My Gran lived in a two up, two down terraced house, in a street of identical red bricked houses in Stoke-on-Trent. Every week she’d scrub her black step on Austin Street and bake an apple pie. Twice a week after school she’d take me to the corner shop and buy me 10 pence of cola bottles that fizzed in my mouth and were sure enough the cause of the fillings in my two back molars.
At the end of the street ran the river Trent which seemed to churn and bubble like lobby on the boil even in summer. After school I’d stand on one side of the rusted bridge and throw in a twig, run to the other side, and watch it disappear on its long journey through the bottle kilns, across Derbyshire and into the North Sea.
On school holidays, when my Mum was at work, my Gran would take me on a walk up Berryhill, and we’d pick blackberries. Berryhill is known locally as the lungs of the Potteries. The only green patch in a city of bricks and clay. I don’t know whether it was called Berryhill because of the berries but they were so plump and juicy in my mouth they felt heaven sent. On the walk back home, we’d watch the Red Admiral butterflies dance and she’d tell me about my Grandad, who died before I was born, and worked as a miner at Berryhill mine. I learned two things about my Grandad on those walks. That he didn’t go to war, and he’d lost both his legs. Both things seemed to define him and yet were taken from him, like they could have never belonged him in the first place. I expect the fate of his legs was much the same that befell his father, and his father before him, who were both taken whole by the same mine. But I do know from my Gran it involved being sucked into a coal grinder. His life was only saved by a 16 year old apprentice who pulled him free, minus his legs. My Gran was never one for mincing her words. But she did thank the coal board for giving her compensation of two bags of coal a week for the rest of her life.
Every Tuesday, like clockwork, the coal man would drop off her two bags of free coal. He'd carry the bags, one on each shoulder, into the back yard from his lorry into the coal house. The coal house was sandwiched between the kitchen and the outside toilet which I hated because it was full of spiders, and you had to poke the water in the toilet with a stick when it froze over. The coal man would empty the bags out and the lumps of coal would drop like a rumble of thunder. For the promise of an extra 10 pence of cola bottles, I’d shovel the coal into a scuttle and my Gran would build the biggest fire of the week with scrunched up newspaper and a fire lighter. We’d hold up two slices of white bread with a fork to the coal. The smoke would lick the white bread until it was almost black, and we’d dollop it with dripping and eat it like we’d just been delivered into the promised land. I swear if you cut me open now my blood would run as black as coal, my arteries with dripping and my heart would be moulded in clay.
Anyone who grows up in Stoke will go all misty eyed about pottery and my Gran was no exception. A Stokie, she told me, will always turn over a cup to see where it’s made. And if it isn’t made in Stoke, you can go right ahead and spit in it. My Gran had a front room with a glass cabinet filled with China, handed down from her mother like they were the crown jewels. A Royal Albert old country roses tea set and a Royal Doulton Saint Bernard dog which had its foot broken off and was stuck back on with brown glue. I don’t remember if I was the one who broke it, but I do know I carved the wooden arm of her sofa with a knife one day when I was bored. I do feel bad about that now.
My Gran’s front room was only used for visitors and never had the fire lit, so in winter so if you sat in there long enough your breath would frost over. I only ever went in there to pretend I was Princess Diana. I’d prance around the room with my Gran’s net curtain over my head pretending I was marrying a prince. I saw Princess Diana once. She came to visit Stoke station with Prince Charles and my school took us down one afternoon to see them. It was full of bunting and all the children were waving red, white, and blue flags and screaming for Diana to walk over but she missed our part of the crowd and I only got to see her from a distance. I remember she was heavily pregnant with William at the time.
Everyone in Austin Street seemed to have a front room for special occasions that never seemed to arrive. My Gran’s friend, Mrs Clarke, lived opposite and had a glass cabinet in her front room full of porcelain dolls. The ones whose heads are too heavy for their rag bodies and fall to the side like they need to go to sleep. One eye open, the other eye closed. Once a week my Gran and I would visit Mrs Clarke, and I’d press my nose up against the glass and imagine running my fingertips over the doll’s lace embroidered dresses. I didn’t dare turn the key to open the cabinet door, even though it was still sitting in the lock.
My Mum worked long hours in a pottery factory, so my Gran used to take me and pick me up from primary school. My school was called Tin school. I don’t know why it had this name, but it wasn’t made of tin, just a collection of mobile classrooms around a central courtyard where every May we used to dance around the May pole. Next to the school stood a bottle kiln and one day our class visited it and we learned what a Saggar Maker’s Bottom Knocker does. The Saggar is a container that holds the pottery in the bottle kiln whilst it’s firing. The Saggar Maker moulds the Saggar from clay. The Saggar Marker’s Bottom Knocker, usually a young boy, knocks the bottom of the Saggar into a metal ring using a wooden mallet. My Mum wasn’t a Saggar Maker’s Bottom Knocker. She was a Cranker and responsible for stacking the plates when they come out of the kiln. Crankers use only their thumb and little finger to do this so as not to mark the pottery. As a result of doing this for over 40 years, my Mum could never bend her little finger.
A Saggar Maker
On Fridays, my Mum would finish work at lunchtime and come and collect me in her white overalls and take me to the playground where I would sit on the metal rocking horse, that if you weren’t careful would slice your finger off. We’d wait until the red double decker PMT bus arrived to take us home to the other side of Stoke.