|History and Geography
What I've been doing till now
Do you remember how Mr. Davies, the Head Teacher, used to play Mozart on the record player at the front of the hall as the classes filed out after morning assembly? He would wipe the record with a flourish of that white handkerchief from his pocket, and the classes would leave the hall in order of age, youngest first, so that the oldest children might sometimes hear as much as a whole short movement before it was their turn to stand up and crocodile away to their classrooms. As the last children filed out with their teachers, Mr.Davies would be left alone in the Hall, looking out of the window, listening to the music. Years later, after he had retired and long after I had left the school, Mr. Davies actually gave me some of the very records that he used to play in those morning assemblies. Yes, I still have them, of course. I only hope I thanked him enough. The school was Chilcote Primary, Birmingham, in the leafy suburbs where I grew up. I started there when I was four or five years old, about 1965 or 1966. That's me in 1966 in the photo, with my Dad in the back garden of our house in Baldwin's Lane, when I was 5 and a half years old.
When I was at Chilcote we used to play absurdly rough playground games,
on a surface of coarse tarmac scattered with loose gravel. The routine
excavation of grit from deeply cut knees prior to the application
of elastoplast seems in my memory to have been a virtually daily occurrence.
The games were based mainly on primitive forms of battle or hunt, and bore
such dubiously rousing names as British Bulldog (knock other children to
the tarmac before they reach some designated point), Stag (form into
gangs and grab other kids before they can run away), and the admittedly
brilliant Piggy-back fight (stack children into double-decker fighting
units, one child carrying a second, and pit them against each other in
a dinosauric contest to topple the opposition onto the gravelly tarmac
below). There was another game, which I think we just called War, that
involved pretending to shoot each other and, upon considering ourselves
shot or otherwise slain, flinging ourselves flamboyantly and with all our
might onto the gravelly tarmac. While I was at Chilcote somebody
burned the school to the ground, and we all spent weeks at home while they
rebuilt it. Those were the days.
King Edwards was, and rightly considered itself to be, an institution in many of the finest senses of the word. Consider these lines from the School Song:
And the magnificent chorus, to be sung at full shout:
There is a whole wealth of Victorian and Edwardian English culture in that song, instructing the boys in a set of national values that are intimately tied to our collective images of duty, heroism and morality. Kipling’s "If"; Scott of the Antarctic; going over the top with a whistle and a service revolver. Die of service, not of rust. Golly! We also had another song, the Quartercentenary Song, that was all in Latin. Even though we all studied Latin for at least a couple of years I don’t think many of us would care to attempt a translation, but the tune was wonderfully catchy, and the words deliciously chewy: Procedamus, gaudeamus iuvenili mente; studeamus, floreamus, inflorenti gente. Nunc feramus, nunc canamus, urbi nostrae grates... There was even a verse written in honour of a visit to the School by Her Majesty the Queen years and years ago. Absolutely brilliant. I wonder what it is all about. And I wonder if the lads were allowed to sing the School Song when the Queen was there. I trust so.
I finished at King Edwards at Christmas 1979, and I spent the first half of 1980 pumping petrol and doing other odd jobs to earn money to go travelling. In summer of that year, on a trip to Norway, my first trip abroad, I saw my first glaciers. On that trip I shared a tent with my oldest friend, Dave Lewis: now the Reverend Dave Lewis. In the whole of King Edwards he was the only chap to do the same combination of A-levels as me, so he was the only person that was in all my classes. By wild coincidence, he also had exactly the same birthday as me, although I still don’t often manage to remember it (sorry Dave). He went back to Norway as a Minister years later. I have never been back.
While I was at Oxford I had the opportunity to make up for my late introduction to overseas travel, with visits to The Soviet Union, East and West Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Yugoslavia, Greece, Italy, Switzerland, West Germany, France, and Belgium. My degree was divided pretty evenly between Physical and Human Geography, and people are always surprised when I tell them that I didn’t study glaciers as an undergraduate. After finishing my degree in 1983 I worked in Oxford for a year as a private tutor. I had been convinced of my Christianity for as long as I could recall having rational conversations with myself, but it was during my time in Oxford that I discussed, explored and reaffirmed those beliefs, which I still hold.
I know I didn't (and may be still don't) reveal my belief as clearly as I should in my behaviour. When I look back on some of the things I did and the ways I behaved at Oxford I cringe with regret and can understand, I suppose, why some folk find it hard to forgive and forget. The blurb on the dust jacket of the autobiography of the jockey Richard Dunwoody says: “Now that it is all over, Richard Dunwoody wants to move on and begin the rest of his life. Before that he must understand who he was during his desperado years.” Sometimes when I look back at Oxford and Aberdeen, and even my first few years at Keele, that's how I feel. Those were desperado years and I'm still trying to work out who I was then, because that person must still be inside me somewhere: for better or worse!
Keele, Newcastle-under-Lyme and Stoke-on-Trent
At Keele I met Debbie, who was kind and foolish enough to marry me in 1992. Almost as soon as we met we embarked upon an extended program of animal adoptions, starting small, with Hammy the Hamster, and graduating most recently to the very very large, with Meg the Horse. By 1998 our domestic entourage comprised two scruffy dogs, two slightly stupid cats, one surprisingly smart house rabbit, two free-range living-room cockatiels, two tanks of fish and a very big horse. By 2002 we'd added a couple more cats and we have been running quite a menagerie ever since. As of summer 2013 we still have the big (now old) horse and one of the same cats that we had in 2002, but a different set of additional cats and dogs to a total of five cats and one dog - widely acknowledged as the ugliest dog in the shop. If you would like to meet some of the pets you can see more about them HERE.
