Following the publication of my own North Staffordshire novel The Spyders of Burslem, I thought an article surveying other fictions set in the Potteries might be fitting:—
The classic author of the Potteries is, of course, Arnold Bennett. The most approachable novels are generally said to be the serious coming-of-age novel Clayhanger (1910), the more comedic The Card (1910), and the women’s stories Anna of the Five Towns (1902) and The Old Wives’ Tale (1908). All Bennett’s work is now in the public domain, and can be found online in various formats including Kindle. The Card was filmed, partly on location in Burslem and Middleport, with Alec Guinness in 1952. The Old Wives’ Tale was filmed as the 1988 BBC six-part drama, Sophia and Constance.
Paul Breeze’s My Guitar Gently Weeps (1979) is a neatly structured tale of hard rock music and harder revenge, set in the industrial Midlands of the mid 1970s. It’s a portrait of the music scene just before punk, but with a whiff of the notoriously violent Action comic and of the skinheads of the times. A first novel, it was published by the major publisher Micheal Joseph. Here’s their blurb…
“In this gripping novel of revenge, a young musician turns implacable avenger when his whole reason for living — playing the guitar in a rock band — is ended by a brutal assault.”
The writing in My Guitar Gently Weeps is excellent. There was a sequel called Back Street Runner (1980), featuring the same character (but, given the plot of the first book, it’s perhaps unlikely that Back Street Runner was set in Stoke-on-Trent).
Wedgwood Butterflies (2003) is a mystery thriller novel by Peter Corbishley. Set in the Potteries in an indeterminate time period, the book stars Eric Rattlestone, a researcher in ceramics.
The contemporary novelist Stephen Foster set two of his works in the Potteries. It Cracks like Breaking Skin (1999) was a Faber and Faber first novel, set around families and football in Stoke…
“A novel about what it is to grow up. On street corners and market stalls, in back kitchens and swimming pools, across the walkways and the terraces of Stoke-on-Trent, Hewitt the man faces Hewitt the boy. Finding rare passion in the ordinary moments, he discovers what he is, who he might have been.”
Foster’s last publication seems to have been the Kindle-exclusive The Final (2011), set on Stoke’s big day at the F.A. Cup final match (14th May 2011).
Award-winning artist and writer Andi Watson made his debut with a Potteries novel of relationships. Breakfast After Noon (2001) is a substantial and powerful graphic novel set around the end of the 20th century, as many big ceramics factories and the giant steelworks at Etruria closed down, to be replaced by unemployment and family strife — while the New Labour government looked on and did little except scheme about how to demolish people’s terraced houses.
Necromantra (2005) is a novel by Phil Emery, a brooding Kafkaesque novel set in a dark fantasy version of the Victorian-era 1850s Potteries which Emery calls “The Hundred Towns”…
“In the Hundred, the working folk are kept in order by the masters who administrate the various mills, pits and manufactories. Strict records are kept in town halls, every death certified despite a crushing mortality. However, the old grim certainties face a new threat with the arrival of the necromancers — dark-skinned pilgrims who, by the chant of a strange mantra, are able to raise the recently dead, thus throwing the immaculate records of the town halls into chaos. In retaliation, the masters appoint a number of rectifiers to each town. Reviled and feared by most of the Hundred, their job is to ‘re-decease’ the ‘discrepancies’, as the risen are labelled.”
The Bonemill (2010) by Nicholas Corder is a short and fast-paced historical thriller novel set in Stoke in the 1820s, and intended for young teenage readers (i.e., the “young adult” market)…
“A teenage orphan, Joseph lives hand-to-mouth, keeping one step ahead of the workhouse. And he’s trying to contact his dead mother through his landlady and medium, Gerda. When offered a chance to earn a few extra shillings, Joseph jumps at the chance and is soon dragged into the deadly sideline business at the House of Recovery with the slimy local anatomist.”
The Green Stone (197?), by Graham Phillips, is only partly or tangentially set in Stoke. It was apparently one of those famous Panther paperbacks of the late 1970s, full of ‘earth mysteries’ and faux mysticism, and is said to have some scenes of…
“battling with the spirits of Victorian magicians in dank basements under Stoke-on-Trent”
Mel Sherratt’s crime novel Taunting The Dead (2011) is a gritty and atmospheric crime story set in Stoke-on-Trent.
