Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Ironopolis – Bridging the River Tees

The Victorians gave the name Ironopolis to Middlesbrough at a time when it was the fastest growing town in Britain. A rapidly expanding steel industry attracted migrants from all over England, Scotland and Ireland to feed a massive demand for labour. Locals were justly proud of the industrial traditions that included the manufacture of the components for the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle. After almost five decades of industrial decline, Middlesbrough today is an exemplar of Left Behind Britain. In 2015 the town was awarded the accolade of most deprived local council area in England. No surprise that Middlesbrough voted 65% in favour of leaving the EU.

The Transporter Bridge, opened in 1911, has been maintained in continuous working order although on the day of our visit it was out of action due to an electrical fault. The local authority has developed the bridge as a visitor attraction with an interpretation centre and a lift that takes the public to the overhead walkway. The lift was still in operation giving the opportunity to take photographs from the top. My father, in an unusually anecdotal mood, once told me how as a young man in the 1930s he made use of the bridge on his daily commute to central Middlesbrough. To avoid the expense of riding in the gondola, he, and many others would shoulder their bicycles and climb the metal staircase, cross over the top and descend on the other side. Given the height and constrained dimensions of the steps this was a prodigious feat of strength and co-ordination. With a north-easterly wind driving North Sea winter rain and sleet it must have been a major challenge. 

Our visit took place on a day of brilliant April sunshine, illuminating panoramic views of Teesside and the surviving blast furnaces, steel mills and chemical processing facilities. Ships still pass under the bridge with cargos of petro-chemicals and pipeline equipment for the North Sea oil industry is still produced in the shadow of the bridge. A melancholy sight visible from the bridge is the abandoned carcass of former British Rail vehicle ferry and party boat, the Tuxedo Royale that has been decaying here for more than 5 years. There is no registered owner and nobody to take responsibility for its fate. It’s too tempting to see it as a metaphor for the fate of British industry. 


February 2018 and Will Self’s Great British Bus Journey brings him to Ironopolis. A little out of sorts due to an absence of tomato juice on Teesside, he is confronted by the majestic blue form of the Transporter Bridge and incredulously demands to know, “What’s it for?”. “It’s to get you over the other side”, is the laconic reply. It’s obvious that the world of bridge engineering is not Will’s strong point as he struggles to give names to what he sees, rambling on about a “little basket” and a “dangling cradle”. “It’s a gondola”, somebody mutters in the background.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

More Faultfinding

It’s almost 10 years since we first looked at Find the Fault. Dennis Productions sold party games like this, decorously branded as the “Dainty Series” for more than 40 years from the 1920s to the mid 1960s. The party was pretty much over by the time they invested in this facelift with new illustrations in what might be called mid-century contemporary style. All extraneous detail has been eliminated along with much of the charm. What remains is brushed out areas of flat colour and expressionless drawing. The unintended result is a series of minimal compositions inhabited by rigid figures lost in existential introspection. The best estimate date is 1959 to 1962 and the pictures describe a Left Behind Britain that existed at the time, every bit as much as it does today. The Left Behind Britain of the 1960s was a rapidly decolonising former imperial power outside the European Union (or Common Market as it was then known). Governments and public alike were waking up to the fact that in Continental Europe a programme of infrastructure and industrial renewal had been underway for over a decade leaving Britain far behind in industrial productivity, transport networks, shipping handling and product development. Forty years inside the EU and this deficit was never fully overcome but we are assured that once we have escaped the dead hand of the EU a golden future will unfold. Our prosperity and quality of life will be the envy of the world. Britain will finally be open for business – just as soon as the doors are firmly locked and bolted. For more examples of fault finding, please follow the links, here and here.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Postcard of the Day No. 86 – Courbevoie – La Gare

