My short blog post “H.G. Wells in Stoke”, which noted his Etruria story “The Cone” and his short time living in Basford, has been updated. I’m not one of those people who thinks that the text of blog posts are sacrosanct once posted. When new information arises, texts can be updated and tweaked. It’s the way of the Web.
I’ve added more details of his depiction of the Potteries in the later novels In The Days of the Comet (1906) and The New Machiavelli (1911). The re-naming of places in In The Days of the Comet had previously led me to think that it was set elsewhere, in some generic industrial Midlands place of the 1900s. But I now learn that a good deal of the scenes are meant to be in the Potteries. I overlooked this matter because Wells followed Arnold Bennett in cloaking the Potteries under new names. His Potteries become the ‘Four Towns’; Hanley becomes ‘Swathinglea’; Burslem is ‘Clayton’; Newcastle-under-Lyme is ‘Overcastle’; Leek is ‘Leet’ and so on.
I’ve also skimmed the novel for 90 minutes and have extracted all the relevant descriptive sections. I’ve corrected the American spelling from the American edition scan.
The first thirty pages of the novel begin it with this pungent description of the Potteries, in which the first half of the novel is set. Be warned that the Potteries are here shown in a very unsympathetic light. The young socialist narrator (of the violent type, “I’m a disciple of Nietzsche” he says at one point) goes for a walk in the summer evening, with his young friend the ‘scientific’ socialist Parload…
… we walked together up the narrow street, outside his lodging, up the stepway and the lanes toward Clayton Crest and the high road.
But my memories carry me back so effectually to those days before the Change that I forget that now all these places have been altered beyond recognition, that the narrow street and the stepway and the view from Clayton Crest, and indeed all the world in which I was born and bred and made, has vanished clean away, out of space and out of time, and wellnigh out of the imagination of all those who are younger by a generation than I. You cannot see, as I can see, the dark empty way between the mean houses, the dark empty way lit by a bleary gas-lamp at the corner, you cannot feel the hard checkered pavement under your boots, you cannot mark the dimly lit windows here and there, and the shadows upon the ugly and often patched and crooked blinds of the people cooped within. Nor can you presently pass the beerhouse with its brighter gas and its queer, screening windows, nor get a whiff of foul air and foul language from its door, nor see the crumpled furtive figure — some rascal child — that slinks past us down the steps.
We crossed the longer street, up which a clumsy steam tram, vomiting smoke and sparks, made its clangorous way, and down which one saw the greasy brilliance of shop fronts and the naphtha flares of hawkers’ barrows dripping fire into the night. A hazy movement of people swayed along that road, and we heard the voice of an itinerant preacher from a waste place between the houses. You cannot see these things as I can see them, nor can you figure — unless you know the pictures that great artist Hyde has left the world — the effect of the great hoarding by which we passed, lit below by a gas-lamp and towering up to a sudden sharp black edge against the pallid sky.
Those hoardings! They were the brightest coloured things in all that vanished world. Upon them, in successive layers of paste and paper, all the rough enterprises of that time joined in chromatic discord; pill vendors and preachers, theatres and charities, marvellous soaps and astonishing pickles, typewriting machines and sewing machines, mingled in a sort of visualized clamour. And passing that there was a muddy lane of cinders, a lane without a light, that used its many puddles to borrow a star or so from the sky. We splashed along unheeding as we talked.
Then across the allotments, a wilderness of cabbages and evil-looking sheds, past a gaunt abandoned factory, and so to the high road. The high road ascended in a curve past a few houses and a beerhouse or so, and round until all the valley in which four industrial towns lay crowded and confluent was overlooked.
I will admit that with the twilight there came a spell of weird magnificence over all that land and brooded on it until dawn. The horrible meanness of its details was veiled, the hutches that were homes, the bristling multitudes of chimneys, the ugly patches of unwilling vegetation amidst the makeshift fences of barrel-stave and wire. The rusty scars that framed the opposite ridges where the iron ore was taken and the barren mountains of slag from the blast furnaces were veiled; the reek and boiling smoke and dust from foundry, pot-bank, and furnace, transfigured and assimilated by the night. The dust-laden atmosphere that was gray oppression through the day became at sundown a mystery of deep translucent colours, of blues and purples, of sombre and vivid reds, of strange bright clearnesses of green and yellow athwart the darkling sky. Each upstart furnace, when its monarch sun had gone, crowned itself with flames, the dark cinder heaps began to glow with quivering fires, and each pot-bank squatted rebellious in a volcanic coronet of light. The empire of the day broke into a thousand feudal baronies of burning coal. The minor streets across the valley picked themselves out with gas-lamps of faint yellow, that brightened and mingled at all the principal squares and crossings with the greenish pallor of incandescent mantles and the high cold glare of the electric arc. The interlacing railways lifted bright signal-boxes over their intersections, and signal stars of red and green in rectangular constellations. The trains became articulated black serpents breathing fire.
