AN Wilson on Wedgwood
John Walsh gives a summary of the talks at the Bath Literary festival
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Monday 04 March 2013
How startling it was to learn that AN Wilson, the most punctiliously Home Counties, southern-gentlemanly, plummy-voiced of British writers, hails from the Potteries. Not only was he born in Stoke, his father was managing director of the Wedgwood factory there. Now he’s written a novel in which the company’s founder, Josiah Wedgwood, goes looking for new fields to conquer.
The Potter’s Hand (“I thought I might appeal to JK Rowling fans if I worked the word ‘Potter’ into the title” he said drily) started life, he told the Guildhall audience, on a trip to America when he found a headstone, on the border between Virginia and South Carolina, proclaiming that somewhere nearby, Josiah Wedgwood had first bought white china clay from the Cherokee Indians.
Wilson explained that Josiah was a shrewd marketing genius: he saw that if he started selling his fancy plates to the Queen, visiting dukes would see them and demand to have some; the lawyer visiting the duke would covet them in turn; then the doctor visiting the lawyer, and on down through the classes until everyone had to have them.
But when Empress Catherine the Great ordered an unprecedented 1000-item dinner service from Wedgwood bearing scenes of English houses and landscapes, Josiah needed the finest white clay in the world. Then he saw a photograph of a Cherokee girl holding a dazzlingly white vase that could have been made at one of his factories, and sent his nephew Tim to investigate.
Being a prolific biographer as well as a novelist, Wilson is adept at mingling truth and make-believe until you can’t quite see the join. (“What documentary evidence have you for the Russian banquet you described in your reading?” asked a woman in the audience. “None,” said Wilson. “I’m afraid I made it all up.”) But behind his evocation of the late 18th century - complete with a fine impression of a Potteries accent - was a real respect for the one-legged, crazily energetic, entrepreneurial Josiah and his circle of friends (James Watt, Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestley) who invented and manufactured and marketed and sold things the world wanted, said Wilson, and who made Britain great in the process.
What's on tomorrow at the Bath Literary Festival:
11.15am John Batchelor on Tennyson.
Professor of English at Newcastle University introduces his new biography of the great Victorian poet, laureate and “national monument.”
1pm Drugs: crack down or give in?
The Tuesday Independent Voices debate asks: it time to legalise Class B and C drugs? Or will the drug subculture in Britain always stay one step ahead of the law?
6.15pm Tracey Thorn
The guitarist and singer from Everything But the Girl discusses her candid life story, Bedsit Disco Queen.
8pm Clive Stafford-Smith.
The founder of Reprieve turns his howitzer-like fury and steely legal mind on a 26-year travesty of justice in Florida.
Is the comedy album making a comeback?comedy
Arts & Ents blogs
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- 4 Israel's propaganda machine is finally starting to misfire
- 5 HSBC closes bank accounts belonging to Muslim clients in the UK
Led Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
New film Old Fashioned is 50 Shades of Grey for Christians, claims its creator
Freddie Prinze Jr on 24: 'Kiefer Sutherland was the most unprofessional dude in the world – I hated every moment of it'
Guardians of the Galaxy review: A superficial and half-hearted Marvel film
R Kelly 'dropped' from Ohio music festival following backlash
The secret report that helps Israel hide facts
Woman and two children killed by mob in riots over 'blasphemous' Facebook post in Pakistan
A day in the life of Vladimir Putin: The dictator in his labyrinth
Putin is 'thuggish, dishonest and reckless', says British ambassador to US
Richard Dawkins tweets: 'Date rape is bad, stranger rape is worse'
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – Britain as others see us
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