Talk About Local – 48 Hours on Teesside


You can just jump straight to the bit out Talk About Arts, Culture, Place event, or if you have 5 minutes and the slightest desire to know why I think it’s the best thing in the world to share stories about where you live then read on below.

The story of why I’m up in Teesside this winter starts in 2005, or maybe actually starts from spending my first years in a pub.

When I started the Culture Vulture – as a newsletter – back in 2009 it was off the back of a running a blog called The Armley Tourist Board into the ground.  It had been the most amazing, creative fun for 4 years to run a quirky site extolling the virtues of a place that in those days ranked highly in the search engines for Chav Towns.

The site was born out of some amazing street parties we’d initiated and it seemed simpler to connect the stories of the people who lived in the hood via this personality called the Lady Mayoress of Armley – oh and her coterie of dopplegangers. She had a saucy PR agent and a number of gentlemen admirers. She was devastated to learn Armley-born Alan Bennett could not be persuaded of her charms and come join the ‘Jam Up the Back Passage’ street parties. He sent his polite decline by way of a bookmark, saying ‘Armley is still a good old fashioned place’, which she had preserved in aspic.

Over time the community spirit, cake competitions, love of Google Analytics ended up with parties, calendars, charity connections and lots of good times. Pre-Twitter I learnt how to use blogs, analytics, email marketing software, text campaigns, some small amount of code, and how to galvanise a gathering, or mobilise a mob. Actually I ended up getting paid to talk at Tourism conferences about that time, extolling to the leisure and tourism industry how they could embrace the residents’ voice to create a distinct offer when they marketed to visitors.


Then it started to get serious. People wanted me to intercede in their children’s education problems, close factories down, open fetes and do ALL their work for them in promoting their events online. So I thought why not set up a website where people could upload their own….Well no bugger wanted to, and I started to feel resentful… Truth be told my interest was waning and I had a new baby due so it gradually petered out.

Now my daughter’s at primary school, I feel the need to invest some of that energy back into where I live. I spend less time being curious about Armley as my work takes me all over the place these days, oddly doing more of what I’d started out with as a passion is now how I make my living – some call it community development, some call it blogging and social media, I call it ‘working out what makes you give a shit about where you live and doing something about it’. This might even be called Civic Engagement in Leeds, because my interest has gone beyond just where I call home to a fascination with how the city I live in operates and how we can find commonality of purpose together, businesses, schools, organisations, individuals, ie People! I love to create things that can bring us together to have a conversation, to then do stuff, then reflect, keep talking, and doing more of what makes us feel good. I think of this as weaving. I don’t know much about anything in great depth, and there are a lot of people who do, I like to discover how we bring the deep and the narrow together. Do we have a sense of what matters more than our own individual concerns?

This blog grew from a newsletter to what it is now, less of a what’s on, more like a what’s important. Phil Kirby is the editor and I’m trying to take a back seat and bring some dosh in so we can spend more time helping people contribute and develop their connections with an ever increasing community of readers.

So blogs, content, twitter, social media, are a means to an end to me, I don’t love technology for it’s codey sake. I love it for what it can enable us to do. For me it’s about

  • Trying ideas out cheaply. A blog costs nothing to set up, the biggest cost is your time

  • Testing the water for your ideas, is there any interest in the stuff that’s in my head or is it tumbleweed time? You may find a very narrow community of interest and that’s fine. Better to get that thing out there rather than nurse it like it’s your precious…

  • Being critical friends. Not being cruel, but not being submissive either. Thinking about the impact of your thoughts and actions.

  • Being part of a bigger picture. We’re not the only blog in town, there are loads of great sites out there, and we’re chuffed to be a part of this vibrant cacophony. It’s not about being a dominating the market, it’s about being one of many doing our bit.

  • Musing on stuff. Sometimes I don’t know how I feel about things, I quite like the wisdom of crowds. But not filter bubbles and echo chambers.

  • Dissolving hierarchies. My experience is that everybody is a human being, let’s find out what matters to people and not think of them as representing organisations.

  • Subverting people’s perceptions. It’s easy to knock stuff, why not try and discover the good in people and places and reflect that back?

  • Being provocative. It’s okay to ask questions, but people switch off if I am relentless or a one track record.

  • Weaving across sectors and tickling away at silo thinking. Social media is great these days for all sorts of sector or cause based conversations. Sometimes they seem interesting but impenetrable. I tend to jump in and discover if they are relevant to me  and then try to connect the conversations to those outside the sector that they may be relevant to

  • Encouraging people to get stuck in. That’s what we (note I met our editor Phil Kirby via Twitter some 4 years back) love at the Culture Vulture, which is asking ‘fancy a go’ at writing, at putting on events, responding creatively to stuff.