Now, Stoke-on-Trent is a great place, but it's not like anywhere I have lived before. I started writing a travel book, once (like all the others, it's not finished!) and I said at the start of it that Stoke-on-Trent was like Ulaan Bator. Any child who has had to learn capital cities for a school geography test will have heard of Ulaan Bator. Anyone with a map of the world on their bedroom wall will have looked, and chuckled, and wondered at the name. But hardly anyone, at least in my part of the world, has ever been there. And none of my friends, or family, or even complete and puzzled strangers that I stop on the street outside my house know of anyone at all who actually comes from there. However, the great thing, the wonderful thing, the thing that reaffirms my faith in Geography and imagination, is that I have never met anybody who doesn’t actually believe in the place. Ulaan Bator is an act of faith. It may or may not really exist, and for most of us it really doesn’t matter. For most people, the same is true of Stoke-on-Trent.
Unless you come from Ulaan Bator, Stoke-on-Trent might not seem like the most exotic location to start off a travel book. Now, I have travelled all over the world. I have trekked across the Arctic tundra with only reindeer for company, and I have seen the mighty ice bergs drifting out of Jakobshavn Fjord. I have climbed the ash strewn slopes of Chimborazo and Cotopaxi to see icicles on the equator and looked down on seas of tropical cloud. I’ve been across the wide Missouri, and along the Great Divide, and okay, so I haven’t ever actually been to Sidcup on a Sunday, but I have been around. I know a wilderness when I see one. I know what “remote” looks like. I know the sulfurous smell of hot springs that bubble out from beneath glaciers a mile thick, and I know the smell of the desert when leaking fuel soaks into the sand and someone siphons oily water from the radiator into a dented billy can. Okay, I made the last one up. But in all my travels, of all the places I have lived, Stoke takes the absolute biscuit (or pemmican, as we explorers prefer to quip) for remote. It is a lost civilisation. An undiscovered tribe. There are people here who will reglue the spine of your tattered travel book with dust that they licked from the back of your faded steamer ticket , and bake a fine glazed tile of Eskimo Nell to decorate the front, using clay from the soles of their own boots. Stoke, believe me, is as strange and magical a place as any.
One of the wonderful things that I have discovered in travelling the globe is that these lost tribes, these closed and idiosyncratic civilisations, these strange and magical places, are to be found in the most surprising locations. Often they are alarmingly close to home. In the days when explorers penetrated dark continents by paddling upstream along rivers that came from who knows where, the mountains and forests in between the waterways stood as bastions of maplessness against the extending fingers of discovery and civilisation. Nowadays the same is true of the communities that lie in the dark and inaccessible parishes inbetween the motorways. The towns that through-traffic forgot. They survive as cultural refugia. Capsules of time and attitude where outsiders seldom visit, and where the sons of potters raise potters of their own.
Probably the most famous footballer of all time, and certainly the most famous English footballer, was Stanley Matthews. When I was a boy, nearly forty years ago, his legendary footballing exploits were already the stuff of dim and distant history.He lived on in cigarette cards and old black and white newsreels, with knee-length shorts and rolled up sleeves, running with flickering, jerky, newsreel steps. I grew up in Birmingham, only 40 miles from Stoke, and never once in my entire youth did I hear of Stanley Matthews referred to in the present tense. He was a hero of the golden past, and I assumed him long since dead. Half a lifetime later, I moved to Stoke-on-Trent and there was Sir Stanley, in the present tense, featuring almost daily in civic life. He was a pillar of the community. He opened parks and supermarkets built on reclaimed clay pits. He unveiled a brand new statue of himself in front of the brand new Potteries Shopping Centre. Stanley Matthews was alive and well and living in Stoke. And guess what. My own childhood hero, the England goalkeeper Gordon Banks, the greatest goalkeeper of all time: he was there too! I have heard it said that once you come here you can never leave. Perhaps it is for that same reason that we don’t know anyone from Ulaan Bator. May be, like Potters, they just don’t get out much.
I would guess that no one in Ulaan Bator knows anyone from Stoke, either. However, one thing I have learned is that the world is designed to surprise us. Or, rather, we are designed to be surprised by the world. For me, finding that I live in Stoke is a huge surprise. I didn’t know I was coming here until after I arrived. Because of its peculiar local geometry, the natural laws of Geography seem not to apply. It is a strange but true fact that if you really want to visit Stoke-on-Trent, you can only succeed by following signs to somewhere else. If you follow the motorway signs or take the train directly to Stoke, you will, as God intended, be surprised at where you end up. And if, when you get over your surprise, you start to follow signs for the city centre, they will take you several miles to a different town altogether, a busy little town that really is the heart of the city, but that bears a different name and has never been heard of outside North Staffordshire. It is almost as if Stoke itself is a cunning disguise, a front, a theatrical prop set up for outsiders. All the real action, the real Stoke, has been moved next door to another, secret, town. Like all the best hidden civilisations and lost tribes, elaborate concealments hide it from the explorer.
When I applied for a job at the University of Keele, the booklet told
me that it was a quiet campus near some little town that I had never heard
of in rural Staffordshire, easily accessible from the M6 motorway, and
about midway between Birmingham and Manchester. I don’t recall them mentioning
that, oh yes, by the way, we are more or less in Stoke-on-Trent. I suppose
they must have done, but warnings are useless: Stoke cannot be seen when
looked at directly. Whether light and sound cannot escape from it, like
a geographical black hole, or whether the mind conceals what it does not
expect to see, I don’t know. But Stoke can have been there all the time
and you just didn’t know it. Just like Ulaan Bator.
I will add more to flesh out this history as and when time permits. Please call back, and next time bring biscuits. Or pemmican.