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Voice of the people. Chester institution. Service provider. Some of the labels I suggest to ShitChester, to see where the man with 23.8k Twitter followers is comfortable. ‘It’s difficult, I don’t think it’s for me to answer that. I just do what I do and people must like it. I provide a sounding board for discussions. I remember being quite excited at 100 followers; in 2013, no one knew who I was. I love that people still think it’s worth following and I’m humbled by it.’

It feels fitting to be drinking coffee with SC in Storyhouse, arguably one of the best things to happen to our city – as we talk over the changes and challenges facing Chester. Likewise, that we’re joined by Liz, who SC introduces as, ‘a local character I know through a mutual friend,’ who he’s just bumped into in the foyer.

‘I enjoy meeting so many different people through doing this and hearing their stories. People have a lot of different memories of Chester’s history and it’s all part of the patchwork of the city. I’ve been privileged to be involved.’

On the 12th April, SC published, ‘5 Years of Shit Chester’ on his Chester Blog, a reflective glance over a tumultuous half-decade. ‘When I started this five years ago it was seen as more of an outsider thing. The establishment wasn’t keen. I had a big row with the Council Leader (Mike Jones) at the time, which kind of made it famous. We’re friends now and often go for a drink.’

A close friend started the account but soon handed over the reins completely to the anonymous one-man-band before us. ‘I took over and continued to shape it into something. Back then we weren’t interviewing people, and the blog came a year later. Initially, it was mostly about poking fun. My personality has seeped in, my observations, how I view the city and feel it can change. There was more anger then, in 2013 people were very negative and we had the cultural desert period. People were saying there was nothing to do. The cinema was just about to close and there was no professional theatre.’

The name of the account was never intended as offensive, and, just like the ShitLondon account, refers to ‘shit to do.’

Liz pipes up with, ‘Well, London is shit.’

SC laughs, ‘It’s got its good and bad points like anywhere.’

That’s a debate for another city. Right now I’m more interested in this row with the Council Leader. Back then SC had 4,000 followers and was obviously still considered influential enough to be counted. ‘He wasn’t a fan of the name – there was an incident and it made the local press. He wanted the name changed but I refused and was accused of trying to run the city down. Not everyone gets the irony.’

I put it to him that in a strange way, that kind of attention is flattering, ‘Yes, I guess it is.’

Since we’re on the subject of haters gonna hate, let’s talk enemies. ‘I’ve made a lot over five years. I’ve been abused on Twitter, as I’m sure most people have. It can get personal and even just changing the handle can prompt nasty comments out of nowhere. I change it for fun and sometimes to reflect events that are going on. The name doesn’t mean that much anymore.’

He’s a big fan of the Twitter mute button. ‘I use it all the time when things get too intense and people aren’t having a sensible debate – just one of the cons of social media.’

I’m keen to know if he’s ever felt like giving up or handing over the megaphone. ‘I’ve never thought I can’t do this. The Dig up Deva (relating to Dee House and the Roman Amphitheatre) incident wasn’t nice for people – I was harassed. That was unpleasant. Possibly I said some things I shouldn’t have and then it got out of hand. That was a low. Sometimes I get too involved in things. But even then, I wanted to carry on. I don’t see how I can hand it over at this stage – so much work has gone into it. I’m not going to give that up. It’s always calling me.’

Which brings us onto the tricky divide between SC as an individual and as an anonymous voice. ‘Sometimes I have to take a stand, people don’t have to agree with it – but I’ll share my personal opinion. In Chester, no one really agrees anymore about what’s right. There’s no consensus on the future of the city – like with The Northgate Development. The city’s confused as to what direction it wants to go in. Everyone loves Storyhouse, but with the rest of the city, sometimes I don’t know what’s going on.’

Another gem of a comment from Liz, ‘There’s nothing going on, that’s why.’

‘Well, I don’t agree with that,’ SC counters, ‘In terms of choosing not to reveal my name, sometimes you can achieve more if you’re in the background. I don’t want it to be about me as a person – I want it to be about Chester’.

‘What’s left of it,’ Liz says.

‘Put that in, that’s funny,’ SC suggests, ‘but I’ll argue that point in a minute. It’s not personal or about me, the account. My own views occasionally seep in, but I’m quite a shy person and would rather not be involved. The anonymity has faded, I’ve done radio interviews, covered three elections and attended a lot of events. I get invited to cover things, so more and more people know who I am.’

He admits he’s come a long way from 2013, tweeting pictures of rubbish bins. ‘Covering the election as press, attending a press conference, is a personal highlight. That was a big deal for me, and being accepted into that field felt good. I was up for twenty-four hours. I’ve taught myself to do this – so it means a lot. The account has evolved into covering more positive things and events and those have shifted my view of Chester. Once you explore and make connections, you realize there’s a lot going on beneath the surface.’

