John Wain was born in James Street, Stoke, in 1925. When he was a few years old, his family moved up the hill to the new ‘garden village’ of Penkhull, to a larger house in Bromley Hough. He went to a Froebel progressive school and then to Newcastle High School, Newcastle-under-Lyme, until he went to Oxford University in 1943. He kept up his close relations with the place: apart from visiting his family, he lectured in Stoke to the Arnold Bennett Society, and was a frequent consultant to Peter Cheeseman at the Victoria Theatre in Basford on Shakespearean productions. He would stay at Peter’s house just up the road from the old Vic (before it moved to its new home on the Stoke / Newcastle borders). In 1975 his play, ‘Harry In The Night’, was put on at the Vic.
He was too young in the early 1940s to do more than clandestine drinking in the local pubs, but was a frequent customer in the 1970s of the locals around the Vic. He also lectured several times to the Arnold Bennett Society in Stoke and Newcastle-under-Lyme.
Part of John Wain’s youthful rebellion was perhaps a reaction against his home town – a common enough feeling amongst the young; in his life it took the form of a positive feeling rather than a negative, a great emotional attachment to the Oxford of the 1940s and his studies and life there. He has said that he was immature and too open to ‘Oxford’ when he first went there, as an 18-year old, and the place probably had too much of an effect on him. But in later life he said that the rift between his town of birth and his adopted city had long since healed, and that he recognized the gifts that both places had given him. His well-regarded novel, The Contenders, which was made into an ITV drama, was set in the Potteries.
In his book ‘Professing Poetry’ (1978) John Wain wrote about his play of 1975:
I am giving them [the people of the Potteries] a slice of the truth as I have learnt about it by living it for fifty years, and it is the same as their truth. Harry, when his life crumbles about him, finds new strength not from some spectacular fresh beginning, some road-to-Damascus religious vision, but simply from usefulness and productive work, from the sense that he has skills and knowledge that are needed and so can respect himself. He makes his new freedom out of the sober, industrious habits of his old slavery…This is something I learnt by growing up among these people and realizing what keeps them alive in their often monotonous and drab surroundings – alive, and full of zest and humour and courage.
Note: Wain Drive, in Stoke, is not named after John Wain but after his father, Arnold A. Wain, who was a local councillor and a magistrate, and was once invited to stand as an Independent M.P. for a Potteries constituency. One of the essays in John Wain’s Dear Shadows is a portrait of his father and the poverty in which he grew up.