A resourceful postcard photographer has attracted a large and varied cast of characters to add vitality to his picture. Either side of centre is a group of postal workers and messengers and a grandmother in charge of a pram containing an over-sized child and a curious baby that peers out at the camera. Assorted ragamuffins and passing labourers make up the numbers. A girl on the extreme right walks off in the opposite direction in a gesture of independence. The station still exists and is served by Transilien services from Gare St-Lazare to the western and south western suburbs of Paris. In the 19th. century Courbevoie was a major industrial centre (home to Banania among others) but much of the industry has moved away leaving behind a largely residential suburb. The ostentatious corporate tower-scape of La Défense has occupied the southern district of Courbevoie since the 1970s – nine out of the ten largest businesses in France are now headquartered there.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Our Daily Bread (1927)

Those whose task it was to come up with ideas for trade, collector’s, confectionery or cigarette card made much use of this type of theme. From field to table, from forest to paper, from the ocean to the plate, from cocoa bean to chocolate bar, et al. They made a handy starting point for a 4 or 6 part narrative set in a world familiar to the consumer. These cards were issued by Liebig whose main pan-European business was the processing of animal carcasses into liquid form for bottled spreads or dried, compressed powder for shaping and packaging into stock cubes. Liebig’s range of cards for collectors encompassed an encyclopaedic range of subjects, accessible and obscure, such as Entomology, Botany, Zoology, the Classical Orders of Architecture, Lives of the Great Composers, the Triumphs of the Caesars, the Campaigns of Charlemagne and a Taxonomy of Earthworms. Adopting a high standard of illustration and production values was a key factor in retaining and expanding the customer base by appealing to the instincts of collectors. This set of cards shows an orderly universe where sober and industrious workers conduct themselves with the minimum of fuss in well-lit uncluttered workplaces.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

The Two Lives of Lucius Beebe

Born into a wealthy Boston family and untroubled by the need to earn a living, Beebe (1902-1966) was what used to be known as a bon vivant, socialite, man about town and gourmand. Journalism became his trade and his high society columns in which he reported in person from the battlefront of Manhattan’s most exclusive bars and nightclubs were extensively syndicated across the USA. The expression Café Society is said to be his coinage. Here he is in 1939 in all his foppish splendour on the cover of Life magazine – no mean accolade. Immaculately turned out in top hat and waistcoat with a fine cigar in the grip of kid-gloved hands – the sort of figure that Preston Sturges loved to caricature. Dressing up was his social duty but in another life he was no stranger to dressing down. Because Beebe had another sphere of interest, one that scarcely touched, let alone overlapped with the fashionable pursuits of the haut monde. Having drained his last champagne glass, stubbed out a final cigar, unbuttoned his spats and hung up the handmade suit in his cavernous wardrobe, he would pick up his Graflex camera and, clad in proletarian work clothes, head for the railroad tracks.

Beebe was what Americans call a rail fan – an obsessive trackside photographer and author of numerous railroad books with an interest in the arcane and obscure as well as the mainstream. As a photographer he favoured the unimpeded three-quarter view of the oncoming train that became the orthodox composition for several decades of rail photography. A singular focus on the train, isolated from the wider scene often lead to chronically monotonous results. Leafing through Beebe’s volumes can become a dispiriting experience and the arrival of a new generation influenced by Walker Evans, Jack Delano and Winston Link that sought to locate the subject in context of its surroundings was a welcome development.

With his partner and fellow rail fan, Charles Clegg he criss-crossed North America in his own purpose-built private railcar. Named the Virginia City, it was a mini-Versailles mounted on steel wheels and Timken roller bearings, complete with marble fireplace, gilded chandeliers, private dining for eight guests, a drawing room and three staterooms. In the manner of Charles Foster Kane, an 18th. century Rococo mirror and cornices from a 14th. century Spanish altarpiece found their way on board. Attached to and detached from time-tabled services at the whim of its occupants, this mobile oasis of opulence shone its lustre on the extremities of the North American rail network in the course of a 15 year odyssey. The Beebe legacy is a groaning shelf of volumes on railroads, local history and the leisure pursuits of the super-rich. The railway books have been extensively reprinted and to this day are easily available at modest expense.