I write as a fan. It must be about 18 years since I read your book on finding America ” Lost Continent” and later your books on the UK, Australia and a History of Science. I particularly like the Walk in the Woods” The anecdote about Bear attacks and how to avoid them, the answer being always take a travel companion who runs more slowly than you helps explain why Council leaders pick the cabinets they do.
However I was in a bookshop and thumbed through a copy of “Icons of England” which you wrote an introduction. I wonder whether my expectations would be confounded, unfortunately it was not. Most of the contributions from writers of places were in the South of England. The Berkshire Downs was in there as was the Weald of Kent, South Devon, Dorset, Lands End, Bacombe, West Wittering, Rutland.
In other words the South of England gets a good press as far as what constitutes a national treasure. A few northern places sneak in like the Yorkshire Dales and the Lakes,but what is telling is the omissions. With the exception of London no urban places were mentioned and certainly no cities in the north or the Midlands. I find this gap mystifying and probably reflect the common view probably held since the time of Mrs Miniver that the south is England.
Perhaps I am being slightly touchy about the subject, but no Manchester, no Newcastle on Tyne and no Liverpool. I happen to think the view of Liverpool’s harbour front from Seacombe is one of the great views in the country, but it is up to Scouser’s to press that claim..
However my intention in writing this open letter is to argue in any future book that you do on the “Icons of England” is for an essay on Stoke on Trent- my home town.
This might be thought as some as being a very difficult mission. The general view of the area is dismissive, summed up by a quote by Noel Coward who as a young man appeared at a theatre in Hanley in 1916 and declared that the town was the most depressing place he had ever visited. George Orwell walking north through the area in the winter of 1936 described the drabness of the area thus in February 1936 he describes the streets full of draggled inhabitants and poor shops as he walked through Burslem. At more or less the same time Joseph Priestley in “English Journey” notes the smallness of scale of the Potteries compared with his native Bradford.
However there is another side. When I was at University a friend lent me a copy of John Hillaby’s book from the 1960s ” A Journey through Britain” where he stops off in Stoke. He is entirely sympathetic with the locals and he thought that the people of Stoke some he met in the “Staff of Life” in Hill Street were by far the friendliest he had ever met. This willingness to engage with complete strangers is a very charming quality that people have from the area. If I give one anecdote myself from an incident last December whilst waiting for a bus in Trent Vale where I struck up a conversation with a young man who I thought was not all there. He talked to me about meeting the actress who played Cat in East Enders who had appeared locally. He had won a competition in a local newspaper to have tea with her in the Regent Theatre and was clearly full of himself as he told me how kind the actress was. I told him that I liked his shirt. He said that he was off to see a pantomime. I said something like O yes. He said, “You are supposed to say, O no you’re not”. He was not that simple.
I also believe that there is something to say about some of the pottery towns such as Burslem and the groups of Victorian buildings in the centre of town are as fine as you can find anywhere
And if you are looking for an iconic symbol then I would have thought that both the potbank and the oatcake are two iconic symbols from this very small part of England.
And as for iconic figures who made a profound impact on the English landscape then I give you James Brindley whose 300th anniversary is coming up in 2016. The North Staffs based pioneer canal builder and engineer was certainly a local hero.. He was admired because he represented the self made, practical “sleeves rolled up” strong silent type of Englishman. He was the Scottish writer and social commentator Thomas Carlyle once wrote of Brindley that “he was wonderfully equipped to the fight dragons, be they natural obstacles or human”
So inspiring was Brindley to the writer that he felt him to be the personification of John Bull- and who could be more English than that. In his description of early Victorian society “Past and Present” published in the 1840s he is persuasive in the promotion of Brindley as hero
” The rugged Brindley had little to say for himself, the rugged Brindley, when difficulties accumulate upon him retires silent, generally to his bed, sometimes for three days there in perfect privacy and ascertains in his rough head how the difficulties can be overcome, the ineloquent Brindley Brindley behold! He has chained the seas together; his ships do float visibly over valleys, invisibly through the hearts of mountains; the Mersey and the Thames, the Humber and the Severn. Nature most audibly answers Yeah.
Brindley, Wedgwood, Oliver Lodge and RJ Mitchell the scientific and engineering tradition is yet another reason that the area should be considered a candidate for iconic status.
I’m from Stoke on Trent- somebody had to.