SC’s job remains confidential, but it’s a full-time commitment, surely making it a tough ask to keep his finger on the Chester pulse. ‘If I’m at work it can be difficult keeping up with all the tweets. But I find the time. I enjoy being involved in everything. I’ve made so many good friends through it.’

And what happens when he needs to or has to take a break? ‘When I was on holiday last year I carried on doing it. Ultimately, I take responsibility. If I’m sick, there’s no one else. Some people help me out and take pictures if I can’t make an event. I’ve also had a few guest writers on the blog. It’s a massive commitment, but when I’ve tried to lessen the output you get the feeling people aren’t happy and expect it to be there. Having done it for five years, it is a big part of my life.’

I’m curious to find out more about SC’s sources – do the people of Chester keep him fed? ‘There are a lot of connections on Twitter, but some things I search out. I do get told about events and things happening. I also write blogs for people and new businesses, but there are no financial transactions taking place. I don’t get any money out of this, I do it for the love. And there’s a sense of responsibility after 5 years. I feel I’ve got a role to play in the community.’

It’s clear the majority of SC’s followers are onside and keen to contribute to what he takes note of and shares. I return to a comment he made earlier about a lack of consensus on the city. Are people conflicted on what they want Chester to look like? ‘People here are very passionate, for good or bad, and sometimes the facts of an issue aren’t looked into, and they just shout off emotive comments. There are many myths, that people reel out all the time – about the council, university, business rates etc. It’s about discussing it in a civilised manner and being informed.’

There’s also a deep-rooted fear of losing what we have, but no one’s saying knock down the walls or make the Eastgate clock digital

Does he feel this occasional tension differs to that in any other place? ‘Having looked briefly at other local websites, it seems quite similar everywhere. Here, people are especially attached to the past and the history and not prepared to move forward. Anything new that’s put forward can be unfairly dismissed. There were a lot of comments saying Storyhouse wasn’t going to work. We need to be open to new ideas and not be too attached to things that happened fifty years ago, like wheeling out the old market as an example of the Council being bad and destroying the city. There’s also a deep-rooted fear of losing what we have, but no one’s saying knock down the walls or make the Eastgate clock digital.’

I ask if there’s a UK city he thinks Chester should aspire to. ‘Chester’s often compared to York, people go on and on about it, but you have to remember York is a much bigger city, so it’s not like for like. Listen, I can’t sugarcoat closing businesses, we’ve got issues. They’re just not specific to Chester. York has empty shops too. Something we should have though is a big, paid attraction, like York’s Viking Centre. We should take good ideas from other places. We’ve been crying out for something like that for decades. That would definitely boost us and the tourist numbers, and there are plenty of empty places we can build it in. Chester Visual Arts are fantastic – working towards a lot of positive things in the future – like the pop-up art in the old library. Chester deserves things like that.’

We talk about the Northgate Development, which, in some form or other has been in the pipeline for thirty years. ‘It’s been delayed again, it’s about a year behind. But we live in an uncertain world and it’s a big thing to build. People have been waiting a long time but I still think it’s the right thing to do – we need investment. I support it in principle, but we need more of an explanation about how the retail side will work. We definitely need a new market; the current one is flourishing with fresh businesses and ideas coming in, but it needs a new home. That building is horrible. No one will miss that. Every period of history has left its mark; the roman stuff and the rows. But no one’s talking about changing that.’

Isn’t the fear that developing this side of the city will suck the life out of places like Watergate Street? ‘It’s a commonly expressed view but we just can’t predict that. It’s something the Council needs to answer. I want to see it happen. We have to do something to address the decline.’ Talking about his recent Twitter handle, ‘Better than an empty unit’, he says, ‘That was about a charity shop opening – which started a big debate on The Chronicle website, people saying they didn’t want it – but would they prefer an empty unit? This is a big debate, I could go on forever about it.’

What does SC think we’re still missing in Chester? ‘We need to embrace different cultures. We need more things, like street art for example. There are plenty of empty buildings which could be painted on the sides. You look at places like Liverpool and Manchester, and they really have that going for them.’

We talk about the SuperTrees initiative for the Hoole roundabout, with local artist Nikki Pinder pencilled to create murals for the tunnels. ‘Exactly. You look at some grotty places and think, let’s just paint a picture there. Street art is so common across Europe. There’s hardly any here. That’s one thing we could embrace, to attract new people, something quirky. Everyone loves the rows and the walls, but they’re not doing anything, they’re just there. I’m not advocating painting them obviously! But other parts of the city. We need to think about today and the future, beyond history, there’s a lot of wasted potential.’

