Float on a river for ever and ever

I went to school with a girl called Emily Moore. She was, like her homophonic namesake, tall and thin and had something retro chic about her. Emily would always wear colours that I connect to the swinging sixties. She was like watching footage of Harold Wilson with the Beatles at the Variety Club dinner, wandering through Conran’s Habitat and the original days of Biba. Browns and turquoise, orange, pea greens coloured her personality at junior school. Grey, black and white when we hit Darton High School and she got into The Smiths. She had that pale look to her from the days before package holidays and cheap flights to Torremolinos. Like a young Julie Christie in Billy Liar. I associate her in my mind with ankle warmers and Kim Wilde moodiness; catching the Staincross Common bus back from school and out of my way so that I could talk to her, feigning an interest in Big Country and Aha then walking home, my imagination racing.

The physical, topographical Emley Moor is located on a hill overlooking the South and West Yorkshire border. At the apron of the Pennines. Visible from both Barnsley and Bradford it is astounding. Not even familiarity can blunt the spectacle. As relics of civilizations go Emley Moor rivals the pyramids at Giza and Wiltshire’s Stonehenge. This is a 20th Century ziggurat. And it’s bloody massive. Whenever I’ve been away, the sight of the tower as I crest the hill at junction 41 of the M1 (heading South) or finally pass junction 37 and Barnsley, travelling North, making for the Haigh roundabout, means that I’m not that far away from home. Like a salmon breast-stroking up its natal stream. I’m back in God’s Own County.

The mast carries with it the same retro-modern flavour as the golf balls at Fillingdales and Menwith Hill in North Yorkshire. Hi-tech plonked amongst the heather and the old dry stone walls. Like finding the Space shuttle Atlantis coming in to land smack bang in the middle of an Ashley Jackson painting. Astronauts at Top Withens. It’s a sight repeated with the wind farm above Millhouse Green. The huge cooling towers of Drax, Ferrybridge and (formerly) Tinsley. What is it about Yorkshire and these massive industrial/futuristic structures? The juxtaposition of flat caps and asbestos clad pyramids. Pigeon racing and spacemen. Pure white against a green background, gun metal sky. Grey concrete contrasted with egg shell blue. It’s like Compo, Clegg and Foggy from Last of the Summer Wine taking a hike through Pepperland and onto the cover of a lost Pink Floyd album.

At 1084 feet the mast was once the tallest structure in Europe (a distinction now held by the Ostankino Tower in Moscow – Soviet pride in phallic form. Mine’s bigger than yours). The tower is Grade II listed. Built in 1969, it became active in 1971 as Britain struggled with decimalization and the sight of a man with glitter on his face getting it on. In those thirty odd years it has beamed the world to my particular part of the north of England. It told us about the raid on the Iranian Embassy in 1980, the invasion on the Falklands in 1982 I counted them all out and I’ve counted them all back in again. The Miners’ Strike. The Brighton bomb. The Berlin Wall being ripped down by David Hasselhoff. It brought us ‘Play for today’ and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. Crown Court and the Batman and Robin Christmas episode of Only Fools and Horses. The funeral of Diana Princess of Wales in 1997. The attacks on the Twin Towers. The grudge final between Will Young and Gareth Gates in 2002. The tower is a gossip.

The structure holds a special significance for me. Though oftentimes I’m a feckless, foul-weather friend. I roam up to the mast during periods of crisis. Sitting at the base in the lay-by, watching the landscape darken. Or it offers a focus for me when I’m out walking, wrapped up like a Caspar David Friedrich anti-hero, alone with my dogs and the elements. Staring at the red lights of the tower through the freezing, watery darkness from Staincross Common. Through summer haze across fields of wheat.

When I was growing up I used to think that Steve Austin was in there somewhere. That episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man were filmed inside its smooth, circular concrete walls. Tardis-like I allowed it to have the ability to expand by some clever means as and when required. I believed in the technology. I pictured Marilyn Webb, Richard Whitely and Geoff Druett reading the news on Calendar from a windowless room, mid-way up, behind the rings of re-enforced concrete. Terrifying us all with reports of the Yorkshire Ripper, snatched children and day 94 of the Miners’ Strike. John Helm reporting on yet another inevitable Barnsley FC disappointment, live pictures of the fire at Valley Parade. Then rounding it off with reports of Denby Dale and its world beating pie. A parental bedtime story after a rough day at primary school. It was the days of long, snowy winters and expansive summers with clear blue skies. A time when everything seemed to last forever. Ice creams never melted. 7 inch singles sounded original. We had forever. I’m still convinced that in 1981 I had a Polo mint that it took me a week to suck.

Emley Moor registered ‘10 Tonybens’ on Jonathan Meades’ Abroad Again. Indicative of its iconic significance of the future that died a generation ago. Emley Moor is Big Tech, when ‘they looked forward and looked up’. The mast is representative of a time when Britain had faith in technology and blind confidence in science. We might have lost the Empire but we’d beaten the Germans to colour TV.

We turned our back on naked technology in the 1980s. Suddenly we wanted our gadgets and gizmos to be homely. To be camouflaged in the familiar. Video tapes were pushed into bound covers, passing themselves off as books. The Complete Works of Charles Dickens hid the BASF home tapings of Howards Way and The Tube. TVs were concealed in wooden cabinets. The dysfunctional marriage of William Morris and Hitachi. Atari shacked up and living over the brush with Heppelwhite. Teak laminate was favoured in place of Formica. Reconstituted stone, cladding breeze blocks, replaced concrete. We wanted our New Tech to be comfortable. Accustomed. Functionality was out. We folded the envelope. We became Ludditie’s in our tastes. More Helen Allingham than Jackson Pollock. The housing estates that clothed the green belt and old colliery workings pitched themselves as Bourneville for profit. Workers cottages for the man who worked at the insurance company. An Almshouse for the Bank Manager. Gone were huge through lounges, G-plan and clean lines. Now we had pointless beams, rustic porches and bolt on bay windows. The combie boiler hid behind a dovecote in the hallway.

Perhaps the iPod has reintroduced something of the design aesthetic that gave us Emley Moor. That is, to make practical objects beautiful but still patently what they are. Stylish utilitarianism. And let’s not forget that Apple brought white back into fashion. Silver and black were suddenly old hat. HAL’s back out, on probation. Play-listing the Beatles back catalogue and 808 State. Ricky Gervais podcasts and games of Patience. Suddenly technology is sexy again.

There are plans to turn Emley Moor into the world’s largest sun dial. The feat has been registered with Guinness and the potential record breakers are looking for sponsors. It would easily trump the present record holder, the Giant Sundial of Jantar Mantar in India. Emley Moor is more than 300 metres taller. The long shadow touching huge numbered dials as cows crop the grass. I’d like to see that. It might confuse archaeologists in a few thousand years. ‘It’s definitely a time piece, Tony,’ says some Space Age Phil Harding. And the idea of Emley Moor’s dual purpose as a sun dial fits in with Yorkshire’s own peculiar take on futurism. With the flat vowels and the Quantum Theorems.

Today I’m just happy to sit in the lay-by off Jagger Lane in my car, look up at the scarlet lights that helter-skelter skywards and watch the weather change. The tops of the fir trees’ slowly blending with the darkening sky. Gun metal grey to French Navy to black. The cold landscape offers a comfort. The countryside falling down to West Yorkshire on one side and South Yorkshire on the other, seen through the sentimental eyes of Joseph Farquharson. The sun hath closed a winter’s day. In this moment I’m in touch with the past and the present, mindful of the future. Echoes of all three transmitting through the cold air high above.

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