7. The Legacy

by key stakeholder

I’d been walking along the lade (though I didn’t at that time know it, nor that ‘lade’ was the name for it) for about a kilometre when I met the old man. He was sitting on a bench, drinking tea from a flask, watching the the flow change phase laminar to turbulent as it swooped over another weir – the second I’d noticed in my kilometre walk by the river. I knew that the underwater structure was a weir but, again, I didn’t really know what the function was.

“Aye-aye” I offered the traditional greeting.
“Aye” – the traditional rejoiner, on the in-breath.
“Not a bad day. Once you’re out in it.”
“You’re not wrong”
“Join ye?”

This verbal handshake complete, he nodded and gestured open hand that I sit with him on the craquelure of the long-since last-painted wooden bench. Rust-encrusted cast-iron-legs, moss-backed, the bench squatted beside the river among some scrubby bushes and bare winter trees.  I guddled in my shoulder bag, found my own flask. Sat back, breathed out contentedly. Nodded to the old man. Crossed one leg angle up on other knee. Sipped from flask. Postural echo. In front of us, once it had flowed smooth and glassy over the weir, the river roared white-water and pink-noise fast, ionising the air and thrilling the senses. Behind us, the lade: stagnant water, algal bloom, bullrushes. Here and there fly-tipped builders rubble and plastic bags full of who-knows. Empty old polythene bags thorn-caught rustling in the branches of wild rose and bramble.

This whole stretch of the river as it passed through the northern outskirts of the town flowed through what was a broad flat ox-bowed floodplain expanse beneath huge mis-fit valley walls. In pre-history those valley walls were the banks of a mighty river, they once contained the unimaginable torrent of glacial meltwater. This much my o-grade geography had taught me to read from the landscape. But, before I met the old man, I didn’t have a key to understanding the human geography – the industrial archaeology – of what I was walking through.

Before I’d met the old man there on the bench, I’d been fascinated like a dilettante by the worm-gear workings of sluce gates at the head of the lade, about a kilometer upstream; their oxidised charm, function hidden by time and benign neglect, now esoteric and photogenic in their gentle decay; the remnant artifacts of a way of life and a way of work now past. I mentioned my interest as I sipped from my coffee flask. And as I chatted about it with the old man, I began to feel a little ashamed of my ignorance, because all I’d ever known about water-power was the mid-century ‘power from the glens’ hydro-electric megaprojects; all I’d ever know was electricity at the click of a switch, but the use of water to provide direct-drive mechanical power was arcane to me. Warming to my obvious interest, the old man started patiently to explain the workings of the weirs and sluices. I offered him my confidence by exposing my ignorance – I mentioned that I thought that, if you didn’t know, you could fairly assume that the landscape of the river was almost entirely just-so rural.

“Walk with me a bit, you’ll see!” He enthused. So we walked together downstream with the rioting whitewater roistering away down to one side and the still, flat, quiet lade on the other, and he told me more about the human-conditioned landscape. He showed me how the weirs provided an adequate reservoir of water suitable for diversion through the sluice gates; how – since the settling of the tribes, the ox-bows and distributaries of the flood-plain had been tamed into the man-dug lade channels to carry that diverted water at a shallower slope than the main stream, the difference in levels between the lade and the main stream being big enough to provide a useful “head” of water – to run a watermill. The overall drop of this river, here, flowing through the town, had been enough to charge several lades on either side of the river. Mills grinding oatmeal and flour, then – when the era of capital came –  mills spinning and weaving flax and wool; mills pulping and rolling paper. A vast interlocking of enterprise and labour, capital and merchandising, powered by water wheels. When the lades were charged, when the mills were whirring, when the weirs were full, then – what today is the dead straight roaring flux of the main stream of the river –  was really just an overflow channel – a storm-drain for water that couldn’t be put to productive use.

