Running in the footsteps of Edwin Clayhanger - by Martin Frisher

We're posting this evocative story by Martin Frisher to coincide with two major June events in Stoke-on-Trent: the Stoke-on-Trent Literary Festival, which is celebrating (amongst many other things) the writing of Arnold Bennett; and the epic local half marathon, the Potters 'Arf, which takes place this Sunday. It's great to be able to tie the two together to celebrate Stoke-on-Trent's bid to be City of Culture 2021.

My running journey began in 1996, when aged thirty-four I decided to go for a short run. Little did I know that, like Phileas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days, my journey would take me the equivalent of round the world in miles. Exactly where the final mile of the 24,901 miles I covered I can’t be sure, but it was somewhere in or near Stoke-on-Trent. In fact nearly all of the miles were covered in or near Stoke-on-Trent. Along the way I also ran round Loch Ness, up Snowdon, across Paris, through Prague, dodged traffic in Kathmandu and explored the wonders of Athens.

My running career got off to a bad start at school in the 1970s in Glasgow, where I generally came last in cross-country runs around the school playing fields. For the next 20 years I did no running and played no sports. 

In 1997 I moved to Staffordshire and joined a gym in Festival Park in Stoke-on-Trent. Over the next year I ran round most of the city or the “five towns” as they are known in several books by Arnold Bennett (1867-1931). A few years earlier I had read Clayhanger by Bennett and enjoyed the description of Edwin Clayhanger’s life. At the time I don’t think I realised that Clayhanger was set in Stoke-on-Trent, but now I found myself running through the streets described in the book, frequently passing through Swan Square in Burslem (fictionalised as Bursley in the book). Today if you go to Swan Square you can see plaques commemorating various buildings that appear in fictional form in Clayhanger. The passage I particularly remembered is from chapter 10 “Free and Easy” when Edwin Clayhanger goes into the Dragon Hotel (the real life George Hotel) and sees something he has never before encountered, namely a “clog dance”. Bennett writes:

 “And thus was rendered back to the people in the charming form of beauty that which the instinct of the artist had taken from the sordid ugliness of the people. The clog, the very emblem of the servitude and the squalor of brutalised populations, was changed, on the light feet of this favourite, into the medium of grace….The clog meant everything that was harsh, foul, and desolating; it summoned images of misery and disgust. Yet on those feet that had never worn it seriously, it became the magic instrument of pleasure, waking dulled wits and forgotten aspirations, putting upon everybody an enchantment.” 

Just as Edwin Clayhanger was changed by seeing the clog dance, so I was changed, albeit perhaps more gradually, by running.  In the earlier years I was probably running about 5-10 miles most days of the week. After completing the Potteries marathon in 1997 (in 4 hours and 34 minutes), my initial thoughts were ‘never again’. But the pain wore off and soon I was training for the 1998 Potteries marathon (and then every year until 2003). I eventually managed to break four hours on my sixteenth marathon in Hamburg in 2004.

So, what next? Another journey round the world is in progress and I have entered the 2017 Potter’s Arf, following again in the footsteps of Edwin Clayhanger. As Bennett wrote in chapter one of Clayhanger:

"In front, on a little hill in the vast valley, was spread out the Indian-red architecture of Bursley - tall chimneys and rounded ovens, schools, the new scarlet market, the grey tower of the old church, the high spire of the evangelical church, the low spire of the church of genuflexions, and the crimson chapels, and rows of little red with amber chimney-pots, and the gold angel of the blackened town hall topping the whole. The sedate reddish browns and reds of the composition, all netted in flowing scarves of smoke, harmonised exquisitely with the chill blues of the chequered sky. Beauty was achieved, and none saw it."