I suppose this will be a sort of travel book. Not the sort that is packed with tales of adventure on the high seas, or encounters with native tribesmen, I’m afraid. And not the sort that furnishes Sunday timetables to Sidcup. But it is a travel book, nevertheless. Of course, it cannot pretend to be one of those magnificent travel books in the classic tradition, bristling with names like Ulaan Bator and Kasakhstan, and accompanied by a short glossary of geographical terms such as steppe, altiplano and serac. When you shake a real travel book, faded steamer tickets and diamond-shaped baggage labels should slip out from between cinnamon scented pages. The book should carry the souvenirs of its travels as jewels of prose, and as incense in the aroma of the binding. The spine should have been restitched by an eskimo girl, using lengths of her own hair as thread, and you should still be able to smell the seal oil from that final night together in the igloo.
Now, this book might not smell of seal oil, but here is an interesting thing. Any child who has had to learn capital cities for a school geography test will have heard of Ulaan Bator. Anyone with a map of the world on their bedroom wall will have looked, and chuckled, and wondered at the name. But hardly anyone, at least in my part of the world, has ever been there. And none of my friends, or family, or even complete and puzzled strangers that I stop on the street outside my house know of anyone at all who actually comes from there. However, the great thing, the wonderful thing, the thing that reaffirms my faith in Geography and imagination, is that I have never met anybody who doesn’t actually believe in the place. Ulaan Bator is an act of faith. It may or may not really exist, and for most of us it really doesn’t matter. For most people, the same is true of Stoke-on-Trent, which is where this travel book begins.
Unless you come from Ulaan Bator, Stoke-on-Trent might not seem like the most exotic location to start off a travel book. Now, I have travelled all over the world. I have trekked across the Arctic tundra with only reindeer for company, and I have seen the mighty ice bergs drifting out of Jakobshavn Fjord. I have climbed the ash strewn slopes of Chimborazo and Cotopaxi to see icicles on the equator and looked down on seas of tropical cloud. I’ve been across the wide Missouri, and along the Great Divide, and okay, so I haven’t ever actually been to Sidcup on a Sunday, but I have been around. I know a wilderness when I see one. I know what “remote” looks like. I know the sulfurous smell of hot springs that bubble out from beneath glaciers a mile thick, and I know the smell of the desert when leaking fuel soaks into the sand and someone siphons oily water from the radiator into a dented billy can. But in all my travels, of all the places I have lived, Stoke takes the absolute biscuit (or pemmican) for remote. It is a lost civilisation. An undiscovered tribe. There are people here who will reglue the spine of your tattered travel book with clay from their own boots, and bake a fine glazed tile of Eskimo Nell to decorate the front, using dust that they licked from the back of your faded steamer ticket. Stoke, believe me, is as strange and magical a place as any.
One of the wonderful things that I have discovered in travelling the globe is that these lost tribes, these closed and idiosyncratic civilisations, these strange and magical places, are to be found in the most surprising locations. Often they are alarmingly close to home. In the days when explorers penetrated dark continents by paddling upstream along rivers that came from who knows where, the mountains and forests in between the waterways stood as bastions of maplessness against the extending fingers of discovery and civilisation. Nowadays the same is true of the communities that lie in the dark and inaccessible parishes inbetween the motorways. The towns that through-traffic forgot. They survive as cultural refugia. Capsules of time and attitude where outsiders seldom visit, and where the sons of potters raise potters of their own.
Probably the most famous footballer of all time, and certainly the most famous English footballer, was Stanley Matthews. When I was a boy, nearly fifty years ago, his legendary footballing exploits were already the stuff of dim and distant history.He lived on in cigarette cards and old black and white newsreels, with knee-length shorts and rolled up sleeves, running with flickering, jerky, newsreel steps. I grew up in Birmingham, only 40 miles from Stoke, and never once in my entire youth did I hear of Stanley Matthews referred to in the present tense. He was a hero of the golden past, and I assumed him long since dead. Half a lifetime later, I moved to live in Stoke-on-Trent and I encountered Sir Stanley, in the present tense, almost daily. He was a pillar of the community. He opened civic parks and supermarkets built on redeveloped clay pits, he featured in the local press, he unveiled a brand new statue of himself in front of the brand new Potteries Shopping Centre. Stanley Matthews was alive and well and living in Stoke on Trent. And guess what. My own childhood hero, the England goalkeeper Gordon Banks, the greatest goalkeeper of all time: he was here too! I have heard it said that once you come here you can never leave. Perhaps it is for that same reason that we don’t know anyone from Ulaan Bator. May be, like Potters, they just don’t get out much.
I would guess that no one in Ulaan Bator knows anyone from Stoke, either. However, one thing I have learned is that the world is designed to surprise us. Or, rather, we are designed to be surprised by the world. For me, finding that I lived in Stoke was a huge surprise. I didn’t know I was coming here until after I arrived. Because of its peculiar local geometry, the natural laws of Geography seem not to apply. It is a strange but true fact that if you really want to visit Stoke-on-Trent, you can only succeed by following signs to somewhere else. If you follow the motorway signs or take the train directly to Stoke, you will, as God intended, be surprised at where you end up. And if, when you get over your surprise, you start to follow signs for the city centre, they will take you several miles to a different town altogether, a busy little town called Hanley that really is the heart of the city, despite the fact that it bears a different name and has never been heard of outside North Staffordshire. It is almost as if Stoke itself is a cunning disguise, a front, a theatrical prop set up for outsiders. All the real action, the real Stoke, has been moved next door to another, secret, town. Like all the best hidden civilisations and lost tribes, elaborate concealments hide it from the explorer.
