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. TC Mark

image – Dania Do Svidaniya

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  • Josh

    Now this is the kind of writing I come here to read. Well written and valid.

  • I'll take a grande mochachino, hold the whip cream

    It makes perfect sense to me. How is the responsibility of the factory to the workers instead of the owners/stakeholders?

    • http://ryanfrawley.wordpress.com ryanfrawley

      I’m not sure what you mean. The things I mention in the article as not making sense to me – the replacement of manufacturing capability with housing, the vilification of young people for having no direction when there’s no direction left for them to take and the fact I can watch all this unfold on a different continent – have nothing to do with the factory’s ‘responsibility’ to one group or another.

      I’m not an economist, or a politician, and I wasn’t attempting to answer any big sociopolitical questions with this piece; I don’t have any answers, just more questions. More specifically, a different way of phrasing the same questions others have asked. I don’t blame Massey Ferguson for shutting the factory down; they didn’t do it out of spite. But I don’t understand how a nation expects to survive when it closes all the factories and replaces them with housing, effectively replacing high-paying manufacturing jobs with low-paid service jobs. And now we’re seeing the inherent problems with that; without anything they can sell to the rest of the world, countries like the UK are floundering in ever-deeper recession. The US bailed out some of their big manufacturers, and although the morality of that is a little murky from my point of view, they saved a lot of people from being unemployed, with the result that the US economy is growing, albeit weakly. In Europe, they bailed out the banks, who paid that money out to shareholders, which did next to nothing as a result.

      Meanwhile, the government and much of the media in the UK is busy whipping up a moral panic about out-of-control youths who loot out of sheer criminality, rather than riot because they’ve got no future. If I was trying to point fingers – and I wasn’t with this piece – I’d be pointing them at the generations of politicians who stood back as almost every manufacturer left the country to exploit cheaper labour in the developing world; the same politicians who now turn around and demolish the last tatters of the social safety net while talking about ‘scroungers’ who aren’t willing to work.

      But this is all fodder for a different article, and I doubt I’m the person to write it. The only point I sought to make with this one, other than an observation about the way technology allows us to live simultaneously in multiple places, was that it’s hard to watch a manufacturing city die when there’s nothing to replace it.

      • Eric

        what follows is what i posted in comment to eric auld’s article about his craigslist experiment. it is equally applicable here:

        Beginning somewhere in the 80s/90s, everyone was encouraged to go to college. We were sold the idea that we deserved to be white collar workers, that we were all too bright and special to do any labor or build anything or even sweat. We went to college hoping to sit in an office all day while our manufacturing jobs were outsourced and shipped overseas and the remaining low paid positions were occupied largely by illegals and those at the very bottom rungs of society. We were sold on the idea of college and a white collar office job but the real product was DEBT- college loans.

        So here we are having lost our competitive edge as a nation because we’ve lost our productive capacity to the false promise of paper pushing office jobs. No one wants to sweat because we’re all convinced we deserve that corner office for having spent 2/4/6/8 years sitting in an air conditioned classroom clocking thousands in debt. We’ve been duped into the fantasy that we’re too good for those jobs we lost to China, India and every other low wage, mass producing country. What we need to do is open factories and stop convincing every kid out there that they’re college material and too good to get their hands dirty doing the work that builds and sustains economies- MAKING THINGS.

        I’m no exception, I’m just now seeing what happened to the economy and why there aren’t any jobs. Hell, I spent 8 years in the Navy earning the GI Bill that I squandered on a BA in Anthropology. I should have learned a marketable SKILL, actually doing or making something I could do something with. The push has been on learning to theorize and quantify and process data- all intangibles, while diminishing the value of a hard day’s work spent making a tangible item.

        My advice to today’s high school grads would be to learn a skill, a tangible you can market yourself with. Learn to do and make things. Learn to use tools, your brains and your hands. I’m sorry to break it to you- you really aren’t that special snowflake deserving of a massive oak desk in a corner office. I think these austerity measures we’re seeing across the country indicate that our leaders are realizing what I’ve outlined here because the cuts are targeting education- they’re either dumbing us down further or creating a new worker class to replace the generation that went to college instead of learning a skill.

        The thing that’s going to get America back on its feet is forcing American companies to create and keep jobs IN America, not continuing to convince everyone they should go to college.

  • http://gabydunnthoughtcatalog.wordpress.com Gaby Dunn

    I loved this. Really well-thought out and well-written.

  • Nick

    resonating. i loved it

  • georgie

    I liked this, more please X

  • http://lifeofajengkelkid.wordpress.com taemnicole

    Reblogged this on Indigo.

  • http://gracedescence.wordpress.com itshergrace

    this makes me feel sad. Thank you for sharing this

  • http://ryanfrawley.wordpress.com ryanfrawley

    Reblogged this on ryanfrawley and commented:
    My latest article, published by Thought Catalog. This one’s not about writing or art; it’s about the slow decline of a former manufacturing town.

  • Chloe

    This was really wonderful. Thank you.

  • Roxanne

    This made me cry. Wow, that was a really good piece.

  • Eric

    whoa. this is a fantastic piece of writing. so relevant and echos exactly the point i made on eric auld’s post about his bogus craigslist job posting. great writing.

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