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Wednesday, January 25

When jobs were jobs

At the end of World War II, when Britain was pretty much on its knees, there was competition amongst cities for US inward investment. My home town of Dundee landed a peach when it attracted cash register manufacturers, NCR, to a greenfield site on the northern outskirts of the city.

The company provided solid, good-paying jobs for a couple of generations of the city's inhabitants - just the sort of boost that was needed with rationing still on the go across the country. NCR was, by all accounts, a good employer and even provided a bowling green, tennis courts and changing facilities for the workforce just a stone's throw from the factory and funded a competitive swimming club for employees' families. All good things come to an end, though, and NCR eventually shut up shop in 1980, their factory taken over by a polypropylene bag manufacturer six years later.

The gate leading to the "Bowling Green". I think that's what must
have been printed on the sign but it's hard to tell now.

That company, Van Leer, also decided their time in Dundee was up, closing in 1995, and the factory buildings and surrounding land were ignored and neglected for a number of years before being turned into a leisure park. In the process, all but one of the factory buildings were demolished and the sole standing survivor (below) looks like going the same way despite, for some strange reason, being a category B listed building. It's crumbling now and open to pigeons, vandals and the elements.

Doesn't look much like a listed building - and this is its good side!

This is the entrance to the tennis courts with the rear of the
leisure park ice rink in the background.

The leisure park has a McDonald's takeaway* and it's our regular stop after walking the dogs. I might be a bit of a vulgarian but I just like McD's coffee. What can I say? We sometimes park beside the listed building and take the dogs for another wander round the car park and I've often wondered what remained of the NCR's tennis and bowling facilities.

An aerial shot of the site. The bowling club/tennis courts are near the
top of the frame - the two green squares with the changing facilities
in between.

An iPhone pic of the "tennis courts".

I knew them quite well since, not only did I walk the old family dog there in my late teens, but the adjacent grassy area also served as my personal golf practice ground. Earlier this week, I thought I'd take a look and it was a sorry sight indeed. Overgrown isn't the word for it: derelict is nearer the mark.

And the bowling green itself. I wonder what the greenkeeper
would make of this now were he still alive.

I knew it would be like this but it's still disappointing when something you remember from the "good old days" ends up in such a state. As much as anything, it's a sad indictment on the city's manufacturing base which is in a similar condition thanks to free trade and globalisation.

So what was there? Well, the immaculate bowling green has been taken over by tufts of rough grass and looks more like a stormy sea. The tennis court nets have long since rotted away leaving just the upright posts that once held them in place. The chainlink fence surrounding the facility is broken and rusted. Litter and detritus lie everywhere What a shame.

Being a naturally sensitive individual (ahem), this touched me deeply so I wanted to commit it to film. I have some rolls of out-of-date Tmax 400 roll film and thought this would be a nice, wee project for the Rolleiflex Old Standard. It's a lovely camera but not without its quirks. One of these is that the ground glass requires the ability to focus the eye quite closely whilst the pop-up magnifier stresses a longer focus. This is fine when you have good eyesight but when you're short-sighted like me it means glasses on for the magnifier and off for the ground glass.

The net-less tennis court posts.

This is where the changing facilities stood but the tiles
are all that's left of them.

I don't much like this hokey-cokey photography (hokey pokey if you're in the colonies) and it's all the more annoying when you're hand-holding the Rollei so I bolted it to a tripod for these pics. The ground glass is also quite dim by more modern standards and the tripod helps in that respect, too, making it slightly easier to focus.

This white fence seems to have marked the southern boundary
of the bowling green.

Having said that, I missed focus on a couple of shots and didn't get the depth of field right on another couple so six-out-of-ten for me in that regard. I was racking the camera's front panel in and out but it was a devil to recognise the exact focus point on some shots. You might see one or two of these shortcomings if you enlarge the pics on this page. In my defence, it was quite gloomy and I couldn't really stop the lens down far enough as I don't seem to have a cable release that fits the somewhat recessed threads of the Rollei. Since I was firing the shutter "normally", I wanted to stay away from speeds less than 1/25th.

The other thing you might well catch a glimpse of are some fine Newton's Rings and some light-struck or fogged film edges. I still haven't found my negative holder for the scanner so I popped a glass from a negative carrier over the negs - hence the oily-looking circles in some places.

I was trying to capture some atmosphere in these photographs. If you've seen the Burt Lancaster film, The Swimmer, then just picture his old house when he finally returns home. If you haven't seen it then it's worth looking out for it. One of Burt's best performances and a very sad ending. One or two of the photographs worked, others didn't. I'm going to have another go when the lighting is different - and pay more attention to focusing and depth of field!

* I realise that nobody will give a toss about it but I quite like this iPhone pic of our local McD's, so there.


Herman Sheephouse said...

Bruce, that's brilliant! More stuff like this please - you've really got that neglected air captured and that was a great choice of camera for this. And for any readers who don't live here, Dundee is full of (well, was a lot more full of) ex-industrial sites that are crying out to be recorded. I had no idea this stuff was there, and that either says a lot about me, or more likely that you're really good at finding these 'lost' places. So please, more.
With regard to focus, two tricks - a small torch and a medium to large barcode off a box (white-ish if you can find one). Place the barcode in the scene - it jumps out quite well and is a good point of focus; the torch is obviously for gloomy days.
This being said, aren't split-image spots on focus screens the dogs bahookies!

MartyNL said...

Great post Bruce. The journalist and storyteller in you is coming out in both pictures and words.

Herman Sheephouse said...

Marty - you hit the nail on the head!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the photographs and text. I enjoyed seeing them all and reading about the area. I have a hard time seeing anything on the screen of my rolleicord v without using the pop-up magnifying glass. The rolleicord v has a timer, so I am able to use it for long exposures. Thanks again for taking the time to post pictures and write about them. Bill

Marty said...

Brilliant reportage, Bruce. You described very well the soul of the place both in words and in pictures. I' m very glad to see you're going again full steam with your photography.
Cheers, M.

Richard Warom said...

I also enjoyed this post Bruce a very informative story and the photos had that sadness that all neglected once enjoyed spaces have. Very well seen and documented.

John Carter said...

I wish I would be around when Cultural Anthropologists study the movement of slightly better wage packages (meaning lower) on a global basis. My country has been a forerunner is this movement (and maybe to the detriment of our own people). But on a lighter note I'll look up the Lancaster film.

Bruce Robbins said...

Well, John, I reckon that comment might get you on the California no-fly list...

wet fingers said...

A little ethnography. Found this site through my interest in film photography-thank you-and pleasantly surprised to learn you are a Dundee resident as I was born and raised there. Finally left the city after my degree at the University. My father worked for NCR until its demise and he always declared the company to be a good employer. As I child I attended many an NCR Christmas party (with gifts for all children) and as a youth living nearby my friends and I enjoyed playing tennis on those company courts. Thanks for the memory jog. Still have family in the city so must take a look myself when I return.

Bruce Robbins said...

Yes, the internet really does make a small world truly tiny.