Ground Work | Brian LewisPosted: April 30, 2017
North of the railway line that links the East Leeds suburb of Crossgates to the commuter village of Garforth, a ripple of flags and fixtures, spotless signs, developers’ colours, staked in rolls of turf: the joined-up housing, tipping from the west, leaking into the low-rise, light industrial district of Barnbow. To each gap, each leftover lot, a phased release, an orderly settlement. New homes, new streets, a woman’s name in every lane and avenue, Ethel Jackson, Amelia Stewart, Olive Yeates, neat lawns and driveways, there are no roads east of Maggie Barker. Screened from The Limes, parallel to the railway, a thin, grey park: in the park, a grey shed, its vaulted frame stretching to one-third of a mile, the bulk receding, then vanishing.
It was said of the factory at Barnbow that the parts would go in at one end and come out the other as tanks. Between 1983 and 1990, the Challenger 1 was built here, then, from 1993, the Challenger 2, after the site was acquired by Vickers Defence Systems in 1986, who designed and constructed a new plant for its production. For nearly fifty years before its privatisation and sale to Vickers, the Barnbow complex was operated as a Royal Ordnance Factory, one of a number of state-owned ROFs established as part of the late 1930s rearmament programme. ROF Leeds wasn’t the first munitions factory in Barnbow, though; the government had built one at the outset of the first world war. Officially known as National Filling Factory No. 1, it absorbed 313 acres of the Gascoigne estate, an area criss-crossed by defunct coal pits, the main site lying north and east of the railway sidings that, decades later, would make way for ROF Leeds. Within a few months of becoming operational, Barnbow’s output had increased to 6000 shells per day, making it the most productive British shell factory of the war. This was achieved with a 24-hour, three-shift system and, by October 1916, a workforce of 16,000, 93% of whom were women and girls. Conditions at Barnbow were difficult and dangerous, especially for those who handled explosives, the workers sheathed in smocks and caps, their skin yellowing from exposure to cordite. At 10pm on 5 December 1916, several hundred women had just started their shift, including 170 working in one of the fusing rooms. At 10.27pm, an explosion levelled the room, leaving 35 women dead, and many more injured and maimed. The details of the accident were withheld from the public until 1924, when the land was returned to Colonel Gascoigne, who sought, and received, compensation for the requisitioning of his estate. By now, most of the filling factory had been demolished; a new, short-lived colliery was constructed, reusing some of the factory buildings, and several parcels of land, described as ‘waste’, were later put up for auction by the colonel. Over time, the railway spurs, the filling sheds, and the pit workings were dismantled or abandoned, spikes and shafts now dents and hollows, rough ground softening to the gaze, plantation and grass, arable lots, the works effaced by landscape.
The word landscape arrived in England with the Anglo-Saxons (as landscipe or landscaef), and, in its earliest sense, referred to a system of manmade spaces, or the ‘shaping’ of land to which people belonged. From the late sixteenth century, it is increasingly identified with the usage borrowed from Dutch painters, landschap, a term descriptive of ‘natural’ scenery, and suggestive of framed pastorals. The idea of the picturesque begins to inform the making of the landscape itself, and is a significant factor in the rise of the ‘English garden’ a hundred years later; planned idylls, commissioned by wealthy patrons, laid out in the grounds of private estates. While the excesses of the Romantic period have largely fallen away – the grottos, rotundas and mock ruins that proliferated in eighteenth-century parks and gardens – our attachment to an idealised, ‘painterly’ view persists. The eye is drawn to a simple arrangement of lake, grove, and gentle slope. It is nature, it is ‘naturalistic’, and the labour that made and maintains it is absent or discreet. We overlook (or, perhaps, applaud) the settled artifice: without it, there is no ‘view’. Conversely, the working landscape – in its industrialised, technologized, contemporary form – is seldom recognised as landscape, but, rather, as a disturbance of soil, a distortion of perspective, each visible modification and intervention an act against landscape. Environmental objections to new ‘works’ are often linked to aesthetic concerns; occasionally, the latter predominate, as can be observed in public opposition to the siting of pylons and wind turbines (with an emphasis on visual impact apparent in many campaigns). Sightlines are interrupted by wires and blades. The ‘idyll’, if it exists, is endangered by infrastructure projects. And yet, for all our discord and unease, the working landscape belongs to us, and we to it; its history is part of our history. The narrative of a single site, its changes of use, is recounted through generations, passing into folk memory, local lore. What happens to these sites, and their stories, when the labour and the landscape have exhausted each other?
