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AN Wilson on Wedgwood

John Walsh gives a summary of the talks at the Bath Literary festival

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.