Yes, I have mashed up two famous shows/films in this blog title. The first half is from the title song to the Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Evita, the second half is a misquote from Monty Python's Life of Brian In case it is thought this blog is a show business review, read on Dear Reader...
I don't think that Elizannie would make a good spy. Taking the above photograph last night, in Kent Avenue, Dagenham and trying to be unobtrusive, didn't sit lightly on my shoulders. Firstly I am not that handy with a camera [well actually it was my 'phone, don't own a camera] and secondly I need a lot of time to 'frame' and get the 'subject' in the right place. And the fact that I was taking the picture out of a car window and the car was moving, albeit slowly, wasn't helping. And waiting until the two burly security men on the gate about 200 hundred yards away were looking the other way also wasn't helping. I developed a shake. It wasn't until I got home and enlarged the picture on my laptop that I realised the notice just showing on the left hand side of the picture says:
Warning: Surveillance cameras are operating in this car park.If I had seen this at the time camera shake would have been even more interesting.....
So why have I taken a snap of this 'Big Top'? Well it is actually the rehearsal area for the opening and closing ceremonies of the forthcoming Olympics. OK, this has to be done somewhere and as you can all see, this appears to be a pretty deserted and unloved piece of ground. But I see the whole area as a metaphor for how much Britain - and its workforce - has changed in the past ten years or so.
Until just over ten years ago, since 1931, this site housed one of the major manufacturing areas of the Ford Motor Company in Britain. It was opened by the first Edsel Ford and at its peak of vehicle production it was producing 1200 cars a day and had a two shift pattern. It employed up to 30,000 people. I grew up near to this plant and at shift change time one couldn't cross the main roads for the employees flooding from the factory gates. Happy times.
One hundred years ago this ground was marsh land surrounding Dagenham Docks - looking out over the Thames. After WW1 reclamation work started and Ford bought the land and built their factory there. Lots of my family were employed there. The site was like a little industrial village - it had its own foundry (since closed and moved to Germany. Some workers in the Dagenham factory contracted asbestosis); a Power Station [which used to contribute to the National Grid]; a Medical Centre [which saved the NHS a lot of money in minor injury treatments. I was even treated there in my very short career with Ford]; an apprentice training building – 350 were started each year in the 1960s and at that time all were expected to be found a job at the end of their apprenticeship; a Stamping Die and Assembly tool room - in other words this plant was more or less self sufficient. The local shops looked after the workers well, f'r instance the local barbers could provide a 3/6p haircut while the bus you hopped off waited for traffic to move at shift change over in Chequers Lane - true story!! Another true story, to illustrate how cutting edge the plant and its engineering was over the years, is the fact that the first KUKA assembly robots in the UK automotive industry were used there.
But life moves on, the little shops that served the workers have closed and when Ford [like other large manufacturers] decided it had to 'rationalise' globally, it was its UK plants that were closed and employees who lost their jobd. The work from the UK was sent to Ford plants in different areas of the world where although labour costs are higher than in the UK they cannot close plants because labour laws in those countries make it impossible to get rid of employees in the way they can be dispensed with in the UK. Although ironically Ford still expects to sell its products here, failing to understand that the redundant workers are unable to find new jobs and cannot afford to buy new cars etc.
Meanwhile successive British governments, who have given regional grants to manufacturers here, like Ford, in the past, happily wave goodbye to such manufacturers. Last week we had the sickening sight of David Cameron and Nick Clegg in what was once a Ford owned Tractor Plant in Basildon, Essex burbling on about how it is manufacturing industry that is going to save our nation and relieve us of the deficit.
But how? We have so little manufacturing industry left - compared to, say, forty years ago. Worryingly, so much knowledge and experience has also been lost. Engineers are not valued in this country, in fact I signed a petition Make 'Engineer' a protected title just last month. [When we lived in Germany an Engineer was considered as one of the professions. Here it is looked down upon as 'dirty job' despite the number of qualifications required to fulfil the role and the amount of technical innovations that can bring revenue into the country] If you saw Dave & Nick on the news doing their double act last week you may have noticed a lack of enthusiasm in their audience of workers. Not far away, in the town, are many empty shops and factories where businesses have closed down due to the recession in the past few years. In fact just a couple of miles away stood the 'overflow' Ford factory for its Dagenham plant, built with the aid of a regional grant in the 1950s. That factory closed in 2009 with the loss of many jobs.
So from Marsh land to Industrial Giant to Olympic Rehearsal site. Where next? There was talk about a prison being built there but plans have changed. Some talk of a housing estate, although local services would be severely stretched one would think. Another factory to employ the many unemployed in the area, provide apprenticeships for the young in the area and fund growth in the area by sourcing satellite industries and financing small shops. Sounds good doesn't it? It happened in 1931. With a bit of Government encouragement it could happen again and in other such areas in the UK. If they really meant what they said last week.
The photograph was taken not far from the River Thames. Fire fighters and ARP wardens used to watch the aircraft from all nations flying up and down the Thames from the roof of the Ford Buildings here in WW2.