Smog and Art
This is Middlesbrough. I recently took a trip there by car. It was a traditional English day, the sky was seven shades of grey and the temperature was not warm, not cold, not quite in the middle. I felt a few spots of rain but it never quite started. In short – average, it could have passed for a day in any of the four English seasons.
A small provincial town in the North East on the River Tees. Middlesbrough’s great advantage is that it has a busy port nearby and it is also the home to lots of chemical plants. This has led to its inhabitants being branded ‘Smoggies’ and rival football fans often wear gas masks on their visits to the town’s club. Perhaps during the 60’s the joke about a smog of chemical pollution across the town was valid. These days, I’d rather breathe the air here than most parts of London.
The town’s great disadvantage is that little of the money from that industry has stayed in the region and over the last thirty years the industry has shrunk along with its related jobs. On the plus side, should the Russians ever launch a nuclear attack their third target in the UK would be the Boro due to the town’s importance for trade and industry, so the residents of Middlesbrough will proudly tell you this. Actually, I once checked this fact up and found that it was ranked 18th on the Soviet hit list at the time of the cold war – that’s still quite impressive. Either way, Middlesbrough would be completely destroyed within the first ten minutes of World War III.
My trip involved a journey on the Transport Bridge (more on which is here). For the uninitiated, this is a bit like a ferry hung from a bridge which makes regular crossings. To me it also looks like a gutted dinosaur with its last meal hanging from its spine, the flesh rotted away through the heavy chemicals in the air leaving only a metal skeleton for future generations to ponder.
The bridge was constructed a century ago with the concern of heavy river traffic, but its difficult to make a case for all the queuing up, waiting in the car while the tickets are sold and the slow crossing while there is now a perfectly good motorway running around the river.
After crossing the grey river under the grey sky, I drove through a neighbourhood that had more mobility scooters than jobs. There was some sort of Aldi level supermarket and a feeling of unease from the locals who gathered on the street corners in shell suits.
Fortunately, the car radio picked up ‘community radio station’ only receivable from this post code. It sounded like it was presented by someone who’d never left home and played records in his back bedroom. I expected to hear his mother shouting that tea was ready at any moment.
Finally, I reached my objective. Nothing cleans up urban blight like a bit of municipal art, just ask Gateshead and The Angel of the North. In Middlesbrough’s case it’s the Tees Valley Giants. These are five large scale public art projects that will be built around the Tees. Only the first, to my knowledge, has been built – it is called Temenos. With the two large rings at either end, reminds me a little of a femidom that had a brief spurt of popularity when I was a lad, but with a lot more holes. It’s a fairly impressive piece, also reminiscent of a spacetime diagram in a physics text book.
As you can see, its a worthy addition to the Boro’s skyline but the problem with these pieces of art is what you do next. This part of the Tees isn’t great for a walk and the only other thing around is Middlesbrough FC. So unless it is matchday, you only have the club shop and signed photographs of Juninho to look at. The Angel has a similar problem, you’ve got me there but with nothing to spend my money on, I’ll probably just drive off and not help the local economy. And drive off I did, although I took a different route home.
This is the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, the hub for much of the Boro’s attempts to drag its reputation out of the smog.