Days of March
March seems to be the month when it all begins to come together.
For a start off, I’ve got a Day Job again. I’m currently doing software testing – well, mainly rechecking and clearing bug fixes – for Stratec, a firm that produces biomedical testing and assay software. If you’ve ever had a blood test, the process of analysing and managing what happens to your sample has been managed by the sort of thing I’m working on at the moment. I’m based in Burton-on-Trent, a town more usually noted for its breweries; and indeed, from my office window I can see one such, which declares itself to the the establishment of “Coors”, which of course all of us who grew up in the UK in the 1960s, 70s and 80s will think of as the Bass brewery. I also have to pass close by the factory that produces Marmite, a yeasty spread that occupies a special place in the hearts of most Brits, though it is one of those products that polarises opinions massively. Australian readers should think of Vegemite…
The office complex I’m located in is close to the Trent & Mersey Canal. I had a walk down there earlier this week, but it is an unremarkable stretch of canal, and the tow-path was far plodgier than I expected. Despite my best efforts, I found I was working a large quantity of mud into the office carpet on my return. If the weather permits, I shall probably take the camera in as there are a few interesting industrial buildings in amongst the general dourness of the average UK industrial estate: though I shall have to be a bit quick, as I’m only there until the end of the month, unless they take a real shine to me…
Another building (or set of buildings) I shall have to take the camera to at the earliest opportunity is Daw Mill colliery; one of the UK’s last deep coal mines, it is just two miles from my home and is now due to close quite soon. It was marked for closure in 2014, as its coal was considered increasingly uneconomic to extract, partly due to carbon taxes; but then an underground fire broke out and has defied all attempts to extinguish it. So the decision has been taken to close the pit early, and let the fire burn itself out. This has implications for me; my house is just over a kilometre away from the extent of the underground workings, and I am seeing signs that the progressive closure of the seam is already having an effect on the property. Further collapse due to the fire could well give me more headaches.
When we first came to this area, Daw Mill was a hive of activity; during the Miners’ Strike, it was one of the pits that kept working with miners from the breakaway Union of Democratic Mineworkers (UDM) and was the site of some of the less well-publicised confrontations of the dispute; later, it was proposed as one of the production access points for the Berkswell “Super-Pit”: Daw Mill’s seams were quite thick, but not far from Fillongley there is a big fault and they go very deep. There was talk of putting in a brand-new colliery at Berkswell, to use the latest technology to go deep to bring out the massive reserves that appeared to be there. Then coal was privatised, and the level of investment required was something that the private sector couldn’t countenance, given that the payback period might be as long as five to ten years – far too shockingly long-term for the ‘get rich quick’ brigade of the City of London. Capitalists the risk-takers of the economy, the cutting edge of innovation and growth ? The biggest lie out there – but don’t get me onto politics….
The funny thing ts that forty or fifty years ago, people were seriously considering in-seam combustion as a more economic means of generating power from coal – why spend all that money and risk bringing it to the surface and transporting it to distant power stations when you could put the power station underground and burn the coal in situ?
Meanwhile, journalistic activities have been occupying my thoughts of late. My article on Austria’s Mariazellerbahn appeared in the April edition of the UK Railway Magazine, possibly the first time in ages that they’ve run a feature on an overseas railway. (I have my own theories about this.) And I have had the galley proofs for The Lost Railway; June and publication keep getting ever closer.
But the highlight of my life recently was the opening of the FORMAT festival. It opened on my first day at Stratec, and as it’s only 15 miles or so from Burton to Derby, I couldn’t miss attending the opening night! I left Burton at about a quarter to six, and moved rapidly up the A38 towards Derby – until I hit the Thursday evening traffic trying to get around the outer ring road. The journey, in deteriorating weather, took on elements of nightmare, with bumper-to-bumper traffic, road works, poorly-maintained roads, bad street lighting, badly marked junctions and vast amounts of traffic everywhere. Birmingham traffic is nothing compared to Derby; but then again, Birmingham has a well-developed public transport network, with bus lanes, trams and a suburban rail system. Derby, for all its history as a railway town, has none of these things, plus the dubious advantage of being one of the ‘showcases’ for bus deregulation back in the 1990s – meaning that the Corporation bus network was dismantled by predatory private operators who then went out of business or sold out to other operators with less interest in running the less profitable routes. It took me nearly forty minutes to circumnavigate the outer ruing road and then get myself sufficiently close to the venue that I wanted to visit – except that the nearest car park was run by NCP and charged full-time, and had a machine that only took coins, and offered the alternative of paying by phone – but you have to have three hands to manipulate your phone and your bank card, and it operated via voice recognition, so it couldn’t distinguish between the letters B, V or D when I came to tell it my car registration…
So I finally ended up parking in the basement of the Westfield Centre, which replaced the old Main Centre, Derby’s attempt at 1960s shopping precinct development. By this time, I was thoroughly lost; I had no bearings in a city I used to consider to be my own personal stamping ground, and I was feeling dislocated, alienated and well and truly fed up. So I had some chips and soon felt better.
A friendly security guard put me on the right track for the Market Place, and soon I was back on familiar territory – though it all looked very much smaller than I remembered it, even from 1984 when I last worked in the city centre for any length of time. I headed first of all for The Quad, a new development on the Market Place; an arts centre where the FORMAT Festival has its main administrative centre as well as an exhibition of work by a Dutch photographer on a theme of ‘found photographs’. This was quite interesting, and I soon found myself mixing with other photographers, artists and administrators – and having a rambling, philosophical conversation on the nature of Art with an amiable drunk…
Soon it was time to head for the Chocolate Factory, a new venue which had previously been just what the name suggested. It had previously been owned by Derwent Lynton, a company who worked as a sub-contractor making mainly hollow chocolate eggs for other manufacturers. They had been taken over in 2010 and production moved to York; since then the factory had been disused. The Quad only got possession of the site at the end of January, and they had been working flat out to have the venue ready for FORMAT. It has meant that there have been minimal changes to the building, making it very suitable for an exhibition of photographs on the theme of work and industry.
There was a considerable buzz about the venue, and it took some time for me to locate my pictures. But there they were; four pictures blown up to considerable size and revealing far more detail than I had ever seen before (despite my spotting the pictures for their inclusion in The Lost Railway at very high magnification). The picture of the furnace, in particular, is quite breathtaking; as a negative it was rather thin, as the exposure was heavily weighted by the extremely bright glow from the furnace itself; but digital processing has brought out all sorts of detail and texture in the picture that I’d never really appreciated before. I was highly impressed, and I got into a few conversations about the pictures with visitors before it was time for me to come away.
I was also surprised to bump into the son of one of my colleagues from the Sutton Coldfield Model Makers Society – in fact, I don’t know which of us was the more surprised!
FORMAT runs to the end of the first week in April, and I’m hoping to get back to Derby at least once more before the run ends. And then….