A.N. Wilson’s Diary
The Wedgwood Museum in Barlaston, near Stoke-on-Trent, contains some of the most stupendous ceramics in the British Isles. My heart swells with filial pride at the cases devoted to work by my father, Norman Wilson, containing photographs of this bright-eyed dandy and examples of his wonderful vases and bowls. He was largely responsible, after a lull in Wedgwood’s fortunes, for bringing back the highest standards of design, with figures such as Eric Ravilious, Keith Murray, Arnold Machin and Richard Guyatt making and designing distinctive and beautiful objects. No single sentence I have written deserves to survive. My father’s bowls and vases, however, made him one of the immortals. But now the Wedgwood Museum is under threat. Not only does it contain 8,000 pieces of the finest ceramic craftsmanship in Europe. It also has the archive of the firm, from the genius, Josiah I, who started it, down to Josiah V, who made the mistaken decision to float it on the stock market. Thereafter, the potteries of Stoke-on-Trent, which had been made up of many small family firms, each with a distinctive tradition and skills built up over generations, broke up. Market capitalists dominated. Stoke-on-Trent, the nursery of the industrial revolution and a place of extraordinary collective genius, had its guts ripped out.
Eventually the inevitable happened. The Waterford Wedgwood group, as it was called, dominated by money men who could not tell the difference between fine china and a boiled potato, went into receivership. It had liabilities of £134 million in unpaid pensions. Of course, the pensioners should not be threatened. But it is monstrous that, in order to pay for the calamity, the Wedgwood Museum should be sold and dispersed. Its destruction could only hope to make the tiniest dent in the deficit. Silence so far from Sir Arthur Bryan, 87, the former sales manager who persuaded Jos Wedgwood to float the company, and who, as the subsequent boss, did more than any other single individual to wreck the ceramics industry. The profits which he made from this vandalism cannot, alas, legally be stripped from him. But if he had an ounce of decency he would offer a few million towards saving the Wedgwood Museum.
I was in the Potteries to celebrate the publication of Matthew Rice’s The Lost City of Stoke-on-Trent, a charming book illustrated with the author’s own watercolours that argues for regeneration in the dear old place. Matthew’s wife Emma Bridgewater, with her popular factory, has done as much as anyone to revive the spirits of the industry. At a lively meeting in the old telephone exchange — now the Fat Cats Bar — Tristram Hunt, the handsome new MP, Rice and others reminded us that Stoke still produces more pottery than any other city in the world. Maybe they are right to be optimists. But quantity alone does not save an industry. Stoke once made ceramics which were the rivals of Sevres and Meissen. There will be no hope of a recovery in our industrial world until the British have once again become better at making things than anyone else. Dyson is doing it — he has the sort of oomph that made Stoke great in the 18th century. His vacuum cleaners are better than anyone’s. His hand-dryers in institutional lavatories are the only ones that dry your hands.
Aside from Dyson, is there any part of British industry which has survived the horrifying drain on skill and resources? Yes. In Stratford-Upon-Avon since 1926, Pashley has been making the best bicycles in the world. The Roadster Classic, the Princess Sovereign, the Sonnet Bliss, these hand-assembled machines and others like them have no rival for beauty, reliability, speed and ease of riding. My Pashley is one of my most treasured possessions and in the absurd London of congestion charges, exorbitant taxi fares and crowded tube trains I would not be without it.
An in some ways unlikely cyclist was Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, who died a century ago. During the Richmond Literary Festival last Saturday, there was an evening devoted to his memory. I went along to the event which was held in Dr Langdon Down’s Normansfield Theatre, Hampton Wick. It is the most charming little Victorian theatre, with a backdrop of a wooded English lane, and panels hung around the walls from Dr Down’s original production of Ruddigore. Down was the great doctor who gave his name to the syndrome. He used theatricals and play to help children with learning difficulties. As it happens, he was born in 1828, the same year as Tolstoy. There was a kind of aptness in remembering the great Russian in this strange place.