  • Cheerleading. Doing anything which involves a bit of energy and commitment needs some positive backslapping from time to time. People like to be recognised, and more importantly when it comes to creating an authentic sense of place, surely the interesting stories are about those people?

  • Making connections. There are literally MILLIONS nay Gazillions of people out there doing interesting things. I love to play SNAP…connect people up together, see what happens. Not just in a local sense but globally. What if there were two fans of Patagonian Nose Flute lovers in the world?

  • Synthesising disparate things: Sometimes I enjoy lurking on social media and find it pays dividends from just listening and checking in. Who knows you might just spot something if you take a step back and watch stuff unfold

So a basic ability to use tech can be a great thing if you want to share your story, or be positive about where you live. You may not be the artist with all the skills, you may not be a HTML hound, but you may have enthusiasm and pride, or something is bugging you and you don’t think the local media will care two hoots  well we’ve found that you can have a degree of influence because of your perceived readership. So much so we’ve developed events such as Does Leeds Need  a Mayor? to a packed Rosebowl Lecture Theatre at Leeds Met, at a time when all the political parties were saying ‘Vote No’ to a referendum.

I cannot stress strongly enough how blogging can give you a licence to learn and to knock on doors. It’s a route to creating a platform when you don’t feel listened to. You don’t have to create a blog or platform like this, it’s a personal thing. It’s great as long as it’s fun for you.

That’s why I’m passionate about it. And hopefully if you join us at Talk About Arts, Culture, Place in Teesside you’ll consider what purpose you have, and what tools and technology you need to make your ideas come to life. You’ll also find a host of other people equally desirous to get cracking too, all with their own skills to share. Our job is to help you to get there!

PS I don’t actually ‘blog’ so much any more, and when I do I really need Phil Kirby our editor to cut my waffle back down to something worth reading

PPS: Alan Bennett now thinks Armley has a Mayor. How’s that for myth making?


  1. Great story. Do you think there is the will or need even in doing the Teeside thing in Leeds?

    Seems to me there are a lot of similar projects/initiatives/things in Leeds that have likeminded people who want the best for their city, all doing some or all of the things you mention in differing forms and to different extent. I know we’ve chatted many times about the dots.

    Thing is, it might not appear as working together even if it is…if it even needs to?

    I posted here about Leeds possibly being a more sociable city. One of the responses I got was, “Sociable city? No need it is already” which is good in some ways, but suggests there is no need or will to see if it could be better.

    I will follow that up as it’s got me intrigued.

    1. Thanks Phil it’s always lovely to have a comment on a blog, especially as I find them painful to do these days. I’ll be commenting on yours shortly

      The Teesside stuff resulted out of us doing 5 Cultural Conversation events which grew and grew until we were getting over 150 people coming to open space events, from across sectors, businesses, third sector etc to discuss stuff like ‘What would it take for our cities to delight us’ and ‘We are All Jim’ (Unfortunate event title now in the light of what we now know) They’d started out really as a way of skills sharing and we did them because we wanted to help bring together people who wanted to get more out of social media to tell their story.

      So the Arts Council in the North East commissioned us to run three in Teesside to see if we could generate through these conversation events more connectivity and appetite for cross region networks. They have continued since without us, and we’re really pleased to see great websites like I Love Stockton Me flourishing, and Looka-Teeside a new festival came out of like-minds meeting at a cultural conversation.

      So the Talk About Arts Culture Place with Talk About Local was the next step identified as a gap still from people at those cultural conversations that they wanted to make the good stuff more visible, but felt they lacked the digital skills to do it. Some fear a lack of time and how they might lead busy lives and maintain websites.

      We’d love to keep putting on the cultural conversations, we always did them based on people wanting to, not because anybody was paid. Indeed the events were free, and sometimes we got a bit of sponsorship and venues were extremely accommodating. A lot of thought was put into how we created a warm and welcome (convivial)space for people to come together.

      So when you speak of a socialable city, I guess my thoughts are around network weavers. I can see why some think it is already, and my first reaction was that there are a number of people doing great stuff in this city, and have their heads down trying to do more on less pay, and need as much recognition for their sheer determination to keep plugging away. Sometimes we are too busy delivering to be able to see the bigger picture, and sometimes we don’t bang the drum for what we have all being doing. We need to keep doing that for each other.

      I think we have played our part in creating the conditions for a sociable city, and will continue to do, whether in the guise of this website, as individuals or encouraging others to do so.