Karl Hurst’s photographs of the former collieries of South Yorkshire (and other parts of the county shaped by its heavy industry) explore this state of ambivalence: the undeclared thesis of the project is that the terrain itself is caught between renunciation, remembering, and renewal. The images in the series (collectively titled Recovered Landscapes) are presented without locational or situational information, or, indeed, any details that might help us to understand what kind of work took place on these sites before they were deindustrialised (and, to all appearances, depopulated). This is, I think, intentional, the suspension of context an echo of the process that Hurst is documenting: the decoupling of the coalfields from the communities that the collieries made viable. Whether fenced or unguarded, disused or reclaimed, we are to infer that these places no longer belong to the people. A recent essay by Hurst offers some clues to his thinking; he visits the site of the former coking plant at Orgreave, 100 acres of which has been redeveloped as a technology park, and a further 300 acres designated as ‘the Waverley Community’, a mixed residential / commercial estate with lakeside views (and an annual ‘service charge’ of £150 per household). He searches the area, its signage and maps, for some ‘official acknowledgement’ of the Battle of Orgreave, a decisive moment in the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, and, arguably, the event with which the name of the parish is most closely identified. He finds nothing, no murals or monuments, and concludes that the development is a deliberate act of cultural erasure, of which the renaming, or rebranding, from Orgreave to Waverley is the most troubling symptom. The name is the legacy; without it, the link to the landscape is broken.
Displacement, estrangement, and the weakening of the bonds of work, class, and community have been prominent themes in Hurst’s work for some years, and comprise the burden of his poem cycle The Frome Primer (2007). The title, suggestive of geographical specificity, is a riddle, a bluff; while the project was initially sketched as ‘a view of the south from the north’, there is nothing of southern England in these poems. Like the images of Recovered Landscapes, the poems are untitled, the locations unidentified. Here, too, the effect is a loss of particularity, a sense of attachments (to people, places) worn thin, wearing out. The ‘older world’ to which the speaker (or speakers) belonged has declined, and is being dismantled, the surviving fragments (‘the backs of weavers’ houses’, ‘the abandoned giant works’) suddenly out of place. The lineage of skilled manual work, of which he is part, is tapering and fraying, its blunt lessons (‘it’s no good knocking / even the straightest nail / into a crooked wall / with a crooked hammer’) now passing, obliquely, into parable or fable. This world, its work, cannot be handed down. The world that replaces it is defined by precarity, ‘scavenging’, the austere resourcefulness of its new arrivals, sustaining themselves by ‘tak[ing] hems up / and rak[ing] coiled leaves out / of drains’, or ‘smoking […] black tobacco / and sourcing the cheapest cuts’. This precarity and rupture is not unique to the ‘surrendered’ city, as the seventh poem makes plain. It is one of only two poems in The Frome Primer to depart from the first person, and the only poem in which the focus shifts to the land itself (a ‘working landscape’ in South Lincolnshire, the cycle’s sole concession to topographical orientation). The flat farmland is evoked in unusually lyrical terms:
In the blue bean rows near Boston
Chou Li bends to a black stork.
Low mists veil the fields, Chou Li
straightening to the horizon, caught
in transparency. Imagine Emperor Huizong
at work here, hinting at willow with delicate
calligraphy and rendering a quiet nobility
from the work, white persimmon
hanging in the cool morning.
Glance again now after this clarity,
like grief, grey fluke blooms on the beans,
the itinerant labour gang, in transit, dispersed.
In times of scarcity and uncertainty, our relationship to landscape, as a resource, is often reframed, impelled by the makeshift and the fugitive. Fay Musselwhite’s sequence ‘Adventures in Procurement’ (in her 2016 collection Contraflow) opens with ‘Firewood’, in which the darkened edges of an unnamed ‘southern city’ are scouted and foraged by a small, shadowy group, raiding newbuild sprawl and rebuilt townhouses for scrap wood, rummaging through skips for discarded pallets and planks, gathering ‘armfuls’ of timber to feed their squat’s hearth. This is work that subsists on the byproducts of work, sustaining itself through the surplus and waste of land and labour. The poem and the sequence are set against the backdrop of England in the late 1980s, a period in which industrial relations were deteriorating, and home ownership was increasing. ‘Firewood’ contrasts distant reports from the ‘battlegrounds’ and ‘barricades’ further north – the news aflame with ‘licks and lashes [that] make light of a community exposed’ – with eyewitness accounts of neighbourhood gentrification:
[…] streets colonised by stair shifters, roof raisers,
bay window chasers, home owners performing
their open house surgery, bedrooms waiting
in polythene wings.
