Industrial estates and the human condition

I suppose industrial estates are similar across the civilised world, though I’ve never spent enough time in them to know for sure. Take a large field, give it a grid of roads and and a bunch of featureless low-rise buildings, and let them out to the busy folks keeping the world running.

My son’s business operates in just such a unit on just such an estate, but I suspect that even he doesn’t stray far from his own work environment after he arrives from home by car.

I, though, had reason to spend a couple of hours tramping around one yesterday, when the car needed a windscreen replacement. COVID precautions meant their waiting room was closed, and rather than embarrass myself by sitting in a deserted car park in a canvas chair reading a book, I set out to explore.

I discovered that industrial estates are contradictory beasts. They’re clearly not designed for people. And yet even where the predominant marks of humanity are the signs on the walls advertising BMWs, JCBs, or printing materials, and the high-spec cars parked outside advertising the success of the proprietors, the crude commerciality doesn’t completely mask the human, or even the divine creation. They show through the cracks in the concrete.

My windscreen repairer was on the edge of a vast example of such an industrial estate, dealing in every make of vehicle known to man and a whole universe of engineering supplies, sports schools and who knows what else. It turned out they’d recently moved from one Lego-brick building to another, so my Google map proved useless and I had to ask directions at another vaguely automotive reception desk. The manager didn’t even know who worked next door, but fortunately a voice from the back office shouted that it was opposite the hypermarket, and I was sent the right way.

The young woman at Autoglass reception – or rather, the young woman who came out from there to the trestle table covered in antiseptic sprays and wipes outside to meet me, seemed to have discovered a strange pleasure in her task of decontaminating vehicles before and after fittings. In normal times one doesn’t think of wiping door handles with baby-wipes as a sexy job, but the lockdown has done strange things to us. Yet she was friendly, and offered to phone my mobile (actually my wife’s – I don’t do mobile phones on principle) when it was done.

I wandered across to Sainsburys, where one could normally waste some time browsing the shelves. But now, of course, one has to queue to be admitted to supermarkets by virus-guards, follow arrows around the store, and wear a mask (obligatorily from next week, despite the slow fizzling out of the plague – it’s hard to believe the real purpose isn’t control rather than safety).

So instead of window-shopping carrots I walked the perimeter of the car park, realising for the first time that although supermarket lots are beautifully landscaped with exotic vegetation, there is actually nowhere for people to interact, nor even for aged shoppers (or weary hikers like me) to sit down. The closest approach to “social space” was the surprising number of rat-runs between ground-cover bushes, in which one could see empty beer cans and cigarette ends that told their own story of a shadow-population who aren’t to be seen cruising the shopping aisles.

I’ve already described the soulless character of the estate generally – there were wide pavements, but few people walking; many private car-parks but no public spaces or seating, unless one sat down on some crumbling low wall. Many of the units were smartly painted advertisements for their products, and a few were run down, the worst of all being a forgotten bit of NHS real estate where, for certain, no lives were ever saved by frontline heroes.

So it was easy to muse on the double truth that here was the ugly and dirty working face of capitalism, and yet here also enterprising people were serving the complex needs of society, whilst providing gainful employment for many, and paying their own mortgages and their kids’ food bills. A great paradox of life is that, were places like this still idyllic green field sites, most of us would have to be peasants slaving away in them for little reward. As Peter Hitchens said, during the height of lockdown, “Economies are noisy.”

Yet the impression of soulless business is somewhat misleading. One thing I only noticed because I was committed to trudging round on foot was that virtually every area of tarmac for customers’ Fords, managing directors’ Aston-Martins, and delivery vehicles of all shapes and sizes also had some area planted up with hedges, ornamental trees or flower-beds. And despite economic recession, pretty well all of those garden areas were being lovingly cared for by somebody. I don’t think this is strictly required for customer satisfaction – it’s just that humans can’t seem to avoid creating beauty as well as hard cash in their environments.

This aesthetic concern even extended to the more public areas. A steep bank shielding the industrial units from some houses had been planted as a multi-hued wild flower meadow, so the cracks in the pavement below were sprouting, not the usual couch grass, but large clumps of the same yellow birdfoot trefoil that delights the bees and butterflies in my own field.

At the risk of over-interpreting a rather tedious wait for a new windscreen, the place seemed a metaphor for what human beings need in this imperfect world. Human industry creates human well-being, despite the anti-human propaganda of some environmentalists, and so we need places like that industrial estateā€¦ though it might be nice to see more provision for other aspects of life, and it would be a sad world that was entirely covered with them.

And yet even at the heart of commerce, the works of God in nature are both necessary for human thriving, and actively sought by the busy people who work there. So labour and capital are not fundamentally opposed to the human spirit, but are life-enhancing or soul-destroying according to how they are used by the people involved. The world needs both nature and culture, contemplation and economics. That ought not to be a profound conclusion, but probably is for those who want to de-industrialise the world and cover it with city-sized wind-farms, solar panels and vast batteries instead.

One more random sight on my travels illustrates this need for balance, perhaps. Just outside the estate boundary is a quite pleasant street of the old village, with a picturesque cottage bearing the message that it was once the home of Charles Dickens’s parents. It seems the hardworking and newly successful author rented it for his parents to get his father away from the temptations of London, which had resulted in constantly living beyond his means, and even a spell in debtor’s prison.

But quiet and thrifty living wasn’t for John Dickens. He continued to embarrass his son by writing begging letters to all his friends, and after three years upped sticks and returned to London, where he spent himself into debt-ridden misery for the rest of his life, becoming the model for Mr Micawber in David Copperfield. He expected his successful son to keep bailing him out, and was resentful when, at times, he refused.

On reflection, I think I’d get on better with the positive guys renting the industrial units and doing useful work, than with the guy in the thatched cottage whingeing about his grievances against a cruel world.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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