James Attlee's gallery talk

Photo copyright James Attlee

We are here to experience the work of the artists Barbaresi & Round – the result of their three-month residency at the power station -- but also to salute the passing of an icon in the life of south Oxfordshire, that has shaped so many lives in different ways. Didcot A Power Station attracted workers from as far afield as Glasgow, Newcastle and Liverpool, transforming the community of the town as well as transforming the landscape of Oxfordshire. How did I get involved? I’m a writer and I’ve lived 10 miles away in East Oxford for the past 17 years. For much of that time I’ve been travelling through Didcot by train to London to work and I became obsessed with the power station, the way it looked, its impact on the landscape. I ended up taking some 800 photographs of it from the train, at speed, in different seasons of the year, over a period of years. So I was very pleased when Rachel Barberesi arranged that I could join the last public tour of the site, which included us two, a cameraman and sound recordist, Martyn Bull and Wendy, our guide, the week before the station stopped generating in March this year. Before we address the work we can see around us, I want to set the scene with a few words. If there are any local historians in the audience I apologise for summing up several millennia of the town’s history in a few sentences, but we’re pushed for time.

The places that have played a vital role in the life of a nation don’t always draw attention to themselves. Upstream from here is Oxford, home to a university and a car factory. Downstream is the city port of London from which Britain once ruled the world’s largest empire. But I would argue that Didcot has always been at the centre of things, roughly equidistant from the sea in three directions, located next to a great river that is bound up with Britain’s history. It’s always been connected. You probably know that when excavations were begun for Didcot A Power Station they discovered the skull of a bison, thought to be around 100,000 years old, leading scientists to surmise that Didcot must once have been joined to the North American continent. Fast-forwarding through the centuries, the Thames Valley and its surrounding escarpments are littered with Bronze Age remains. Celts, Romans, Saxons all traded, settled and fought each other here. A Neolithic tribe carved the white horse on the hillside at Uffington for reasons we will never fathom, an image that can only be read from a distance, one of the prehistoric wonders of the world. Alfred the Great was born in nearby Wantage. The river through the centuries has provided fish, powered water wheels and been a thoroughfare for trade, connecting London to Reading and Oxford and beyond through the canal network created in the 18th century to Bristol and Coventry.

It has always been technology that has put Didcot on the map and it was when Brunel’s railway arrived in the mid-nineteenth century that this small town first found itself at the heart of a network that was keeping the country running. One of Charles Dickens’ lesser-known works is a short novella called Mugglesby Junction. In it a man who is disillusioned with life packs his bags and travels to a railway junction town, from where he can take a train in any direction. He has no clear idea where he is going and keeps visiting the station, contemplating all the possible destinations he might travel to. In the end he becomes drawn into the life of the town and settles there. From Didcot Parkway, too, one can set out to the great cities of the midlands and the north, to Scotland, to London, to Southampton or in a westerly direction to Bristol, Wales and Cornwall. The town’s strategic importance was recognised in 1914 when the army decided to site their massive ordnance stores here so that weaponry could be dispatched by train anywhere in Britain and onwards overseas as rapidly as possible. The store was the biggest in Europe and had 30 miles of internal railways. When the army withdrew from the site in the early 1960s it became the obvious place from which to control the flow of a different kind of power. Coal could be brought to it by rail from the east midlands coalfields. It was near multiple centres of population in the electricity-hungry south, and it was next to a river that could provide water for cooling the plant.

For those of us who didn’t work at the station, who never entered the turbine hall or stood immediately adjacent to one of the cooling towers, it’s hard to get a sense of the scale of the 375-acre site.

This diagram helps us put it in perspective slightly. As you can see, St Pauls Cathedral would fit comfortably inside one of the cooling towers and the 650ft chimney dwarfs the GPO Tower.