The land is divided, carved up by legislators, developers and speculators, the era’s combustible politics and economic imbalances leaving parts of it a no-man’s-land. Stepping into this breach are the protagonists of ‘Adventures in Procurement’: predatory slum landlords, small-time traders, itinerant musicians and crafters, each of them testing the market for its gaps, its weaknesses, exhausting the seams and cracks, then moving on. The line between legal revenue and illicit trade is repeatedly – perhaps deliberately – blurred in ‘Smokeless Zone’ and ‘Wearing the Trousers’, the ‘pulse of merchandise’ racing from ‘storefront harbour’ to ‘laid-up trailers’, before slowing at the ‘spy-holes’ of flats frequented by dealers and users, in which we find the eponymous anti-heroes of the last poems in the sequence, ‘Tales from Min’s’ and ‘Leon’; their territory shrinking to a handful of cornered rooms, raided and wrecked, in turn, by police and gangland enforcers. It’s a strain of precarity – debt and disquiet – that drags the individual ever inward, obliging a withdrawal from the street, from its contested ‘turf’, from the land itself. The recollected misadventures of ‘Leon’ are framed by two vignettes in which he appears to have escaped – or has been extracted from – the ‘splintered wreckage’ of his old life. We find him in the woods, stirring broth over an open fire, adjusting to the rhythms of a self-sufficient ‘forest settlement’, the nearest road vibrating ‘at the edge of sound’. Here, too, he is outside of the formal economy, rethinking and remaking the relationship between hand and tool, recognising it in ‘each tenderness / of muscle’, grateful for the ‘echo of toil that melds him to the land’.
This idea – that labour engenders a uniquely intimate bond with one’s environment – is realised, freely and fully, in ‘Memoir of a Working River’, the 18-page centrepiece of Contraflow. The poem reimagines the industrial growth, decline and eventual restoration of the Rivelin Valley, a woodland vale in north-west Sheffield, and the fast-flowing river that carved it out, made it fit for work, and gave it its name. Its human and nonhuman elements – the mills, forges and dams that harness the water, the men who maintain the riverside industries, the valley’s ecology – are absorbed into a single, fluid narrative, the story of an ‘old man’, half-river, half-human, tracking the Rivelin’s physical and historical journey from its moorland source to the city’s edge, slipping between mortal and riverine states along the way, each shift marking a change of fortune. The landscape is undone and remade, the young river’s slow, persistent scratch first giving it form and direction; as it matures, the water is ‘yoked’ to the wheels that drive the expanding industries, contributing to the city’s prosperity, and, in turn, depleting the health of the valley and the men who work there; then, as ‘retreating trade’ gives way to returning trees, the old man ‘detoxes’, his ‘scarring’ and ‘choking’ relieved by dredging and conservation, the residues of work – ‘slathered wheel-gape, spindle, stray grindstone’ – preserved and assimilated to the river path, the valley now a site of heritage and leisure. Perhaps the most salient aspect of the poem is its vision of embodied labour, the levelling of human and natural resources, the worker and the water put to the same wheel and, as a consequence, being consumed alike, losing their discrete identities, their ‘nature’, their unlikeness. Iron particulates flake from the grindstones, catching in throats, weakening lungs: downstream from a ‘spark-shed’, the old man encounters a grinder, ‘doubled over racked in rasp-spasms’, who
tells how he offers blunt steel to grit
till it’s flayed by resistance to its leanest edge
how each day he enters the valley
more of it enters him.