There are also short stories. Such as “Garden of Forking Paths” by Jorge Luis Borges (to be found in his collection Labyrinths) which is set in “a suburb of Fenton” but which the narrator reaches by alighting from his train at a fictitious rural halt called “Ashgrove” and then walking through a countryside of “confused meadows”. I have a short essay on the story on this blog.
A more substantially “Stoke” short story is by H.G. Wells. His story “The Cone” (1895) can be found in The Country of the Blind and other Selected Stories, or for free online since it is in the public domain. It’s a macabre story, apparently inspired by a news report of someone throwing themselves into an ironworks melting-pot and by Wells’s own time in the Potteries. He vividly evokes the works at Etruria in Stoke. For details of Wells in the Potteries, see my book on the topic.
The novelist and pioneering werewolf scholar (The Book of Werewolves, 1865) Sabine Baring-Gould set his novel The Frobishers: A Story of the Staffordshire Potteries (1901) in North Staffordshire. The work is freely available online. However, the author of The Bibliophile Dictionary encyclopaedia thought it a piece of political propaganda: “A study of the hardships and oppressions of workers in the pottery districts of North Staffordshire, the details evidently ‘got up’ for the purpose of instructing public opinion.”
There are also apparently some unpublished works, such as Robert P. Clarke’s Five Gold Rings, a philosophical novel of Kantian ideas set in his terraced house in Longport, near Burslem.
Of note among autobiographies that evoke the poverty during the Great Depression of the 1930s are the major books by Arthur Berry (Three and Sevenpence Ha’penny Man), and Paul Johnson (The Vanished Landscape: A 1930s Childhood in the Potteries). Also heavily autobiographical is Arthur Berry’s book of stories The Little Gold-Mine. See also Tales of old Hanley (1992) by Fred Leigh.
Rhoda Broughton was the niece of the horror fiction pioneer Sheridan le Fanu. Broughton was once… “one of the most popular novelists of the second half of the nineteenth century”, but is now almost totally forgotten. She left Staffordshire (Eccleshall, a few miles to the SW of Stoke) as a young woman and lived most of her life in Oxford. A volume of her ghost stories was published in 1995, Rhoda Broughton’s Ghost Stories, and I suppose it may just be possible that one of these stories is set back in the Staffordshire of her youth, perhaps even in the Potteries?
Priscilla Masters’s short children’s book Mr. Bateman’s Garden (1987) is a fantasy set in the gardens at Biddulph Grange, North Staffordshire — although it seems unlikely that it includes a depiction of Stoke-on-Trent.
As for poets, Charles Tomlinson’s The Stoke Poems was published as an audio book by Keele. It collected all his Stoke and Staffordshire poems. So far as I know there has never been a print edition. Also see Arthur Berry’s 2007 collection Dandelions, and some of the poems of John Wain. Nov 2011 also saw the Kindle republication of the 1899 volume The Writings In Prose and Rhyme In North Staffordshire Dialect by the Potteries Poet by William Steele.
Oral storytelling is well represented by Alan Povey’s tales of his Owd Grandad Piggott character, set in the Potteries. LP albums and CD collections of the stories have been available in the past, and have been broadcast on BBC Radio Stoke — but the character doesn’t seem to have yet made the transition to podcasts.
There was also a paperback book The Stoke Story: fiction and memoirs. This was published as a 2002 competition anthology. Despite being published by Stoke-on-Trent Libraries, it seems never to have been listed on book databases or on Amazon, and is now unobtainable as a purchase. I have placed the contents page online here.
(My thanks to Fred Hughes for pointing out three of these books).
Update: In late 2012, two new novels set in Stoke-on-Trent:
* Jonathan Taylor, Entertaining Strangers. Jonathan grew up in Trentham, and has used the city as a backdrop for a novel of eccentricity, obsessions, and fiery visions.
* A.N. Wilson, The Potter’s Hand. A historical novel of the interior life and work of Josiah Wedgwood, the famous pottery maker.