Our Futures, Up In Smoke
There’s a buzz in the air; you can always count on an explosion to draw a crowd. Under a sky the color of the waste water in a mop bucket, accompanied by the conversational hum of parents and the bright, high chatter of children not sure why they’re there, there’s a sharp crack that echoes around the new brick homes. Then a loud bang. The banners hung from the building by advertisers flare, pushed outwards by the sudden eruption of concrete, and in a few brief seconds, one, two, three, the office tower collapses into an expanding cloud of dust.
Careers day at my school consisted solely of a tour of the local tractor factory. A retired factory worker took the class of bored but mostly polite kids around the massive complex, where tired-looking men labored in the halogen shadows of machines that dwarfed them. We passed a certain section of the shop floor, and a toy spider dropped on a cable from the high roof; “just the lads having a bit of fun,” the tour guide explained. Nobody laughed.
Later, the guide took the class underneath the factory, into a dark and musty brick-walled tunnel. This was a shadow factory, he explained, built during World War 2 to make bomber planes. In case of a German air raid, the factory was equipped with this huge bomb shelter for the workers to hide in until the planes were gone. He played a tape for us of what it might have sounded like; the deep bass-heavy thuds of the bombs exploding overhead muffled by six feet of solid brick, but still audible. In the event, though most of Coventry was decimated by aerial bombing, this factory was never bombed, its production of planes to shatter Dresden, Hamburg and Berlin uninterrupted.
At the end of the tour, the guide asked for a show of hands to see who would consider a job at the factory, devoted now to making tractors rather than planes. Not a single hand was raised. We were children of the 90s; we wanted to be singers or film stars or footballers. Some of the nerdier kids wanted to do something with computers. None of us wanted to make the cotter pin for a piston on an MF4345 tractor for the rest of our lives. “It might not look like much” the guide huffed, “but these men working here all own their house. They’ve all got cars. They take holidays abroad every year.” We shuffled our feet and avoided looking at him, and at these dour men in this vast, echoing, robot-haunted space.
I left school in 1999. By 2003, the last tractor rolled off the production line at the Banner Lane factory. The Rover car factory in the city was long gone by that time, along with the Peugeot plant. Jaguar were shifting operations overseas. The future we were offered at our school careers day, that we all turned our noses up at, had been taken away anyway. Over the following years, the old buildings were torn down, the brick factories giving way to faux-brick houses nobody could afford without unsustainable levels of debt — and we all know what happened next. There’s an idea that cities can live off nothing now, like some Jetsons-inspired future of hovercars and limitless resources. There’s an idea that a nation doesn’t need to make anything; we can all sell each other lattes or teach improv. Nobody wants to look at factories and warehouses, but once they’re gone, there’s nothing left. Our school careers day sounds like something from Stalin’s Russia, but when the kids in Coventry have a ‘career day’ now, what do their teachers show them? The men working at Massey Ferguson had their own houses and their own cars. What are Coventry kids offered now? Short-term agency work, disappearing unemployment benefits and ever-increasing bus fares.
On July 8th 2012, the office tower on the old Massey Ferguson site was destroyed in a controlled explosion. And I watched it go down from 4,000 miles away. I watched people watching it, people I’ll never meet, caught for a few moments in the arc of the ubiquitous cameras of strangers. I wouldn’t have even known about the demolition if it weren’t for a Facebook ‘friend’ mentioning it — a guy I went to primary school with and haven’t seen since I was 11 years old. This is the world we live in, and even though I’m not yet thirty, I can’t quite get used to it. Once upon a time, when people emigrated like I did, they were gone. They might send letters, or make phone calls; they might visit, every few years. But there’s a presence now that never existed before; we never truly leave anywhere. Even the most casual acquaintances that we would once have quickly forgotten now linger on indefinitely in our social network news feeds. Our digital ghosts hover unseen a few feet above the once-familiar pavement, witness to things we were never supposed to see.
There’s a connection there that’s not hard to see. The old factories are being torn down and blown up, and I’m on another continent; that makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is that the factories fall, and houses spring up, as though no one needs to earn their money. What doesn’t make sense is that I can watch this happening, as it happens, from the point of view of people I barely know, as if I never left, as though I continued living in the shadow of that abandoned tower block, stripped by thieves of its copper wire, until the day it vanished and I stood unsheltered from the grimy sky. What doesn’t make sense is that we call young people in towns like Coventry apathetic and lazy and criminal when we’ve just watched one of their potential futures — and not a very desirable one at that — collapse into dust.
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