Thursday, 23 September 2021

Fear and Loathing on Teesside

It is strange how those who would die in a ditch to defend a statue of a slave trader have no hesitation in erasing the industrial legacy that is such a vital source of local pride in places like Middlesborough and Redcar that have been ravaged in the era of post-industrialisation.  Within 4 hours of taking up her post as Culture Secretary, Ms Nadine Dorries was contacted by Mr Ben Houchen, Tees Valley Mayor, and reversed Historic England’s temporary listing of the Dorman Long coal storage tower at Redcar.  Much to the delight of Mr Houchen, it was demolished in the early hours of Sunday September 19 at 1.55 am.  Not so much a case of levelling up as levelling down. Ms Dorries is described as a best selling novelist and was commended by Ben Wallace, Minister of Defence as ideal for her new post because her second career shows she is in touch with what ordinary people think. Hilary Mantel is a best selling novelist but I can’t imagine Mr Wallace having much good to say about her.  Back to Ms Dorries, she is certainly an accomplished gobshite and avowed opponent of left-wing snowflakes, political correctness, gay marriage and easy access to abortion.  So she comes fully armed into the present government’s inspirational ‘war on woke’.

The real villain of this piece is the Mayor of Tees Valley who fought tooth and nail to successfully oppose the local campaign to preserve the redundant blast furnace at Redcar as a significant part of the regional industrial heritage. Demolition of the Redcar steelworks took place in August and the depressing saga of the Mayor’s intrigues and u-turns that made it happen is well told by local blogger, Scott Hunter.  Mr Houchen has a Taliban-like enthusiasm for destroying the symbols of the past that sustain a sense of local identity. Replacing them with retail parks, big box fulfilment centres, a freeport for tax evasion and a handful of affordable jerry-built dog-kennels is designed to prepare the locals for a bright shiny future of low-wage, long hours and insecure employment where the profits will be whipped offshore in the blink of an eye. The images of Houchen’s victims come from Google Earth, the industrial panorama (in which the Dorman Long tower can be seen on the skyline in the centre) was photographed by myself from the top of the Transporter Bridge in  April 2016.


Friday, 17 September 2021

Great Laxey Wheel

Anyone rummaging through boxes of miscellaneous vintage postcards will soon find one of the incongruously oversized Laxey Wheel. It’s the world’s largest working water wheel and can be found on the Isle of Man where it is a major visitor attraction.  The Isle of Man was rich in mineral deposits but had no seams of coal so to pump water out of the Great Laxey Mines complex this water powered Leviathan was constructed in 1854.  Reserves of lead, copper, silver and zinc finally ran out in 1929 and the mines closed.  The wheel languished out of use until 1965 when it was taken under government control and a project to restore it to working order was completed in 1971 since when it has been conserved. It makes a comfortable fit with the island’s major attraction of antiquated transport - narrow-gauge steam railways, electric tramways, and a mountain railway that climbs to the summit of Snaefell.  The tramway and the mountain railway converge in the village of Laxey making it something of a tourist hotspot.  Passengers on the Snaefell railway are treated to commanding views of the Laxey Wheel as their train ascends the valley side.  The white painted stone work and the bright red wheel spokes enhance its visibility today just as they did when it was a working structure rather than a museum piece.


Wednesday, 1 September 2021

The Dreamland Express

A group of children - boys and girls - lying face down on the ground, staring over the edge of a precipice.  One of the boys is upright and racing towards the edge in the company of a snake.  Is he planning to jump? The scene has been visualised from above giving a strong sense that they are looking into a terrifying void.  They are, in fact, at the edge of the world.  Beyond is the limitless emptiness of space. This anxiety inducing glimpse of infinity comes from a book for children, written and illustrated by H R Millar (1869-1942), the subject of our previous post.

The Dreamland Express was published by Oxford University Press in 1927 and copies are hard to find. A new edition was issued in 1989 and these scans come from one such copy.  Millar put his heart and soul into this book, writing an adventure story in which a trio of schoolboys follow a voyage of discovery through fantastical and other worldly landscapes, encountering a bewildering sequence of wild and dangerous animals, dragons, giants and citizens of exotic and eccentric civilisations.  Holding it all together was the series of trains in which the young adventurers travelled that enabled Millar to indulge his lifelong passion for railways and spice his narrative with romantic vignettes of life on the rails.  Millar begins his tale with a haunting description of the children discovering a passenger train all but concealed in dense woodland, headed by a majestic steam engine entangled in foliage. A full complement of crew are ready and waiting to welcome them on board and get the journey underway.

In the first half of the book the train races through imaginary cities on bridges and viaducts that have all but escaped the laws of gravity, arriving at an extraordinary cavernous station built in the style of Ancient Egypt. Along the way our heroes meet a flirtatious girl, always an uncomfortable moment of potential disruption to the simple pleasures of male companionship. Unlike John, Peter and George she is not granted the dignity of a name but she wins their respect by revealing an unexpected interest in trains, enough to admit her to the travelling band. Later the group is joined by a school swot whose function is to irritate with displays of pedantry.  The second half of the book involves an enforced change of train - the new locomotive is a decrepit specimen apparently riveted together from a motley assortment of life expired parts in the manner of W Heath Robinson. A Mysterious Oriental with a private train carrying a magnificent retinue of slaves and devoted followers enters the story and by sleight of hand substitutes their locomotive for something even worse - an Oriental fantasy made from porcelain and timber with a silken canopy covering the cab.  Despite the handicap of a disintegrating locomotive our heroes find time to rescue a slave from execution, win the favour of a Giant and emerge unscathed from a pitch-black Canyon of Darkness.

Millar’s visions of alternative worlds are brought to life with pen and ink drawing combined with colour washes - the results are close to the visual conventions of the comic strip. Echoes of Lyonel Feininger and Winsor McCay can be seen in Millar’s eccentric architectural fantasies although no evidence that he ever saw their work exists. Millar employed the voice of a narrator throughout to offer context and commentary and he didn’t flinch from challenging subject matter.  The image of the eternally burning city and the desperation of its inhabitants is the stuff of young nightmares and evokes a sense of dread equal to the confrontation with the edge of the world where the journey ends. Millar resolves this situation by having the three boys simultaneously awaken in their beds back home.  Normality has been restored and the boys can resume their natural progression to adulthood where John flies a Spitfire in the Battle of Britain, eventually becoming a Conservative MP, Peter survives the privations of a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, later rising through the ranks of the Anglican Church to become a Suffragan Bishop and George, having served as a Junior Officer in the Royal Navy, studies Fine Art at the Slade, briefly exhibits his paintings of railway disasters at the Beaux-Arts Gallery while becoming a notorious habitué of the Colony Room, bantering the night away with George Melly and Francis Bacon.