When I applied for a job at the University of Keele, the booklet told me that it was a quiet campus near some little town that I had never heard of in rural Staffordshire, easily accessible from the M6 motorway, and about midway between Birmingham and Manchester. I don’t recall them mentioning that, oh yes, by the way, we are more or less in Stoke-on-Trent. I suppose they must have done, but warnings are useless: Stoke cannot be seen when looked at directly. Whether light and sound cannot escape from it, like a geographical black hole, or whether the mind conceals what it does not expect to see, I don’t know. But Stoke can have been there all the time and you just didn’t know it. Just like Ulaan Bator.
If this is a travel book, it is about time that we embarked. I have warned you that we will not be going to Ulaan Bator with an eskimo seamstress, but you will want your money’s worth, and we should have at least an itinerary before we depart this chapter. We should at least have done some packing. First of all, we must have a motive. May be we need to open up a new trans-polar trade route. May be we want to find the untold treasures of the east. May be we have a lunch appointment in Sidcup, or may be we just want to get out of here.
In fact, Eskimos aren’t eskimos any more. They are called Inuit. And the people i grew up calling “red Indians” turn out to be Native Americans, with a hundred individual names that I don’t know. All the old imperial and colonial terminologies that defined Geography for English school children for generations hundreds of years have been replaced with labels and titles that are both new but at the same time much older than the terms that I grew up with, Geography is a wonderfully flexible thing. Most of it was made up on the spot as new things turned up needing names, and it can be altered, it seems, more or less on a whim. I had Canada all shaded in as a country I had visited, and then they established Nunavut, and I had to rub out half of my shading. In case I forget to mention it when we visit Greenland later in the book, Greenland isn’t called Greenland, either. It’s called Kalaallit Nunaat. That means “the land where the people live”, because the name was made up by nomadic hunters roaming the arctic who didn’t know that there were places, or people, anywhere else. I think Nunavut means pretty much the same thing, which could become confusing. And while we are at it, just for the record, the Fins call Finland Suomi, and Ulaan Bator isn’t called Ulaan Bator any more, so we couldn’t go there anyway.
The pages of my travel diaries are not for the most part cinnamon-scented. There were sticky cinnamon buns from the Auld Toon Café that we used to fetch in for breakfast when we were students in Aberdeen, but they are memorable more for sticky pink icing than for cinnamon. I used to travel a lot, and have a box full of little note books recounting where I went and what I did. Mostly the entries are cryptic to the point of uselessness as documentary evidence. “September 3rd. Helicopter late because pilot’s head chopped off. Arrive Kangerlussuaq 3pm. Cake. Snow.” Sometimes I seem to have been too busy to write much. I have one diary that just says: “Summer: USA, Greenland, Europe, South America.” May be I forgot to pack a pen. Since I moved to Stoke, I have gradually travelled less and less, until one day I found myself having woken up in the same bed in the same room every morning for two years. They’ve got me. I’m stuck. I’ve hit the Stoke gravity well. I’m never going to leave. I was talking to my next door neighbour yesterday. It’s mid-June, high summer, and he’s telling me that he just took the car in to have the winter tyres changed for summer tyres because he might want to drive somewhere. His car has only clocked up a couple of hundred miles in the last 12 months. He went to Halifax for the day once, and drove around Stoke, and that’s it. Well not me. They don’t get me that way. I left a trail of bread crumbs, or string, or something, and I can find my way out. A motive? Hell, it’s an inspiration! Let’s get going.
What you see up ahead depends on your point of view. To some extent it depends on how you feel about the things that you see falling into the distance in the rear view mirror. People seem to think the mirror is for checking out what is coming up on you from behind, but that’s not so. It is for watching the things you have passed slip further and further back. Watching the train of breadcrumbs fade into the distance. Watching the string roll out from the reel behind you and trail backwards in your wake. Showing you the way back. What would happen if you started to reel some of it back in? Like hauling a long submerged fishing line out of the water, covered in slime and tangled with old boots and bits of wire. And there in the line, fixed like beads, are the places and people and moments of your life. The milestones of the journey, large and small. Some well remembered, others, little colourless lumps encrusted with barnacles, long forgotten. This was your life. But most of it is hard to see. Shadows of the past. You can’t go back. You peer at some unfamiliar shape, some rusted scrap caught in the line, but the closer you look the harder it is to discern its original shape. If you look at it directly it vanishes from sight. It can only be seen when you look slightly to one side; only at the periphery of vision, when you are not sure whether you are really seeing it at all: not sure whether it is memory or imagination.
And what if we turn forwards, looking out across the bow of the ship? The line stretches out ahead of us, dipping under the water like a ferry chain. As you pull it towards you out of the water you pull yourself forward along your path, and as the line comes out, there are the little beads. The jewels and the plastic baubles, people and places and events of your life. Some are new. Some are surprising, but some you recognise. Some you are revisiting. Here is Stoke again. There’s Sir Stanley, older than you remember him. That eskimo girl isn’t showing up again, but look, there’s Aberdeen. There’s Oxford. Look, they knocked down the pastry shop where Marty used to work. Who’d have believed it. I wonder whatever became of Marty: hey, let’s go and visit. And no sooner have you decided than here comes Marty, hanging onto the line and waving hello. “Long time no see. What brings you?” And then you realize: what comes up from the unseen deep and rises along the line to meet you is partly your choice. It is you that hauls in the line, and you that chooses which of its jewels to seek out and recognise. To revisit. Where you go next is up to you. You can’t go back, but you can go again.
[This entry is an edited version of something I previously wrote on my web page, years ago, but I’ve added here because it fits so well as part of the new “Places We Have Known” category]