I was receiving some very strange looks you know… Bright sunshine, blue sky, people walking their dogs in shorts past this strange, matted haired tramp in walking boots, waterproof trousers, big army parka that is now old enough to be receiving birthday cards with two numbers on them. I’ve never washed or dry cleaned that coat, and as a result it smells a bit damp now, but fuck it – big rugged coats like that are supposed to smell odd. Anyway, I’ve hugged a lot of people in that coat, most of whom I don’t see anymore.
I’m out walking because I’d heard the weather was going to be bad. Having photographed everything, as Marlene Dietrich would say, ‘to death’ I thought I’d experiment with some wild and dramatic weather near the Steel Works. Right now, it seems like a mistake. But then, I look over my shoulder for the first time as the wind starts to pick up against my back forcing my hood up over my head…
My writing has died on its arse lately. I have a short story still sitting and waiting to be completed, like Dr Frankenstein clocked off early leaving his forlorn monster without legs. So I figure I’d mix it up with the one thing that is giving me some sort of inspiration – pictures. Even if I still feel like a fraud. I have an ancient camera that is still too sophisticated for me to use anything other than the auto-mode. Without the filters, it’d just be a collection of bland snaps. But I do try and look for good light at least. I kind of know in advance how a picture might look before I take it. When I’m taking a shot, I’m usually thinking ‘oh wow, I love how the cloud is massing here’ and ‘I know exactly what filter would work with this.’ So there is some, miniscule amount of skill involved. Honest.
I love a beautiful bit of nature as much as the next supposedly ‘sensitive’ boy who is trying to lay a hippy-chick. My love for mountains, forests and hills (oh my) is, I’m certain, unrivalled by most – I’m just not ostentatious with it. But I will bang on and on about industrial stuff, because I think it is regarded by most as smelly, unnecessary blemishes on the landscape.
That majority probably has a point.
Aside from war, famine and cancer of loved ones, is there anything more sad than a discarded children’s toy? I imagine a gleeful pair of eyes, as paper is ripped apart with unbridled toddler carnage. Long summers being ridden up and down a street. Sleepless nights waiting to have another go the next day. Now broken and unwanted and covered in a layer of grimy soot.
On the other side of human detritus, probably the saddest party ever. I don’t want to judge, but I imagine these people (or this person) didn’t enjoy a single one of those drinks. Maybe those drinks didn’t enjoy the person drinking them. That would be quite something – if beer cans could come to life and coach the person holding it based on whether they were casually enjoying a house party with friends or being soused and skinned next to a hissing beast of a factory. It’s not exactly a picnic spot.
I’ve come to accept now that old factories, along with disused or old railway lines, are entrenched somewhere in whatever an atheist like me can pass off as a soul. They crop up in my stories with alarming frequency – alarming because I’m usually not intending to set them there. You could give me two characters on a small, deserted island in the Pacific and I’d still squeeze a disused railway line in there. I can’t really explain it, but it isn’t some sort of affectation. I genuinely find these places as beautiful as any deep river valley or exquisite pine forest you might want to throw my way. I find this place as beautiful as any of the rolling hills I grew up with.
Speaking of which, I thought about where this fascination came from as I tramped the very long, rutted road that runs around the Steel Work’s boundary fence. The most obvious answer comes from my childhood. Growing up in a quiet cul-de-sac that was surrounded on three sides by nature and then one side by a disused railway line and an old, derelict factory. As much as we loved climbing trees, making dens and generally doing everything possible to lower the house prices, all the most exciting adventures occurred after a scramble across a wasteland of stinging nettles, taking care not to trip over the old Bejams trolley or the abandoned washing machines. The railway line represented danger and exploration. Part of that came from our imaginations – no trains had run on it for years, but we still pretended they did and listened for horns. And part of that came from reality – the railway line was a definite route somewhere, away from our cosy-de-sac. Rather than the confusing labyrinth of streets and roads, the line represented escape, which to a bunch of ten year olds was both exhilarating and terrifying.
