The Eight Towers

She drives. She drives cautiously. She drives carefully. She drives with no radio or CD on, nothing to distract her.  She parks her car in the car park of the Cuerdley Cross. She usually comes here when there are few people about, more often than not at weekends, early morning before regulars or passing trade arrives. Today though, there’s a young couple sat on the wooden bench watching their toddler play on the plastic slide in the kiddy’s play area. She is used to the strange looks she gets as she crouches low to the ground and aims her lens high to capture the brooding beauty of the nearby cooling towers, casting long shadows over this solitary pub.

She wasn’t going to come here today but on her way to work, she glanced over the river, as she does every day and the conditions were perfect. She’d been waiting almost a year for light like this; a low leaden sky, a sky that hinted at storms to come, had gathered above the power station. A silver sun hung low in the clouds, like a flattened coin, as if a hole had been punctured in the fabric of the universe showing what lay beyond physics, beyond imagination. She knew she’d have to get up close, as close as she could get without going through the rigmarole of requesting permission to actually get inside the perimeter fencing. The car park of the Cuerdley Cross pub was as about as close as you could get without a high-vis jacket and a laminated pass from the folk at Scottish & Southern Energy.

She’d also take a few shots from her usual vantage point on Wigg Island, directly opposite on the southern shore of theMerseyif she had time. Her speck by the picnic tables on this reclaimed piece of industrial wasteland gave some continuity to her work. Same spot, every week for the past four years. Same view, same angle, same focus, different conditions. She hoped that this strange morning light would last till eleven, when her shift at the local supermarket finished. The deli counter, hair net, white overall…

“Number 183”

“Number 184”

“Number 185”

…..her mind always on the weather outside. Coming out of the shop, the weather was still similar, although a little gap in the clouds had appeared to the east which threatened to ruin the atmosphere if she didn’t get over there quickly. She drove straight across the bridge in her battered Nissan, along the expressway, past the container yards, past Sammy’s  scrap mountain, a huge mound of rusting scrap metal that strangely never seemed to get any higher or lower but just remained at a constant height. Past the almost comical ThermPhos factory with its corrugated  iron skin, a child’s crude drawing of a factory come to life. She’d photographed this too, especially at night when its windows glowed phosphorous yellow. Past the derelict DIY stores and the forlorn car lots and on towards Fiddler’s Ferry.

Such an incongruous name for a power station, she always thought; ‘Fiddler’s Ferry.’  Sounded more like some twee sixties folk band than an enormous coal consuming Moloch. When she was a little girl her mum told her that it was a castle and sometimes the queen stayed there. She’d believed this and repeated it in school one day much to the amusement of one of the teachers who humiliated her in front of the whole class. They’d stuck with her those humiliations, those taunts, always the butt of some joke or other, whether that of other kids, teachers, dinner ladies or even strangers…..

‘Ginger nut’ 

Her red hair, a genetic inheritance from her mum’s side, the Noones, marked her and her sister out as objects of ridicule and scorn.

‘Ginger nut fell in the cut’

She was not ‘strawberry blond’  or ‘Titian red’ she was fucking ginger; thick, curly copper hair allowed to grow wild and bush-like as kids.

‘Ginger nut fell in the cut and frightened all the fishes.’

She begged for her mum to cut it short but it was as if she’d wanted them to get bullied. It had gone almost white now. The odd trace of the old colour around the ears and the tips, the school photos hidden away still, away from the lads’ mates and anyone else who came inside their house and felt fit to mock her for her hair colour and her freckles and her wonky ponytails. Luckily her two had inherited their dad’s dark hair DNA.

She still believes that Fiddlers Ferry is a castle of sorts, a castle that guards the river, that provides protection and sustenance, keeps them warm and safe from the elements. Fuck Harlech, fuckWindsor; this is truly impressive. This wasn’t built to withstand the Welsh or the Saxons or the Vikings, to preserve the lords and their stolen lands, this was built for everybody, this is a democratic structure.  

She walks past the couple who look on silently and glance at each other, angles her lens to get a closer shot, right in the shadow of the towers, ensuring that their child is in the foreground. She takes a few shots, steps back, bends down again. Takes a few more. From this position the towers are almost  invisible, each tiny brick clearly defined, brick against brick, brick on top of brick, bricks curling elegantly in a form unknown to the Greeks or the Moors.  Behind her she hears the woman whisper to the man. The man, a tall lad in his late twenties, stands up and walks over to his son, takes him by the hand and shoots her a suspicious look. She smiles at him but he doesn’t smile back.

‘Come on son’ he says and they walk inside the pub. She’s had similar reactions in the past and will usually explain to people what she’s doing and they’re usually fine with it. Sometimes though, she can’t be arsed explaining, justifying it. It’s only a few photographs for God’s sake and if there are any humans involved it’s only to provide a sense of scale, a juxtaposition of some kind. She’s not interested in people. Not in her art at least. She’s interested in structures, especially industrial structures, buildings designed, not to flatter the egos of architects or pay homage to unseen Gods but for necessity, to make things, to produce things; petrol and chlorine and fertiliser and electricity; things people actually need. She hates the Greenpeace lot, the Friends Of The Earth brigade, always moaning about pollution, as if they could all survive in some romantic medieval dreamworld.