      However it’s a fragile time we find ourselves in right now, people are tired, reactive, overstretched, and worried for our futures. You can feel that vibrations on Twitter sometimes, I’d be interested in exploring how we can be compassionate towards each other as a population, on-line and off. Is that sociable? It’s a great time to be challenging ourselves to be more than just social, does sociable mean compassionate, convivial, kind, listening and democratic?

      We have a great opportunity in this city, we are really well connected, Catherine Howe wrote about it here

      So it’s great to see that a year on those within the council who were reluctant to embrace the opportunities afforded by social media are seeing the benefits. It’s always worth remembering what it’s like to be the new kid in the playground, I’ve certainly felt that way since my daughter started school. So if we want to find ways to make stuff happen together we need to remember that not everybody feels at ease in new cultural spaces, not at first anyway!

      This is a long ramble. I do apologise

      1. I don’t think that is a ramble at all. I think you summed it up perfectly when you said:

        ” I’d be interested in exploring how we can be compassionate towards each other as a population, on-line and off. Is that sociable? It’s a great time to be challenging ourselves to be more than just social, does sociable mean compassionate, convivial, kind, listening and democratic?”

        All that, and in discussion or challenge we retain dignity and manners.

        1. Yes and I’d be the first person to acknowledge this week that I haven’t been as measured in my responses to people as I am under normal circumstances. On the manners front I’ve found myself reacting to people online who think we aren’t batting hard enough for them, and on the dignity bit I think I lost it for a few hours earlier in the week.

          The great thing though, the bit that gives me great encouragement, is that I feel that I am amongst real friends in the city, the people who let you have a moment and understand this is not entirely in character.Some of these people I’ve yet to meet in the flesh!

          I’ve been thinking about the reaction to your hopeful aspiration/question of a sociable city, and I guess there’s an inherent tension between you as a person and you as a representative of a (perceived) powerful organisation.

          On the one hand if you were not working for the council I think people would treat the query more lightly, yet there’s something we’ve yet to overcome which is that the context in which you speak is about ‘the council’ and possibly implies ‘taking the lead’ rather than all being in this equally finding our way together, which I feel is your intent.

          So along with other aspirations such as Best and Child Friendly, Sociable becomes an opportunity for a discussion. It means different things to different people. Values led rather than economic some might say… It’s one I’d rather invest time thinking about, and being!

          Throw anything into the twitter pool and there are ripples whilst people consider what they feel/think

          Personally I’d like to see a value proposition manifested off line as well as online, so socialble applies to the way we can sit and be convivial in the city…more common spaces in the middle of commerce for starters

          Thanks Phil you’ve definitely got me pondering

          1. I like that people express that they are among real friends in the city.

            I like that Best/Child Friendly/Sociable and other initiatives/projects create opportunities for discussion and sharing opinions.

            And I understand that perception can be reality. The whole purpose of ‘sociable’ was to explore how things might be shared and not ‘lead’ and discussions happen in different places…like here.

            And I see that I will always to some extent,as my job is in communications and I’m upfront about that, be seen as my employer by default. I hope that doesn’t mean I can’t be seen as me too, I still live in Leeds and it is my home and I care about it.

      2. Interesting that you saw Cultural Conversations as about skill sharing and social media Emma. Perhaps that is how they started off. I saw them primarily as relationship and trust building exercises, providing the preconditions for skill sharing, collaboration, dialogue and so much more.
        They were about further developing the community of interest/practice around culture in the city.

        Once you have built a ‘community’, a structure that people feel they belong to, then all sorts become possible. The cultural conversations offer a great template for enabling citizen action and impact on just about any theme that you care to mention. They are the embodiment of ‘civic enterprise’ in my opinion.

        They ‘worked’ because they were very human. Friendly, flawed, funny. They were convivial. If a little scary!

        Once a community has been pulled together, then the real work starts. Open communities will hold people that are compassionate, caring, convivial and kind. They will also contain people who are selfish, secretive, competitive and rude. They will also contain people whose behaviours are driven as much by their context as by their values. The challenge is to build a structure for community that can hold all this for long enough to allow these different types to figure out how to work together effectively in the long term. For some productive ‘social’ norms to be established.

        The conflation of ‘using social media’ with ‘sociable’ is, I think, dangerous. Social media gives us some easy and cheap ‘quick wins’ and it makes for excellent PR and award winning opportunities, but currently seems to do little to make a real impact on some of the inequalities in the city. Indeed it could be seen as further privileging us i-phone toting classes. They enable progress to be made at lower cost and higher speed. They don’t necessarily do anything to change the direction of travel. The promise that ‘hyperlinks subvert hierarchy’ has yet to be proven.