Looking at a diagram is one thing. Barbaresi and Round’s artworks ask us to engage with scale in a different way. I want to say at the outset that what we can see around us in the gallery is only a very small part of the work they have undertaken as part of their residency at the station in the run-up to its closure. This has included interviewing and interacting with employees and ex-employees of the station, with a school group and with residents of Didcot as well as with other artists including writers and photographers. So rather than setting themselves the task of making a work in response to a particular thing they have inserted themselves into the local community almost as a way of allowing certain conversations to take place. As public artists, then, they act as much as facilitators and curators of other people’s efforts as creators of their own work. In fact, of course, all of it – the workshops, the conversations, the rummaging in cupboards and looking through archives, the invitations to other artists and writers to get involved --  is  ‘the work’. You can see the results of these activities partly on their blog, where clouds are made, and partly in the book created for the exhibition which in physical form is over there on the shelf and can also be downloaded as a PDF from their site. I really would encourage you to look at the book and I’ll mention some of the things it includes in a moment.

How as an artist can you represent the sheer scale of something as massive as Didcot A in a small gallery space like this? If we look over here at the floor we will see they have laid out to-scale maps which allow us to compare the size of the arts centre in the town square where we are to the footprint of Didcot A.  The building we are in and our immediate surroundings, constructed on a human scale, are made to look toy-like, insignificant, compared to the vast edifices of modernist technology

The architect in charge of the building programme at Didcot was Frederick Gibberd -- later Sir Frederick Gibberd – who went on to be one of the most significant British modernist architects of the 20th century. He went on to design the arrivals hall at Heathrow, which was recently replaced by Terminal 5, from the roof of which in the 1960s crowds gathered to welcome the Beatles back from their American tour, as well as the young Queen when she returned from overseas visits. Gibberd also designed Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral – better known to Scousers as Paddy’s Wigwam – and the Central London Mosque at Regent’s Park. Of course, as an architect he had nothing to do with designing the shape of a cooling tower, which is dictated by its function, but he made the decision on how the towers were positioned – he decided they should be gathered in two groups of three rather than positioning all six together, to lessen their visual impact -- and how the overall site was landscaped. You can’t help wondering whether the shapes he had to play with at Didcot influenced some of his later projects: the sinuous curves of the cooling towers are somehow echoed in the upward parabola of the cathedral roof in Liverpool and the dome of the mosque at Regent’s Park.

Barbaresi & Round discovered some wonderful archival material while they were researching at the station, demonstrating the thoroughness with which Gibberd explored the impact the site would have on the surrounding landscape, including the drawings he made of the power station onto photographs of the site taken from various viewpoints. One of the projects you can see in the book is by Martyn Bull who has also contributed the sound piece you can hear intermittently during the exhibition, a recording of what was the ever-present hum of generators at the station. He tracked down the sites from which these photographs were taken and photographed them again, over 45 years later, revealing fewer changes than we might have imagined. In the book you will also find examples of the work of photographer Paul Bodsworth, who has a much-visited site on Facebook called The Social Landscape of Didcot which examines the station’s visual relationship with the town and the surrounding countryside in a less documentary way. The book also includes work by The Photographic Section of Didcot A’s sports and social club. These are extraordinary images, taken by insiders with access throughout the site so they can get up close to the colossal machinery and network of pipes within the station.

Let’s return to the work we can see in the gallery and the scaffolding that divides the rooms in two. This wall divides the images that relate to the outside of the power station to those relating to the inside, but it also represents something itself, firstly in its use of scale, and secondly in the means of its construction. The scaffolding wall is a 1:1 scale model of the shape of a section of one of the cooling towers. If you walk through the ‘door’ in the scaffolding and stand on the side furthest from the entrance to the gallery space, you will be able to see that where the scaffolding meets the ground it describes a slight arc. This is the actual curvature of a small section of one of the cooling towers. Being able to see how infinitesimally the arc in the gallery curves allows us to get a real sense of the scale of the towers themselves, which are 91 metres in diameter. If it is standing in for a cooling tower, why is the wall constructed out of wood? The artists became fascinated during their research by the way engineers on the site constantly had to improvise as they came across entirely new problems. There was a technical development section whose job it was to re-engineer the plant as construction proceeded and they moved towards generation. Looking at archived news interviews they were also amazed how fast the buildings themselves were raised, using new building methods and round-the-clock work gangs to claw back time. The chimney was erected in three to four weeks from start to finish, with concrete constantly poured into a mould that was slowly raised by hydraulic jacks as men inserted steel reinforcements. The interviews included in the book reveal something of this frontier spirit: we learn, for instance, how in the run up to the plant going into full-scale electricity production four boilers were found to have hairline cracks that if allowed to develop could have caused them to burst, spraying the surrounding area with thousands of gallons of super-hot water and steam. The final designs weren’t arrive at until the 1980s; within a few years the station had to adapt again to new legislation and partially convert to burning bio-mass. As one ex-employee, Brian, put it in an interview, remembering the early years, ‘we were working on the edge of technology’. The modular scaffolding construction is the artists’ response to this legacy of creative engineering, their own demonstration of inventiveness in the face of the smaller but still significant challenge to bring in the exhibit on time.

