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THE VANISHED LANDSCAPE: A 1930s childhood in the Potteries

02 November 2006


Weidenfeld & Nicolson £16.99(0-297-84772-4)Church Times Bookshop £15.30

PAUL JOHNSON is associated with a stream of history books written in his west-London home. His latest book is a surprise, for it is devoted just to his own childhood, which was spent in Staffordshire in the decade before the Second World War. It dwells on the smells, tastes, sounds, and fears of provincial life in the 1930s.

Johnson’s home town is Tunstall, in the Potteries. His family’s first residence there was Priory House, part of a large collection of Victorian ecclesiastical buildings. Attached was a convent, where young Paul went to school. He stresses that the sisters who taught him were kindly, and that he never experienced, either there or at his Christian Brothers’ school, any abuse.

Home was a world featuring Tizer, Oxo, Ovaltine, Camp coffee, Force, and a farthing’s worth of dolly mixtures or Pontefract cakes. At night, the young Johnson thought that he could see the fires of hell as he looked across the working pot-bank landscape.

Holidays were spent in Lytham St Anne’s, searching for the New Chronicle’s mystery man, Lobby Lud. Outings included visiting the old churches that his artist-father drew for a weekly newspaper feature. But none was more exciting than his own Roman Catholic church, where his father was artistic adviser. The priest there had toured Europe noting extravagant church architecture, and this resulted in a vast building with four domes and two towers.

Something not allowed in the house was a camera: his father feared that the invention would put artists out of business. So this book is illustrated with the author’s deightful drawings of pot-banks, trains, a church procession (reproduced, right), and even a piece of remembered furniture in which he hid when his father entertained his fellow artist L. S. Lowry.

Leigh Hatts is author of London City Churches.

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