        It can be really difficult to work with the public agencies on some of this stuff. I currently have four invitations from people in the council and other bits of the public sector asking me to talk to them about our work on Disrupting Poverty so that we can be joined up with their work. So I find myself spending my money, and giving up my time to sit across a desk from salaried officers telling me how I need to ‘work with them’ and how they will ‘be in touch’. It becomes impossible to work to our own timetables, around our kitchen tables, following our instincts and interests. We suddenly have to fit in with ‘strategies’, ‘obsessions’, ‘targets’ and funding requirements. It often makes stuff harder rather than easier. It changes the way we work, and not usually for the better.

        Has there ever been a proper conversation about any of this stuff? Where those with a responsibility and the cash for making good things happen in our communities really try to understand how this kind of bottom up work can be enabled? I am not sure that it has.

        1. Thanks Mike and to be fair I agree that’s what the original intent was for cultural conversations and we soon realised it was less about the skill sharing and more about the coming together as you’ve described. We did all of those for absolutely no recompense, which after time is hard to justify to those who need you to bring money into the house, as you’ve described.

          It’s lovely to be invited to the table to talk about making a difference to the city, but in certain situations you find yourself wondering if anybody in that room of leaders is earning less than £60k and appreciates that they ask you to come to ‘their office’ at their time and then assume you’ll write this off as business development time…

          It’s one of my main challenges these days, especially now that Playful Leeds has some civic enterprise support, as it proves that those years of ‘business development’ build trust eventually, but with that support comes even greater expectation, deliverables, outcomes and those are just those that you place upon yourself to keep honest and do a good job. I say yes to everything in order to be a good citizen yet it feels like that as more people join the conversation online and off, the collective memory is forgotten in the desire to start new things up rather than support the hard work of what already exists.

          The mapping of these networks in a really visible way, and of communities would be helpful, but in a live way. I also think in a small city people like to originate their own stuff, rather than join in with other ventures, that’s a blessing and a curse for Leeds. We often jump right in with a new venture without checking to see if there is anything doing a similar thing.

          We do have some great community stuff happening, and we need more network weavers to thread across the different groups, and make connections. But that all takes time and to be fair some resource.

          My thoughts are forming, so I’m sure there’s plenty more to say on this subject. But I expect it’s frustrating for those with good hearts and intentions when their ideas are met with jadedness….

        2. Mike, I take your point about conflating social media with sociable. That was the purpose of exploring what it might mean – good and bad and the reason I posed the question; what might ‘more sociable’ be?

          That’s how the idea of sociable organisation came about; because the LGA social media friendly mark campaign appeared to miss the point and there was a danger that the digital by default agenda might increase the digital divide.

          This was how Sociable Organisation was explained at the start:

          “Also it is realisation that it’s not just about shifting to digital as the cheapest communication channel. With changes to welfare reform, people will increasingly want and need to find a place where they feel confident to talk about their problems face to face. It has to be about being sociable.”

          And it is an awkward name, I accept that.

          There is something similar in the NHS called #hellomynameis

          Maybe what we are discussing here is the opportunity for that proper conversation about this stuff, maybe the time is right, maybe it isn’t, I hope there is the will, there may not be, I don’t know. I’m sure people will say. And that is not me suggesting the council wants to lead it.

        3. Mike’s comment
          ‘It can be really difficult to work with the public agencies on some of this stuff. I currently have four invitations from people in the council and other bits of the public sector asking me to talk to them about our work on Disrupting Poverty so that we can be joined up with their work. So I find myself spending my money, and giving up my time to sit across a desk from salaried officers telling me how I need to ‘work with them’ and how they will ‘be in touch’. It becomes impossible to work to our own timetables, around our kitchen tables, following our instincts and interests. We suddenly have to fit in with ‘strategies’, ‘obsessions’, ‘targets’ and funding requirements. It often makes stuff harder rather than easier. It changes the way we work, and not usually for the better.’

 germane. I spent 15 years in a world of strategies and plans, which are necessary for very large organisations. But now, whenever ideas generated from community work become embroiled in a plan or strategy my heart sinks. I find particularly irksome the public sector habit of stealing my time/ideas in meetings and not paying for them or passing them on to a supplier already on their list to implement that has run out of ideas for themselves. These days you don’t even get a cup of coffee.

          There isn’t a neat answer to this of course – to scale you need to fit into someone’s plan and small scale community methods rarely do scale well on their own.

  2. I returned to Leeds in April, after living in the East Midlands for 10 years. I made the move for a number of reasons; both personal and professional. All I’ll say right now (as my time on this PC is about to run out) is I made the right decision to come back to Leeds.

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