I flattered myself that the old man resembled a vision I’d like to have of myself in the future. Wiry slim and fit like a fox, he’d looked after himself over the years, obviously. He seemed fitter than I felt. Though there were generations between us, we were quite similarly dressed and his tall-man’s stride straight legged, strong backed, matched my own. We were about the same height. His tweed-jacketed shoulders straight, a Macintosh overcoat over the jacket. Dressed to be outside, but not in what they call “active-wear”, not the sort of consumerist-active outerwear you see so much of these days – you can’t miss the high-vis lemon and orange and bright red anoraks that some feel they have to wear when they go out. Rather, our clothing matched the muted colors of the season, and of the landscape around us. He told me that he’d kept himself fit since his retirement by walking this stretch of riverbank, lade and weirs, every day, eight kilometers every day – no matter the weather. “No such thing as bad weather, just bad attitudes.” He said, with a raised eyebrow and a thin smile, laconic. We laughed quietly together in recognition of a shared philosophy.

We walked and talked, slowly ambling, companionable. He told me about the famous woolen mill (now redeveloped as “deluxe” townhouses and apartments) on the north bank and he told me of the mill’s last hurrah – a huge Soviet perestroika order for tweed cloth – Crombie cloth – which was to be made into coats suitable for a Muskovy winter, enough for a million coats. The commissar came from the USSR to our town and placed an order equivalent to a whole year’s output from the mill. The commissar had praised the mill management and workers for their exercise of “sexual equality” there being a significant number of men working at the mill, and weaving being traditionally the work of women. The old man told me about the woolen cloth – world renowned – triple thick – that they wove here and made into the Crombie coats that were famous for quality and durability and style all round the world on the shoulders of the great and good – Hitchcock, Cary Grant, The Beatles, the Soviet Politbureau. Hence that great big order in the 1980’s. It being a bit of a myth that the Soviet people had always been kept in poverty; by the late 1980’s the average disposable income of a Muscovite citizen was, in purchasing power parity, about the same as that of an average Parisian or Londoner. And they wanted what the “top ten-thousand” had. They wanted a coat like that one! Indeed, so were they benefitting from the new economic policy of perestroika that their surfeit of disposable income – a savings glut – was sitting unproductively on deposit in Russian state banks. The plan was to mobilise some of these savings in creating a Soviet consumer-economy, running that disposable cash both ways through the supply chain of retailers, wholesalers, freight forwarders and factories. The order that came here for tweed cloth was just a tiny part of this policy. The factories which were to cut and sew the bolts of cloth into overcoats were in the DDR and Hungary and Bulgaria, adding value all the way through the supply chain, and so the thriving Soviet economy would spread the wealth of its planned consumer boom through the near-abroad, forming new economic ties to bind, along with the existing idealogical and cultural ties. The beauty was, of course, that it was a way to spend the money twice: first, the state spent the money in buying raw materials abroad; second, through the miracle of fractional reserve banking, the people spend the money in the Glavnyi Universalnyi Magazin. Communism? No of course not. A planned socialist economy, yes – but socialism and capitalism are not opposites. And then, for a variety of complex interlocking reasons, while the economy was roaring ahead, the Soviet state itself collapsed.

I think about the time when I, as a young man, went to see that man-of-the-century Mikhail Gorbachev perplexingly visiting our town on his grand-tour holiday after the fall of the Soviet Union. There he was – wearing his Crombie in an open carriage with his famously glamourous wife Raisa sitting beside our less-than-glamourous Lord Provost. By that time, the mills that wove the cloth here were closed, and the paper mills were on notice. The offshore oil boom which made some folk of our town so affluent also had the effect of sucking both capital and labour from almost all other industrial activity. We hardly noticed that we’d turned our back on these industries, but I wonder… I wonder whether Crombie-clad Gorbachev felt regret on our behalf. When he accepted freedom of the city from our glad-handing burgermeisters, I wonder whether he though that the collapse of our indigenous industries in favour of a quick and easy buck mirrored in some small way the perplexing disappearance of the superstate he once ruled.

