Parkwood Scree: the stuff of war, the comfort of rubber
April 11, 2013 4 Comments
Ok, so this week’s blog essay was going to be another extract from Scree, my and Katja Hock’s collaboration about the Parkwood hillside. But in chewing over which snippet to post-up, my mind started wandering and I find myself compelled to overlay rubber, bombs and the anniversary of my grandmother’s death, as I picture the hillside’s landfill site.
Circling the tip
The Parkwood hillside has had municipal tipping taking place upon it for over 100 years. The current operations are due to be concluded within the next decade. As I gaze down upon the as yet unused Cell 4, it appears that beneath the shallow earthen skin of the hill lies a shell of black rubber. The birds are the only occupants at the moment, basking in the warm east facing flanks of the cell’s impermeable liner. The cell looks like a vast garden pond waiting for its hose-water.
The first time I came to the tip I was ‘killing time’. I had dropped off one of my kids at the Ski Centre for a friend’s birthday party. I had 90 minutes to waste and decided to circumnavigate the tip, to see whether that was even possible. It was.
It was a grey, wet day and my dog and I squelched off up the fence line away from the habitation of the then buoyant Ski Centre. It was a Saturday morning but I saw no-one else on my wander. Reaching the summit I cut through a ravine of dark, dank shale rock, a fissure that felt quite disturbing to encounter. My thoughts turned to an ailing elderly family member and by the time I came upon the open Cell 4 my head was already in a gloomy place. Looking down upon the vast expanse of black liner, patiently awaiting its fill this place took on a special meaning which I still find difficult to shake off.
Here was where I came to terms with my grandmother’s mortality, and it’s a place I now return to as a way of continuing to grasp that sense. Cell 4 has the connotation for me of a grave, waiting to be reunited with its content.
Ashes to ashes,
dust to dust.
All of it finds its way
up onto this hillside.
Behind me there was a strange stone pad, a remnant of an anti-aircraft gun emplacement. Nearby Burngreave had suffered casualties in a Zeppelin raid in the First World War, the dense industrial use of the Don Valley prompted early co-option of the hilltop as an Anti-Aircraft post, and by December 1940 there were heavy AA guns at Shirecliffe. Later the site became a rocket based emplacement (a Z battery) manned by the Home Guard. Rumour has it that this hilltop also flew barrage balloons, extending the effective height of the hill by up to 6,000 feet in defence of the attractive target of the power station, gas works and foundries at the foot of the hill.
Unsurprisingly the war brought matériel (as military matter is known) to the hill. The AA battery brought bunkers, shells, metal and munitions. Enemy bombers brought bullets and bombs. On the night of 11th December 1940 a parachute bomb targeted at the AA battery destroyed houses in nearby Musgrave Terrace. Meanwhile on other occasions bombs and incendiaries fell onto the hillside. 25% of the houses in Parkwood Springs were damaged.
I pause. Most of the above text is taken straight from Scree. But as I recall what I have previously written, I find myself thinking again about the exposed liner of Cell 4.
On our last visit to the hillside, Katja and I stood there, she captivated by the photographic potential of this expanse of stretched blackness. I stood and looked also, as she arranged various shots and angles. The liner was bulbous, shimmering, undulating. It was larger than life, mundane and yet mesmerising. It was also sensuous. I nervously blurted out this impression, fully aware of the stock seedy connection between PVC and erotica. But my gaze wasn’t a lustful one, if there was a body part emerging from the heap of this rubberised mountainside it was a maternal, nurturing bosom.
The assembly room
A similar sensation hit me one evening, towards the end of my career as a lawyer. I’d been working on some projects involving the redevelopment of some former munitions factory sites. A client had passed me a copy of 1942 training film relating to a once secret site and its production processes. I’d had a bad day, week, month. I put the film on to block out the doubts preying in my mind about the suitability of my then career. A woman appeared on screen, arriving for her shift in the assembly room. The camera followed her to the changing area, she started to undress and the camera cut away through ranks of lockers and benches. In the next scene she was clothed, shrouded in what looked like a very heavy rubber apron, gloves and boots. She strode off to the production line.
That image of an ordinary woman from the ’40s, transformed via wartime exigencies to rubberised worker haunts me – set, as it was, in the context of my gloomy mood that evening.
I lived with my grandmother for most of my childhood years. For some of that time my great grandfather also lived with us. I grew up with the accounts of his gassing on Passchendaele Ridge and her close scrapes with air-raids in the Second World War. I came to know these stories by heart, but never tired of hearing them. My own kids would hear them too, and did three days before my Nan died peacefully last Spring. But to them they were just abstract stories from an old lady they occasionally spent a few hours with. I doubt whether they will inculcate a strong, strange association between bombs, rubber and the dignity of female war-labour.