I still remember the first time myself and my friend (who blogs on here as MyRedAbyss) made it all the way down the track as far as the bridge which was about half a mile away and heading out of town. As we got older we got further and further either way. We were pelted by rocks. In the best traditions of teenage boys being introduced to the female form, we found our first pornographic magazine. And a true life event happened which inspired my short story The Reverend, something which – and keep your faces straight here – had a profound effect on what I (maybe we?) thought could be done with the future and adulthood.
That kind of stuff sticks with you, just as all those trees and dens and scuffed knees gave me a love of nature and exploration. It’s just odd that I find the industrial more evocative to write about (and photograph, and read about) than nature. Perhaps it is me being contrary or perhaps I just feel that enough has been written about the many shades of green a leaf can be when under the droplets of a spring dew. That ultimately, this is more decisive. Stuff needs to be made – you can’t make bridges and aeroplanes out of paper. You can’t be awed by the beauty of the Scottish Highlands and then dismiss the raw materials which holds the car together to get you there.
It’s not a good idea to overly-romanticize these places, anymore than it is a good idea to overly-romanticize nature. Both can be quite dangerous. The Steel Works are hot, smelly and very unpleasant places to work. I was standing around 200 feet from this Lava Angel as it spewed out from a spitting cauldron of molten steel, being stirred by a kind of leviathan version of Kamaji The Boiler Man from Spirited Away. I could feel the heat on my face.
The first thing you notice is the noise. There is so much drama involved in this behemoth. There’s a constant hissing and rumbling. It sounds like the entire liquid mantle of the Earth is being removed in great scooping buckets. Then there is the smell, sometimes like rotten eggs but usually just a more savoury and less dry dust kind of odour. You walk along the grass and it is covered in a white powder that you can kick into the air. It clings to your clothes and stings your eyes. Take a deep breath when the wind is blowing the wrong way and you’ll taste it. All the area inside the boundary fence, within the precincts of the Works is blasted black. There are craters and pits everywhere. For any Tolkien nerds out there, the best description I can give is to hawk JRR’s portrayal of Frodo and Sam’s journey towards The Black Gate, before they head into Ithilien. For someone who often felt the need to describe every blade of grass or species of flower, there was a man who also knew what an industrial landscape looked and smelt like.
I left the Steel Works and ventured onto the exposed waste land nearby. On this side of the fence, nature seems to flourish amid the ruins of older industrial activity and heaps of old slag. Here and there are old bomb craters, now filled with water and ducks. You wouldn’t paddle in the water, let alone drink it or swim in it, but if you turn your back on the Works you could just be in any nature reserve.
By now the rain had been of the frequent showers variety. I was still warm and dry. A few rumbles of thunder made me nervous though. I could see, rolling over the hills a few miles away, something quite vicious. And being stuck on this barren wasteland I was the next tallest lightning conductor other than the Steel Works. I beat a hasty retreat to what looked like an old pill-box to shelter until it had passed.
There are loads of these things up here, all relics from when the nearby port needed to be defended (despite the numerous craters, they appeared to have done a half-decent job of it.) I’d explored a few of these before, although I’d never spent more than a few minutes in each, usually just taking some photos. In here, the soot is much deeper – you can see where it drifts into the corners. It hangs in the air as though caught under the roof. You can feel your lungs start to rasp and your lips go dry. When you lick them, it is bitter.
I ended up spending about half an hour in there as the thunderstorm passed right overhead. Whilst inside, I took this selfie. I thought it’d be a nice shot – someone sitting inside this old relic – and since I had no other willing model available I used myself. The shot is staged; my phone is propped up against a wall on a self timer. The look of concern is real. It was the loudest thunderstorm I’ve ever experienced. I’m not usually bad with thunder, not anymore, but in here I was a little kid all over again putting my fingers in my ears after every bright flash. I was convinced, in this concrete box laced with metal, that it was going to be struck by lightning. With every boom, the ground not only shook but almost bucked like a horse.
The hail arrived, and the walls began to dribble with leaks – brown blood over the grey. I sat and waited it out. When it had finally passed over with one last jesus-christ-on-a-unicycle blast, the sun came out and everything was still again. When I peeked out, like a nervous meerkat, the storm was continuing west. Steam was pouring out of several holes in the ground all around me – not just the evaporation of water in sunlight, but a specific venting from under the topsoil.
I gathered up my things and started the long walk home.