There is something heroic about what was achieved at Didcot A; the constant reinvention-as-process is reminiscent of accounts of the engineering of the early railways. (On the London to Bristol line that runs through Didcot, Brunel built the widest-span brick-arch bridge in the world at Maidenhead and the world’s longest tunnel at Box, both challenges that were widely claimed to be impossible). Whatever our feelings today about fossil-fuel generation it is important not to view the past through the lens of the present. Global warming wasn’t the brooding, ever-present threat in the 1960s that it is now. A station like Didcot represents perhaps the last moment when it seemed possible we might reach the utopian, technologically driven world that modernism promised.

The laser-cut vinyl drawings on the wall encapsulate some of this feeling of optimism in their bright colours and the pop art-like simplicity of their graphical style. They are largely inspired by the artists’ visit to the central control room at the power station, which I can testify, having visited it myself, had something of the feeling of the high-tech lair of a James Bond super-villain, with its banks of dials and levers and walls of screens. There are some great photographs in the book of these environments. It is instructive to be reminded how swiftly our ideas of the future, on which we base our dreams and our policy decisions, hurtle into the past, seemingly becoming comically dated overnight. 

Didcot first found its way into my own work when in my book Isolarion: A Different Oxford Journey I described the experience of coming through the gap in the Chilterns on the M40 motorway from London and seeing the landscape of south Oxfordshire ahead. I was being driven by the artist Richard Wentworth, who was then the Director of the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art; we had been planning to have a conversation but he was very busy and this seemed the only way we could find the time to be together for an hour or so.

‘We emerge through the cutting in the Chilterns and begin our descent; the sun breaks through the clouds, illuminating the sweep of the plain below. Fields glowing the luminous green of an English spring are punctuated with small hills, studded with darker trees. In the distance, the cooling towers at Didcot each appear to balance a solid-looking cloud on its end, a power generator’s circus trick. Apart from this modernist detail, we could be looking at the landscape in the background of a Renaissance painting.

“My God” Richard comments, “it looks like Tuscany with a power station”.

And then in summer, I reply rather glibly, Tuscany becomes Oxfordshire without a power station. But it’s true: in July and August, the middle classes migrate south like swallows to France and Italy, returning just before the swallows themselves begin the same journey, without the aid of four-wheel drive’.

However, it hasn’t been from a car that I have most closely engaged with the geometrical composition formed by the cooling towers and the turbine hall at Didcot and the extraordinary cloud sculptures the station produced. For 12 years I commuted every day from Oxford to London by train – a time during which I undertook much of the writing and research for three books – and during that time I became obsessed with the power station, gradually becoming convinced that it was the most visually remarkable thing I saw each day.  The photographs I took of it from the train window, attempted to capture the shifting colours and atmospheric effects that were different every time I made the trip. Travelling at speed, I had to guess when to press the shutter. I came to appreciate the blurring caused by the velocity and vibration of the train, its effects appearing almost like brush-strokes in the final photograph. Often I caught nothing. Once or twice I was passing at the precise moment when the sun hit the glass-clad wall of the turbine hall, illuminating it in a blaze of gold. Railway and power station -- I was combining two forms of pioneering technology in one image, created with another; the digital shift in our culture, combined with the arrival of the internet, has had an impact unprecedented since the arrival of the railway network fundamentally shifted our understanding of space and time. The station has ceased humming; its towers emit no clouds. It is not entirely clear how we will continue to power our lives. The passing of Didcot A marks the end of an age of confidence that science and technology would deliver all the answers and the beginning of our journey into a more uncertain future.

James Attlee
June 2013

You can follow James' blog at http://writeronthetrain.com/