Friday, 19 August 2011

'Civilised man has not arrived here yet': JB Priestley on Stoke

Stoke's mayor, and anyone who's recently bought property in the city, probably shouldn't read the following…

Priestley's 1934 English Journey detests the industrial spoliation of the West Midlands, but poor old Stoke isn't spared either. In addition to its 'grim' physical state, he devotes a couple of pages to the pompousness and shallowness of its civic leaders, who prefer 'third-rate politicians' to 'artists of any kind', occasioned by the city's total refusal to recognise or mark Arnold Bennett's wonderful novels and short stories, many of them set in his home city.

To Priestley, the artificial merger of the six towns into Stoke-on-Trent is a Baudrillardian fantasy:
…it has no existence as a city… There is no city… there appeared, on paper, the mythical city of Stoke-on-Trent. But when you go there, you still see the six towns, looking like six separate towns. Unless you are wiser than I am, you will never be quite sure which of the six you are in at any given time, but at least you will be ready to swear that you are nowhere near a city that contains three hundred thousand people.
It's actually easy to work out where you are. If your racist mugger is wearing a Port Vale shirt, you're in Tunstall. If he's wearing a Stoke shirt, you're in one of the other towns.
What distinguishes this district, to my eye and mind, is its universal littleness… I seem to be paying a visit to Lilliput… the very people are small; sturdy enough, of course, and ready to give a good account of themselves; but nearly all stunted in height… It is a marvel to me that the cups and saucers turn out the right adult size.
Some things are large in Stoke. Primarily, and sadly, dole queues. Smoking-related death rates.
This is no region to idle in… not a place designed to comfort and compensate… I do not know what Nature originally made of it, because nearly all signs of her handiwork have been obliterated. But man, who has been very thorough here, has not made of it anything that remotely resembles and inland resort. For a man of the Potteries, it must be either work or misery… as a district to do anything but work in, it has nothing to recommend it.
And yet: as scathing as Priestley sounds, there's an affection in his account of the place - for its cussedness, its grim refusal to pander to bourgeois notions of niceness, physically or socially. I think he detects a certain pride in this bare bones existence.
…it is extremely ugly… I have seen few regions from which Nature has been banished more ruthlessly, and banished only in favour of a sort of troglodyte mankind. Civilised man, except in his capacity as a working potter, has not arrived here yet… Their excellent services of buses… simply take you from one absence of civic dignity to another… these differences are minute when compared with the awful gap between the whole lot of them and any civilised urban region. 
… the general impression is of an exceptionally mean, dingy provinciality, of Victorian industrialism in its dirtiest and most cynical aspect. 

Priestley's horror isn't solely aesthetic: the thing that really annoys him is the fact that these downtrodden folk are producing such beautiful ceramics amidst utter deprivation, while the pottery owners live deep in the countryside, 'from which the Potteries are only seen as a distant haze'.
In short, the Potteries are not worthy of the Potter… if you are not working there, if the depression in America or the triumphant competition of the cut-price countries has thrown you out, then God help you, for nothing that you will see or hear or smell in these six towns will raise your spirits. 
Finally, Priestley visits a factory making ceramic electrical insulators. He's hugely impressed by what seems like magic to him, and by the artistry of the ordinary and underpaid potters - but he has a parting shot:
Some morning there would be one gigantic blue flash and the whole industrial Midlands would look like a smoking dustbin - or even more like a smoking dustbin than they do now.
But he's forgiven thanks to his hilarious and sporting account of his total failure to master the basic techniques of throwing pots, and for this:
I smoked a pipe with one of their Trade Union officials, a good solid chap ('Oh, we often read you round here', he declared, 'and sometimes we'd like to give you one on the nose').
Stoke's no prettier now, and its people have the same vices and virtues Priestley noted.
He also does what I compulsively do:
When I dine out, I often turn the plates over and see who has made them.
If you see anyone do that, they're definitely Potters.


intelliwench said...

Your Priestley excerpt reminds me a bit of Johnson on the Scottish Highlands.

The Plashing Vole said...

That's a really apposite link, I think you've got something there.