of judgement to do what I wanted to do in life. A chip where some people had family friends who were business owners and I didn’t. A chip where some kids had way more access to cultural experiences in their neighbourhood.

12 years on and I’m back here. I didn’t expect to be. I see the place with a completely new set of eyes. I see how 50 years of industrial change, political mismanagement and economic decline have contributed to the “its a shithole” mentality.

I see how me and all my mates or all the kids I went to school with barely had any role models. Our families, Robbie Williams and Jon Caudwell, very little in between.

I walk past the boarded up pubs that were once packed when everyone worked at the Potbanks. I see the bottle kilns with trees growing out of them. I read the SOT live articles that tell stories like “man on spice in wheelie bin in Hanley” and those stories get all the comments. The ones sharing some good news, or a positive story nobody seems to acknowledge.

I see now that I get to choose what I see around me. If I want to see a shithole I can. If I want to see a beautiful place, with incredible history and bags of potential I will. I choose to see the latter right now.

That’s not to say some things aren’t shit. Stoke is culturally and economically deprived. That’s a fact. Yet we can choose to focus on that, moan about it, complain about the council or the MPs or anyone else you want to point a finger at. Or if you have the time, energy and capability, you can see something different, change your mindset and do something different.

A lot does need to change and the first thing is mindset and the story that we tell ourselves here. The “it’s a shithole” story will result in another 50 years of decline and I’m not here for that.

This has been burning in me to say since I’ve been back. I know it’s only words, but it starts here and then I believe change will happen.

James x