Saturday, 23 January 2016

AirSpace: food and growing residency

Hanley's AirSpace Gallery is offering a £500 artist's residency in June 2016. AirSpace is seeking an artist whose topic is food and growing, in post-industrial cities. They're especially curious about why many artists and creatives in the Potteries are interested in such topics.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Allotment art weekend

Fab allotment arts happening this weekend, a few miles up the valley at Trubshaw Cross, near Burslem.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Old photos of Stoke station

Another selection of Bert Bentley pictures, courtesy of The Sentinel. Many are of Stoke town and Boothen. Here's a selection from this latest batch, showing Stoke train station and the North Staffs Hotel opposite...

Monday, 11 January 2016

Tolkien in Staffordshire and Stoke

Opening 6th March 2016, the Cannock Chase Museum exhibition J.R.R. Tolkien & Staffordshire 1915-1918: A Literary Landscape surveys the influence of the middle part of Staffordshire on Tolkien. This follows on from 2015's excellent Tolkien and the Black Country exhibition at the Walsall Art Gallery.

Less well-known is that in his later years Tolkien also had a strong connection with North Staffordshire. This was the period after the first publication and lukewarm reception of The Lord of The Rings, and before the great work had been first re-discovered by young readers in the 1970s.

Being an Oxford University lecturer Tolkien had long holidays. From the late 1950s through to the early 1970s he spent many of his holidays with his son — who lived at 104 Hartshill Road, at the top end of Stoke town in Stoke-on-Trent. His son had lived there from 1957, and we know (from Tolkien's surviving letters) that the senior Tolkien spent the summer of 1960 in Stoke with his son, and many summer holidays thereafter. We also know from his letters that he spent winter holidays there, in the early 1970s. His surviving letters don't provide comprehensive day-to-day coverage of his life, and so there may have been earlier winter visits which went unrecorded.

Picture: Northcote House, 104 Hartshill Road, seen today. Now converted to a children's nursery. Presumably the rather bare back yard was once a garden.

Picture: 104 seen from the front, on Google StreetView.

It's thus fascinating to imagine that Tolkien, then aged in his late sixties and seventies, might have been quite familiar with alighting from the Oxford train at Stoke with his trusty bicycle. Oxford-Stoke is a long-established direct train service, and there's still a direct two-hour service today. Tolkien was an avid train user and bicyclist, and it was then easy to get a bike on an inter-city train. So we can imagine him bicycling from the station through Stoke town (the A500 did not then exist) and up onto the lower slopes of Hartshill. At that time he was not the cultural colossus he would later become, and there would be no throng of adoring fans waiting for him (of the sort that might gather today, for someone like Neil Gaiman). He was just an obscure Midlands professor of medieval literature, who had once published a fantasy story that the establishment critics thought very little of. The cultural seeds Tolkien had planted in The Lord of the Rings were then still largely dormant, and they would only grow up into a vast murmuring forest long after his death.

Once settled in at his son's house, he might have regularly strolled or wheeled down to a Stoke newsagents for some pipe-tobacco and a newspaper. He was fascinated by the intricacies of language, so no doubt he would have had an eager ear for the strong and distinctive local dialect. One imagines that he visited the usual places on summer day-trips: the factory tours of the older potteries; Trentham Gardens and the estate; Biddulph Grange with its fantastical gardens; and the wild 'barrow downs' districts in the Staffordshire Moorlands and the western side of the Peak. He would have felt at home in a district that cherished, as he did so ardently, its trees and gardens. Probably he also walked up to and around Wulfhere's Iron Age hill-fort near Stone, since he had an abiding interest in all things Mercian. However, all these visits would have been far too late to have influenced the landscape of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings.

Given his academic interests it is also conceivable that he made at least one excursion to the eerie Lud's Church in the nearby Moorlands, stated nationally in 1958 (R. V. W. Elliot, article in The Times) to be one of the settings for the ancient tale Gawain and The Green Knight — of which Tolkien had published a fine scholarly edition in 1925. He would publish the Gawain book again, in a revised edition, in 1967.

The fading Gawain manuscript was preserved by chance in a Yorkshire library, in a copy which was perhaps made in south-west Lancashire. But the mature Tolkien stated that the original author's...

"home was in the West Midlands of England; so much his language shows, and his metre, and his scenery."

Specifically, for the precisely described landscape of the tale, in the northern part of the West Midlands — most likely the isolated linguistic district which had spoken what Tolkien named "Old Mercian". Roughly North Staffordshire and the Peak District of North West Derbyshire, and adjacent parts of Cheshire. However Tolkien's mature linguistic placing of the Gawain poet in "the West Midlands", and the general agreement of scholars on the topography, was too late to allow anyone to suggest that the North Staffordshire moorlands and western Peak landscape thus inspired Tolkien's famous works, via his early interest in the locations in Gawain. This is because his youthful 1925 edition of Gawain was an early work, and at that time he and his collaborator could only suggest a broad resemblance to old manuscripts known to have been...

"written at Hales in south-west Lancashire, not many years earlier than 1413. This resemblance, however, only goes to show that the dialect of the copyist was of Hales in south-west Lancashire".

Thus we have no indication that the pre-Lord of the Rings Tolkien associated Lud's Church with a Gawain location. It would, however, be interesting for Tolkien scholars to more precisely date the exact point at which Tolkien privately switched from a 'perhaps south-west Lancashire' stance to a 'West Midlands' stance on Gawain.