She had never been a big fan of churches or cathedrals because these buildings celebrated man not God and God didn’t need celebrating anyway. Fuck Westminster Abbey, fuck Chartres; this is truly magnificent. This is Holy. Fiddler’s Ferry’s dimensions were massive, not in a boastful way but by necessity, its towers are no Nimrod exercises in self-aggrandisement, of poking the pride of primitive and vindictive Gods but built to a scale that would allow their by-product to float off into the ether, or at least to Warrington. She marvelled at how one structure had come to embody so many emotions in her life. After all, what was it? An electricity factory, that’s all.

She finds it strange that a pub would place a play area so close to the power station but, then again, the pub and the village would’ve been there for ages before the power station. A few thin drops of rain splash onto her face and she takes another ten or so shots, tries to capture the sky as best she can before switching to black and white and taking another twenty or thirty from different positions. This is why she loves digital technology. It has made it far easier to simply take shot after shot without worrying about costly film, an important consideration for someone like her. Yet the purists say it has diluted the craft of their medium, their ‘art’ too. Her ‘hobby’ as her husband dismissively calls it. Photography isn’t her ‘hobby’ it’s her passion. He liked her having her own thing, something to do in her spare time but in truth, he didn’t understand this strange obsession with power stations and pipes and chimneys she had. He liked photos of fields and lakes and trees and  all that shite. Granada Reports send-us-your-photos shite! Twiddle-dee-dee shite! That’s not for her. Here is the meat and bones of the matter; bricks and smoke and shit and noise.

She’s got her first exhibition coming up in three weeks. She’d entered a local photography competition on the theme of local heritage and even though she’d never considered herself a serious photographer and thought they’d never go for her leftfield view on heritage – industrial heritage – she’d won it. The prize was a new state of the art Canon digital camera with a fancy lens and tripod worth about a grand plus an exhibition of her work at the Brindley Centre down the old town. She was calling her exhibition ‘Eternal Delight’ after a Blake quote she’d come across ; ‘Energy is eternal delight’ and even though she knew Blake didn’t have Fiddler’s Ferry in mind but that restless human desire for creativity, nevertheless she felt it was a good title, a fitting title for her twenty five shots of Fiddler’s Ferry from different angles, in different weather at different times.

In bright sunlight with only the faintest whisp of vapour escaping from the tips of the funnels, in late winter with huge, billowing clouds merging as one with the sky, in early spring with mist on the Mersey making it shimmer in the distance like some ancient desert citadel, in mid summer with oil slick shadows falling across the river. From behind trees as if shamefully hiding from the world and in total darkness with only the eight red lights of the central chimney visible, a warning to passing planes en route to John Lennon airport.

Shots taken from Bold Heath on one side of the Mersey across flat, rutted fields, looming ominously in the winter dawn and taken from Kingsley on the other side of the river, out over the Cheshire plain with just the very top of the cooling towers and central chimney visible over the horizon as another spring evening turned the sky a purple blue. Taken in Daresbury to the east with the cooling towers re-aligned in a different formation, the central complex and the weird space shuttle launcher tower set back at a distance from the two sets of four towers and taken by the bingo hall where they seem to form part of the shopping centre itself. Her favourite was the one she took on the footpath over the Runcorn bridge so that the steeple from All Saints church replaced the central chimney to make the power station look like some strange sci-fi cathedral. The Eight Towers!

She’d never heard of Fiddlers Ferry referred to as ‘The Eight Towers’ before they built a pub up by the big roundabout in Widnes by this name. She liked it though, it sounded not only factual, but also folkloric, like a Walter Scott or a Tolkien story. Kind of medieval, in keeping with its castle like qualities. Ever since she could remember The Eight Towers had been there looming in the distance from their small, squat bungalow on Castlefields. Its presence provided some kind of comfort, some vague sense of continuity to her life, their lives. They’d moved to the sprawling Castlefields estate from Liverpool when she was seven, in 1974 and even though the power station had only just been built, she assumed it had been there for ages, for ever. A new life in a new town that wasn’t even new and was far from the rural idyll promised to her mam and dad. Flanked by the giant ICI complexes of Castner Kelner and Rocksavage at one end of the town and the various chemical factories of  Widnes and Warrington across the river, their new home on their new estate quickly resembled just another slum. Yet, even as a kid she’d sit for hours on the landings of the flats watching the sun set over this cancerous landscape. Fiddler’s Ferry dominated her topography and her dreams.  

