Image by Johannes Plenio from Pixabay

Welcome waste land

The marshes, creeks, hulks and hidden beaches of the Thames estuary are thrilling

A retired mechanical engineer named Tony Mack who worked at several of the power stations in the Thames estuary has been advised by UK Historic Buildings Preservation Trust (UKHBPT) that I may be interested in helping save Littlebrook’s 700-feet-high chimney. Where? Eyes right at the southern end of the Dartford bridge. Why this trust, which I had never heard of, should have confidently proposed that I might have any influence on a proposed development in northwest Kent is anybody’s guess. It’s not my job. And even if it were I’d be useless at it and would have long since been given the archer. The very idea of committees, representations to boneheaded councillors on the take and single-issue obsessives makes my brain hurt. I prefer gross verbal abuse and chicken livers through the post (second class).

Littlebrook Power Station (left) and (right) Middleport Pottery, the home of UK Historic Buildings Preservation Trust

And yet — this is not just any 700-foot-high chimney but, according to Mr Mack, a “magnificent, iconic and much loved” chimney. The use of iconic, a vogue word I tried to put to sleep over ten years ago, does not dispose me towards involvement.

And yet — well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that every time a cooling tower or transmitter mast or sculptural lump of Wilson-era infrastructure is demolished a little piece of me dies, but I admire the can-do confidence of big-tech and the sheer boldness of brutalism. I also fear, with some reason, what will replace them: mimsy, tweeness, whining politeness, offensive inoffensiveness. The built history of the fairly recent industrial past is everywhere being effaced by philistines and vandals, the scum of the earth successors to the aldermanic racketeers and property spivs, the T-Dans and the Poulsons, the Maudlings and Cordles and Cunninghams who, two or three generations ago, attempted to destroy all vestiges of the nineteenth century in the name of comprehensive development, i.e. gross profit no matter what the aesthetic cost, no matter how great the environmental collateral is, no matter what the damage to townscape.

I admire the can-do confidence of big-tech and the sheer boldness of brutalism

The evidently iconoclastic outfit which wants to destroy the Littlebrook chimney is a conglomerate of hack planners, developers, regenerative opportunists, “place-makers” and designers called Barton Willmore whose schtick is predictably dismaying. Their lexicon is the far side of threadbare: “passionate, sustainable, dynamic, progressive, heritage”. Their claim of “national influence and local knowledge” is dispiriting. And as for a “Vision For England” — please, no, not another sub-architectural paean to the land that never was. Please no more byblows of Poundbury, off-the-peg marinas and shopsoiled “garden villages”. There is apparently no one at Barton Willmore who knows that every jerry-built suburban development of between the wars was advertised as a “garden village” in the wan hope that the sandal-and-nut-cutlet utopianism of Letchworth Garden City and dilute bohemianism of Hampstead Garden Suburb might rub off on it. The epithet is meaningless. The garden village of Tatsfield was even further billed as “the London Alps” (it’s actually in the valley next to Biggin Hill).

Mr Mack has threatened to chain himself to the chimney when the apes of the demolition community and their explosives arrive. Such a method might be reckoned excessive, though not as excessive as a 700-feet-in-the-sky dirty protest: testing the will in aerial combat with oneself above the Thames. The location as much as the structure itself demands that preservation should be pursued. The estuary’s accretion of demolitions and subsequent developments is destroying the only post-industrial wilderness in the overcrowded south-east, an essential lung. It may be a diseased lung, certainly, but nowhere’s perfect. The construction industry obstinately fails to acknowledge the appeal of terrains vagues and attempts to obliterate them. Tidiness is its banal fetish. Land is money.

But no land is waste land. The conventional hierarchy of places is simply a meekly unquestioned orthodoxy. The concrete defences, sea fortresses on pilotis, gun batteries — all of them useless against the enemy within — the marshes, creeks, hulks, hidden beaches, tufty grass, hoppers, abandoned anchors, silos, Busby Berkeley avian choreography and, of course, chimneys to the sky are thrilling. They are also the stuff of an alternative, harsh, uncute picturesque in the work of photographers such as Frank Watson who may not be explicity didactic but nonetheless teaches a way of looking — while there is still something to look at. There can be no certainty that the former mayor of London’s crass project to build an unnecessary airport on the Isle of Grain close by a wrecked liberty ship packed with explosives, will not be revived. Indeed, since that possibility has been denied we can be sure that it will be revived. That’ll be another few chimneys down, more marshland drained, more habitats lost.

The UKHBPT has its offices in Burslem, in a former pottery. This is sadly appropriate. When I first saw Burslem in the mid-1970s it was a vision of Nibelheim. Wagner wrote, “Here is Alberich’s dream come to life: frenetic activity, oppression by steam and by fog.” He was describing London but it might as well have been the Potteries, where there was flame and smoke too. The kilnscape was sublime. And now it’s all gone. And what has come in its place is woeful.

So, may Mr Mack succeed over the dwarf developers who make Alberich seem a giant.

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