John Toft as a Potteries writer

Two more obscure locally-set novel, discovered. John Toft (b. Eric John Toft, 1933-), The Bargees (1969, J.M. Dent & Sons) and The Wedge (1972, W.H. Allen). Both book were from solid publishers of the time, indicating quality. The publisher blurb for The Bargees opens…

“Two Potteries children, Sheila and Ernie, are friends. Ernie is an orphan, and he and Sheila are friends of Liddy…”

bargees

I can discover no more, and the novel is decades out of print and unobtainable. The cover art suggests that the plot may then follow the children as they grow up? The last days of the genuine working life of the canals were a well chronicled topic in the 1960s, and served as a backdrop to a number of feature-films and novels.

The Wedge is a regional historical novel. A book review of the time stated it…

“describes life in the Potteries region in the 1920s and 1930s. … set in the Potteries in the period leading up to the Second World War, finds the provincial working class a delight to be among but grants its dilemmas.”

I also found a snippet of a review of The Wedge by a Midlands reviewer for Books and Bookmen. The reviewer had lived here in the 1930s, and though he enjoyed the writing style it seems he found the novel’s local colour and topography distinctly lacking…

“The setting is the Potteries, though apart from some exactly reproduced flashes of the local accent and the inevitable town names, it could be set anywhere in the industrialised Midlands.”

Toft was one of the many talented Potteries people who — while they could say they were “born in the Potteries” — left just as soon as the opportunity arose. One can’t blame them, but it may help explain the apparent lack of local colour in The Wedge. In Toft’s case he left via grammar school (presumably in Newcastle-under-Lyme), then Magdalen College Oxford, followed by “travel in the East” including a spell teaching English at the Malayan Teachers College. He wrote his fiction as “a lecturer at Brighton Polytechnic” and produced three novels in the late 1960s and early 70s, with The Bargees being his first. There was also a book of stories, The House of the Arousing (1974). A short account of him in Brighton is found in The London Review, 1981…

“Up in the attic of almost the last of those white terraces [in Brighton] lived the writer John Toft; we’d first met through a shared enthusiasm for [the Welsh Marches novelist] John Cowper Powys”

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