Waking up in a strange hotel, I fumble for my favourite hot water-bottle, now cold, and my late mother’s little Roberts radio. Switching on, blow me down, isn’t that Michael Heseltine explaining that the solution to Britain’s problems is to release the power and energy of our great British cities? Surely he was doing that 30 years ago, when there was still something left of the Potteries? I make my barefoot way across the fitted carpet of my room at the Moat House, pull back the curtains, and there is dear old Stoke-on-Trent – my own, my native land.
I’ve been here for about a month, on and off, making a film for BBC2 about the life of the great Josiah Wedgwood. The Moat House hotel is an architectural tumour, jutting from the side of Wedgwood’s fine old house, Etruria Hall – the part of the complex now used for business conferences. “What we are going to do,” says old Hezza’s voice, “is unleash the power of our big cities.”
Poor old Stoke, it looks as if it had the power punched out of it long ago by the speculative capitalists who took over the Potteries, made them into a conglomerate and sucked out talent and assets until they all went bankrupt. The Potteries are for me a parable of everything that went wrong under Thatcher. Perhaps Hezza would agree!
Once upon a time, very long ago, Josiah Wedgwood stomped about on his wooden leg on this hillside between Newcastle-under-Lyme and Burslem and made the most stupendous objects – dinner sets fit for Empresses, vases which rivalled those of Pompeian antiquity. Of course, there was power in those days – and he unleashed it all right, building his famous works – the only remaining bit of which is a tiny little beehive building in the corner of a modern carpark. I suppose optimists like Hezza believe that the energy of a city like Stoke-on-Trent has only to be “unleashed” for this country to become the commercial rival of Brazil. Pessimists like myself believe that all civilizations in history eventually decline. We’ve had our chips, and there’s nothing that Tarzan, or Vince – or come to that, the two Eds – can do to reverse history’s tide.
If you are a writer, work means solitude. You sit at the screen and there is no one to help you when things go awry. But telly work is friendly, and I bounce into the hotel dining-room, a positive Tigger. The small team – camera, sound recordist, assistant producer and director – are all kind, amusing people. The last time I did telly work, everyone seemed to take an age, but on today’s budgets you have to whizz through the work, and there is little time to get bored. They start by filming me wandering round the hotel with baffled horror at its ugliness. Then we go into Josiah’s wing of the house and mingle with some Dutch businesspeople who are drinking coffee and eating pastries. And then, with a view of the ruins of the Potteries visible from the windows, they have me talking about the decline of British industry since the good old days of Josiah Wedgwood the Fifth, and the other members of the Wedgwood family, and my father Norman Wilson who revived the old firm after the second world war, and built the new factory at Barlaston.
It is a sunny morning, so I am asked to do a “piece to camera”, as we call it in the trade, near the ruins of the old Moorcroft works. Like a blackened factory daubed by Lowry, Moorcroft is deader than any building I ever saw. They have asked me to do my “piece to camera” on a wobbly bike, explaining how Burslem was surrounded by rutted tracks in the 18th century, so half the crockery got smashed in transit – until great Josiah built turnpike roads and canals. A flickering memory of Hezza’s broadcast this morning judders into my brain – something about building new airport runways “pretty smartish”. The great difference between the first generation of the Industrial Revolutionaries and every subsequent generation, is that everything they built and made in the 18th century was beautiful, and everything since has uglified and polluted the earth. There is a world of difference between building tranquil canals all over England, and having the narrow boats pulled by horses, and all the subsequent horrors of railways, roads and, worst of all, airports, which rape the earth.
We are at Gatwick airport because we are off to do some filming at Wöerlitz, near Dessau, where Prince Franz von Anhalt-Dessau had a stupendous Wedgwood collection. As always at airports, I think how needlessly horrible they are. If there is anything more agitating than air travel it is shopping, so they go and add shopping malls to all the airports. Why can’t they make at least one airport in Britain shopping-free? The space saved could be used to exhibit the tens of thousands of art works for which our galleries do not have the wall-space. Rather than killing an hour and a half in an over-lit shop, your sinuses aching with the repugnant scents on sale and your ears jangling with the idiot music, you could stroll around contentedly looking at paintings until your flight was called.
On the flight to Germany, I finished Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain (Allen Lane) – certainly the best work of modern history I have ever read. The sheer scale of the Red Army’s savagery as they marched through Poland and Germany was new to me. Then the regimes established in Poland, Germany, Hungary and elsewhere, the spying, the infringements of every kind of liberty. Applebaum’s book should be compulsory reading for every history student being taught by a pupil of the late historian Eric Hobsbawm, whose books, in my view, suppress any fair account of how completely awful life was in these Soviet satellite states. (That’s a lot of students, for the Hobsbawm spider’s web stretches all over the country, with Hobsbawm disciples in key positions in history faculties.)
While we were in Germany, I spoke to a very nice man, of around my age, who was born in Dessau during the time Applebaum describes. I asked him if he had seen that superb film Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) but he said no, it was too terrible a theme for him to be made into entertainment. He said there was never a moment during the lifetime of the DDR when you really felt safe, or when you ever trusted anyone – even your parents or your friends. When his best friend – a man he really loved – rang to tell him the Wall had come down, and they could drive to Berlin to see it, his very first thought was, “This is a trick. The Stasi have this conversation tapped. They have got something on my friend and they are forcing him to incriminate me. They want me to say something which insults the regime.”
The imprisonment of the mind in which he, and millions of others, had lived, was as wicked as the millions of deaths which Hobsbawm, far from denying, opined on a famous TV interview to have been necessary for the furtherance of the Revolution. Hobsbawm has, in my view, done more damage to young people than Jimmy Savile.
AN Wilson’s most recent novel is ‘The Potter’s Hand’ (Atlantic Books)