This was the scene of many a talk we two had held together. And if in the daytime we went right over the crest and looked westward there was farmland, there were parks and great mansions, the spire of a distant cathedral, and sometimes when the weather was near raining, the crests of remote mountains hung clearly in the sky. […] Far away, distant, beautiful, irrelevant, from out of a little cluster of second- hand bookshops, ecclesiastical residences, and the inns and incidentals of a decaying market town, the cathedral of Lowchester [Lichfield] pointed a beautiful, unemphatic spire to vague incredible skies.
Having acquired a loaded revolver, stolen some money from a vicar and planning murder, the young socialist narrator then encounters a wide view of the Potteries…
… this was not a case of murder yet, but only the theft of four sovereigns.
I had argued away all anxiety before I reached Clayton Crest. At the Crest I looked back. What a world it was! And suddenly it came to me that I was looking at this world for the last time. If I overtook the fugitives and succeeded, I should die with them — or hang. I stopped and looked back more attentively at that wide ugly valley.
It was my native valley, and I was going out of it, I thought never to return, and yet in that last prospect, the group of towns that had borne me and dwarfed and crippled and made me, seemed, in some indefinable manner, strange. I was, perhaps, more used to seeing it from this comprehensive view-point when it was veiled and softened by night; now it came out in all its weekday reek, under a clear afternoon sun. That may account a little for its unfamiliarity. And perhaps, too, there was something in the emotions through which I had been passing for a week and more, to intensify my insight, to enable me to pierce the unusual, to question the accepted. But it came to me then, I am sure, for the first time, how promiscuous, how higgledy-piggledy was the whole of that jumble of mines and homes, collieries and potbanks, railway yards, canals, schools, forges and blast furnaces, churches, chapels, allotment hovels, a vast irregular agglomeration of ugly smoking accidents in which men lived as happy as frogs in a dustbin. Each thing jostled and damaged the other things about it, each thing ignored the other things about it; the smoke of the furnace defiled the potbank clay, the clatter of the railway deafened the worshippers in church, the public-house thrust corruption at the school doors, the dismal homes squeezed miserably amidst the monstrosities of industrialism, with an effect of groping imbecility. Humanity choked amidst its products, and all its energy went in increasing its disorder, like a blind stricken thing that struggles and sinks in a morass.
I was descending a steep, cobbled, excavated road between banked-up footways, perhaps six feet high, upon which, in a monotonous series, opened the living room doors of rows of dark, low cottages. The perspective of squat blue slate roofs and clustering chimneys drifted downward towards the irregular open space before the colliery [coal mine] — a space covered with coaly, wheel-scarred mud, with a patch of weedy dump to the left and the colliery gates to the right. Beyond, the High Street with shops resumed again in good earnest and went on, and the lines of the steam-tramway that started out from before my feet, and were here shining and acutely visible with reflected skylight and here lost in a shadow, took up for one acute moment the greasy yellow irradiation of a newly lit gas-lamp as they vanished round the bend. Beyond, spread a darkling marsh of homes, an infinitude of little smoking hovels, and emergent, meagre churches, public-houses, board schools, and other buildings amidst the prevailing chimneys of Swathinglea. To the right, very clear and relatively high, the Bantock Burden pit-mouth was marked by a gaunt lattice bearing a great black wheel, very sharp and distinct in the twilight, and beyond, in an irregular perspective, were others following the lie of the seams. The general effect, as one came down the hill, was of a dark compressed life beneath a very high and wide and luminous evening sky, against which these pit-wheels rose.
And ruling the calm spaciousness of that heaven was the great comet, now green-white, and wonderful for all who had eyes to see. The fading afterglow of the sunset threw up all the contours and skyline to the west, and the comet rose eastward out of the pouring tumult of smoke from Bladden’s forges. The moon had still to rise.
After the mysterious comet has narrowly passed Earth by, and its veil of green gas has mysteriously ushered in global socialism…
“All these vast cities have given way and gone, even as my native Potteries and the Black Country have gone […] As I look back into the past I see a vast exultant dust of house-breaking and removal rise up into the clear air that followed the hour of the green vapours, I live again the Year of Tents, the Year of Scaffolding … [this is accompanied by a great deal of “dustman’s work”, the tearing out of fences and the mass burnings of unwanted books and art … ] Kite and revolver had gone now, and all my hot and narrow past, its last vestiges had shrivelled and vanished in the whirling gusts of the Beltane fires. So I walked through a world of gray ashes at last […]