Tuesday, 29 April 2008
Old tat or new?
Buried in the backstreets of South Dunedin is the old gasworks. No-one these days knows where it is, although in times past everyone went there: to buy coke for the open fire, or tar for sealing rooves, or, for many, to work. It used to sprawl over several blocks, built with no concern for aesthetics, but purely for functionality: in this is was quintessentially modern. Now it is confined to a smallish site in Braemar St. where some of the old machinery has been restored and made to function again.
There are some crumbling brick buildings, a very Freudian chimney and some huge old machines turning quietly, pushing non existent gas into non existent holding tanks. There are tables of worn old tools and a massive coke furnace sitting cold and empty. There is the evidence of an explosion that happened more than a century ago and safety notices for the workers of thirty years ago.
A small group of people is working to preserve it and restore it. Some of the equipment dates back to the 1860s and it is, apparantly, the best preserved example of a working gas plant left on the planet. The old wheels and pistons gleam and turn and push like some purposefully sinuous kinesthetic sculpture. But keeping them turning costs money and many on the city council are not so sure. The remains of the gasworks sits on expensive industrial real estate. Why spend money preserving a piece of 19th Century industrial ugliness when there is a piece of very expensive 21st Century industrial ugliness - the new stadium - to be getting on with? Some of the councilors are inclined to put a bulldozer through it, and make a nice new supermarket instead.
It's a question of what we make of our memories. The present is the only reality. The future is not yet. The past has gone and exists only in memory; and we have the power to shape memory: to decide how a thing was and what value it had. For some, the gasworks has no useful purpose anymore and should go. The function it had is remembered as something useful for its time but now it has no place and the detritus of a past age needs clearing away. For others the gasworks is a piece of our social history. Countless thousands of people spent most of their working lives making it function for 120 years. It was the engine for a whole way of life, supplying light and heat and energy to the city. It has a sort of quaint, crooked Victorian grandeur. It speaks of the memory of a past age which helped make us who we are, and which has present value as a thing of intrinsic interest and beauty.
It's a matter of choice really, what we make of the past; whether it's gasworks or relationships or tragedies or long savoured pleasures. We decide how we interpret it and in what manner we let it become a factor in our present - our only - reality.