This is the final guest post from my first Sofa Spotlight of 2019 and (much later than usual) the first Writers on Location piece of the year, so I’m very pleased to be featuring award-wining short story writer and novelist Lisa Blower and her new collection It’s Gone Dark Over Bill’s Mother’s from independent publisher Myriad Editions. Lisa’s many accolades include winning The Guardian’s National Short Story competition in 2009 and being longlisted in last year’s Sunday Times Short Story Award. She also has a piece in the crowdfunded Common People anthology of working-class writers from Unbound – out in May – which I am really looking forward to both as a supporter and because it also includes my talented former mentee Jenny Knight.
There’s currently a big movement underway to increase opportunity and exposure for under-represented voices, including the working class and regional kind central to Lisa’s work; whilst this and anything celebrating them is great, I also hope the day comes when they’re as ‘common’ in publishing as in the real world. It’s Gone Dark Over Bill’s Mother’s is proof of the ordinary yet extraordinary storytelling we cannot afford to miss out on, showing remarkable depth of voice, character and human bonds. The first story, Barmouth, reveals a woman’s life over many years through the recurring motif of family caravan holidays; I re-read it this morning and was no less moved and awed than the first time by everything it manages to convey. It’s Brokeback Mountain good. As Lisa explains, place can be the ideal starting point for a short story that hugely messes with your heart.
Stoke-on-Trent. It’s a sneeze south from where the ‘north’ begins and skirts the arctic tip of where the Midlands ends. One of the most accident-prone sections of the M6 snakes around its west edge. To the east, the Peaks. Smoke-on-Trent. It was a good day if you could see Longton, as the saying went, being one of the six towns – Burslem, Fenton, Hanley, Longton, Tunstall and Stoke; six hearts that beat disharmoniously, says Linden West, which makes the place somehow placeless. It was recently rubbished as the most ardent Brexit city in the UK. According to Orwell, it was uglier than Sheffield. Even The Sentinel ran a tongue-in-cheek article on why you shouldn’t visit. No history, apparently. Nothing to see or do, and you might remember the Garden Festival washout in ‘86. Rather like a Staffordshire oatcake recipe and the correct way to eat it, everyone has an opinion on Stoke-on-Trent. As Arnold Bennett wrote, “Beauty was achieved. But none saw it.”
It’s why It’s Gone Dark over Bill’s Mother’s felt like an apt title for a collection of stories that mine the pits, pots and poets I grew up with. Where I played in the Backs behind the Leek New Road, or sat listening to my Nan’s stories and scruffy wisdom. We’d spend weekends walking the towpaths around Stockton Brook before heading home to tape the charts, a pan of lobby on the stove. Not since Arnold Bennett has a writer given what was the pride of every dinner table a voice, yet I hear all my stories in that voice. They come to me in a broad Stoke accent and mid-conversation because unless I specifically inform you otherwise, Stokeys are always talking, to poach from Martin Amis’ John Self. And I’m stood outside Hunt’s sweet shop where I was too small for a gobstopper surrounded by a chattering of matriarchs with their strong communality and confounding sense of accepting rather than expecting, yet waiting all the same. For what? That would be telling.
Because it was a peachy childhood, despite the smog, strikes, and Thatcher gunning for the unions back in the early 80’s; my mum making us all wipe our feet on a Vote Conservative board before she put it out for the dog to do his business on. We lived in Baddeley Green with a downstairs bathroom, galley kitchen and a twin-tub pulled out every Monday; a place cuddled by two main roads that peeped out from between Milton (where we did our big shop), Endon (where we went to school) and Light Oaks (where we went sledging): and green it was on the A53 heading out to Leek, and from there we looked back in at our past generations: the stalwart citizens of the Potteries working-class who owned neither a car, passport or mortgage but were the vital participants in its industry. Any potter worth their salt will flip over a plate seeking Made in Stoke-on-Trent because at least someone in their family will have had a hand in making it. And that’s what I wanted to capture.
The voices of those for whom life generally happens elsewhere, to paraphrase Alan Bennett, but were living nonetheless, and contributing to history. Those too busy to go in for all that ‘woman’s stuff’ as they called it, or told me that ‘with too much education comes too much choice,’ and that ‘no-one wants to be retired with no grandkids.’ If you got ill, you didn’t dwell on it because that would make you ill. If you’d bought yourself a new hearth rug for the front parlour you never sat in, you were ‘that smug you’d think her Auntie’s up from Brighton.’ Nope, I still have no idea what that means, as I was too young back then to understand the impact of their words upon me now.
I guess that’s how the stories in Bill’s Mother’s came about. ‘Put big light on, duck,’ I thought. What was really going in those hope-thin walls behind that new Roseby’s net as everyone sat around the telly as if it were a vital organ? Because no-one really went anywhere in Stoke-on-Trent. ‘We’ll go when it’s warmer,’ they’d say, as if other places had no central heating. And then this mass pilgrimage to static caravans in North Wales during Potter’s fortnight and knowing that this was as abroad as you were ever going to get.
The trick to writing about Stoke is not to observe but to listen, and then whilst you’re listening, help yourself to an oatcake with melted cheese. You’ll find real beauty in that simple slice of life.
A big thank you to Lisa for this gorgeous piece. All I can recall of a long ago journey through Stoke-on-Trent is the bus station so definitely feel I’ve got more of a handle on the place now!
No post next week in the run-up to Easter. After that, who knows? I’ll think of something in the weeks leading up to my Summer Reads selection at the end of May.