Technically I had been to Stoke before. Once back in the sixties, while I was at University in Manchester, I joined a coach trip to see a stirring production of Marlowe’s Jew of Malta at the theatre there. I can still recall images from the play, but remember nothing of the town.
So when I arrived on Friday, for the Arnold Bennett Society conference on Saturday, I saw the place with the eyes of a newcomer. At first it was merely confusing. I had booked in at the North Stafford Hotel, opposite the Railway Station. This huge hotel stands behind an imposing statue of Wedgewood, and is only too clearly a relic of Stoke’s great age of ceramic prosperity. Inside it’s a bit run down; it must be hard to maintain such a big place when the visitors no longer arrive. My room was adequate and roomy, but the TV didn’t work properly.
I left the hotel and got lost, but finally made my way to Hanley, the biggest of the Five Towns, I think. This too breathed past glories, but in quite a nice way. Like so many British city centres, it is split in half, horizontally. The top halves of the buildings have a fine Edwardian ornateness and confidence; the bottom halves are modern banal. The place is better than many centres; there are the usual big stores (Marks and Spencers and so on) but they don’t dominate. There are plenty of small local enterprises too, so you don’t get that sense of cloned uniformity that in so many places makes Lancashire towns look identical to Essex ones.
Some shops still have traditional facades, including a fine old-fashioned sweet shop and Webberley’s a big independent bookshop with a vast range of stock and not, on a Friday afternoon, many customers.
Encouragingly, this shop had a good shelf of Bennett novels. I bought myself one of which I knew no more than the name: The Price of Love. It turned out to be an excellent choice.
I stopped for a beer in a town centre pub, where a big tattooed girl in a football shirt was the life and soul of the party. Despite the booming rock music, I began to read the novel. I immediately fell for its heroine, Rachel Fleckring, so eager to do well, so sensitive to nuances of respectability and status. So different from the jolly tattooed girl, who was now engaged in turning her shirt back to front while still wearing it. I couldn’t work out why she was doing this, but she got much encouragement from her friends. The culture has changed a bit since Bennett’s day.
Eventually I found my way to Burslem, the Bursley of Bennett’s novels. On a Friday night it was sleepy. In The Price of Love there’s a wonderful description of a Saturday evening in the Potteries, and the activities that were going on from one end of the Five Towns to the other:
…theatres, Empire music-halls, Hippodrome music-halls, picture-palaces in dozens, concerts, singsongs, spiritualistic propaganda, democratic propaganda, skating-rinks, Wild West exhibitions, Dutch auctions, and the private séances in dubious quarters of “psychologists”, “clairvoyants”, “scientific palmists”, and other rascals who sold a foreknowledge of the future for a shilling.
No such unrespectable attractions were in evidence in Burslem last Friday, but there was a convivial company at the George Hotel, with conference-goers including John Shapcott, the indefatigable chairman of the Arnold Bennett Society. He took a group of us around Burslem, to see the Bennett locations. Once again there were reminders of past glories, such as the superb Wedgewood institute (with fine bas-reliefs by John Lockwood Kipling, Rudyard’s father). Bennett’s house on Waterloo Road was empty and looking a bit derelict, though. His father’s Chapel was half-demolished, leaving only a façade standing. Shops that in the novels were centres of activity were boarded up and desolate.
I think Bennett would have understood, though. He was nothing if not a novelist of social change. And in The Price of Love he notes how the relative status of the Burslem market-place and St Luke’s Square had varied over the years:
Rats now marauded in the empty shops in St. Luke’s Square, while the market-place glittered with custom…
All this noting of change and decay might sound miserable, but our walk certainly wasn’t – and if you ever get the opportunity to join one of John Shapcott’s guided tours of Burslem, jump at the opportunity. As we were looking at some particularly desolate location, a couple of local ladies passed. “I think it’s a historical tour,” one said to the other in an immensely puzzled voice.
Just before we ended our tour, a local joined us, and insisted on adding his contribution to Burslem history. He had been a childhood friend of Robbie Williams, brought up in the Red Lion pub, just round the corner from the George. In that role he had featured, he told us, on national radio and local television. And so the pattern of culture changes…
On Saturday the conference was in the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Hanley, a fine fortress of a building, and one whose collection proves H.G.Wells wrong. In my conference paper, I would quote Wells’s Boon, in which he allowed himself a dig at his old friend Arnold Bennett, saying that he ‘would have made a Great Victorian,’ but ‘now no-one will ever treasure his old hats and pipes….’ The museum has a little Bennett corner, with several of his possessions. No hats, to be sure, but his slippers are treasured there, and his pen, and his carnet du bal.
The conference was a joint meeting of the Arnold Bennett Society and the H.G.Wells Society, and most papers made connections between works of the two writers. Wells is a writer about whom I have very mixed feelings. (The one novel that I have really resented in the course of my Great War research is Wells’s Joan and Peter, which gives us Wells’s educational theories in tedious unending detail – but which perks up at the end, because the war breaks out, and we are shown which kind of education has formed the better soldier.) This conference persuaded me, though, that I should read more early realist Wells. Love and Mr Lewisham, maybe.
The speakers I enjoyed most teased out differences between the two writers. Peter Preston looked at their different portrayals of social aspiration – how different Kipps is from Denry Machin. Simon James, in maybe my favourite paper of the conference, pointed to the difference between their respective styles of realism. (Wells’s concerned with changing the world, Bennett’s with understanding it.) Jonathan Wild, suave and persuasive, told the story of the rise of the literary agency in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain. Wells introduced Bennett to Pinker, the best of the agents for up and coming writers, but Jonathan Wild cleverly showed how the relationships of the two writers with their agent revealed much about the character of the two novelists – Wells combative and opinionated, preferring to go it alone; Bennett loyal and businesslike, making a good profit from their mutual endeavours.
As well as the talks, there was a fascinating session in which Tim Brearley showed footage from a documentary he is trying to get off the ground, about Bennett’s career. It was very good footage indeed. He had filmed several literary experts (John Carey, Margaret Drabble, Edward Mendelson) speaking highly of that profoundest of novels, Riceyman Steps. Together, they were so persuasive that the chap at the back selling second-hand books shifted all six of his copies of the novel, and could have sold more. But those who run TV channels (even BBC4) are afraid that the general public has heard of Arnold Bennett, so it’s difficult to get the programme properly commissioned. Of course, if it were to be commissioned, then the public would have heard of Arnold Bennett… If only the BBC could do a serialisation of The Old Wives’ Tale…
I liked the atmosphere of the conference. There was a smattering of academics, and it was good to see familiar faces from other conferences, but most attendees were members of the two societies – especially the Bennett society. Some of these are local, but not all. They are united by their pleasure in his rich, perceptive and kindly novels. After the conference many of us headed for Burslem. Some of us had a drink in the Leopard (The Tiger in Bennett’s novels). With its low ceilings and small cluttered odd-shaped rooms this seemed to me just about the perfect pub.
Then it was off to Denry’s Restaurant for a most enjoyable conference dinner, with Margaret Drabble (vice-president) as guest of honour.
The whole day was a pleasure. Next year’s conference takes the Clayhanger trilogy for its theme. Should be good.