We walked a bit more. About seven or eight metres below us now, the main stream of the river pooled in bubbling eddies and scummy whorling gyres with many a fleck of foam ahead of another weir. We paused with the water. I watched one end of some discarded orange polyurethane rope coil itself floating around a branch which dangled into the water, the remainder of the rope acted like a drift net, to catch detritus on the iridescent surface of the slackening water; a crisp bag, a plastic cup, and an egg-box. Then, as we rounded a bend, here was the exposed skeletal remains of the internal workings of a factory. The old man explained that this had been ‘The Rag Mill’, where old clothes, sheets, textiles of all kinds, (yes, including woolen overcoats) were torn and pulped for feedstock to be used in the production of fine-quality stationery and food-grade packaging in the paper-mills further upstream.

“The lade fed a water wheel here that, when it was made sometime in the 1880’s, was the biggest waterwheel in the world for providing mechanical power,” the old man told me as I looked in wonder at the a-frames and transmission gears, belt-drive-wheels and universal joints of the mill workings, trying to work them out. Here the primary shaft, there the clutch-release, high as a house. He continued “and when they decommissioned it in 1966, it was the biggest working waterwheel then, too.”

“Why did they decommission it? Electric power?”
“Na, power wisnae the issue – you can see the river had power to spare for ripping rags. It was the rags that was wrong. By the mid-sixties, the wonder of artificial fibres – a byproduct of petrol refining – the drip-dry shirt, rayon tights, polyester anoraks, nylon sheets. No use for making paper. So the whole mill had to go, not just the wheel”

I looked across the river to the deluxe housing on the site of the former woolen mill, which had taken the fleece from field-fed sheep and turned it into clothes for people and profits for shareholders; wealth for everyone. I stood looking at the gearings of the rag mill, which had taken the linear power of the lade-directed water-piston and turned it to torque, and torn rags to make the paper envelopes and grocers bags which would certainly in time have returned to the soil. I marveled at the huge mild steel gear cogs and flywheels. Those redundant rotors are now jammed immobile – intentionally stuck – welded motionless.

Only then could I see where we really were. What I’d taken for a rural scene was quite the opposite, for we had walked through the middle of a huge, integrated but now abandoned machine; a pre-electric piece of mega-engineered capital for the generation of motive power, and the utilisation of that motive power for the manufacture of goods, the employment of people, the formation of capital and the creation of wealth. The main-stream of the river had rowdied its dead-straight riot of power past us on the left. The cruft of handmade brick, dressed granite stone, machine-made brick then concrete constructed beneath our feet the cruft, laid down the strata upon which we walked, the artificial riverbank an anthropocene parody of deep time. The seeming-soil layer immediately beneath the tread of our boots only but a four-decade recent mulch deposit of fallen leaves, blades of grass, moss and fungus – worm and bacteria and beetle ingested and excreted. The beginning of this soilogenesis contemporary with the installation of the bench where I’d met the old man, and the retirement of the meta-mega-machine mills.

The whole of the landscape of the river as it passed through the town had been man-wrangled for power – made into a machine which made goods, made wealth. Now it is a time-machine, but only if you know how to operate it. I started busying myself taking photos of the mill workings. Some discarded poly-bags, caught on parts of the machine, fouled my eyeline, disrupted the composition. I brushed and kicked them away, and started recomposing the shot. One nearly-translucent grey-white bag, already in shreds, swirled round my feet, then – caught in the breeze – whirled up to head height, then higher, and higher, buffeted away up into the crown of a winter-bare tree, to join five or seven others, similarly caught in the leafless branches.

The old man smiled: “Ah well, that’ll be me off then – was nice meeting you. Like I said, I’m down here most days, so I’ll maybe see you again…”
“Aye, nice to meet you too, thanks for telling about the mills and the history and that, I really enjoyed it.”
“Oh you’re welcome – ‘till the next time.” He raised a hand in salute and turned.

And as he strode away, I turned back to the composition of the photo I was trying to take. Another plastic bag blowing in on the breeze had snagged in the gear mechanism, ruining the shot I wanted. I went to brush it away, “ach, would you look at that…” I said, partly to myself, partly to the old man walking away behind me, by then already out of sight.