In the 1970s, the UK became the world’s first post-industrial society. The transition from an economy defined by the primary and secondary sectors (agriculture, mining, manufacturing) to one increasingly reliant on the emerging tertiary (or ‘service’) sector was reflected in the changing appearance of the country’s landscape, with fewer people employed on the land or in heavy industry, and more offices, distribution centres and retail parks appearing at the edges of towns and cities. The new sector’s complex variables (both economic and cultural) meant that a flexible labour market was essential, and employment agencies became instrumental in placing people in this new space, and in new (and often short-lived) roles. For some, this offered a path out of difficult, dangerous (and now declining) work, with opportunities for career development. For others, the path seemed to lead nowhere. Matthew Clegg’s Lost Between Stations (2000, revised 2011) chronicles ten years of displacement and indirection at the end of the millennium, ‘a period of dead-end jobs, intermittent unemployment, and employment training schemes’. Structured as ‘a poem in 7 fragments’, we first encounter its speaker in a call centre in metropolitan Leeds, ‘all at sea’ in an open-plan office, floundering in telemarketing. With each ‘fragment’, we drift further from the centre – the supposed promise and purpose of the city’s business district – and into the social and geographical margins: the graffitied estates of Hyde Park and Burley, the gleaming villages (or exurbs) of Scholes and Barwick. One of the motors of this picaresque narrative is the influence of Homer and Derek Walcott; Clegg draws on the energy and imagery of The Odyssey and Omeros to navigate the systems and circuits of the built environment, a landlocked voyage in which ‘the kerb is a jetty / And the ship a bus, stopping and starting, / Twisting and turning across this city.’ The ‘matrix of buses and trains’ is not so much a means of proceeding to a (known) destination as a device for chance exploration and encounters, disrupting routine and expectation, allowing ‘the drift / Of conversations’ and ‘coincidence’ to nudge the traveller ‘at every change’. This is how the city’s landscapes enter the poem, glimpsed in the gaps between low-status, casual jobs, between ‘the University’s ghetto / Of loans and potential’ and the run-down ‘precincts and tower blocks’ of the outer suburbs, and between the ‘stations’ of class and community. It’s the moments of dislocation that reconnect the speaker to his surroundings: a night walk along the Kirkstall Road, where a retired mariner revives his consciousness with stories and songs from the other side of the world; a summer staffing the itinerant portal of an ice-cream van, the prospect shifting from pitch to pitch; and two confrontations with the police, one damaging, the other disquieting. In each episode, the problem of work is shadowed by the problem of worklessness. The latter predicament informs Clegg’s sequence Edgelands (2008), which shifts the focus to the varied terrain of north-west Sheffield, and slows the movement to walking pace. Whether by compulsion or choice, the protagonist finds himself making circuits of his locale, its rivers and woods, car parks and public parks, industrial estates and residential estates, his observations coloured by a recent, and painful, separation. We are to infer that ‘the far edges’ to which ‘something is pushing him’ are not only cultural and geographical, but also psychological and financial; his straitened circumstances are reflected in the neglect and impoverishment of much of the terrain that he walks, its roads ‘cruelly scarred with welts / and divots’, the verges littered with hubcaps, windshields, cans and bottles. The texture of the working landscape seems brittle with age, the ground exhausted and inert, the human traces fading out:
These desolate gravel roads
connecting landfills, factories,
are bleached white by midsummer.
Bin bags under sun-kilned mud
clench, obdurate as fossils.
South of the railway line that links the East Leeds suburb of Crossgates to the commuter village of Garforth, a patchwork of irregular fields, uneven pasture interrupted by sparse hedges, stands of trees, rough tracks, the shaved square of Crossgates Cricket Club marking the railway’s intersection with Austhorpe Lane. Rumoured to be the site of coal mining in the 19th century, much of the area is now ‘scraggy grazing land’, the setting of Matthew Clegg’s poem ‘Because I Was Nobody’, in which the teenage speaker finds respite from ‘job club’ and the pressures of life on the estate. To the north-east, five hundred yards above the railway line, the former National Filling Factory No. 1, its ‘foundations, earthworks, and demolished and buried remains’ designated as a scheduled monument in 2016, one hundred years after the explosion at Barnbow. To the north, the former Vickers tank factory – inactive since 1999, and, since then, intermittently used as a storage depot for retail goods and cars – now approved for demolition, the extraction of a 150,000 tonne seam of coal beneath the site a precondition for any subsequent redevelopment. To the north-west, the new Limes estate, most of its houses detached from their neighbours, the blank streets in memory, a handful of munitions workers, named twice over, Ethel Jackson, Amelia Stewart, Olive Yeates, Maggie Barker.
Karl Hurst’s photographs of the South Yorkshire coalfields can be viewed as part of Hurst’s Flickr photoset. Details of his publications with Longbarrow Press (writing as Andrew Hirst) are available here.
Click here for details of Fay Musselwhite’s debut collection Contraflow.
Matthew Clegg’s publications include Lost Between Stations, West North East and The Navigators. The short film for his poem ‘Because I was Nobody’, filmed on location in East Leeds, can be viewed below:
The third West North East audio podcast, recorded on location in Crossgates, East Leeds on one afternoon in May 2014, focuses on the poems ‘Because I was Nobody’, ‘Blood and Ice Cream’ and ‘The Last Workday Before Christmas’, each of which marks a specific location in the suburb: a cow field, the car park of the former Vickers tank factory, and platform 2 of the railway station.