Yesterday I had an email from Todd & Stephanie, a young couple from Arizona and was reminded of the time that Todd came to stay with me for a few days. I took him around all the usual tourist spots in Northern Ireland.
One Sunday morning I drove him into Belfast, to Queen’s Island, the abandoned headquarters of Harland & Wolff shipbuilders and the birthplace of RMS Olympic, Titanic and Britannic. It was before the recent redevelopment work in the area. I stopped the car near the base of the enormous Samson & Goliath gantry cranes. It gave him the opportunity to take some photos. There were shells of dilapidated warehouses and workshops standing like ghosts on the sides of the silent cobbled street.
When He returned to the car. I sat silent for a few minutes, then when he was settled I tried to paint a picture in words…..
Opening the windows to listen to the silence only broken by the occasional bird call, I quietly talked of the sounds of the shipyard:-
In the 1930s, passenger travel across the Atlantic was conducted almost exclusively by sea. All large ships were being built with steam turbine engines. A journey by sea from these shores to America would take a couple of weeks.
I reminded Todd that in the heydays of the Shipyard, computers were unheard of and all jobs were manually executed. The offices had high, heavy wooden desks where draughtsmen (and women in wartime), sat on tall stools drawing the plans for great liners and workhorses, The shipyard was busy during WW11, building 6 aircraft carriers 2 cruisers and 131 other naval ships; and repairing over 22,000 vessels. It also manufactured tanks and artillery components. During this period the workforce peaked at around 35,000 people.
During the working day, shipbuilding was a noisy physical industry. I suggested he imagine the screeching of saws cutting metal into shape. Sheets of steel being dragged and scraped into place, metal girders being cut and riveted or soldered together to form the shaping of the watertight hull shell. Banging and hammering, banging and hammering was the order of the day.
As evening fell, a siren blared out drowning all the noise declaring the end of the working day. As the shift ended, the steady throb lessened and stopped, only to be replaced by the sound of human traffic. Shoes with steel toe and heel tips, to extend the life of the footwear, formed a dance as the heavy swell of men tapped the steady journey home in the gloom of dusk or darkness over the cobbles to the adjoining streets. In winter, weary workers in long overcoats and flat caps chatted while their exhaled breath seemed to carry the words from one to his neighbour. Some lit up cigarettes that formed tiny smoke plumes in imitation of the welcoming chimney smoke spirals from row upon row and street upon street of tiny terraced houses.
Nowadays so many work alone, at home with the hushed whirring noise of computers for company. The day is now punctuated by the pinging of emails and text messages, while Twitter provides the instant ‘office banter’ with colleagues or other isolated fellow workers many miles, continents or time-scale away.
I wonder what working life will be like for our grandchildren?