In 84 one of the cooling towers collapsed in high winds and she became physically ill. It troubled her and she didn’t understand why. She couldn’t really rationalise it or explain it to anyone. It sounded mad. As if the landscape of her life only made sense with all eight towers standing. Yet when the Twin Towers fell on 911, she began to understand herself a little better. We need our buildings to provide stability, familiarity, to place us in time, to root us to the land, to each other. When things are removed, when they collapse or burn down, or are bombed, when they are destroyed by nature or man, when very big things like skyscrapers and power stations come tumbling down, we are reminded of or own frailty, our flimsy attachment to the universe. At least that’s the best explanation she could come up with and it did make a certain kind of sense and it consoled her a little.       

She returns to her car, sits in the front seat and looks at the fifty or so shots she’s just taken. There are four or five that she really likes. One or two will maybe make the cut once she’s printed them off and placed them with the thirty or so she’s whittled down from three or four hundred in this series. She doesn’t print that many off as it’d be far too expensive. She only takes home seventy quid a week as it is, three hours every morning Monday to Friday, the odd Saturday if it’s offered. She refuses to work Sunday, not because she’s religious but because she regards it as a basic human right to have one day per week dedicated to something other than earning or spending money.

And Billy’s not on good money, not since they moved half to factory over to Poland and the rest of the lads had to take pay cuts to save their jobs. He wasn’t on a decent take home to begin with, only his shift allowance and the odd bit of ovies paying for the occasional luxury; a holiday now and then for them and the lads. Only camping but they enjoyed it; Wales, the Lake District, they did Cornwall once. The lads loved Cornwall, wanted to move there, so they could go surfing. Even Billy was half considering it, reckoned he could get work far easier in Falmouth or Truro than round here. She wouldn’t entertain it though. The countryside freaked her out after a few days. She didn’t like the quiet, the darkness, the smells, the people. She only felt comfortable with the noise, the fumes, the stink of home, of a town, of a city. She felt safe here.

She has the twenty five needed already sorted in her mind. Imagines how they’ll hang in the gallery of the Brindley. Hopes they’ll go down well but is also a bit unsure and nervous that they won’t regard her as a ‘professional’, whatever that is, whoever ‘they’ are. She doesn’t know anyone who actually makes a living from photography and even though digitalisation has opened the art form up to millions of ordinary people just like her, there’s still this snobbery around. She doesn’t know what makes a good photograph, she doesn’t study it, she doesn’t theorise about it. It’s entirely instinctive with her. You get these ponces from the photography societies and the media who go on and on about composition and rules but she took no notice. She knew at once if one of her shots worked or not. She never changes a photograph once it’s taken, never crops them, photoshops them, fucks about with what was actually there, what she actually saw. She despises people who do that, who are cheating yet call it ‘enhancing’. It’s like all those airbrushed family portraits that hang in vainglorious front rooms. Who are they fooling?

She’s not very good at explaining herself and her ideas and she gets nervous in front of posh people, clever people, people who want answers, demand answers. It reminds her of school. Of being teased and tormented and treated like an idiot and she isn’t an idiot. She has ideas. She has skills. TALENT. It’s all there in her work.  She’s reluctantly written a bit of a thing to go with the photos, got her mate Andrea to proof read it for spelling and grammar and she’s pleased with it, she thinks it gets over why she thinks The Eight Towers is a worthy subject for an exhibition based around heritage but she doesn’t want to be explaining it all night, why should she? She thinks she needs to get more assertive, just wants to say ‘just look at the fucking photographs and decide for yerself.’

She thinks they’ll sneer at her.

‘Ginger nut’

They’ll walk around and nod and wink at each other. They’ll pretend they like it and then take the piss behind her back and embarrass her in front of her family. In front of her mam. In front of her sister. In front of her husband. In front of her kids. She wishes she’d never won that fucking competition now. She feels sick. Bricks and smoke and shit and noise.

‘Ginger nut fell in the cut..

She drives out of the car park and back along into Widnes, past the Eight Towers pub, down past the derelict B&Q and Homebase stores and the comical Thermphos factory, past Sammy’s scrap mountain and the container yards and onto the bridge. She turns on the radio. She speeds up. She drives carelessly, she drives erratically. She comes off at Astmoor towards Wigg Island so she can take a few more shots by the picnic table, her usual speck.  Same view, same angle, same focus, different conditions. She stops at the red light by the Old Quay swing bridge. The ‘Long Delay’ lights over the Manchester Ship Canal onto Wiggsy’s. She’d chanced it once, drove onto the bridge when the light was on red and met a huge lorry delivering cement coming the other way. She panicked and stalled the car. Just sat there as the lorry driver beeped his horn and swore at her. She froze completely. A fellar walking his dog had to intervene, had to reverse her car back to the lights so the lorry could get past. So now she waits for the green light. Now she waits for her real life to begin. She feels faint. She breathes deeply. She almost pukes. She messes with her hair, her ginger going grey curly fucking hair.

‘Ginger nut fell in the cut and frightened all the fishes.’