An author of 10 books and 25 plays, Tony Stowers struggled most to get published the one that was perhaps he held most dear.
It was one end of the Stockton to Darlington railway, the first public railway to use steam locomotives in the world which opened in September 1825.
The importance of this event cannot be understated as it was one of the pivotal moments of the industrial revolution which was to propel Britain to the status of world leader.
It marked the beginning of an astonishingly rapid transformation of Britain which saw new lines and ever more speedy locomotives, criss cross the country.
The region was the birthplace or origin of some of the industrial greats of that period: George Stephenson and his son Robert Stephenson, Timothy Hackworth and William Hedley to name but a few. Their expertise and inspiration spread not just nationwide but around the globe.
Born in 1963, as a 12-year-old Tony was taken by his father in 1975 to watch an event in Darlington commemorating the 150th anniversary of the building of the line.
“I saw a lot of the original trains come through North Road and Bank Top station,” he recalled. “Even as a kid of 12, I enjoyed writing and I thought wouldn’t it be great if somebody had written a book, to bring the original scene back to life.”
Over the years the idea never left his head. While the event has its own place in the history books, the details are contained within at times dry, scholarly accounts.
“There were lots of black and white drawings, a lot of statistical and technical diagrams. But of course there was no film or photographs then. There was little which possessed the creative stimuli to bring it to life as I thought it could. This was always my ambition.”
And the ambition grew, although his upbringing was not typical of the artistic type he was to become.
Tony said his love of literature, a supportive English teacher, school pantos, theatre and writing sustained him through his early years, despite getting up to all manner of trouble associated with disenfranchised youth in small towns.
In 1979, against his better instinct, he signed up for an apprenticeship as a printer but was fired in 1981 for “daydreaming”. It was to prove a pivotal moment for him as it was then he decided to become a writer and artist.
For the next four years he got involved with theatre and became a published poet, performing much of his work to what he described as “punk” audiences. Thanks to the miners’ strike of 1984 and 1985, the boundaries of art and the working class were broken down and fed off each other.
For Tony it was a productive time. As well as attending various drama groups, he wrote theatre plays in the search for an original voice, highlights including “The Waiting Room” which featured a young Mark Gatiss, another County Durham lad who later made his name in the surreal comedy series The League of Gentleman and for co-creating the Sherlock TV series.
Then in 1985 Tony was accepted into London’s Central School of Speech and Drama and left the North East for London.
Many of his fellow students there have gone on to become household names. They include the likes of James Nesbitt, Graham Norton, Jason Isaacs, James Purefoy and Christopher Eccleston.
“I was being groomed by agents for jobs as a film actor but all I wanted to do was write so I ended up doing things the wrong way round. Instead of making loads of money as an actor and then being a writer, I decided on being a writer.”
And making not quite so much money.
He spent 11 years in London and as well as graduating as an actor, he wrote a number of plays in various squats and whilst living on friends’ floors.
In 1996 he returned to the North East and formed The Northern Line Theatre Company and from 1997 to 2000 produced six new plays, employing around 30 actors and technicians.
It was during this time, with the 175th anniversary approaching, he returned to his Stockton to Darlington idea, determined to create a play for his group to perform.
“But I just couldn’t get them interested in it,” said Tony, his voice even to this day betraying a hint of dismay.
Instead he adapted the unperformed script he came up with to write Lewis and Number One, a children’s story centred on young Lewis Noble, who sets out to write an essay on the subject and who is whisked back in time by a time-travelling family from the future on their way back to 1825.
Then followed No 1, the title used in both books coming from Locomotive No 1 which was the first steam locomotive to travel along the Stockton to Darlington line.
Through a series of 75 vignettes featuring real life characters like George Stephenson, Timothy Hackworth and Edward Pease as well as fictional ones like Silas Scroggins, he weaved a tale from 1810 up to the September 27, 1825, the opening date of the line.
Through the introduction of fictional characters he wanted to convey the impact of the new technology on the lives of ordinary people as well as their lives at the time.
It proved a considerable, and tiring, feat of imagination. At 258 pages and 500,000 words, Tony said: “It was extremely complicated.”
He did much research for the historic content although the records for the time don’t exist revealing the intense debate over the issue of the line.
It nearly wasn’t built because of the powerful landowners lobby against it. One of the most important interventions was that of Jonathan Backworth, a Quaker minister, who went to Parliament and had an audience with Prime Minister Lord Liverpool to persuade him to give it the go ahead.
No notes existed of their meeting, so Tony imagined what they would have said.
“It was just after the Napoleonic war, soldiers were returning home to no jobs, crime was going up, people were starving to death and he persuaded Lord Liverpool of the positive economic impact it could have,” said Tony.
The effect of Government spending to help a country in an economic slump, of course, has resonances today.
The line itself was a wonder. From enabling people from urban areas to actually go to the seaside for the first time to the transporting of previously unseen goods like oranges and bananas, its impact was massive.
He completed his book in 2000, but was dismayed at first because, as he admitted, “nobody wanted to publish it”.
“It wasn’t seen as a very sexy read. I couldn’t even get the synopsis to people.”
After a time living in France in 2002, he again returned to the North East and formed Associated Professional Artists and it was with this company he gained creative successes with Space Jockey and X, employing up to 50 North East-based actors in a variety of workshops and read-throughs, as well as travelling in Europe and the UK to enhance his skills and knowledge.
Eventually he set up home in France as a teacher living near Nantes.
By chance he discovered that Edward Pease, who owned the line, had visited Nantes and had given a powerful speech there against slavery for which he is still well know.
After years of trying he adopted the pioneering spirit of the people who wrote about by just doing it himself. Self publishing first through Kindle and then Create Space, it is generating a lot of local interest.
He has had readings of it back in his home town and there is the relief that the story is out there. However, he seems to have a love/hate relationship with the book. He is proud of its content but, as he frankly admits: “It was absolute murder to write. I’m never going to write anything like it again.”
* No.1 is available as an e-book on Kindle and in print from the Create Space publishing service, both accessible through Amazon.
* A new version of the book, updated and re-edited, is now available