My grandmother had spent her pre-war years working in local shoe-shops, but was steered towards war related work in the run up to D-Day. Each day she would cycle to a motor garage at the other end of town and change into overalls, before sitting down to clean disassembled torpedo boat engine parts day in, day out. It was wartime contingency that placed her in this strange role, she never learnt to drive, had little mechanical interest or knowledge and – after the war – had no cause to ever again coat her hands with grease, oil or to ponder the intricacies of grooves, recesses, and other articulations of these alien mechanical components.
One day a messenger came to the garage, calling her home as a matter of urgency. Arriving there she found a telegram curtly advising her of her husband’s death on 11 June 1944. A machine gun had cut him down amidst the clatter of his encampment’s Sunday breakfast. My Nan resolved that that was the end of her war work. She had given enough. She never went back to the garage, the grease or the engines.
What made rubber matter?
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
This rhyme is first recorded in John Gower’s Confesio Amantis of 1390. It playfully attests to the vital role of small things in the success or failure of greater things that – whether we realise it or not – depend upon them. A missing nail could bring down a horse and a kingdom, a defective rubber seal (D ring) brought down the Challenger space shuttle in 1986.
Something similar could have happened during the Second World War with rubber. The rapid advance of the Japanese forces across East Asia had by 1942 withdrawn 90% of the world’s natural rubber production from Allied grasp. Only Ceylon (Sri Lanka) remained under Allied control. The material consequences of rise of Japanese power in the late 1930s had been noticed, and the US authorities had set up an option agreement whereby 500,000 bales of cotton would be traded for 90,000 tons of British Empire rubber in the event of war. However the fall of British Malaya and the Netherlands Indies undermined this careful planning: if Ceylon had fallen to the Japanese the Allies would have been left with access to only two weeks supply (via small sources in Africa, South America and Mexico) for the then burgeoning war economy.
In the face of this the US Office of Economic Warfare took control of rubber supply, stockpiling and rationing and sought to promote an expansion in rubber production in Latin America and in California, and an acceleration of the development of synthetic rubber production (from oil). As the war progressed a plethora of market (and resource) controlling agencies appeared: the Rubber Director, the Rubber Branch, the Rubber Reserve Company and the Rubber Research Board
As a recyclable material rubber also became the subject of collection-drives, gathering up hosepipes, old tires, raincoats and gloves for the war effort. A statement published by the U.S. War Production Board in April 1942 illustrates the sense of urgency behind the attempts to accelerate the extraction of material and its co-option into the production of matériel:
“The rubber situation is also critical. In spite of the recent rubber drive, there is a continuing need for large quantities of scrap rubber. We are collecting every possible pound from the factories, arsenals and shipyards; we are speeding up the flow of material from automobile graveyards; we are tearing up abandoned railroad tracks and bridges, but unless we dig out an additional 6,000,000 tons of steel and great quantities of rubber, copper, brass, zinc and tin, our boys may not get all the fighting weapons they need in time… Even one old shovel will help make 4 hand grenades.”
Bringing things to the surface
My grandmother never talked about her bike and the rubber tyres on which she rode to and from the garage. By the time that I met her that portion of her wartime stories had faded back into the mundane, unnoticed, layer of ‘everyday items’, yet at the time the near-impossibility of obtaining a replacement tyre or inner tube would have been a pressing concern, with strategies devised to ‘make do and mend’, to elongate the working life of everyday components made of this material. In the US restrictions on mileage (and fuel allowances) were targeted both at preserving oil resources, and the effective life of tires.
Wartime brings a strange focus to the existence and flow of commodities, and of their centrality within the greater, more complex and/or more evident assemblages of which they are seemingly but a small part. But wartime rationing and redirection of labour jumbles up these priorities, expectations and familiarities. Mundane materials like rubber become foregrounded, and our material dependencies – and their vulnerabilities – are revealed, and both my grandmother and I come to encounter those materials with an intimacy and an association that might otherwise have never come upon us.
Wendt, P. (1947) ‘The Control of Rubber in World War II’ The Southern Economic Journal, XIII (3) 203-227
Tyre/Tire poster – http://www.ameshistoricalsociety.org/exhibits/events/rationing.htm
Cecil Beaton barrage balloon picture – http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/magazine/article3541009.ece