Turning the focus to independents, we celebrate the arrival of interesting businesses like Metronome, a jazz bar on Godstall Lane. Why does SC think some are thriving whilst others struggle? ‘People say they want independents, but then they don’t go to them and drive to Cheshire Oaks instead. Yes, parking is an issue but if we want to support them, we have to make the effort. People obviously want chains, or why is Costa so busy?’

I’ve got that yearning inside me for a better city. I urge people to use the independent shops

I suggest that it’s easy to lean on what we know, what’s familiar with a guaranteed outcome. If you’re hunting with one bullet, the safe choice is not to take a risk. But if we continue to think like that every time we’ll end up with identical high streets and cities without character. Thankfully business like Chester Running Tours are going to help with this battle, their new food tour supports local businesses. The latest Good for Nothing hack touches on the issue too – ways to increase footfall for our independents. ‘Things like that are needed, and the Amble map of independent Chester, drawing attention to them. There needs to be a fundamental shift in attitude. I’ve got that yearning inside me for a better city. I urge people to use the independent shops.’

What does SC think the major challenges are for Chester? ‘Well, In terms of events, there’s loads going on now, like the Mystery Plays, the Heritage Festival etc. so that argument has been killed. But there are a lot of empty units, which depresses me. I don’t know what the answer is. The city in places looks run down. When people use the hashtag on Twitter, ‘Perfect Chester’ that makes me angry because it’s not perfect. Obviously, I love it here. But you have to take a balanced view, there are still problems. It doesn’t help to call it a flawless wonderland. It isn’t. Homelessness has got a lot worse over the last five years in my experience. Although there are people doing good things in the city: ShareShop and Soul Kitchen.’

He’s confident (as are we) that Storyhouse is now a central hub for many Chester residents and a much-needed resource. ‘It’s brought Chester into national focus, winning awards and putting on fantastic shows. People complained when that opened, about the chairs being too close to the bookshelves, and the bar not serving beer on draught, things like that. There’s always going to be niggly things, but it’s a fantastic facility.’

Is he optimistic for the future? ‘More people are making an effort, and more voices are being heard, like you, We Are Chester, Tortoise, which is great. People are doing more for themselves rather than just moaning about it’. I suggest that the goal is to have a proactive populous of Cestrians who fight for the city and get involved. ‘Yes, that’s a good way of summing it up.’

And what about the future of ShitChester? ‘I’d like to do more with the website, something like Wrexham.com – a fantastic local site that’s very news based. That would be my ultimate aspiration.’

Not working for The Chronicle? SC laughs, ‘No, I’d want my independence. I think The Chronicle does a good job considering cut-backs. I’m good friends with the local press.’

I’m amazed he finds time to focus on his 9-5 at all. Twitter account and blog aside, he’s got a few other tricks up his sleeve. ‘I  started making the t-shirts after a year as a way to increase the profile. In the early days it was more of a cult thing, people say it’s more mainstream now. I’ve sold a lot of them for the Samaritans, which I care about deeply. In the past, we’ve raised money for The Hospice and Space, from the Lego models.’

Right, let’s talk Lego. He’s had a c-shaped stall in the market since 2015, thanks to friends and the Council offering him the room. ‘I built Funky Aardvark a window display which just started off as some of the rows. That sparked it. I’m constantly adding bits to the stall and it’s all for charity. I’ve just added The Flower Cup. We did Storyhouse when that opened – a massive Lego build. We always have a Christmas display. It’s three times the size it was when it opened, and it’s on TripAdvisor. My hope is that it also helps the market.’

Is it possible to push SC into announcing his all-time favourite Chester haunts? The answer is no. He’s as practised as a politician. ‘I don’t want to plug certain people and have others get offended. I go everywhere I can. I vary it and try not to have a single place. In a recent blog, I went to three places I’d not been to before. It’s important for me to be a nomad. I’ve just tried the pizza at Stile Napoletano – it was amazing.’

SC’s ultimate message is a call to arms. He believes we’ve got to work together to improve Chester. ‘The Guildhall is empty, as is St Olave’s Church, and you just think surely that could be used for something. The problem with a historic city is the walls don’t come for free, it takes money to maintain them, so a lot of resources are going into that. We need to focus on where we can make a difference, like showing up to planning meetings instead of just moaning online. We have to take that step and stand up. We all need to help each other. But, vitally, people at the top need to provide a structure and framework and lead the way. We need to decide what we want really. It’s approached in a piecemeal fashion at the moment – like Northgate and the One City plan.

And his top tips for someone looking to affect change through Twitter?‘ You have to be very active. You’ve got to engage with people a lot. You have to appeal emotionally. And you have to be positive. Being constantly negative isn’t a true picture. There are happy and sad moments. If you moan all the time, people will just turn off. We do live in a lovely city and I firmly believe that we should be thankful. There will be many dark times, that’s inevitable. I think we’re in a dark time now with the retail side but we can’t give up.”